Monday, October 5, 2009

What is MLS? An Uneven Market?

Greg Thorn writes:
Everything would change for me in 2007 when my wife and I moved to Kansas City. There, I was finally able to get intrenched in supporting an MLS team and quickly began to cheer for an exciting Wizards forward named Eddie Johnson. My support for Kansas City was soon equaled by my support for my new/old favorite team, Seattle Sounders FC. When I was living in Seattle the Sounders played in the A-League (now USL). Their games were fun to go to but lacked the excitement and star power of a top division professional team. On March 19th, 2009 my soccer fanaticism would reach a new level. I now had what I had waited my teens and twenties for, a local team to root for (Kansas City) and a hometown team to support passionately from afar!
Greg had been waiting since 1994 for MLS to come to Portland or Seattle, which he describes as "soccer-crazy" cities. The A-League version of professional club football, which had been around in North America in other forms for awhile, wouldn't do. It took thirteen years for MLS to "discover" thirty thousand fans willing to pay to see live soccer; by that time, Greg was cheering a young Eddie Johnson over in Missouri.

There is something maddening about MLS' haphazard franchising. On the evidence it seems there were many other Gregs in the Northwest waiting patiently for football to come home—enough of them, as Greg proves, that some of them might have been biding their time filling seats at other MLS venues like Kansas City. And the hype over some of the newer league entries might lead one to suspect that maybe there are some North American markets that for whatever reason—history, ideology, demographics—might just be more soccer-friendly than others.

That's why looking at how MLS has grown and contracted since '96 sometimes reminds me of the Gary Bettman ethos in NHL; just push the game around enough to smaller, southern middle markets and the fan culture will soon see how hockey is intrinsically worthy enough a game to go pay to see every week. Which sometimes leads to teams like the Phoenix Coyote's, waiting in a sullen desert courtroom to die.

While the NHL is hardly comparable in terms of spending, history, and the nature of the league as an organization, and while clubs in MLS don't usually die in such a drawn out, public way, the idea is the same. X game should have broad continental appeal, so we should be able to market clubs wherever individual owners are wealthy enough to buy stadiums. Meanwhile strong markets like Seattle and Philadelphia take years to enter the scene.

But then again the long wait for Seattle, Philly and Montreal in MLS could be a good thing. Toronto probably wouldn't have supported the club so strongly had its twenty year olds not had ten years of cheap exposure to European football. Other major markets may have been waiting to get a sense of MLS' long term viability in a harsh North American market. Maybe the previous thirteen years of MLS were a sort of sampler for the some of the more skittish big markets taking a wait and see approach.

I'm not certain, but as more and more new stadiums potentially debut with strong, season long sellout crowds, the league table in five or ten years might begin to more closely reflect North America's footballing geography.


Steven said...

Hi Richard, I was just wondering where your interest in the Villa came from. Just finished watching the Man City match and somehow ended up on this blog. Best Wishes. Regards, Steven.

Fake Sigi said...

You correctly note that "passionate fans" haven't mattered as much to MLS expansion as have solid investors and revenue streams. I personally don't think this is a bad thing. A prime example is Toronto, where the strong investment group came before (and arguably built) the strong fan support.

However, care to tell me which smaller, southern, middle markets MLS has expanded to? Or exists in? I'm interested.

As for MLS reflecting the "soccer geography," of the United States, no one's contemplating putting a team in Birmingham, North Carolina or Indiana despite the rich history of the game in those places. Atlanta is a hotbed and Florida should probably have at least one team. And let's be honest, St. Louis has been the heartbeat of soccer for decades in this country - if anyone got screwed in the last expansion round it was that city.

Richard Whittall said...

Steven - my family descends (in all senses perhaps) from the Birmingham area.

Sig - "A prime example is Toronto, where the strong investment group came before (and arguably built) the strong fan support."

Um, sorry, absolutely not. If by 'investment group' you are referring to the MLSE, the engine behind hockey behemoth the Maple Leafs, they would have been happy with fourteen thousand a game in TFC's first year; they marketed the club as a fun family outing for moms and kids, and then twenty thousand twentysomethings showed up wearing European replica shirts and not even able to tell you what team Toronto would be playing that day. That sort of support had been growing since the late nineties with increasingly easy access to club football on cable television. I wrote an article about it:

As for the expansion point, well, "southern" was a terrible word to use on my part. Blame stream of consciousness, or hidden bias, or early morning posting. I just think it's weird that RSL and Houston (despite good attendances and support) got teams in the midnaughts while St. Louis had to wait.

Which is why on the last point, when I wrote "soccer geography" the cities you mention are exactly what I had in mind, particularly with regard to St. Louis.

Richard Whittall said...

Oh wait, now I know why I wrote "southern"; I was talking about the NHL's expansion policy, not MLS. Ha!