Is There Such A Thing As Too Many MLS Teams?
It was this time last year, during the All-Star weekend, when MLS commissioner Don Garber dropped the bombshell on MLS fans that he wanted a 24 team league by the year 2020. Since that declaration, all but one of the remaining spots were gobbled up. Almost as soon as the news broke, NYC FC and Orlando City franchises were officially announced as teams 20 and 21. Not long after David Beckham’s team was tentatively slated for Miami pending a new downtown stadium. Most recently, Atlanta was officially announced as the 22nd team, with Miami still being the unofficial 23rd. And all of a sudden, within a year, only one spot remained.
Yet, while speculation has been rampant, there has not been a clear frontrunner for the final spot. Several cities and franchises have asked to step up. NASL’s San Antonio Scorpions have made the most noise. It might make sense as MLS has had success in cities with basketball as their only pro sports team, such as Portland, Salt Lake City, and now Orlando. Minneapolis appears to be a city poised to host MLS team #24 considering there have been reports that both the Vikings and Twins owners have inquired on the subject of ownership. St. Louis, with its soccer rich history, has maintained its place as the sentimental favorite for a franchise, though no ownership group seems interested. In July, stories broke that MLS met in Las Vegas with a potential ownership group as well as the city’s mayor. And this week, there are stories that the Sacramento Kings’ owner has sought to invest into the Sacramento Republic franchise for the purpose of making an MLS bid.
So, for those of you keeping score, that’s five cities as potential landing spots for our last MLS franchise. Almost all of those cities make sense as homes for a club, so my question is: what is MLS to do?
This Train Ain’t Stopping At 24
Somewhere Don Garber is smiling. While soccer writers questioned the pragmatism of a 24 team league, one which is bigger than any first division in the World, Garber has instead created a demand for a surplus of potential suppliers. While some thought he was over-promising, he knew exactly what he was doing. But all these ownership groups stepping up to the plate got me thinking? Could MLS be setting the groundwork for an MLS and MLS2?
Could This Even Perhaps Be The Precursor To Promotion And Relegation?
It’s unlikely. Unfortunately, it’s very unlikely. It’s so unlikely, that while I was writing this post the following news came out: http://prosoccertalk.nbcsports.com
If you ask me, what’s far more likely is that Garber, who as a former NFL guy believes in conferences, divisions, local rivalries, and equal distribution of revenues, wants to someday have a 30 or even 40 team league where each conference kind of acts as its own league and the MLS Cup Playoffs will almost act as a sort of de facto Champions League.
Garber has the benefit of having an American sports scene where 30 or 32 teams is the standard, so fans will be pre-programmed to accept it with MLS as well. Someday we’ll probably have an Eastern and Western Conference with Central, North, South, and West divisions in MLS where teams within divisions are playing one another 4 times a year. Personally, this kind of thing makes me want to throw up. I hate unbalanced schedules, almost as much as I hate amateur drafts and salary caps. But while I can stomach the latter two, the first is really sinful as it messes with the integrity of the league. Not to mention the fact that it really strays from the soccer norm around the globe.
But what if there really were too many quality ownership groups to turn away? Could two leagues really be the answer?
Perhaps. And I say that because I believe Don Garber wants to cap the league at 24 teams about as much as I believe that the moon landing was faked.
Does there exist a way in which MLS can do promotion and relegation that is lucrative for everyone, especially the original investor/owners? I say there absolutely is, and the MLS would be foolish not to ponder it seriously.
