MLS expansion and the importance of the footprint

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By J Hutcherson - WASHINGTON, DC (Feb 6, 2014) US Soccer Players – There was a time when it was hard to mention MLS without talking about the footprint. Though the concept predated MLS, the idea resonated for a league trying to market nationwide with only ten clubs. That number increased to 12, contracted to 10, and steadily increased to pass the amount of teams FIFA considers optimal for a first division.

FIFA, with a Eurocentric view of the club game, probably wasn't considering the immense size of the United States when trying to make sure the top European leagues stayed at a realistic number of topflight clubs. There are no expansion teams in the major European leagues, after all. It's a basic issue of only allowing so many teams in the top tier. There's also less geography to cover in the major European leagues. Russia is the exception, but also not the rule.

Meanwhile, MLS keeps expanding over a geographic area that now covers the United States and Canada. 19 clubs representing 18 markets. Though the talk of footprint ebbed during the expansion boom, it's still very much in play. The expansion class of 2015 doubles up in the New York City metro area and adds a Florida team.

As of yesterday, Florida might also have two teams just as they did in 2000 when the league added Miami to a state that had an original MLS club in Tampa. Though that doesn't fully address the absence of teams in the Southeast since the league contracted prior to the 2002 season, it does show an intent to cover geography.

It's not new for MLS fans to see local ratings for major soccer events and notice markets without teams tend to do well. That's part of the footprint issue, making sure a league has the scope to compete with the bigger sports leagues.

MLS usually suffers by comparison when it leaves soccer-specificity and addresses the broader market. The league has enough trouble competing with other professional soccer options in North America. That led to Soccer United Marketing, with MLS at least having a stake in those other soccer properties. Outside of soccer-specificity, the number of professional teams considered necessary for a full footprint changes quickly.

The NFL, the biggest league in the USA by number of teams and appeal, flirts with Canada by allowing the Buffalo Bills to play home games in Toronto. Though rumors persist and regular season games are on the schedule there and at Wembley Stadium in London, the NFL has yet to fully commit to either city by officially expanding. Instead, they've got 32 teams in U.S. markets and don't seem as concerned as sports reporters that one of those markets isn't Los Angeles.

MLS doubled up in Los Angeles in 2005, and one of those teams now carries the banner for the biggest problem in the league. By the standards set in the other major North American sports, it's not just that MLS doesn’t have enough presence in regions like the Southeast and Southwest. It's that from a nationwide perspective the league needs more clubs.

Yes, overexpansion is a hallmark of sports leagues that only see the short-term and end up struggling as a result. That’s a hallmark of professional soccer in North America. MLS watched as the second division A-League tried to make a go of it with 24 teams in the late 90s. There’s a 'too much too soon' issue that any league set on multiple rounds of expansion has to consider. What also needs consideration is what a top-tier league in North America looks like. Again, it’s the move away from examining MLS as soccer-specific.

Rumors that MLS will stop at a certain number of teams in the short-term still keep them well below the 30-team threshold that's become the standard in North America. MLS also has more teams in Canada than any league except the NHL, with the NBA and MLB both leaving rather than adding Canadian markets. For those two leagues, and the NFL as well, Canada equals Toronto.

With that in mind, the other Canadian MLS teams simply reduce the footprint from the U.S. market perspective. That's been a long-term issue for the NHL, one they addressed in the 90s by moving Canadian teams to the United States. Without getting into the NHL's expansion and relocation hits and misses, the simple takeaway is that it's tough to get the geography right for any league. None of them are immune from placing a team in a market that doesn't work well enough for that sport in a reasonable timeframe.

The more expansion teams a league allows, the more likely that some of them end up as problems. What that creates is a push/pull between demand in general and demand in specific markets. It's not easy, but expansion is the only way to address the footprint in the North American sports marketplace.

Where that leaves MLS is in the same position the league recognized prior to the first expansion in 1998. Take a map, and try to fill in as much of it to cover the major metropolitan areas. Recognize where the competition is tough, focus on outlying communities as well as city centers, and try to create enough local demand that it reflects nationally.

The footprint matters as much as it ever did for one reason. It's the likeliest driver for television ratings and the increases in sponsorship and advertising that only comes with winning on TV. With that in mind, the biggest issue MLS faces hasn't changed.


J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at jhutcherson@usnstpa.com.

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2 Responses to MLS expansion and the importance of the footprint

  1. Colin says:

    Not to be pedantic, but the FIFA recommendation of a 20 team top flight has nothing to do with geography, and certainly isn’t “Euro-centric”. It’s about regulating the number of games. Most leagues worldwide play double round robin (every team plays every other team twice, once at home, once away). For a 20 team league that’s 38 games, already four more than a 19 team MLS plays, and that’s without including domestic cups, league cups and champions league ties. The worry is that top tier players will get run down and won’t be available/in top form for international competitions, hence the reason it’s a FIFA recommendation. They’re protecting their own turf.

    That said, if MLS really wants to “expand their footprint”, they should just add a second division and institute pro/rel. That would allow expansion to 20-24 new markets instead of 4, with the added benefit that any markets not ready for prime time get the opportunity to find their footing at a lower (and less expensive) level of competition. Plus, it preserves the competitive balance of double round robin by ensuring that every team has the same strength of schedule and doesn’t further dilute an already sub-par talent pool with five more expansion rosters. It’ll never happen, though, because ‘Murica.

    • Good point and thanks for adding it. I left it out because MLS can’t handle a home and away schedule and I didn’t want to spend a graf explaining why. I thought I was going a tad long on this one. But hey, the comments section.

      The promotion/relegation thing moves us back to soccer-specific thinking. It had a brief moment of interest when MLB talked about contraction right around the time MLS went and did it. MLB supposedly considered a two-tier league to reduce the cost burden on some of the clubs who thought they’d be swamped by the free spending teams. It turns out, MLB self-corrected without promotion/relegation or contraction. Good for them, but hoping riding out the bad times will work isn’t the most sound of business strategies.

      Like you wrote, it’s not going to happen here because MLS exists in a tug of war between soccer models and what’s standard practice for US sports business. It’s not an easy place to operate, and we haven’t even talked about how even the big European teams run their operations. Euro sports business and US sports business aren’t like for like.