MLS recently announced plans for another round of expansion (clubs #29 & #30), but while new investors line up for the right to spend $200 million+ to operate a club in a mid-sized market (Sacramento & St. Louis are primed to land clubs #28 and #29), teams in some of the league’s largest media markets continue to struggle; in fact, one club official told The Athletic that MLS’ “biggest expansion projects aren’t in Miami or Nashville, [they ’re] in places like Dallas and Chicago.”
The league has achieved relative success in cities like Seattle, Portland and Atlanta, where engaged fan bases have provided a glimpse into what soccer in America could be. But the league remains largely irrelevant in cities like New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Dallas, Boston, Houston and San Francisco and the challenges those clubs face are not easily solved. Dennis Crowley (co-founder of foursquare and the chairman of Kingston Stockade FC) says that ultimately it comes down “MLS masquerading as authentic soccer when it’s not” and the league’s need to move away from its closed structure.
Howie Long-Short: To understand MLS’ problems Crowley says that you have to look at greater consumer trends. “Millennials and Gen-Zs are looking for authentic experiences, things they can have a real emotional connection to; in ways that don’t feel manufactured.They want to feel a connection to what the product is about and what the brand stands for. When an organization isn’t being honest about a product, customers lose faith in it and eventually abandon the brand (see: Facebook with user data).
Crowley theorizes that MLS’ big market problems are not the result of a lack of soccer fans in the U.S., but from its closed system that eliminates the authenticity he speaks of. “There are plenty of people watching soccer, but they’re watching leagues from around the world and that’s because soccer is treated differently here from an accountability and talent acquisition point of view. MLS’ closed system changes the dynamic of the team spend and the competition; and it’s reflected in the fans interest. When teams are not rewarded for their successes or held accountable for their failures, you get this inauthentic mediocracy.” For those who will be quick to point out that the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL all operate successfully without promotion/relegation, you must remember that they aren’t competing for the U.S. fans attention as the best leagues in the world within their respective sports.
Short of moving to an open system, increasing spending so that teams could attract the world’s best players would seem like the quickest way to solve many of MLS’ attendance and television viewership problems. As Crowley said, “I don’t believe that the issues clubs like NYCFC or Chicago Fire face are because New York or Chicago are bad soccer markets. If Ronaldo decided he wanted to play for NYCFC, they would sell out every game.” That may be true, but acquiring high priced international talent in their prime isn’t feasible – never mind sustainable – for a league where less than 1/3 of the teams are operating at a profit and no team posted an operating profit greater than $6 million last season.
Building soccer specific venues in convenient locations has helped to turn D.C. United and Sporting Kansas City around, so it’s reasonable to assume that clubs like NYCFC and New England Revolution would benefit from a change in venue. But franchises like the New York Red Bulls, Houston Dynamo and San Jose Earthquakes have built new stadiums in easy to get to locales and continue to struggle to draw fans. Building a new home isn’t a magic elixir.
Crowley suggested that MLS clubs struggle for many of the same reasons that spring football leagues have historically failed. Their teams are competing with a handful of established pro franchises within each market. There’s no natural fan affinity to the teams as there is with college sports. The league lacks the history and tradition of big four sports. The best players in the world are playing in other leagues and the weather is sub-optimal (in many cities) for the first 3 months of the season. Unfortunately, those aren’t issues that a new stadium is going to fix.
Fan Marino: Relocation would seem like a possibility for clubs in big markets that can’t get on track, but one long-time TV executive told me that NYCFC and Chicago Fire need to stay put because “it’s important for MLS to have a presence in top media markets like NY and Chicago; and the league certainly would want to avoid the embarrassment of pulling out of those cities.” It was his belief that the league can and should absorb the losses those teams incur to keep clubs in the biggest U.S. markets.
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