Expanding MLS with Rivalry Bubbles

MLS should look at expanding not just by ownership wealth, but by fostering more regional rivalries like Cascadia
by Mike Firpo   |   Friday, August 02, 2013

MLS Expansion Rivalry Bubbles by Mike Firpo

MLS commissioner Don Garber announced that the league will continue expanding to 24 clubs by 2020, coincidentally right around the time it hopes to enter the world league elite.

So now as everyone rushes to write, read, banter, tweet and dream of their expansion city draft orders of MLS 3.24, let’s just take a moment to remember how impossible that is to predict. In fact I’d gander an invertebrate predicts the next World Cup Final score with more accuracy than North American pundits, bloggers, fans, Romani fortune tellers and even MLS administrators can do today.

The reason for the lack of certainty is simple. If expansion franchise determination was based on singular strengths, MLS would have likely over-expanded and expired by now.

If it were just about fan base – St. Louis, Miami and Minnesota would be in already. If it was just about infrastructure – Rochester, San Antonio, Pittsburgh and Ottawa would be in already. If it was just about TV ratings – Atlanta, San Diego and Baltimore would be in already. If it was just about markets with few rival pro sports – Austin, Indy, Vegas, Omaha and Birmingham would be in already. If it were just about enthusiastic owners – Orlando, Sacramento and Detroit would be in already. And if it just came down to financial power – every NFL owner wanting to fill their stadia’s 44 under-utilized weekends from Atlanta to Minnesota and beyond would have been on the pitch-receiving side of the table at the Board of Governors meeting Wednesday in Kansas City.

But all those aforementioned eager and worthy cities, owners and fans are still on the sidelines and waiting to get into MLS. With the top-heavy burden of the predestined New York City franchise finally in place as slot No. 20, and the likelihood Beckham moves on Miami for No. 21 like a D-lister on a red carpet, the rest of the slots are going to be a little more complicated, contentious and costly.

With that, though, there always is a pecking order for determining anything and if there is a factor that trumps the others, MLS likely goes with deep-pocketed ownership bids before the others.

That’s because, well, they just did that in New York City with choosing Manchester City and New York Yankees owners over the historic franchise of the NY Cosmos, which is now in wealthy, but maybe not that kind of “We own a nation and our partners own a sport” wealthy, hands.

And the other reason MLS ownership and administration will likely choose wealth over the other bid factors, is because having owners with large resources can weather insecure financial storms, like Lamar Hunt and Phil Anschutz did for so many of the lean and early MLS years.

The new wave of MLS owners don’t have to deal with league mortality issues or carry so many burdens as they did then. MLS has passed survivability-mode, yet most markets still don’t make a profit, or are negligible to the books of the owner’s main businesses. So league owners must have the financial depth to not only pay for the escalating franchise fees (NYCFC was $100 million and Columbus was just sold with its stadium for $68 million, reportedly) but to withstand, at least, fiscal patience while riding out these financially stagnant years with the sunny horizon of steady long-term growth and significant TV ratings accomplished due in large part by wise market expansion.

As a result, the value of their assets (their clubs) should soar through a series of successive deals where TV networks start competing and paying handsomely for MLS broadcasting rights. We are in an era where broadcasters cannot get enough sports content on their stations and it obviously is lucrative as we went from ESPN and its lesser offspring to NBC Sports, beIN Sport and now Fox Sports 1. Those network families and petro-rich royal families are what will bring the league to the big boy poker table one day and, due to the aforementioned reasons, are likely to include only others in their tax bracket in the hands to come.

Expanding for TV Ratings

The MLS will get huge, like bigger than a Brazilian or Indonesian league, huge. Paris Hilton would sooner stop at a traffic light at 2 a.m. than MLS stops at 24 markets in 2020. It’s just not happening, not even a postcard at 22 or cab fare at 23, no matter any FIFA recommendation, which is mainly about number of games played. That issue is nullified anyway as MLS will never get back to a league that plays the traditional European home-and-away per season league format (that is until it hits 40, but that’s a story for another day).

Major League Soccer owners will expand across North America as they desire and TV ratings beckon a footprint carved from seizing on springs made up of the soccer-friendly coalescing of political will to build stadiums, eager fan support and wealthy ownership groups. Most of these titans of industry, or their sport-loving sons, want to see their franchise values increase before they are bone dust.

