From Bethlehem to Cascadia: The Evolution of the US Soccer Market

“Location, location, location”.  Is it just a hackneyed real estate phrase?  For sports franchises, location is one important key to success.  In a nation as vast as the United States, the success of a sports team can be directly linked to the location of the team.  As Major League Soccer (MLS) continues to grow and expand into new markets, the league has become especially careful in where it establishes new teams.

MLS has found success in expansion in the past seven years –  Seattle, Philadelphia, Portland, Montreal, and Vancouver all have been positive additions to the league and have helped the league create a positive image.  Orlando City SC and NYC FC will likely enter the league this season with a big splash, no matter what their performance on the field is, good or bad.

Historically, soccer clubs in the United States have not been established under the same rules.  A closer look at one of the first soccer leagues in America, the American Soccer League (ASL), shows how clubs were established on much different principles.  The league opened play in 1921 and operated predominately in the northeast.  With powerhouse teams such as Fall River Marksmen from Massachusetts and Bethlehem Steel from Pennsylvania, the league created some of the winningest teams in US soccer history.

The original iteration of ASL lasted for twelve years with teams in locations such as Philadelphia, Allentown, Newark, Pawtucket, and in several of the New York boroughs.  Sport during this time predated major television and sponsorship deals, and the financial success of a sports team resided almost exclusively in ticket sales and merchandise.

READ: How Do Soccer Clubs Make Money?

The locations of these clubs were mostly determined by the location of their athletes.  As cited in Love Thy Soccer and Soccer in a Football World, many of the most successful soccer teams, both in the United States and England, began around industrial centers.  Manchester United and Bethlehem Steel had success by using the strongest and fittest athletes – the lower class industrial workers.

In the United States, soccer never found a strong foothold when in direct competition with college gridiron football and baseball.  The NASL became the predominant league in the 1970s and 1980s but shut down due to rapid expansion with limited matchday revenue and few televised matches.  The NASL operated in an era where clubs were located where the sports markets were strongest, not where the strongest athletes resided.

The NASL largely chose markets where other sports leagues operated – New York, Los Angeles, Kansas City, Philadelphia, Atlanta, and Baltimore, among other cities.  While attendance suffered for large stretches of the league’s existence, the league hoped to gain ground in televised matches.  The book Soccer in a Football World describes how the NASL attempted to alter gameplay in an attempt to allow for commercial breaks to help find another source of supplemental income for the league and its clubs.

MLS has learned from its past and has been very strategic and picky with where they have expanded, taking into account the potential fan base, saturation of current professional sports teams, and socio-demographic indicators, among other factors. Now that the league has produced established teams with ideal stadium locations and a strong fan base, they are looking to capture larger television markets, something the NASL could not achieve.

MLS should look to history when considering future expansion.  Ideal locations for a sports team can change in less than a decade.  As technology changes the way people watch sports, having clubs in large television markets may not necessarily be as important by 2025.

READ: The Evolving Landscape of Digital Media Rights in Soccer

The markets are ever changing and new sports teams have to be flexible and adapt.  Relocating a failing franchise can be one solution but not without some resistance and a bit of negative press.  While the television dollar might be a nice carrot dangling from the end of the stick, there is no guarantee that the carrot will taste very good for long.


What do you think about the evolution of expansion tactics and influences in US Soccer? Let us know in the comments section below, or via Facebook or Twitter.


Reporting on the business side of the world's game.