Monday, April 16, 2012

Soccer In The South?

Sorry if I've neglected you here on this other side of my brain. Nothing has really grabbed me that much, enough to put it into this blog. But as I wrote this post on the comment threads at ESPN's website, I realized that I had a good blog post here, so here's what I wrote:

What nobody is really talking about is why there won't likely be any expansion in MLS beyond 20 franchises. It isn't a matter of what cities would make good homes for potential franchises. It isn't stadium issues, dilution of talent pools, promotion/relegation, or anything like that. Here's what the issues are, in no particular order.

1.) FIFA is mandating that domestic first-division leagues limit themselves to no more than twenty teams, in order to ease schedule congestion for clubs and national teams alike, and to ease demands on players. This mandate came up about a year or two ago, and didn't get noticed much beyond a few press reports. In theory, MLS could potentially expand beyond twenty teams because of the multinational nature of the North American soccer structure - MLS, NASL, and USL clubs represent five FIFA member nations (US, Canada, Puerto Rico, Bermuda, and Antigua & Barbuda) - therefore requiring a need to expand beyond twenty first-division teams to encompass those nations. But I don't think MLS would want to risk incurring the wrath of FIFA over the issue and risk penalizing the leagues and national teams. FIFA has already been pushing MLS to move to a traditional (fall-to-spring) schedule for several years now as it is, and its quite likely that had the Russian FA not offered to, and did move its top two divisions from their usual summer schedule to the traditional fall-to-spring schedule, FIFA may not have awarded the 2018 World Cup to Russia.

2.) Past failures loom large in the MLS front office. Remember, the entire concept of MLS as a single-entity organization instead of an alliance of like-minded individual organization is because of the spectacular flameout of the original NASL. The structure of the league was created with the specific purpose of spreading out financial losses and gains as widely as possible, so no single organization could either dominate or decimate the league as a whole by its financial superiority or lack thereof. And MLS' folding of Tampa Bay Mutiny and Miami Fusion FC was arguably the league's nadir, when nobody was really sure if the league would last much longer - even those within the MLS front office. Since then, the league has improved, largely due not only sound leadership, but to the number and quality of investor/operators (don't call them owners) brought into the fold, people who understand the game and understand that success doesn't just come overnight - unless you live in the Pacific Northwest, of course. That said, there really hasn't been that much interest from the kind of people who can afford things like MLS franchises in the Southeast, outside of Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank, who has publicly stated that he was interested in joining MLS and bringing a franchise to Atlanta. Fans can say whatever they want about what city is most deserving, but fans can't pony up the US$100m expansion fee MLS is supposedly asking for the rights to that 20th franchise.

3.) Here's the big one for me: Can an MLS franchise draw in more than just the hardcore soccer fan in the Southeast? You might think I'm full of it with my other points, but we can all agree on this - in the Southeast, SEC football and NASCAR are king. Even the NFL plays second- or even third-fiddle to the SEC and NASCAR in most of the South. If you think I'm crazy, I've got two words for you: Jacksonville Jaguars. Miami and Tampa Bay have had attendance problems as well, and the only reason New Orleans and Atlanta are succesful in the stands is because they're successful on the field. (NOTE: I'm not really including Carolina here, because as past commenters have noted, North Carolina is really more mid-Atlantic than Southern, though NC is the heart and soul of NASCAR) What I'm getting at is this: would an MLS franchise in the Southeast be able to lure in the average sports fan, a man who's heard of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo from SportsCenter, but likely wouldn't be able to pick either out of a lineup of Buddhist monks?

To close, MLS returning to the Southeast reminds me a lot of the NHL's expansion into the Sun Belt in the 90's. While it's worked in some markets, like Dallas and Tampa Bay, it's been a miserable failure in others (I'm looking at you, Phoenix and Atlanta). It will have to take the right owner in the right city. For the time being, my money is on none of the above. the more likely option for the Southeast won't be getting a 21st or 22nd franchise - even if MLS chose to expand that far. MLS returning to the Southeast will also not likely be something along the lines of its recent expansion, cherry-picking the most successful second-division clubs from the NASL and USL - if that were the case, either Rochester or Charleston would be in MLS by now. Instead, it'll likely mean an existing franchise moving to an Atlanta, New Orleans or a Florida market. I'll go out on a limb and say that Atlanta would be the best place, with ownership and facilities already in place.

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