November 17, 2013
MLS expansion: too much of a good thing?
Major League Soccer is expected to announce its 21st club next week, granting Orlando City SC a franchise to begin play in the league in 2015.
This comes less than five months after awarding a second franchise to New York City. Another club, the David Beckham-owned Miami/South Florida whatevers, is expected to be added shortly, followed by at least two more teams in the next few years, bringing the league up to 24 teams, from the 12 it had in 2007.
So much for MLS's talk of capping expansion for a while after hitting the 20th team. But let's face it, MLS has been shifting its position on the subject of growth more often than a politician on talk shows.
During the early days of the league, there was the ever present warning about not making the same mistakes as the North American Soccer League. Keep budgets in check, donít over-expand, donít pay stupid money for over-the-hill players or players who don't contribute to the bottom line or to a club winning. Historians will remember the NASL grew from 14 teams to 24 teams between 1974 and 1979, then quickly began to fall apart.
Overall, MLS has done a good job of steering through the iceberg-laden waters of pro sports, and has overall indeed thrived, with good in-stadium attendance, a marketing arm that is generating big bucks through sponsors, and an on-field product that has improved over the last several years. But, the league is becoming blinded by its success, and is too enamored of the all-mighty TV ratings, which are sagging both as compared to other pro sports and to other soccer properties such as England's Premier League, which has been a hit for NBC Sports this year. Clearly the league wants to grow its footprint to cover more of the country at a time when its TV deals will be up for renewal.
Don Garber, perhaps seeking the pinnacle and the epitaph of his commissionership, has been pushing the ill-conceived notion that a second team in the New York market would be good for the league, all while the league's first team in the market, the New York Red Bulls, has yet to make a significant impact, and while the second team in the LA market continues to fumble its way from one crisis to another.
In New York, the league was to control the entire process, getting a soccer stadium built in Garber's native borough of Queens, then selecting an ownership group for the team before handing over the keys to the new venue.
Neighborhood opposition and the pitfalls of trying to shepherd a large project through the minefield of New York City politics, not to mention the looming presence of the New York Cosmos and their own ambitious stadium plan just over the Queens border in Nassau County, led the league to jump the gun, awarding a franchise before any stadium deal is completed, and allowing the franchise to enter the league in 2015 before it has a permanent soccer-specific stadium.
The franchise, owned by Manchester City and the New York Yankees, apparently has two possibilities for temporary homes before its stadium, now rumored to be in the Bronx, is built--Yankee Stadium and Citi Field.
So, in a rush to add team number 20, MLS will allow a team to use a baseball stadium as a temporary home for perhaps two seasons.
In a rush to get number 21 into the fold, Orlando City will play its first MLS season in the 80,000-seat Citrus Bowl. Rumors are swirling that Beckham wants his Miami team to play in Marlins Park, another baseball facility, while a new soccer stadium for the team is sorted out.
The next two expansion franchises, rumored to be in Atlanta and Minnesota, are being touted as tenants in National Football League stadiums.
This is all without bringing into question things such as the suitability of these markets for teams, the ability to create a quality product on the field or, in the case of potential NFL ownership, the long term viability of playing in a mammoth stadium, where clearly the soccer team is not the owner's top priority.
While the warning ďthose who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat itĒ might not be totally appropriate in this case, since MLS seems to be on strong enough footing that itís not likely to crumble, it does appear that in its attempt to embellish its modest success, the league may in fact be hampering that growth by diminishing its product.