When Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber visited Sacramento last month and then held a conference call with Associated Press sports editors the next week, what followed was the usual firestorm of discussion on every American soccer fan's
favorite topic scourge: expansion.
The commentary led, as it often does, to this question: What becomes of big-time, MLS-ready markets that are left out when MLS slams its doors for good? This led me to a deeper question: What will the pro soccer landscape in the United States and Canada look like in the long term if it continues to gain support?
With 20 teams currently playing in MLS and another four locked in (if you count Miami), Garber has confirmed that his league would, in fact, expand beyond 24 teams to 28, before stopping and taking a long look at the strategy for the subsequent decades. In the course of his last two public appearances, the commissioner has lifted some hearts and crushed many, many more.
Garber announced in Sacramento that MLS - currently the only Division 1 league recognized by US Soccer - is in advanced expansion discussions with (in addition to supposed locks Sacramento and Saint Louis), San Antonio, Detroit, San Diego, and Austin. On the conference call he added that he would be "remiss" to not mention Cincinnati as a candidate.
Many fans are familiar with the league's interest in San Antonio and Saint Louis, while Detroit City FC, the fiercely-supported NPSL club just two miles from downtown Detroit, was, at the time of Garber's statements, the most visible representation of soccer in that region. When news broke, however, that the owners of the National Basketball Association's Cavaliers and Pistons were the mystery Detroit suitors that Garber was alluding to, an appropriate uproar was heard from people on both sides of whether MLS was a fit for the Motor City or not.
FC Cincinnati, owned by one of the Cincinnati area's wealthiest and best-known families, has superior financial muscle in USL circles, and now holds the league's attendance record for a regular season match.
The Austin Aztex are on hiatus from the USL at the moment, reeling from flooding that seems to have exacerbated the ownership's difficulty both in financially sustaining a club and securing a suitable stadium. The club's continued existence is, by most accounts, uncertain, and no other ownership group seems to be in sight. San Diego has been the subject of numerous rumors in the last year, but to the public consciousness, no group exists with the political and financial capital to lure MLS. If Garber is being honest about the candidacy of these two cities, then the ambitions of seemingly strong candidates in San Antonio and Cincinnati could be falling on deaf ears when all 28 MLS slots are spoken for.
MLS of the Future
Now that North America is suddenly flush with ownership groups that can afford to invest in MLS and claim to have markets that can support it, fans in the cities vying for Garber's limited-access party have tasted the desire to bring a new, big-league game to town, and they obviously don't like the idea of another city being chosen first. "Why, oh why," most ask, "is Miami still on the table when we have done everything right?" It's a valid question, and if you're one of the front-runners for MLS expansion, the answer is as frustrating as it is simple.
Ultimately, Major League Soccer, like other pro sports leagues, is a corporation. MLS is unique among major sports in the US and Canada in that all teams are franchises of the business rather than independently owned member businesses. But, like all the others, it has an obligation to its shareholders, first and foremost. Whatever your thoughts on this particular corporation occupying the top tier in North American soccer, the probability of achieving predictable, sustainable profits in the short-, mid-, and long-term is the top priority for MLS when evaluating expansion franchises, and this is an inescapable fact. No amount of vague, subjective promulgation on one market's viability over another will change the numbers that MLS is crunching behind its oft-closed doors, and those numbers will tell the Don and the board of governors (read, shareholders) where to expand their enterprise next.
Where does this leave successful lower division cities that don't make the final cut? In addition to those mentioned above, ambition to join MLS has been voiced by ownership groups in Indianapolis, Louisville, Charlotte, and Phoenix, to say nothing of the bid from Las Vegas which was unceremoniously declined by the league in early 2015, and David Beckham's strange appearance in the city as recently as last month.
Some will say that interest for the sport will stagnate in cities where MLS is no longer a possibility. Indeed, San Antonio FC, owned by Spurs Sports & Entertainment, is in existence for the expressed purpose of bidding for MLS. The group's current arrangement with the city and county for use of Toyota Field will expire after six years if entry to MLS is not achieved. Will SS&E stick around to oversee another minor league operation indefinitely? In a recent interview, Managing Director of San Antonio FC, Tim Holt, seemed to think so, which is great news for fans in that city.
In Cincinnati, no such stadium situation exists, but the founding ownership and their sports-savvy chief executive Jeff Berding have made no secret of their intent to move to the top tier.
With such outspoken hype for the future, the fan bases in these cities will also be put to the test if they do not receive their golden tickets from MLS. If they are patient, however, there is plenty to be excited about.
One angle for some of these cities to consider is the distinct possibility that MLS will expand all the way to 32 teams, and probably sooner than Garber is saying. Competition for spaces, real and imagined, drives up the price of expansion franchises, and allows the league to be choosier with its new investors. But even this otherwise happy scenario has its detractors.
Many fans believe that MLS can and must split into two divisions if its numbers swell much higher than 24, citing the sizes of other top professional leagues worldwide. I disagree.
While the expansion of MLS to 32 teams is plausible, a division of the organization into two tiers is little more than humorous speculation. Two reasons exist for this, and they are interrelated. First, as mentioned earlier, MLS is a single-entity corporation whose investor/operators (also known as the team owners) have committed to a relatively predictable venture based on sharing of television revenues and other benefits. If half of the league is suddenly "relegated" to something beneath the current status of MLS, the budgets of those teams will necessarily change, and the owners will likely be forced to accept something less than the return on investment that they signed up for initially.
The second reason is that we have profitable continental ventures such as Major League Baseball and the National Football League, which both exist successfully with 30+ teams, as examples of what is acceptable in the United States and Canada. Contrary to the belief of fans submitting that soccer is uniquely suited to a smaller competition, this phenomenon has nothing to do with the nature of the game and everything to do with the country it is played in.
Here in the United States, our leagues do not end with the regular season, and the US Open Cup, as yet, does little to satisfy our desire for a knockout-style champion. Assuming this will continue to be the case as it has for twenty years, MLS will certainly continue to operate a playoff tournament to determine its champion, until it decides that some other format will be more profitable, i.e. until the fans loudly desire a change. In this way, MLS expansion is limited only by market demand, and its own competition structure.
Let's say that a decade goes by and MLS still has left prime soccer markets on the sideline. Is that it? Will there simply be no more big-time soccer? Hardly.
Having held Division 3 status with US Soccer since its reorganization in 2011, the United Soccer League announced in February 2015 that it would apply for Division 2. Holt has stated publicly on several occasions that this was simply the natural progression for the league, given that many of its clubs met or would soon meet Division 2 guidelines. The practical benefits of divisions in the US Soccer system are limited to the perception created for fans and sponsors (more on that later), so the USL has no reason not to attempt to move up if it qualifies.
Much has been made of the rapid growth and current size of the USL. Indeed, growing from 14 teams in 2014 to the current number of 29 is astonishing, and current plans are to add at least Reno and Austin to the fray next season. A report exists that adds Nashville in 2017, as well as Birmingham and the aforementioned San Diego in the near future. Plans to add a "MLS2" team - a USL team owned by MLS - likely exist in Atlanta, New York City, and Los Angeles, given the financial strength of ownership groups in those cities, and the significant outlay required for fielding a reserve team.
Regardless of whether Major League Soccer expands in a given city, it appears that demand is now being met by supply very quickly, and over time, the greater the value of the demand, the greater the value of the supply, no matter which league provides it.
Imagine a landscape, not too many years from now, in which MLS has its 32 teams, and another 15 are thriving in the North American Soccer League. The USL now has fifty clubs across four regional conferences, and a Canadian Premier League is beginning to take hold.
In almost every non-MLS market, crowds between five and fifteen thousand are expected, and a few routinely draw more than twenty. Stadiums are being completed by the dozen, and owners are paying good money to good players, while grooming more in their academies.
While ultimately pursuing slightly different goals, USL and NASL share Division 2 status within US Soccer, and both are enjoying credible and lucrative media coverage. Not because of their status, but because of what they have built in cities that are ready.
This is one way that things could go. Interest in the sport is not going to decline any time soon, and investors of the present and future have learned plenty of lessons from leagues and teams of the past. At the front offices of the pro leagues currently in existence, scrutiny of potential ownership groups appears to be at an all-time high, meaning that there will be fewer teams plagued by short-term thinking or short-term liquidity. And rather than crying over missing the MLS boat, new investors wanting to be big-league will see that if their markets and their pocketbooks are big-league already, then they don't need Major League Soccer.
