A recent look at the current unbalanced conference distribution in Major League Soccer brought to mind the seemingly eternal question: Where will the next MLS expansion franchise be located? I thought it might be worth taking a multi-part look at those media markets which have expressed interest in joining MLS, those media markets in which MLS has expressed an interest, and those which should get a shot at Major League Soccer’s twentieth franchise regardless of who has expressed interest in whom.
However, before I get to my analysis, I must give credit where credit is due. Throughout its history MLS has done an excellent job in selecting the locations of its franchises- whether the original franchises or those that it has added over the years. No more proof is needed of this than the fact that only one expansion franchise has failed- the Miami Fusion- and only one original franchise- the Tampa Bay Mutiny- has folded. I suppose we could debate the whole San Jose-Houston-San Jose “thing,” but the fact is that both franchises still exist and appear to be doing well.
Like any business venture MLS exists to make money (eventually, anyway), so it only makes sense that the first criteria used in selecting the location of a new franchise is the size of the media market. This can be something as simple as a city and it’s metropolitan area, or a more complicated “conurbation,” that is, a number of cities, towns, and urban areas whose population is large, but which might lack a single “major” city. The latter of these is the reason that MLS often talks, for example, about putting a franchise in “South Florida” rather than specifically in Miami, Ft. Lauderdale, etc.. But I digress…
The bigger the market the more potential “butts” to be put in “seats,” and the easier it is for the club to sell advertising, sponsorships, etc. and the more appealing- in theory at least- the franchise would be to potential players. After this first criteria everything else falls into a category which I will call “nice to have.” It would be nice to have geographical diversity- for example, more teams in the Midwest and Southeast. It would be nice to have more clubs in areas that have been traditionally associated with soccer in the U.S.- St. Louis, for example. It would be nice to have clubs in cities with positive population growth, a young median age, ample disposable income, etc.- Las Vegas, Phoenix, to name two. This list could potentially be endless, but I think you get the general idea: the perfect place for a franchise is in a large media market that also has as many of these additional attributes as possible. Conversely, the worst place to have a franchise is in a large media market where these “nice to haves” are nonexistent or so scarce in quantity and poor in quality that they cancel out the size of the market.
What I’d like to do is to come up with a list of ten MLS-less media markets- though not necessarily the ten biggest ones- where I believe MLS could thrive, but based on a little more than simply the size of the media market. Still, that’s as good a place as any to start- based purely on market size, the first list of markets that MLS commissioner Don Garber should consider looks like this:
Top Ten Media Markets without an MLS Franchise
For reasons I cannot quite grasp (Geographical diversity? Making up for the Fusion and Mutiny?) MLS seems smitten with the idea of having a franchise in South Florida. There are, however, several factors that should have the league running away from Miami at high speed. First, they have failed there once. Second, while I am generally in favor of putting teams in cities with large immigrant populations, this would be a mistake in Miami’s case. The largest ethnic group (c.35%) in Miami is Cuban-American- does anyone associated Cuba or Cuban-Americans with soccer? I didn’t think so. Third, and furthermore, another third of Miami’s population is not from Miami. I’d imagine that trying to drum up support for a franchise in a city where many people are from “somewhere else” might be difficult- the Rays, or Marlins, or Panthers might be able to advise me on this topic. The only worse place to put a franchise in Florida is Tampa-St. Petersburg- it’s Miami with extra old people. Another Southeastern market MLS seems to want to crack is Atlanta- the graveyard of American professional sports teams. There are basically two types of professional sports franchises in Atlanta- those that have left town and those that could leave town without anyone noticing.
Call me crazy, but I think if you’re going to have franchises in Vancouver, Seattle, and Portland, putting one in the San Francisco-Oakland area is a natural fit. The area has the right climate for the game, a similarly young and hip culture to those cities I just listed, and, at least by California standards, a decent reputation as a “sports town.” The only problem is that San Jose is within fifty miles of either city and putting a franchise in one of them would require the permission of the Earthquakes. Along these same lines, if MLS wants to put another franchise in the Midwest, Minneapolis-St. Paul seems like a good fit. I know, I know, it gets cold- really cold. But if MLS is going to to continually suggest the frying pans of both Phoenix and Las Vegas as potential franchise sites, there’s no reason the Twin Cities should be taken out of the running for their weather. Staying in the Midwest, what about Detroit? I’m sure every relevant number screams “STAY AWAY,” but it has been a good sports town historically and maybe the arrival of an MLS franchise could help to revive America’s most troubled city. Or maybe not. I’d like to think that MLS could have that kind of impact, but I think they’d be better served getting in on the first floor of Detroit’s resurgence, not the “basement.”
With apologies to those who live in the Riverside-San Bernadino conurbation, no. It’s just outside the 50 mile bubble that would require approval from both the L.A. Galaxy and Chivas U.S.A., but let’s face it, there’s a reason that the closest any major sports team has come to the area is Anaheim- there’s no “there” there. Staying in southern California, San Diego strikes me as only a slightly better South Florida. Sure, the climate is pretty much perfect and there is some soccer history in the area (several incarnations of the San Diego Sockers), but historically it’s been a city where professional sports exist, but don’t thrive. Need a little proof of that? No “big four” sports franchise based in San Diego has won a championship sinc the 1963 Chargers, and the Chargers are the only team in the city with a winning (barely) record over the course of their history. And then there’s Phoenix… With the exception of the climate, I’m sure every other number is good- the city, somewhat amazingly, continues to boom. And yet, my gut reaction is that this is a bad idea. The first word that popped into my head when I thought about Phoenix as a sports city was, “ambivalent.” Maybe I’m wrong…
Finally, there is St. Louis. Yes, in recent years both a WUSA and a whatever-the-second-tier-of-soccer-was-called-at-the-time franchise have come to an ignominious ends in St. Louis, but I blame that on the fact that the same shady cast of characters was involved in the financial backing of both clubs. The fact remains, however, that St. Louis is a great sports town in general and one with a soccer history and pedigree as good or better than any club currently in MLS. A club in St. Louis- especially a very competitive one- would make a natural rival for Sporting KC (and to a lesser extent, Chicago) and give the league more geographical diversity.
Our quest for ten potential locations now has, based on my eternal wisdom, its first three candidates: San Francisco-Oakland, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and St. Louis. In the next installment in this series we’ll look at the next ten biggest U.S. media markets (Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Sacramento, San Antonio, Orlando, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Las Vegas, Charlotte, and Indianapolis) and see what they may have to offer.