There is a new tidal ownership force in MLS and it’s young, ambitious, dynamic, in-tune and doesn’t have the fears of the NASL past or the scars of MLS 2000s. They embrace tifo, they support supporters, they tweet and they know how to ride the Millennial popularity wave.

This new, vibrant and broader league ownership core is now steering MLS and is showing by not getting off at the once-fabled NYC No. 20 stop at the end of the F(IFA) line, that they collectively feel the way to get the ratings and eventual TV money is to expand, expand, expand. So MLS will not necessarily end up being smaller than the NASL, but just done wiser, slower and with the concrete roots of owners, not renters. This way of thinking says expand to markets and then they have a horse or stake in the MLS race, and all of a sudden that city’s metrics light up like a home crowd in Kingston. The new area fans will finally care, consume and watch MLS … nationwide ratings grow per expansion. I’m not convinced due to recent remarks pre-All Star Game announcement that Garber really wanted to move so fast after 20, but alas, he has to listen to his bosses just as much as he has to listen to his customers, the fans.

MLS is at a major disadvantage to its established North American sports leagues and worldwide soccer leagues with generations or a century’s worth of ingrained fandom. Expansion is the way MLS can cut the line at Disneyland, without having to resort to being “that guy.” It’s not a bad idea, certainly not if we all want to see what this thing can do within our lifetime.

North America is vast and there are many great cities worth having not only one top flight soccer club, but multiple. Sadly though most of us will not live long enough to see MLS’ smaller market teams have inner-city derbies like most of the world’s leagues have. But we should continue to see the growth of rivalries on the regional scale. That’s terrific because these fan-created cup tussles are great spectacles constantly flaunting MLS’ best 2 assets at once, its emerging supporter culture and its modern mostly boutique stadiums, together in unison before a backdrop of tifo-fluttering pageantry. MLS doesn’t have a lot of great performances relative to the top leagues and only a handful of the world’s top performers at their peak. But MLS does now have world class atmospheres (supporter culture) and great stages (stadia). Like ballet at the Bolshoi, that is an eternally successful combo.

Most soccer leagues outside of the English Premier League and the German Bundesliga can’t claim that combination, especially league-wide. They may have good play and fan passion but not the stadiums, like Italy. With more rivalry matches weighing the schedule, MLS puts its best foot forward more often, which makes great spectacle (see NFL) for TV viewership growth.

Rivalry Bubbles

In an idealistic world devoid of the reality of ratings and wealth expansion, I’d say MLS should put one other factor for determining these next 4 or more (24 is not stone and MLS is “flexible”) markets at least on-par or pretty darn close with ownership financial clout. And that would be regional rivalries … rivalry bubbles.

To be clear, I just invented that term. If you are a college student, feel free to poach that and impress your professor in your next sports management paper. If you’re an MLS legal assistant, however, please do not propose to trademark that at an upcoming meeting, humanity is just more fun when it’s free (see: Wikipedia donations versus pushy 80s encyclopedia salesmen).

So back to rivalry bubbles. As mentioned above, MLS puts its best foot forward to new fans, sponsors, new ownership groups and TV viewers – with its intense rivalry matches.

Like in the rest of world soccer, everything about MLS derby matches is bigger, better, more passionate, more meaningful.

The clubs build mocking signboards to irritate their rivals. Staff and fans post jibbing YouTube videos. Supporters Groups paint and choreograph ever-sophisticated tifo displays for themselves and viewers worldwide to gobble up and reinforce the notion of MLS growth, meeting its long-awaited potential.

The best that MLS has to offer is during these rivalry games, and it’s obvious that with a 20-plus league that more emphasis has to be put on local/regional rivalry matches and passion. The more teams you make, the more losers there will be. Only 1 name is etched on the MLS Cup per year, everyone else to varying degrees failed that season. The MLS salary cap doesn’t look likely to be multiplied any time soon, so play levels will not increase drastically any time soon, nor will parity, so attraction by being the strongest playing league is out the window until big TV money comes. Even the once glossy stadium paint and new franchise smells fade in time.

So club and league leadership has to have other “stickier” things that grow the franchise, keeps the supporters coming and new fans tempted.

Rivalries ensure that perpetual appeal.