The first step in that process would be a buyout of, or merger with, NASL. In fact, I think this is inevitable, and I’m convinced that is what NASL ownership has been pining for all along. Much like the ABA/NBA merger, the ABA got four of its teams into the NBA and the league took off thereafter making everyone involved richer, the same could happen for MLS and NASL. It wasn’t long after MLS President Mark Abbott’s “never” comments that NASL commissioner Bill Peterson responded with a counter opinion in regards to promotion and relegation : http://www.si.com/soccer/planet-futbol
Despite the big talk by NASL and the constant disdain of that league by MLS, the truth is the league has some intriguing properties. Minnesota United and the San Antonio Scorpions are both NASL teams. Their presence in markets like Tampa, Carolina, Indianapolis, and Oklahoma City are also intriguing. And of course, there is also the property that is the New York Cosmos. MLS and the Cosmos can pretend that they dislike one another, but I still believe, and I believe they both secretly know, that there’s a great opportunity in joining forces. But MLS would want to make sure that the Cosmos knew who’s the boss.
So how does this all relate to promotion and relegation? Don’t worry, I got you.
If MLS were to really ever head down the road to promotion and relegation it would need, by my best guess, 40 franchises at minimum. This, as I said before, might be the goal for Garber anyway. And all 40 franchises would need to be under MLS control to assure the investor/owners of MLS that they’ll still get a slice of the MLS pie even when they’re in MLS2. You would have to give MLS teams almost a 5-10 year warning before implementing a promotion and relegation format.
But there’s also another issue. As we’ve learned with the most recent expansion fees, entry in the league is not cheap. MLS has done all it can to keep the league exclusive. But at the same time, they’ve discovered expansion fees are the quickest way to make money (Another reason I don’t believe in MLS capping the league at 24 teams). In 2007 Beckham got a cut-rate $25 million dollar fee for a franchise built into his MLS contract as a reward for legitimizing the league, which at the time only had 12 teams. Beckham got a deal, because Orlando City and Atlanta by comparison had to pay $70 million entrance fees. And the glamour franchise of NYC FC, backed by big Manchester City money was given a $100 million fee which their Emirati owners scraped together from underneath their couch cushions.
So, in this hypothetical scenario, in order to set up the proper setting for such a transition, MLS would have purchased the 13 team NASL. Add in the fact that the MLS already quasi-“owns” the third division USL Pro league and now MLS would have control over 44 teams thereabouts. This is perfect because some teams would overlap territorially, such as the Atlanta Silverbacks with the new Atlanta MLS team or the Ft. Lauderdale Strikers with Beckham’s new Miami franchise. It would be necessary therefore for MLS to contract or merge a couple franchises.
After that was done by either buying out owners or giving them a stake in other properties, the two leagues, MLS and MLS2 would need to be aligned. And so, without further ado, here’s a realistic scenario of how the two-tiered system could work to start off:
Major League Soccer
San Jose Earthquakes
Chivas USA Rebrand
Real Salt Lake
Sporting Kansas City
San Antonio Scorpions (For argument’s sake, let’s say this winds up being MLS 24)
New England Revolution
New York Red Bulls
Orlando City SC
Beckham Miami Franchise (hopefully)
Sacramento Republic (From USL)
Las Vegas Franchise TBD (Expansion Franchise)
Arizona United (from USL)
FC Edmonton (from NASL)
Minnesota United (from NASL)
St. Louis FC (From USL)
Oklahoma City (both NASL & USL have a planned franchise in the city; this would have to be negotiated)
Austin Aztex (from USL)
Ottowa Fury (From NASL)
Detroit Franchise TBD (Expansion Franchise)
Indianapolis Eleven (From NASL)
Pittsburgh Riverhounds (From USL)
Louisville City (from USL)
New York Cosmos (From NASL)
Charlotte Franchise (possible merger of Wilmington Hammerheads and/or Charlotte Eagles of USL and/or Carolina Railhawks of NASL)
Tampa Bay Rowdies (From NASL)
That’s kind of an example of what the two tiered system could look like. I know what some of you real soccer junkies are thinking: “What about some lower tier teams with good histories like the Richmond Kickers or Charleston Battery”. Unfortunately for this to work, the leagues would need as many top 40 metropolitan areas as possible. Cities like Richmond and Charleston just aren’t economically feasible. They’d be better served in a Tier 3 alongside the likes of LA Galaxy II and the Rochester Rhinos or Harrisburg City Islanders and focusing their efforts on the US Open Cup. Perhaps over time there could be a system for them to be promoted to MLS2, but not to start. The owner/investors need to keep the number of slices to as few as possible so that they each keep receiving their lucrative revenue checks.
