As the 20th season of MLS has begun, it is nothing but happy faces with media, league officials and fans touting the success of the league. Rightfully so as we have a come a long, long way from this. With a new TV deal, cities vying by the dozens to join, big name players (and a few still in their primes), supporter clubs and soccer-specific stadiums, it is a rosy picture. And I’m glad as I am rooting hard for our domestic league to work. But there are some thorns on that rose as problems underlie the overall successful rise of the league. Since this is a stadium site, let’s talk about what is new this season…
In San Jose, the Earthquakes finally get their own facility as Avaya Stadium opens with a pristine design and sightlines. The huge open bar at the North End is a cool touch as well. Amazing to think how long the Quakes lasted at an antiquated college field before moving to these new digs. Orlando City joins MLS this season and they are on fire to start with 60,000+ for their opening game at the renovated Citrus Bowl. It’s not a one-time thing either as their second game got a strong figure too. The Lions move into a downtown stadium next season. Then we get to the thorny part of the league and their complete botch job of the other new franchise this season…New York City FC. Apparently, the league’s edict of having a nearly ready soccer facility only applies to smaller cities and where they are not getting huge financial opportunities. Plans for an NYCFC home have not gone well and their stuck in Yankee Stadium with nothing on the horizon. Secondly, Don Garber’s Bettman-like plan to insist that big markets have two teams is a joke. While the Red Bulls do well enough, they come nowhere near filling RBA for each game, yet the thought is that this area needs to have a “derby” and that the five boroughs will take to NYCFC because it is going to play in city limits (remember the Jets/Giants don’t exactly play in NYC). So instead of adding a city that is ready with a stadium and going to welcome it with open arms (eh-hem…Sacramento, San Antonio). We have a Man City farm club tearing up the diamond at Yankee Stadium. Along those same lines the huge mistake that was Chivas USA is gone, but instead of leaving a model franchise in LA Galaxy be and continue to grow their already solid fan base, the plan is to create another Los Angeles team in the place of Chivas.
This leads into another issue with MLS expanding into huge markets that have multiple sports teams (and of course money and TV eyeballs). While I know there are many passionate fans in these places, it often does not work as the sporting focus is on the other Big 4 sports. Take a look at Chicago, Dallas and Colorado (Denver), their MLS games do not draw well. Coming up the stream is expansion Atlanta and likely Minnesota, who are similar in terms of sports size. That’s not to say it can’t work (Philadelphia and Toronto have been successful), but the deck is stacked. Where the league’s biggest success stories have come, are in places where there is only one or two other professional teams: Portland, Kansas City, Seattle, Salt Lake and soon Orlando. That is why Sacramento and San Antonio would be perfect.
The discussion can go on and I’m sure the whole promotion/relegation argument will continue (it won’t work here), but the key to building perceived success are solid markets with filled stadiums. I say perceived as money is really the key to success. Where the league has come in 20 years is incredible and out of the 20 teams, 15 have their own SSS and 2 others make it work very well in a bigger football stadium (Seattle and Vancouver). If DC and New England can get their places built, NYC solve it’s mess, LA2 not arrive and the new expansion bids go to Sacramento, San Antonio and Indianapolis, then that would be amazing.