MLS Expansion Deserves Benefit of the Doubt

Concerns are valid but track record speaks volumes
by Peter Muller   |   Friday, April 18, 2014

Major League Soccer (MLS) 2012 Season Preview

The announcements this week of Atlanta’s entry into Major League Soccer and New York City FC’s agreement to play its first 3 seasons in Yankee Stadium have generated understandable concern about MLS’ expansion plans.

The fact that Atlanta will play on artificial turf in a football stadium (albeit one that is modified for soccer matches) and that NYCFC will spend at least 3 years playing on a narrow field awkwardly situated on a baseball diamond brings back bad memories of the early days of MLS.

Add to this the uncertain plans in Miami where David Beckham’s franchise is searching for an appropriate stadium location and it is easy to question the wisdom of the league’s expansion moves.

But to write off these new teams as misguided ideas or simply a “money grab” by MLS is to ignore the track record that Commissioner Don Garber and the league’s investors have built over the last 10 years.

Remember, Garber entered MLS at a time when teams like Kansas City were playing in football stadiums ten times too large for them, the Metrostars played on that disgraceful turf in the Meadowlands and the Florida franchises were utter disasters.

He knows about the bad old days of Major League Soccer.

But he and the investors recognized that the conditions MLS teams played under were not suitable for a top tier professional league and set about making fundamental changes that transformed the league and probably saved its very existence.

By ushering in new ownership groups and focusing on building soccer specific stadiums the league made successes like Portland and Toronto possible. They have increased the star power through the designated player system. And they have reached a point where more than half of the teams turn a profit annually.

There were missteps along the way, including building stadiums in suburban locations that targeted the wrong audience. And D.C. United and the New England Revolution are still desperately in need of new stadiums. But he league is unquestionably stronger and more successful today than it was when Garber joined it.

For Major League Soccer to take the next big step forward it needs to fill the geographic holes in its map and dramatically increase its television revenue. The new expansion teams will help on both fronts.

Add a re-booted Los Angeles team to the mix and within three years we will have a handful of new high profile teams with significant financial backing in key markets around the county. That is bound to increase television ratings, which in turn will increase revenue to the league and lead to higher salary caps and better quality on the field.

There is no question that the new franchises have some steep hills to climb as they prepare to field MLS teams. Atlanta must show that a notoriously week sports market will support a Major League Soccer team and that enough fans will fill its stadium to make it look respectable. Let’s also hope that Arthur Blank will install top quality artificial turf and make good on his pledge to keep gridiron lines off the soccer field.

New York City FC has the unenviable task of building a stadium in one of the city’s five boroughs but with the financial resources of Manchester City and the political connections of the New York Yankees it seems a safe bet they will get a stadium sooner rather than later.

Miami’s situation may be the most problematic but that is probably why MLS has not committed to it as fully as it has the other cities. If Beckham and his partners fail to put a viable stadium plan together the league can walk away from its commitment with little harm done.

Major League Soccer’s latest round of expansion is leading the league into a new phase of its existence, and with that comes some uncertainty. It is possible that one or more of the new teams will fail to meet the increased expectations fans have for the league.

But MLS has built itself into a prosperous and growing league by making smart strategic decisions about where, when and how to expand. And MLS leadership knows very well that the right stadium situation is essential for a MLS franchise to succeed today.

It is hard to imagine that the forces within MLS – including people like Merritt Paulson, Robb Heineman, Joe Roth, and Tim Leiweke, who have built model MLS franchises – would roll the dice on new teams without a strong believe that they will be successful.

These are the people who brought us the Cascadia rivalry, Sporting Park, Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey.

They deserve the benefit of the doubt.


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Peter is a government relations professional in Washington, DC, and Los Angeles, CA. He has been a DC United season ticket holder since 1997 and has attended every MLS Cup except one – in 1998 when he was busy helping his boss get re-elected to Congress.