A rivalry driven MLS also goes hand-in-hand with the parity it still believes in. Rivalries are great, but if one team is a shark and the other a minnow, rivalry is mostly useless. Until Chelsea and Man City got ownership with financial muscle to compete with the bigger fan-base depth of Arsenal and Man United, respectively, those rivalries were fading in importance. Well at least for the bigger clubs.

So then MLS must make that a big priority in expansion market determination from 20-24 and beyond. I propose it is done in little bubbles of 3 or more rival cities/clubs so that a good chunk of fixtures (6 for 3-club bubbles) per year are the uber-passionate ones.

So let’s look at some of the existing or potential rivalry bubbles that can fill up MLS  with overflowing goodness:

Cascadia Bubble: Having a trio of clubs with NASL roots and carrying all that heritage through the USL and to MLS, the Northwest's love of soccer and hatred for each other brought MLS to a new level. It may still be the exception, for the time being, but if we keep pushing rivalry bubbles, what happens to them in 30 years, might just resemble what this one is today. Not so coincidentally, this is the only complete rivalry bubble in MLS. Have a few Cascadia-type rivalries in MLS … and the league becomes elite.

Alberta Bubble: Give the 2 energy-rich Albertan cities a chance to enter MLS together, and they just may shine. Edmonton has proved it will watch soccer events in the past and their rivalry might push civic and corporate leaders to help build MLS appropriate venues – something they both lack. They can also have ancillary rivalries with Cascadia and Eastern Canadian teams.

California Bubbles: California already loves soccer. Youth, immigrants, Gen X, Millennials, NorCal, SoCal … it’s part of the pop culture, maybe moreso than any other state, especially the big ones. The problem for the growth of soccer in California is that it resides in the USA. Cede it from the union and put it in a sports vacuum, and they’d play like Uruguay, above their weight. The derbies in NorCal amongst San Jose, a future hip San Francisco team and a diverse Sac-town that wants the game – would be a trio of goodness, only to be matched by the rivalries amongst the Galaxy, Chivas (or the eventual Aztecs or Orange County successor) and the future San Diego team, which should have one of the world’s best multi-national club rivalries with nearby Tijuana. To top all that intensity off, the NorCal bubble and the SoCal bubble will likely continue the cross-state derby intensity that the Earthquakes and the Galaxy have grown over the years.

Rockies Bubble: Real Salt Lake and the Colorado Rapids already enjoy a very healthy rivalry between each other. Add Las Vegas to their mix and it jumps another notch. A great sub-rivalry between Vegas and Salt Lake can form too given the distinctly different cultures of the cities.

Southwest Bubble: Once the housing market downturn is completely behind us, Phoenix will reclaim its boomtown status. It hopefully can one day claim an MLS club as well. Add MLS pre-season haven Tucson, who has been stood up by baseball for greener pastures, and you get a neat little bubble forming. Throw in top pro league deprived Albuquerque and El Paso, and their potential border rivalry with Ciudad Juarez and all of a sudden MLS will be cooking in the Southwest, along with everything else. Speaking of which, whatever miracle technology Qatar invents to cool World Cup 2022, this bubble will need to borrow it.

Texas Bubble: Everything is bigger in Texas as the saying goes. So too must the soccer rivalries in the modern MLS era. Texas would be a decent nation on its own, shoot it could host a World Cup without breaking a sweat, Houston not with-standing. I have podcasted and written before that converting the converted (of the other football) is easier in some ways than preaching to a non-sports-believing culture. Texas is a soccer swing state. Get the lone star republic converted to soccer, utilize the dozens of soccer-adaptable 20,000 high school football stadiums … and you may have just tipped the entire balance of the sport’s future in the USA.

Oklahoma Bubble: The NBA did it. The USL PRO recently did it. So the NASL of course is doing it too. All the cool kids are doing it. Getting in on Oklahoma City sports franchise is all the rage. Tulsa was home to the Roughnecks of the original NASL, and their remains a good love for the game in the state. Bring both big cities together, and what a fun in-state rivalry would be born. They would surely but heads with Texas clubs too, to form a great rivalry-rich area down there.

