MLS Expansion: Love AND Money

I am grateful for the dedicated readers here at Raving Green. I owe this post to Friar Tuck’s thoughtful comment on the “Chivas and the Redefinition of the West” post.

MLS expansion has always been choppy. As a business seeking growth, MLS has tried to appeal to soccer moms, suburbanites, immigrants, ethnic groups and hipsters. Throwing money at soccer is still not a slamdunk investment in the States. So expansion teams have failed (Miami), thrived (Seattle, RSL) and suffered arrested development (see Toronto and Philadelphia) since the beginning of the league. With almost 20 years experience, MLS needs to focus on two things only when considering a city for an expansion team: love and money.

Love is a key ingredient to solid MLS expansion. Successful lower division clubs make for the most successful new MLS teams. They have culture, history and the undying adoration of their supporters. Your Seattle Sounders, in fact, the whole Cascadia phenomenon is a prime example of this. Three teams with history and heart made seamless (well almost seamless, Portland did suck for two years) jumps to the big leagues when given the chance. Cascadia had a thriving soccer community in the shallower end of the business pool (smaller markets, two having failed pro teams, shared stadiums, lots of plastic grass), but all they needed was an injection of capital and, viola!, they were major league (seewhatididthere). Montreal is another example of a recent strong expansion. The Impact had a long life as a member of the modern NASL since 1992. The city’s professional soccer roots go farther back, 1971, to the original NASL and the Montreal Olympique. The loves gotta be there from the get go.

This is America, where money talks. Previous MLS teams that folded, Miami and Tampa Bay, did so because they couldn’t figure a sustainable business model. Chivas USA had infamously stingy owners and nothing was spent on marketing or exposure. That said, just having money doesn’t guarantee anything. Becks can throw experience, connections and a fortune at his dream of pro soccer in Miami, but if no one in South Florida cares, it’ll just be an MLS money pit, like Chivas. A group of investors can have a fine business model in place, but that’ll only take them so far. MLS now has the blueprint that the two ingredients for strong expansion cities are: successful existing soccer culture and a sound business setting.

Both team entering the league next year, Orlando City and NYCFC, embody the two opposites of this spectrum. Orlando City is exciting because they follows the love model of expansion. That team has history and people care about that team (and the suits run a tight ship, see, Kaka). NYFC, however, may be the exception that proves the rule. New York is such a big city and the owners are bringing in a huge amount of industry know-how and cash, that they may be the one situation where all you need is money.

We are lucky here in Seattle. We have a major market, sound owners and are just punch drunk in love with a sport and a team.

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