April 28, 2010
By Charles Cuttone
Will over-expanding be a problem for MLS?
Major League Soccer has caught lightning in a bottle with its last three expansion efforts. Toronto FC continues to fill BMO Field game after game, despite the lack of much of a reason to do so from the revolving door of players on the at-long-last-grass pitch.
Seattle is in a league of its own, drawing almost double the league average, and Philadelphia may be wishing it had built yet-to-open PPL Park with more than the 18,000 seats it will contain, after some 35,000 showed up at Lincoln Financial Field for the team’s home opener, and more than 25,000 have purchased tickets for their May 15 game at the NFL stadium.
But, here’s a word of advice for MLS Commissioner Don Garber and the MLS owners. Those that don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
With the addition of Vancouver and Portland next year, MLS will be at 18 teams. Montreal appears poised to become team 19 soon after, and Garver is talking about the southeast like it is soccer’s version of Shangri-la.
A generation ago, the North American Soccer League went to the expansion well too often after a run of strong starts, going from 15 to 24 teams in a span of five years.
No doubt the aforementioned teams in Seattle, Toronto and Philadelphia are successful and relevant in their markets. But look around the rest of the league. Sure, as MLS points out, overall attendance is up. Of course it is. It is up in Seattle, Philly has drawn 35,000 and New York had an announced 24,500 crowd for the regular season opener, larger than any crowd they had last year.
But look around the rest of the league. Home Depot was not sold out for the Derby between Chivas USA and the Galaxy, and Chivas is averaging only 10,418. FC Dallas is drawing an announced 9,028, and a visual of their home games leaves that number in question. New England is averaging 10,470 in cavernous Gillette Stadium. Colorado, with a beautiful soccer-scale stadium also is in the 10,000 range, and the Columbus Crew is not doing much better. Kansas City and San Jose are playing in minor league/college facilities, so we won’t even count them.
Far more MLS teams are closer to the single digits than they are to the league average of 16,000.
Perhaps before MLS adds more teams, it needs to think about shoring up some of its current problems. Like making existing teams relevant in their markets.
The league has spent a decade pushing soccer-specific stadiums, but now that a substantial number of such facilities are up and running, even Garber has admitted “the build it and they will come” mantra has not worked.
Look at New York. After years of suffering from anemic crowds in the way-too-big for them Giants Stadium, the Red Bulls finally moved into a jewel of a soccer stadium, Red Bull Arena. Problem solved right? Wrong. Through each of four games, including the grand opening against Santos FC, attendance has dropped for each game. Last Saturday’s match against I-95 rival Philadelphia, the crowd was announced at 15,000. It was considerably less. My guess, closer to 10,000.
How to solve the problem? Well, I am not going to write a marketing plan here. The folks at the league have my number of they want one, but a simple answer would be improve the quality of the product and add stars.
The league has been successful in developing some young players, but it also has a tendency to sell them off when they get good. Look at Jozy Altidore and Brad Guzan as examples.
Regardless of whether or not the league hangs onto the players it develops in-house, the subtilties of improved quality of play alone won’t do it. Stars will.
The league needs to make better use of the now-expanded Designated Player Rule. Every team has been able to have a DP. Few have made use of it. Now every team can have up to three DPs. But unless they are required to dip into the world-class player pool, the net effect on the league will be small.
Rumors have abounded over who is coming to New York or Philadelphia. What the league really needs to do, is set up its DP program the same way it does Generation adidas. Sign 32 designated players and let the teams draft them. Force every team to have at least one star that will help sell tickets.
A knock on the NASL was that it was a home for aging stars. Maybe. But the stars like Pele, Franz Beckenbauer, Eusebio, George Best and Johan Cruyff sold tickets. The real problem with the NASL was that too many teams became homes for aging journeymen and paid them like stars.
David Beckham proved stars still sell tickets in the MLS age, even if the overall “Beckham Experiment” has not been as successful as originally hoped. When the next transfer window opens after the World Cup, if the league is serious about enhancing its Designated Player program, the time will be right. The addition of some sorely-needed star power might be the only thing that can reinvigorate the league’s stagnating markets.