The Nitty-Gritty Details:
So, now we return back to the problem of how to get MLS’ owner/investors to agree to the possibly of going down to MLS2 after being in an uncontested top tier for so long. You explain to them that:
A) by being in MLS2, you are still an MLS investor and you are still welcome to a slice of all MLS revenues, albeit it would be 1/40th rather than 1/24th (Actually, it could pay out 1/28th or 1/33rd if there were still teams yet to pay their expansion fees).
B) You further explain that since not all MLS2 franchises will be MLS caliber either on the field and/or off it; that teams can only be promoted if they 1) pay a $70 million dollar expansion fee before their first promotion which will only be distributed to teams that have as of that moment been MLS teams before and 2) Meet certain predetermined MLS criteria regarding financials, stadium infrastructure, fan base, and local TV deals.
The first criteria is simple enough. Pay up the expansion fee or you don’t get a piece of MLS’ earnings. Teams could even pay before qualifying to be promoted to MLS so as to become part of the family sooner. Secondly, you set up a minimum for things such as cash on hand, a soccer specific stadium with a capacity minimum (I’m thinking at least 15,000 people), an average attendance figure (perhaps around 8,000-10,000) and finally, you’d need a local TV contract which allowed for all your games to be aired. If these standards were not met, or you could not pay your expansion fee, then you would not be entitled to be promoted to MLS, even if qualified for promotion via the standings.
As for how promotion and relegation would work competitively: this is how it would go: At the end of every season, two teams would be automatically promoted. The winners of MLS2 Western Conference and Eastern Conference would go up and replace the last place teams in MLS Western and Eastern Conferences. Therefore, teams will always remain in the same Western or Eastern Conference designations regardless of whether they’re in level one or two. Then, the second place finisher in each MLS2 conference would play a single elimination game on the road against the penultimate finishers in each MLS conference. However, if teams can’t pay the expansion fees or don’t meet the minimum MLS requirements, they can’t be promoted. In fact, there could be years where no one is promoted because they don’t qualify as tier 1 franchises.
For example: let’s say the Montreal Impact finish last in MLS and the Philadelphia Union finish second to last, under my hypothetical rules, the Impact would automatically be relegated and the Union would have to host the second place finisher in the MLS2 Eastern Conference for a single elimination playoff. But let’s say, that the Pittsburgh Riverhounds finish second and they are nowhere close to playing in a soccer-specific stadium and they only average 6,000 fans per game, don’t have a TV deal and don’t have close to $70 million dollars on hand. Well then, they’re staying in MLS2 and the Philadelphia Union are now saved from the possibility of relegation. And let’s say that the MLS2 Eastern Conference champion was the New York Cosmos. Obviously the Cosmos would be the most likely team to have all the required criteria to be promoted. So if they qualified, now the Cosmos would have to play the Montreal Impact in a single elimination game for the right to be promoted.
It’s a little convoluted, and it would probably be years and years before all 40 teams were capable of promotion, but that’s a good thing. And as for there being a likelihood of having several years with no teams moving up or down, that’s OK. In leagues like Mexico and Argentina it is very hard to be relegated, and even when it happens it’s only one team that goes down.
The world of soccer has a long history of promotion and relegation. For me, when I first heard about it, it nearly blew my mind. It instantly attracted me more to the world of soccer. I thought it was the most brilliant idea. Certainly better than worrying about lazy owners, greedy owners, dumb owners, ping pong balls, or tanking seasons. If you deserved it, you stayed up and earned the money. If not, adios, learn to do business.