MLS and its founders should be lauded for what they have done, bleeding money for nearly two decades in order to keep pro soccer in America's face until we all realize, like so many already have, how incredible the sport is. But happily, innovators are beginning to see that these days, MLS is only one option of several.
The "P" Word
This all leads to my most likely scenario for the future, and a subject that is argued more loudly than any other in soccer media.
The pyramid of soccer, both in the United States and Canada, is far from perfect. But it is what it is, and as mentioned above, I believe we can only have this conversation in 2016 because of what was done in the mid-1990's, before the economy in this part of the world knew of its voracious appetite for the world's game. Also missing in 1996 was the bountiful worldwide coverage of the sport afforded to us by today's internet. As consumers of soccer, the information now available truly represents an embarrassment of riches.
From here though, there is a path forward for enterprising ownership groups with the financial might and mettle of spirit necessary. I'm not going to endeavor to summarize any arguments for a system of promotion and relegation in soccer, though an experienced entrepreneur and one of America's newest soccer owners did so very succinctly just last week. If the benefits of such a system are just as compelling to the owners of current and future clubs as they are to the fans that espouse them, I believe we could see it happen someday.
The US Soccer Federation wields a great deal of power in 2016. Too much. Allocating divisional status to leagues based on owner financials, market size, and stadium capacity made plenty of sense when leagues and teams were failing for myriad reasons having nothing to do with the poor market demand for soccer. The divisions were a way to signal to prospective sponsors the relative financial potential of a given league.
The market demand for pro soccer was poor when those standards were established, and unfortunately it is still poor in the eyes of many mass media outlets, which are the lifeblood of wealthy organizations like the English Premier League, as well as the NFL and NBA at home. Today, even though the true meaning of the divisions has diminished, the perception to those media outlets remains: this is major league, everything else is minor league. And while perception is largely our reality, and US Soccer is in charge of doling out perception, they don't have all the power.
For example, the NASL and the USL have already dipped their toes into national broadcast waters, and local deals across North America are more numerous than ever before. The economy is a give-and-take, push-and-pull tide. Investment from owners gives confidence to broadcasters, which gives confidence to owners, then players, then broadcasters again, and so on, with each participating entity weighing its risks and benefits one decision at a time, with the value of the transactions creeping ever higher. When this happens, any team or market that has the potential to make money, can make it, and there's not a thing that MLS or the federation can do about it.
That being the case, no city has to accept a second- or third-rate existence simply because it was not granted acceptance to MLS. This is something that owners and fans of the NASL have known for some time. Despite the struggles of many of its clubs to gain a strong audience, commissioner Bill Peterson and others around the league have broached the idea of partnering with de facto fourth-tier National Premier Soccer League to create a system of promotion and relegation that would engage as many soccer fans as possible, from sea to shining sea, in the overall success of the pyramid.
Whether members of the NPSL at large are a good fit for this model in the short-to-medium term remains to be seen, but it points to the fact that at least a few power players on this continent would consider the idea. Again, it takes a certain kind of owner, but someone will eventually step out and announce that either the NASL is breaking into two divisions, or that heavy hitters from multiple leagues are banding together to form something brand new. This model can eventually attract ambitious clubs in currently unknown soccer hotbeds, hungry to be noticed on the world stage.
Simply, the benefits of this brave new world need not be argued for by fans and pundits, and certainly not with the vitriol and political rhetoric so common in social media today. Rather, if in fact an open pyramid is the way of the future in this or any country, those owners who participate will do so voluntarily, weighing what they stand to gain or lose from its unpredictability and its excitement. But if they do so, they will do so when they're good and ready.
As for the federation, it will either get on board (read, follow the money) or not, but it can't stop anyone from pursuing worthwhile ends, in soccer or in business.
When will we arrive in the future? It's anyone's guess, and anyone's interpretation. For those of us who grew up with little or no visible pro soccer in our lives, the future is now, and it's pretty darn exciting. For others, the US and Canada are mired in a deplorable state of affairs that requires a massive and immediate overhaul. You may be in between. Regardless, if you're reading this, you're absolutely involved in what comes next.
So, whether you're racing toward MLS, or racing to the steps of the federation with pitchforks and torches, I urge you instead to march toward building your best soccer market. Attend. Support. Write. Buy. And some day, some way, your options will be many, and your soccer cup will overflow, no matter what level you prefer.