In fifty years time, when looking back at this period of American professional soccer history, we’ll remember one of two ways. The first, more optimistic way we’ll view it will be as an era that set the shape and scenery of a successful professional soccer pyramid in this country. The other, more foreboding way we’ll view it is as a period of over-expansion and errors in judgement that destabilized the pyramid. I apologize if that seems a little grim — and it might easily be a bit of an exaggerated reaction — but that’s the type of precipice that professional soccer sits on in this country.
Seriously though, stop for a second and take a look around: expansion is rampant.
MLS has added five new clubs in the last five years, and plans to add another by 2016. The revived NASL, entering only its third year season, has seen four of its nine sides founded in the last two years and expects to add three new teams next season. Even the third tier USL Pro has welcomed six new clubs in the last three seasons, and will also add another in one next year. In all, that’s a mind-boggling 20 new professional soccer teams in our country in a seven-year span.
Don’t get me wrong, I love it as much as the next fan. It’s exciting to witness this burst in interest and attention the sport first hand. Three growing, vibrant leagues. Nearly two dozen soccer specific stadiums scattered across the country. Several television networks exclusively dedicated to airing matches. Bars that open in the wee hours of the morning so fans can gather to watch and cheer in unison. Massive interest in the men’s in women’s national teams. All of this, achieved just in the last few years.
But I worry, perhaps irrationally, that it’s too much too soon. Despite the exceptional growth in demand for professional soccer, can our country sustain a near exponential growth in supply? I think it can, and clearly many investors do too. But there’s enough evidence there to make me at least a little concerned.
Take, for instance, the NASL’s New York Cosmos recently announced plans for a $400 million stadium on Long Island. The exciting project presented by CEO Seamus O’Brien showed off a gorgeous 25,000-seater accompanied by a retail and hotel development. All of which sounds great, until you remember that the announcement comes on the heels of MLS’ own $300 million stadium announcement just up the road in Flushing, Queens.
MLS has long been hellbent on adding their 20th franchise in New York, and for quite a while, the Cosmos looked the front runners. But thanks to poor front office organization prior to O’Brien’s arrival, Garber and MLS steamed ahead with developing plans of their own, and several other bids appeared to leapfrog the Cosmos to fund and occupy the new site. And though the Cosmos have maintained that while they would love to one day play in MLS, they also claim they aren’t planning their entire future on it. So with plans to build their own stadium despite the already-approved, MLS-sanctioned stadium and competitor popping up around the corner, the Cosmos look like they’re steaming ahead and plotting their own future outside the top flight.
But assuming they do win approval to build a new stadium on Long Island, and MLS get’s their proposed NYC2 franchise and stadium, that means New York will then sport three separate soccer specific stadiums of roughly the same size. On the Westside of town, there’s the already extant Red Bull Arena in Harrison, NJ. And when both of NYC2 and Cosmos have their homes built, there will be another two on the East side of town. Considering the well-publicized struggles experienced by the Red Bulls in trying to fill their arena, it’s easy to see why this might be problematic. Even with better public transport links and friendlier locations, it’s not a stretch to imagine even a city of New York’s size not being able to put 75,000 butts into those seats week in and week out. I’d like to be proven wrong on this, by the way.
There might, however, be a solution to this potential problem of soccer over saturation. While the Cosmos might seem content to play out their future in NASL, it would be pretty delusional to think that they don’t still aspire to play in MLS. Regaining their former glory, a definite goal in their revival, would legitimately be mission impossible from the depths of Division 2. Even if they have their own shiny new stadium, nobody’s going to give them the respect they want when there’s not even one of the most influential clubs in their own country.
Perhaps their presser unveiling fancy architectual drawings was nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt at recapturing the momentum in the race for NYC2. Though the Cosmos group might have lost the considerable advantage given to them through brand recognition and a sizable head start in planning, like Stuart telling everyone “look what I can do”, this stadium play could cause MLS to stand up and take notice that Cosmos bid is still alive and kicking. Given that the group is confident that they could privately fund a project of this scope on their own, it might be enough to convince Garber to give the their coveted 20th spot to the group that’s been there from the start.
The theory might be a long shot, but to me at least, it sure as hell makes a lot more sense than trying to pack three competing entities into a market that’s not mature enough to support it yet. If I’m wrong, however, the clubs stand the chance of cannibalizing the support base and ensuring nobody achieves the success they could have with less competition.
It’s for these reasons that decisions such as these carry so much weight. The fate of entire franchises, and even the leagues they play within, is dependent upon their long-term success.
And if the leagues and those planning them don’t think these things through carefully, and overextend themselves in the process, we just might be looking back in 50 years time with great regrets instead of great joy.
What I think may be a greater weakness is the lack of quality front office and support staff who understand the unique soccer culture has it functions has a business. Just look at how many other professional leagues have trouble in that regard outside of the top five or so teams. Why is Sporting KC successful and Chivas isn’t? The quality on the field is a visible issue. It is the very end of the decision making process. The hidden bulk is where the make or brake will be found. Unfortunately there is no enough interest, money and fans to make even a flawed system work. The different business structures of the three competing leagues is also something that needs to be highlighted more. The fact they couldn’t agree on how to relive a women professional league recently is telling more about the egos involved then the desire to have the highest level of the women’s game on US soil.
Personally I think the MLS needs to focus on the Southeast region for growth. Follow the population which already has developed a strong supporter culture without any help from any outside national organization. Of course with the MLS trying to re-brand away from club led identity, having a very vocal, now one feeling shunned or abused supporter bases from missteps by Garber love affair with Miami, could be an uphill battle. For someone would watched the NASL quietly whimper quietly in the corner till just recently, fix the team sport drink into something people will pay to see. Quit think that media centers of America will save a professional league with absent owners in the oldest named teams and focus on where it grew organically into something that has roots. Don’t reinvent the wheel. build a better platform on top. I don’t care about the potential base of fans in NYC. They also know quality. The teams that can fill their stadiums week in and week out deserve a higher profile than some non existent wished for club in a marquee city.
Luxury boxes help pay the bills. Passionate fans drive TV numbers. The electric atmosphere of stadiums create desire to be there. All that is a prefect storm. Look at Green Bay. Smallest city. Most titles. Rabid fans. Court battles over season tickets. What a problem to have. Here’s an idea, sell shares to supporters occasionally to generate money and ownership. That is a broad blueprint to avoid the past excesses of the US soccer past.