Florida Bubble: MLS has a checkered past with the state, having contracted the poorly-run Tampa Bay and Miami teams in 2001. But try comparing MLS in 2001 to 2013 in your head … different times. Phil Rawlins and his Orlando City crew are destined to be the purple patch of MLS. His dedication, the fans desire and everything else points to OCSC in MLS quite soon. Hopefully they are joined by the Tampa Bay Rowdies version II down the road, plus a sunny Jacksonville bid that erases the NFL nightmare and produces a pro sport environment on a smaller/MLS-type scale that might be just what JAX needs. Then there is Miami. The home of a pan-Latin American and Caribbean culture that just adores soccer, futbol and futebol. Add a cheap $25 million Beckham expansion fee clause, Bolivian Marcelo Claure’s billions and figure out a decent stadium and try to play a Latin style of play and an amazing soccer market opens up, so too does Latin America to MLS, as Miami will remain its capital (and maybe CONCACAF’s) for decades to come. Florida could go from laughing stock of MLS past, to success story chalk-filled with rivalries galore.

South Bubble: Probably the biggest longshot rivalry bubble of the bunch. But at some point the league may want to try Louisville, Nashville, Memphis, Birmingham (a good US Men’s National Team host in the past) and New Orleans. They all have about 1 million or so in their metro areas and share a similar culture with enough rivalries to keep it interesting.

Southeast Bubble: Atlanta remains the biggest TV market MLS is not currently in and the Southeastern US is the biggest geographic expanse that is MLS free. It will get there with Arthur Blank of the Falcons, or the Silverbacks or otherwise, eventually. You would think Charlotte is worth a shot and the Research Triangle with all its North Carolina soccer love is an eventual given with the right owners and stadium. An interesting tri-rivalry that would expand to the fringes of DC, Birmingham and the adjacent South bubble cities. 

Heartland Bubble: Kansas City and their masterful owners and fans, prove that most any market can become MLS friendly, if done correctly. SKC rewrote the book on successful sport franchise makeovers. If MLS can figure out how to get historic soccer-loving St. Louis and its many fans and players involved with a club and rival to SKC, the Midwest will be rocking. If some visionary ownership group decides to plop itself down in top pro-sport deprived Omaha, and specifically in Creighton University’s soccer specific downtown stadium, this could be another RSL in the making. Des Moines, which historically had decent minor league crowds but fizzled stadium plans, could potentially surprise some and be a decent MLS or NASL market one day.

Great Lakes Bubble: Chicago Fire would be the epicenter of this bubble, which could include Milwaukee and Minnesota. The latter being a much talked about expansion candidate since the Minnesota Vikings entered the fray by pursuing their giant retractable roof stadium complete with kid broth … MLS team. Lots of good rivalry between these cities and also the nearby Heartland and Rust Belt bubble cities. Would be a very fun area to watch if they joined Chicago in the big show.

Rust Belt Bubble: Very Ohio–centric, this rivalry bubble would include MLS OG Columbus Crew, a Peter Wilt driven Indy Eleven, a likely well-supported Detroit franchise possibly located over a half-complete jail in downtown (I know, I know, but wait until you hear the other idea). Add Cincinnati and Cleveland and the Rust Belt derbies explode.

Canada Bubble: Half-complete already with Toronto and Montreal in MLS. The NASL-bound Ottawa Fury and USL PRO Rochester Rhinos could make the jump up to complete a very competitive rivalry bubble complete with 4 soccer specific/in-mind stadiums.

Atlantic Bubble: DC United, Philadelphia Union, an augmented Pittsburgh Riverhounds and a future Baltimore side (please be Bohemians) – would create a tight region of intense derbies. Of course those derbies would extend to the Northeast cities too.

Northeast Bubble: The New England Revolution might eventually need just that to meet the potential of the fandom in Massachusetts, but the New York City area needs no such wakeup. The Red Bulls will likely over time become a very New Jersey team and remain New York in name only to appease Austrian and marketing overlords. But the Big Apple is due to be sliced in 2 by Man City and NY Yankees owned NYCFC and the rebirth of the New York Cosmos in, Long Island? Both teams have yet to finalize stadium deals, but as long as they give each other a borough or so distance to survive this period, the rivalries here can become very London-esque and epic. Give ESPN home state Connecticut a shot too and the Northeast could be loads of fun, all carved up and ready to rock!


Binghamton Univ.
Club Domestic:
NY Cosmos, RSL
Club Foreign:
Palermo, Napoli, FCB
Creator of Soccer Newsday. President of World Football Travel. Founder of NY Cosmos Campaign. Manager of North American Soccer Industry group on LinkedIn. Helped a few fans see the global game. Proposed on-field at MLS Cup 04. Longtime devotee of Soccer.