Talking about MLS expansion is not the highest art. It's a relatively easy way to get some pageviews, but it also highlights just how different and, even, strange MLS may seem to fans of just about any other soccer league. When Commissioner Don Garber talks, though, it's hard to ignore.
His latest statements -- made to Toronto-area media during the Amway Canadian Championship -- help illustrate just how strange of a situation we have here. Despite the fact that there's an existing team drawing solid crowds and currently trying to secure funding for a stadium in Orlando, Garber made it clear that the league is still very focused on putting a team in New York City proper.
If you are on Twitter, or paying attention to virtually any message board where this is being discussed, you could be forgiven for believing that virtually no one supports this plan. MLS fans are almost universally against the idea of putting a second team in the vicinity of New York City. You'd also be excused for wondering why MLS would be heading down such an unpopular path.
As is the case with most things: Just follow the money.
While Orlando might seem like a natural fit, putting a team in Central Florida really does nothing to change the paradigm in which MLS currently exists. Sure, it might prove to be a wildly popular club, has a chance to be truly relevant in a market that only has one other professional sports team and finally brings MLS back to the Southeast, but there's quite limited financial upside.
TV networks aren't suddenly going to fork over nine-figure deals for broadcast rights because there's a team near Disney World. There's also no reason to believe that the expansion fee would be significantly more than the $40 million that was paid by the Vancouver Whitecaps, Portland Timbers and Montreal Impact.
New York City, on the other hand, does offer that kind of potential. Unlike the New York Red Bulls, who have failed to resonate with fans in the Five Boroughs, this team would be marketed directly toward them. Assuming MLS can get plans for a stadium approved, all they need is a deep-pocketed owner to push it over the finish line. That owner would be expected to fund the stadium, as well as plunk down about $100 million in expansion fees.
Who might that owner be? Well, it won't be the New York Cosmos, who seem to believe they can make it work in the second-division NASL. But another group with pockets full of oil money might be that team, as the owners of Manchester City seem to have worked their way to the front of the line.
Obviously, this is a bit of a gamble. Putting a team in New York City proper is, in and of itself, a significant financial gamble. Once it's all said and done, the owners will have likely invested at least $350 million in the project. The league is going to be under intense pressure to give them the latitude to start making that money back. That could have some obvious repercussions, especially if they are seen as being given an unfair advantage.
Although the stated hope is that a New York City team will also help raise the profile of the Red Bulls, there's still some very vocal skepticism, especially among Red Bulls supporters. Despite having one of the true soccer palaces of North America and attracting some of the biggest names to ever play here, the Red Bulls have never drawn as well as hoped and haven't exactly improved ratings either. It's entirely possible that the Red Bulls sink further into the recesses of New Yorkers' minds if there's a newer, shinier and higher profile located even closer to them.
At the same time, a New York City has team has the real potential to be a massive game changer. If that team can capture the hearts and minds of a market that has so far turned up its nose at MLS, that's a huge win. If New York City cares about MLS, TV stations will too. If TV stations care, they'll spend real money. If MLS teams can get their hands on revenue streams that go beyond ticket sales, we can finally start having serious talks about raising the salary cap and attracting some of the world's top talent.
Maybe this is a case of MLS hubris. Maybe this move sets MLS back. But if you're looking for reasons why MLS is heading in this direction, I have to imagine it looks a lot like this.