Unfortunately, while I never believe anyone when they say never, promotion and relegation in MLS is likely to be 20 years away minimum. Maybe it is 50 years away. Maybe, it will only happen when Garber and Abbot have long since retired and a young traditionalist is in the commissioner’s office.
But either way, I’d say we’re more likely to be headed for two big leagues. I’d Say This Is A More Realistic Future:
Major League Soccer
San Jose Earthquakes
Chivas USA Rebrand
Las Vegas Franchise
Salt Lake City
St. Louis FC
Sporting Kansas City
Oklahoma City Franchise
San Antonio Scorpions
New York Cosmos
New England Revolution
New York Red Bulls
Detroit Franchise TBD
Orlando City SC
Tampa Bay Rowdies
Beckham Miami Franchise
Not quite as sexy is it? Two separate leagues of 20 teams each. I can already predict how it will work: you’ll play 2 home and 2 away against each team in your division and 1 game each versus all other conference opponents for a total of 32 games. Top team each in each division goes to the playoffs and the next best 4 Wild Cards advance to the MLS Cup Playoffs which will include 16 teams. Ugh. American sports at its most typical.
But, you can’t argue it will line pockets. Or can you? Personally, I think my idea could be as lucrative, if not more lucrative, than a 40 team league. Mostly because I believe a two-tiered league could be put together far sooner, in just a few years, because it will utilize more pre-existing organizations. It will give MLS2 franchises time to grow their organizations organically while playing good soccer and it will give the original MLS investor/owners bigger slices of the financial pie in the meantime. Sometimes when people are making a lot of money, they don’t see just how much more money they can make.
One Last Thing
The final piece to this puzzle may not seem related, but it absolutely is. MLS needs to launch a network. And I mean need. They could probably get one up and running for the price of an expansion fee. Not only is it a source of revenue and something which adds to MLS’ financial evaluation, but its the best advertising tool possible for MLS. While ESPN and Fox Sports may have signed lucrative deals to cover MLS, an MLS Network could be used to highlight teams that don’t get national recognition, MLS2 games, US Soccer youth tournaments, NWSL games, and it should even be the home for US Open Cup (which would definitely need to be highlighted if you had two levels of MLS). The truth of the matter is, that MLS and US Soccer’s relationship, especially through Soccer United Marketing, has only gotten stronger, and they can and should work hand in hand to promote that tournament as an extension of MLS.
This is the perfect time for MLS to launch a network. If you are a soccer fan in the United States, there is no channel where you know that you can plop down on the couch, turn on the TV, and check out soccer or soccer news. MLS, by launching the channel now beats everyone else to the punch. By doing that you will force soccer junkies to tune in to MLS as a matter of necessity. I have said it a million times and I will say it a million more times: there are literally millions of soccer fans in this country that don’t watch MLS.
And filling the lineup would be easy and cheap. The NBA Network has had a raving success with their show “The Starters”, a former Toronto-based podcast. With the soccer world forced into podcasting by the mainstream media, there would be no shortage of good talent. And cheap talent at that. Not to mention there are plenty of soccer leagues the network could televise cheaply to fill air time: Scottish League, A-League, heck, even French league or Dutch League. Why not?
The NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL all have fantastic networks and they don’t even have all that much original programming. If MLS is to be their equal, they are going to need one as well. Aside from a morning highlight show, these league owned networks have some shows from about 5-7pm and some wrap-around coverage in the evenings. MLS wouldn’t even need that as games are only occasionally played on weeknights. There’s so much revenue to be had that I don’t know how the league’s owner/investors can’t want to build it immediately. It’s the next step in the league’s organic growth.
To be sure, I’ve rambled enough. Especially since nobody will read this. And I understand Don Garber has a vision and I understand that it’s a brilliant vision, but it needs to be amended. Rather than be an NFL carbon copy, he needs an even bigger vision. That’s the truly brilliant approach.