How big can MLS get? Cities vie to get in expansion line
On Thursday morning, a Miami Herald column made the rounds in which the writer suggested that retired superstar David Beckham should exercise his MLS ownership option and field a team in South Beach.
It would be "fun and exciting and sexy," the Herald argued -- a "surefire MLS success story."
That evening in Sacramento, a continent and a culture away, more than 14,000 people gathered at Raley Field for an exhibition doubleheader during which the city's new professional soccer team unveiled its name and logo. Sacramento Republic FC will compete in USL Pro in 2014 but has no plans to remain in the sport's third tier. Club president Warren Smith has said he hopes to take his team to MLS within five years. Preki Radosavljevic, a former MLS coach of the year, greeted fans on Thursday by saying, "I just want to ask you one question, Sacramento. Do you want to go to MLS?"
In other words, Thursday was a pretty typical weekday in American pro soccer, where conversation and conjecture can focus as much on who's going to be playing in MLS in 2016 as who's playing on Saturday. A decade ago, AEG and the Hunt family were keeping the league afloat and an MLS club could be had for cheap -- Real Salt Lake and Chivas USA each spent only $7.5 million to join in 2005.
Two years ago, as the Montreal Impact were preparing to enter as the 19th club and the pursuit of an expansion team New York City heated up, MLS seemed poised to pause and take a deep breath.
"Our focus right now is the 20th team in New York and we have not yet set a timeline for expansion beyond that, or even if we're going to expand beyond that," MLS president Mark Abbott said in late 2011. "There's no place we need to be. Even at the size we are, we have a tremendous national footprint and are at the size that soccer leagues typically are. We feel good about the size we're at. Other markets could be very successful as MLS markets, but [expanding beyond 20] wouldn't be out of need. We don't need to grow beyond where we are."
Now it appears that MLS will blow by 20 without a backwards glance. Beckham's ownership option, which he reportedly can exercise at a discounted rate of around $25 million, ensures a minimum of 21. And there is no shortage of suitors for additional clubs despite the significant hike in the buy-in (Manchester City and the New York Yankees paid $100 million for the right to launch New York City FC in 2015). The list of markets recently linked to MLS expansion efforts includes, but is not limited to, Atlanta, Cleveland, Las Vegas, