The downside of successful soccer expansion

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By J Hutcherson - WASHINGTON, DC (Apr 29, 2014) US Soccer Players – Imagine you're running an expansion soccer team in any of the North American pro leagues. You're doing what you can, trying to make the most out of a budget, but continuing to encounter serious obstacles. Then a new team shows up. Out of the gate, their version of a soccer club gets public attention, multiplies what your team draws, and sets a new standard that can't help but impress everybody. There you are, struggling to make soccer work while the newest team in your league redefines success.

That's the destabilizing impact of expansion, something American soccer is quick to overlook. We already saw it happen with the Seattle Sounders in MLS. They became the only MLS team to succeed in an NFL stadium. They've won in every metric except the actual league trophy. An MLS Cup doesn't count as much as getting the finances right and setting attendance records every season.

In 2014, we're seeing it in the lower divisions with Indy Eleven in the NASL and Sacramento Republic in USL-Pro. Both of them took what those leagues thought they knew and tossed it out the window. You don't need a soccer-specific stadium at NASL level to play to capacity. You don't even need a particularly good stadium.

Indy Eleven's home field is shades of the Chicago Fire when they played at a Div III college football stadium in Naperville, Illinois. Sacramento Republic is starting its season with a 20k sellout at a municipal football bowl before moving to their own 8k-capacity soccer stadium. Sellouts and attendance over 5k aren't normal at USL-Pro level. Their previous model club leaves for MLS next season.

At all three levels, the message is clear. If one market can succeed, so can others. MLS chased Seattle's record-setting accomplishments by the revival of pro soccer in Kansas City. Sporting KC's story is the new template to cover older teams, small markets, soccer-specificity, and anything else that fits with a revival of the product. If they can do it, so can you. The excuses might exist, they might even be market specific, but Kansas City overcame worse.

It's tough to argue against. Soccer revitalization efforts only need to work once to prove the point. Meanwhile, the league teams that continue to suffer have very little room to keep doing business as usual. Ambition doesn't allow for teams acting as schedule fillers season after season. Break even is no longer the goal when teams - at least to the public - appear to be doing quite well.

This, more than anything, is the next stage for American pro soccer. It's replacing one version of ambition that focused on stability with another that focuses squarely on success. That was part of the tepid response to MLS announcing expansion to Atlanta and one of next season's expansion teams announcing that they're playing at a baseball stadium. It doesn't fit that new template. Atlanta didn't introduce itself with the same pre-existing fan support for soccer. NYC FC sold itself as a meld of the biggest market in the country with some of the biggest economic players in world soccer and one of the biggest brands in American pro sports. Now, they're working around the New York Yankees home schedule as a secondary tenant.

For the existing teams, it's trying to downplay their current situation with whatever comes next. That's easier to do with a new stadium coming online or new investor/operators making early adjustments. It' significantly harder after those things are in place. If San Jose with a stadium and DC and even Chivas USA with new and soon-to-be new investor/operators are in that first category, FC Dallas, the Colorado Rapids, the New York Red Bulls, and arguably a few of the recent expansion teams aren't.

What the expansion destabilization does is move the line between what counts as success or failure. They do it in real time, while the rest of the league watches and wonders what's happening. Though they're a sports business article away from attributing it to hard work, knowing a market, and hiring the right people, it's never been that obvious for professional soccer. Not in this country at least.

Instead, it's the old 'lightning in a bottle' analogy that's been in place throughout the history of pro soccer leagues in the USA. It's always relative to scale, but at any given time there are normally a few teams in any of the myriad of American soccer leagues that simply do better than the rest. None of those leagues were able to create a set of best practices that replicated the success stories. If they had, we'd be talking about one of them right now and their decades of sustained success.

The problem all three levels of American pro soccer face is the same old story. It has to be more than a few outlier clubs. It needs to be the bulk of the league. Expansion when it works can certainly help get the numbers up, but it also creates a situation where other teams can’t compete. That's how expansion destabilizes a league, and it's happening at every level in the United States.


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 atjhutcherson@usnstpa.com.

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