Broader Markets Could Mean Success in MLS Expansion Puzzle

There is plenty to be excited about for Major League Soccer (MLS) fans in 2015.  Orlando City SC and New York City FC will make their debuts in the league as expansion franchises.  Both clubs inch closer to opening day as they begin to strategize for the MLS Expansion Draft as well as the MLS SuperDraft in the off-season.  Growth will continue beyond 2015 as Atlanta will enter the league in 2017.  Former Los Angeles Galaxy superstar David Beckham is spearheading efforts in Miami to secure a stadium location and officially emerge as the 23rd team in MLS.

READ: Trouble in Paradise? MLS Stadium in Miami Struggles Continue

MLS Commissioner Don Garber has stated the league anticipates having no more than twenty-four teams by the year 2020, leaving only one highly coveted spot for cities to vie for.

However, there is also plenty for MLS to be nervous about moving into 2015.  Chivas USA, the Los Angeles-based club and sister team of Mexican club Chivas de Guadalajara, has been a black mark on the league for their poor performance off the field, ridiculously low attendance, and several discrimination suits filed against the team from within the organization.  MLS announced that owner Jorge Vergara sold the club to the league in February.  The league intended to sell the club to a new ownership group before the end of the 2014 calendar year, but have recently come to grips with the reality that the league may play the 2015 season without a second team in Los Angeles.

With uncertain futures for Chivas USA and Beckham’s prospects in Miami, this opens up great speculation as to how the league will proceed.  If twenty-four remains the magic number, there are numerous ways the league can look come 2020.

Chivas TBD

Rebranding Chivas USA is required after the conclusion of the 2014 season.   The club has averaged just under 7,000 fans per home game through twenty-eight games, which is 7,000 fewer than the next lowest club.  MLS has had nearly eight months to sell the club and has not indicated publicly that there has been any interest in purchasing the team.  This could be concerning for a league on the rise.  Similar to the sale of a home or a car, a long time on the market could result in a drop in price.  The league would not get a good return on their investment for a club that has great potential in Los Angeles.

Historically, expansion teams have had great success once they had taken time to build a strong foundation and fan base.  If Chivas USA did not play in 2015, it could work in their favor.  MLS has shown resilience in the past when clubs have folded.  With no team in 2015, a new owner has time to properly sell the rebranded club and cast a larger net for support.

Miami

Finding a stadium site is the linchpin in Miami’s bid for an MLS team.  Beckham insists that the club will find a place in or near the downtown area, assuring that the club will be successful if their home is close to downtown Miami.  Unlike Chivas, time will not benefit Beckham and prolonged negotiations with politicians over the stadium site could hurt Miami in the public eye.  Beckham’s confidence in Miami is encouraging, yet history has shown that success is no guarantee in Miami professional sports.

A Broader Expansion

Orlando City SC will have several years in MLS under their belt while Atlanta will most likely enter before Miami.  MLS will have gone from zero teams in the southwest to three clubs in the region, but the league should not be worried about oversaturation of the market.  The Pacific Northwest has proven that many clubs can be successful close to other competing markets.  Still, there is something to be said for diversifying and attacking a wider range of markets rather than honing in on one region.

MLS could potentially benefit from Beckham withdrawing from Miami and rebranding Chivas USA.  This leaves two openings for expansion by 2020 with plenty of cities chomping at the bit.  Las Vegas, Sacramento, Minnesota, and San Antonio each bring something unique to the league if their city were to be awarded an MLS franchise.  With a Chivas rebrand and Miami both in the league, only one city can expand with three others on the outside looking in.  However, a Chivas rebrand  or a second chance for MLS in Miami certainly are much riskier than third division teams already established in Sacramento, Minnesota, and San Antonio.  With experience in these markets and a well-established fan base, MLS might be better served by securing market share in two new regions rather than revive Chivas and Miami.  The potential could perhaps be greater in these untapped regions, inviting a broader fanbase to participate.  The Pacific Northwest serves as a reminder that going to new regions with time to market can yield great returns.

MLS will hardly look recognizable by 2020.  The expansion puzzle is hard to solve, with many moving parts.  Despite who plays in 2020, many fans will be pleased with the finished product, while others may still be watching in from the outside.

 

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