Major League Soccer is expanding at a rapid pace. Instead of waiting to see proof of a vibrant fanbase or insisting that new teams have soccer-specific stadiums (SSS) before they start play, MLS has shifted their focus toward penetrating new, key markets. The league's business model has changed slightly, but is this a bad thing? And is there any reason to worry about the future success about the next generation of MLS expansion franchises?
On Wednesday, our North American soccer editor Ryan Rosenblatt and manager of MLS blogs Jeremiah Oshan got into a bit of a heated debate about this. We thought their conversation was a worthwhile look into how this round of expansion is different from the last and where MLS goes from here.
This is Part 1 one of their conversation, focusing on three MLS additions that do not have plans approved for soccer-specific stadiums: Miami, Atlanta and New York City. Part 2, on the future of MLS expansion, is here.
Ryan: There have been a lot of questions about MLS's expansion into Atlanta, and its expansion policy as a whole with the introduction of not just Atlanta, but New York and Miami as well. How do you feel about this phase of expansion?
Jeremiah: I just can't help but feel like the league is reverting to old habits. Obviously, a lot of things have changed, but this mostly seems about filling markets rather than filling demand from a soccer-specific fan base.
Especially with New York City, Miami and Atlanta the league is going after big markets that are admittedly underserved. But I'm just not seeing a built-in fan base that was demanding MLS come there.
Ryan: There are two problems I have with that line of thinking: 1) It's not like there are any obvious markets that the league could expand to instead, and 2) I don't think the issues with Atlanta, Miami and New York (and there are issues) are very different than issues we saw with the "glory days" of expansion with the Pacific Northwest, Canada, San Jose, Philadelphia and even Orlando, who many seem to have no problem with.
Jeremiah: I will admit that I and others may be overselling the differences between this round of expansion and previous ones, but I do think there are some very real differences.
Discounting San Jose and Chivas, which have had their own issues, all of those teams had a very clear plan as to where they were going to play. In every instance other than Seattle and Vancouver, it was going to be in a stadium built with the MLS team as the primary tenant. We've seen that playing in an appropriately sized stadium is a huge deal. I know Atlanta has a plan that is very similar to Vancouver's, but I think there's at least one key difference: The Whitecaps were very clearly building on nearly 40 years of soccer history.
This was the same formula at least partially adopted by the Sounders.
And while I realize that the Silverbacks' attendance over the past two seasons was at least on par with the Whitecaps' and Sounders' final years in the lower-divisions, I just can't help but feel those Pacific Northwest teams were more ingrained in the cultures of their cities than this Atlanta MLS team will be.
Ryan: I don't think it's fair to say that a history of support matters significantly more if you're playing in a bigger stadium than it does if you're in a SSS, though. You either have the support or you don't.
Seattle and Vancouver had a longer history of attendance, but Atlanta has been good for the last two seasons, have rated well on TV for major soccer tournaments and have drawn for friendlies. That's more than you could say for Toronto, and its support has been great since it entered the league. It's also more than you could say for Philadelphia, and it has been great, too. There is no sure-fire indicator of support for teams, but Atlanta has shown that it is at least as well-equipped as several other cities that entered the league to great support.
Jeremiah: I think what is causing people to worry more, though -- and maybe this is unfair -- is that the history of support in all Atlanta sports seems spotty, at best. The Braves have notoriously had lots of empty seats for playoff games, the Thrashers' attendance was so bad that the team moved about decade after starting and the Hawks seem to perpetually be among the worst-drawing teams in the NBA. This all comes despite Atlanta being the ninth-biggest metro area in the country. I'm just worried that at the first sign of trouble fans are going to desert this Atlanta MLS team.
Ryan: That's a valid concern, but that could be said of nearly every city in the South and we know that the league can't continue to ignore the region. Memphis' support for the Grizzlies is up and Raleigh's support for the Hurricanes hasn't been great, while Charlotte hasn't shown up to see the Bobcats. New Orleans shows up for the Saints, but not the Hornets. Just about every city in the South is going to give a chance to look at other sports and use that as a reason to stay away, so where is the league supposed to go?
Atlanta has shown there is a sizable soccer community there and, with many chalking up tepid support for other professional teams to collegiate allegiances, they don't have to worry about that for soccer because the SEC doesn't do men's soccer.
Look at soccer indicators and it checks off the boxes. Lower level support, got it. TV ratings, got it. Attendance for friendlies, got it. There is plenty of reason to believe that Atlanta can draw around 20,000 fans per game and, as proven in Vancouver, that's plenty to make it work in a football stadium with a false roof.
Jeremiah: I'll totally agree that 20,000 would be a great benchmark for success. Of course, that would also put Atlanta in the top 25 percent of MLS teams. How likely does that really seem? And if it can't draw close to that, say 15,000, we're looking at a pretty depressing situation.
I certainly hope this isn't what happens, but there's no way an Atlanta MLS team is going to move out of the new stadium.
Ryan: Of course it's not, but the Whitecaps were never realistically going to leave BC Place for the waterfront stadium, the Sounders were never going to leave CenturyLink for their own stadium, Chivas had no real plans beyond paying the Galaxy rent, San Jose wasn't especially close to a stadium deal and Real Salt Lake had almost no traction on getting their own building.
At the very least, Atlanta is in a downtown stadium that it has complete control over. That puts its situation ahead of many others in the league, including a couple SSSs.
Jeremiah: That's certainly a fair point. Atlanta has some stuff going for them it Chivas, RSL and San Jose didn't have. And if it can come close to replicating what Seattle or even Vancouver did, that's great. I guess I"m just a bit skeptical. When it comes down to it, I think I'm like a lot of MLS fans who are just scared to death of any hint of failure. By itself, Atlanta doesn't look so bad. But the struggles of NYCFC and Miami to find venues I think has a lot of people more worried about Atlanta than is perhaps reasonable.
Ryan: I think there are reasons to be concerned. I think where that concern becomes misguided is when that concern is compared to prior MLS expansion teams like they were perfect, followed a proven model and now the league is going away from it.
Chivas had a flawed brand, they were the second team in LA and rented from the Galaxy. Real Salt Lake was a completely unproven market, a relatively small market and they were playing in a college football stadium with turf. Toronto didn't support its lower-division team well, had an erector set stadium and had turf. San Jose had just lost a team because it couldn't get a stadium, was playing in a modified college stadium that held 10,000 fans and wasn't close to getting its own building. Seattle was playing in a NFL stadium and on turf. Philadelphia had almost no recent history of support. Vancouver and was moving into a football stadium with turf, and Montreal was behind on its stadium, one which didn't have some of the amenities of other stadiums. The closest thing we had to a perfect expansion was Portland, which just barely got $31 million (a pittance compared to some other stadiums) for a renovated stadium so it started with a leg up, and even the Timbers were on turf.
That's not to say this wave of expansion isn't without its risks, because it is. NYCFC doesn't have a stadium yet, Miami doesn't either and Atlanta is moving into a football stadium, but these aren't new problems. Teams from the "golden age" of expansion faced the same ones. At least NYCFC has an incredible bankroll, the biggest market and a temporary stadium they own, though. At least Miami isn't getting a team until it had a stadium, unlike San Jose. At least Atlanta owns a downtown stadium. There are plenty of positives, and it's not like the negatives are new and different to the league.
If we stop romanticizing the last decade of expansion, it gets a lot less scary. And the future looks a lot brighter, too.