The Race For Expansion

Expansion in MLS comes with its’ own momentum – it’s the game away from the game, and the next bout of activity is well under way.

With no shortage of demand.

At the end of last season, MLS announced intentions to support further expansion of the league.

Their current plan to have 24 teams in play by the 2020 season is on course. Atlanta, Los Angeles and Minnesota will become numbers 21, 22 and 23, followed by a Miami franchise as the 24th (so long as a persistent David Beckham can overcome their stadium bottleneck which has plagued them: https://mlsboardingpass.com/2015/07/20/the-time-is-now/).

But they are not stopping there. The opportunity exists to go bigger, so MLS want to do so.

Their next milestone: 28 teams.

But this time, the plan for reaching it will come at a later date.

The journey to 24.

The recent growth of MLS has been well documented – to equal parts applaud and detraction.

The whistle stop tour goes like this:

This is a league that had 12 teams just a decade ago; was a 16-team league by the 2010 season (when it was run as two conferences of eight); until blossoming into the 20-team league it is today (following last season’s addition of New York City and Orlando franchise teams).

If MLS in 2005 was standard definition, MLS today is definitely HD.

And there is plenty of reason to champion further expansion – they need this larger footprint in the US sporting landscape. A bigger footprint improves awareness, this in turn pumps up the TV deals, increasing cash available for clubs’ to spend on players, which makes it easier for them to draw more fans in, and allows the league to add more vim to its’ sponsorship potential etc. etc. Then it happens all over again – a virtuous circle; the holy grail.

24 going on 28.

So back at the start of this circle: they need more teams.

There are four slots available, and for those slots, ample interest. And while this race will be a long one, so far one city is standing out of the pack.

St. Louis (with their Rams).

St. Louis has long been considered a leader as an expansion city, and became a lot more attractive when the NFL’s St Louis Rams left town last month (to become a Los Angeles franchise).

This presents the city, and MLS, with a unique opportunity: there is a huge sports vacuum needing to be filled. Coupled with this, MLS believe in this market and their due diligence is showing the city is ready for soccer.

Firstly, they already have a team in United Soccer League (USL) side, Saint Louis FC, who had a solid first season last year. Secondly, they proved a big fan base exists when they sold over 43,000 tickets for a US World Cup qualifier. And then from a geographic point of view, they are favoured as MLS wants to increase its footprint in the Midwest.

So they may be losing football, but soccer is on the horizon and MLS are wasting no time. Talks picked up steam with the league announcing this week that it will soon begin looking for a soccer specific stadium site.

Materially, they are almost there. But three big factors govern expansion which any successful club must fulfil a full combination of: 1. Fan support. 2. Local Ownership. And 3. A stadium.

So who else is in the running?

1. Sacramento

Sacramento wasn’t on anyone’s radar until their USL side, Republic FC, made a very successful entry in 2014 selling out every home game in the process, and then last year leading the league in attendance, averaging a league record 11,323 fans per match.

And since getting noticed, Sacramento have done everything right – proving a passionate fan base, confirming a keen ownership group (consisting of some California sports team heavy hitters, which confirms that paying the expansion fee won’t be an issue), and finally obtaining (very early, and advanced) commitments to finance the construction of a new stadium (should MLS come calling). They are eager.

Now it’s a waiting game. The league has provisionally said yes; with any roadblock appearing to be geography. MLS strategically targets key markets based on footprint, and currently the San Jose Earthquakes are their Northern California team so other areas may have greater appeal….

2. San Antonio

For most expansion efforts, the stadium is the last piece to fall into place. Not so for (the now defunct, NASL) San Antonio Scorpions (and their owner Gordon Hartman). Spurs Sports & Entertainment announced in December that San Antonio would no longer be home to an NASL team, but instead are dropping down one level to the Major League Soccer-affiliated United Soccer League in 2016, with entry into soccer’s top domestic league the long-term goal.

If they can prove the criteria, they definitely sit within consideration.

3. Jacksonville

A third team in Florida is not out of the question.

Jacksonville is one of the largest US cities, and a market that fits the MLS model. The cities love for their high-flying NASL, Jacksonville Armada (ranked 3rd in attendance last season and set a league attendance record, 16,164 for a match) would prove interesting and of benefit to the league for an Orlando-Jaxonville rivalry.

4. And then there is Las Vegas…

… which makes a lot of sense. MLS has a young, diverse millennial fan base and this certainly matches the profile Vegas offers.

New York-based investor Jason Adler is leading the charge to lure the league to Nevada with a $350 million plan to convert Cashman Field into an expanded soccer venue. They will be testing the water for interest again later this month – for the 4th straight year – as the “California Clasico” comes to town to host the LA Galaxy V’s San Jose Earthquakes.

The Vegas group plans to submit a formal proposal to MLS in early-2016, but they need to move quickly to avoid being beat out by other markets.

‘Et al’….

Other candidates include Detroit, San Diego and Austin, while Pittsburgh could mount a charge, and Indy Eleven, Indianapolis’ NASL team regularly play in front of sell-out crowds.

Either way, the league will not be scrambling for bidders.

How big is too big?

If US soccer history is a bellwether to go by, warning bells will sound at the hurried pace of MLS expansion. Galaxy coach, Bruce Arena has already cautioned that the approach needs to be conservative: http://www.theguardian.com/football/2016/jan/19/bigger-is-not-better-bruce-arena-says-mls-should-be-wary-of-over-expansion

It was the fatally breakneck expansion of the NASL which created the conditions that led to its collapse. But the difference between now and then: unlike then, when MLS was essentially recruiting potential owners, the league can now play hard-to-get.

And when put into context, this huge untapped potential can’t be ignored – 20 teams in a league of a country with a population of over 320 million. So with strict expansion parameters in place, any concern over size shouldn’t be an issue; their focus will be elsewhere on continuing to drive the improvement in the quality of play.

No doubt news of a more concrete framework for expansion will harden by the time the new season kicks off. 5 weeks to go.

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