Is There A Tipping Point To League Expansion?
Major League Soccer is in a unique position. The league has 17 teams currently. It is going through a renaissance of attendance boosts coupled with the emergence of the I-5 corridor (Vancouver, Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles) that has made the MLS a viable product and pushed acceptance of the product into Kansas City, Philadelphia and New York. But as it grows to attempt to copy the Big Four (MLB, NFL, NBA and NHL), it should be cautious.
One of the biggest issues with the Big Four leagues is that each over expanded to the point where there are always four or five sick teams each year with a fading fanbase, dismal record, and constant conflict of whether to move or stay. The Big Four also deal with stadium deals and too many rosters filled with players that would otherwise not be on the field or court, but have to be since everything was over-expanded in the 1990s when every league wanted more cities under their thumb.
The MLS has 19 franchises operating and will have 22 teams once New York FC and Miami FC take hold. The MLS is also looking at putting soccer teams in Minnesota, Sacramento, Orlando, Atlanta, etc. So, it does beg the question:
Should the MLS keep expanding?
This isn’t an attack on the MLS, only some observation from the outside looking in. The Big Four leagues have 28-32 teams, each individually owned, which is unlike the MLS model.
The MLS operates their teams under a single-entity structure in which the teams are certainly owned by the league, yet also have an owner-operator per team which acts as a league shareholder. The more shareholders that are brought in, the more ideas that the MLS may not want are now a part of the discussion.
There is also the distinct possibility that every United States Soccer League founded currently will be brought up, at least locally, as a possible MLS expansion team for its city.
This causes two questions for those advocates of the MLS:
Shouldn’t the MLS want to keep a few prime cities available, in case a current MLS team needs to move because they are struggling financially in their current city?
Is it a good thing to have a saturation of MLS teams, instead of keeping the product exotic enough so that it constantly attracts new fans both through media or physically who are unable to have the MLS product available in their current city?
Every available city should never be considered just a revenue site to expand to because the local politicians will offer to fund a new stadium. Today’s great deal is tomorrow’s 25-year nightmare where the team and city conflict over changes to the contract. And each available city needs to be available for the MLS, as leverage when the team’s current cities decide to play “hardball” on upcoming stadium leases and the bottom falls out of a specific city or location.
Does the NBA really have any available markets outside of Seattle and Kansas City for their franchises to move to?
There is also the availability of the premium product and a saturation of that too. The public only has so much money to spread around. And a lot of the Big Four leagues have the city dollars located up.
It’s not about staying small, but staying smart, for the MLS. Why not stop at 22 teams for a while, and actually see what the next 10 years have in store for the league? Wouldn’t it be better to under-expand rather than over-expand, and retain a platinum standard to what the MLS product is on-and-off the field?