By Andrew Villegas
Even the most casual followers of soccer around country have heard this tune before: Startup sports league with huge eyes identifies niche, sees potential for growth, money, more TV coverage, better press and eventually a multi-tiered youth academy system that feeds a multi-tiered league system. Glory, praise and football — all with Pele.
Then, over-expansion in the wrong areas leads to the dilution of the fan base; thinner, fatigued mainstream interest takes root and eventually you’re hemorrhaging funds and playing in adult rec leagues again.
NASL meet your lady-in-waiting — MLS.
MLS expansion has its detractors. Without a steady stream of easily identifiable new fans in new places around North America, expanding into areas that MIGHT be home to new MLS fans is a risky proposition. And I wouldn’t count them as a stream of easily identifiable new fans until I have their money in my cash registers, if I were considering helping create a new franchise.
And, yes I see that market research in your hand, Commissioner Garber, but seeing is believing.
By its very nature, MLS is an expansion league, as it should be. The finer points: Started in 1996 — 15 years ago this month — with 10 teams, MLS has added 11 since its inception. Two in Florida (with relatively good soccer weather all year long) have folded (so much for that). So, instead of trying to force soccer on people in big markets, MLS has decided to go with quality (read: fans with more “European” sensibilities, AKA Canadians) instead of quantity. Instead of the five pizzas for $5 each deal from Domino’s or whatever, MLS has decided it wants the $20 artisan sheep’s cheese and prosciutto pies that the thick-rimmed glasses types in the used-to-be-seedy-but-now-i-can-ride-my-bike-there part of town offer.
Needless to say, we’re all trying very hard to convince ourselves we can afford alternative ad campaigns that appeal to our sense of not wanting to be sold. It’s hip to be square; your neighbors don’t get it, and we don’t want them to. That’s the idea. It’s limiting, but it’s the horse we’ve bet on, so we hope it works. We see it in Portland (1 point in three games) and Vancouver (4 points in three games), which both have Seattle Sounder-syndrome: The Sounders are the exception, not the rule, when it comes to attendance and rabid fan bases in American soccer, but MLS has bet that it can create its own Man Utd-City, Arsenal-Spurs rivalries in short order. And we should give it a decade at least before we see if it will pan out.
To be fair, it may be MLS will have the appeal it needs in places like Portland (more so than in Vancouver, I think) in order to be successful, but it’s a big gamble that lots of owners and players are laying down — revenue has to eventually catch up with these new teams. It’s hard enough for even-more-mainstream sports to maintain revenue during a recession. And until they do make money, is it a gamble that Garber should allow MLS to take? Why not build your fan base in your existing franchise cities? Or why not branch out to larger cities that have shown they can support more than one professional sports team?
Moreover, what happens to the talent pool when we keep adding teams? We have a fixed supply of MLS-caliber players in the United States and Canada. Players from overseas have problems securing visas to play here. Most of the Mexican players that MLS has eyes for would more readily stay in Mexico and play for an established league. And the fact remains that most domestic leagues pull talent from inside their borders. College soccer can only supply MLS with so many players capable of playing year-round at the level the best footballers around the world play at. There’s only one way: The answer is dilution.
Talent dilution hurts teams that aren’t very deep — which is every MLS team. But it really hurts teams trying to build anything from the ground up. Outside of protecting 11 players and homegrowns, what’s the point of a team spending money developing players 14th or 15th on the depth chart when there is a good chance they will get snapped up in an expansion draft a year or two down the road anyway? That’s money that a team spends on a player through coaching, travel, sports medicine and other ways that ends up being lost just for the privilege of getting to see one of your new rivals take them away. That’s actual incentive to both field a reserve team made of offcasts and to carry players with less tangible talent in hopes that the Montreal Impact or New York Cosmos or the Las Vegas Whatevers will have the bad sense to take a player who can’t make an MLS starting XI as is on “potential” and to put him on the field when he needs more instruction or bench time.
And what’s really bad is that the alternative may be worse: stagnation in a league that can ill-afford to stand still. So MLS brass had decided its best course of action is to move ahead with expansion, roll the dice and hope the snake eyes of empty stadiums and flatlining revenue stays away. But in the end, it’s a matter of scale. Does MLS need five new teams in three years with a potential sixth on the way? They probably think they do, but can the league and American fans saturated with and quartered already for their entertainment dollars sustain the growth?
So pick your poison: Either you don’t put all your money in the pot and hold back resources that could make MLS a success story or you take a huge gamble on placing franchises where they might not be successful. We’ve seen what happens with the latter. What’s changed since then? Obviously Don Garber thinks he knows something we don’t, and hopefully it’s more than just that market research in his back pocket. Over the next few years, we’ll see if he’s right.
Andrew Villegas writes a weekly column about Major League Soccer for The Yanks Are Coming. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and you should follow him on Twitter at @ReporterAndrew.