On Wednesday, March 25th Major League Soccer (MLS) announced that Minnesota United of the second division North American Soccer League (NASL) will become MLS’ 23rd top flight team. Minnesota is expected to join the league in 2018 following the Atlanta and LAFC inaugural seasons in 2017.
Minnesota United owner Bill McGuire supported the bid with a few other investors including Minnesota Twins owners the Pohlad family and Minnesota Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor. This marks the third MLS team in two years to receive support from other American sports owners.
Minnesota beat out other ownership groups who also showed great interest in bringing an MLS franchise to Sacramento and Las Vegas, and the league has taken great care in choosing which cities are the ideal market for expansion. Minneapolis will help to fill a void for MLS geographically in terms of club location. Of its current 20 teams operating in the league, over half are located either on or very close to one of the coasts, and the clubs that do cover the “flyover states” are generally located more to the southern part of the country. A club in Minneapolis will help round out MLS’s appeal and relevance across the country, something the leagues has known for some time and that’s why we’ve been hearing Minneapolis in the mix for expansion clubs for a while now.
In general, MLS is attempting to expand to more youthful cities since soccer has become the second most popular sport among people aged 12-24. In Vocativ’s 2014 annual report on the 35 most livable cities for people under 35, Minneapolis ranked 6th on the list – Sacramento and Las Vegas did not make the top 35. Since disposable family income is an important factor in the revenue for sports organizations, it should be noted that Minneapolis topped Vocativ’s “Jobs” index, which accounts for median income, unemployment, and job growth rates. This could perhaps improve their projections for matchday revenue.
Minneapolis also ranks 15th in the nation’s top 100 television markets, whereas Sacramento and Las Vegas ranked 20th and 42nd respectively in television market size. As MLS has shown strong growth, especially in recent years, they have tried to mirror that growth in both television audiences for matches, as well as in broadcasting revenue, as this is a crucial point of difference between MLS and global top leagues currently. MLS’ newest 8-year television deal with ESPN and Fox Sports has allowed MLS to play two Sunday matches back to back in front of a national audience, and the addition of the Minneapolis market will help fuel the league’s growth among their target audience.
Minneapolis ranked 14th in Vocativ’s “Getting Around” index, and the city just completed a new light rail that connects St. Paul with downtown Minneapolis, which will serve MN United FC well on matchday. However, there are still some who have concerns about whether Minnesota was the right choice. Sacramento Republic FC of the USL has shown the sort of excitement about soccer that Seattle Sounders did prior to their debut in MLS. The club set the USL record for highest total attendance in a season in 2014, and their inaugural match sold over 20,000 tickets, unheard of for a club in the third division of professional soccer in the US. NASL’s Minnesota United have had some notoriety in drawing crowds as well though, boasting the second highest average attendance in the NASL for the 2014 fall season.
Another factor to consider is the size of the market compared to the number of major sports teams in the market. A recent study from Business Insider examined the size of the market in each city and gauged how many professional teams (NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL) the market can support. Minneapolis currently has four pro teams where the ideal number is 2.8. Sacramento on the other hand has only one professional team in the Sacramento Kings. The study suggested that Sacramento can hold 2.3 teams ideally. The same could be said for Seattle and Portland, two of MLS’ crowning jewels in terms of matchday attendance and experience.
No market is necessarily ideal and each comes with calculated risks. Minnesota has won out and now must deliver a quality product to the fans, all of whom will be watching and waiting with anticipation. Sacramento Republic soccer fans will be watching even more closely, eyeing up what could have been. With Las Vegas out of the picture and Miami in limbo, MLS might decide that Sacramento’s market is hard to ignore, but at this point the only thing that isn’t speculation in this equation is that MLS is coming to Minneapolis. Finally.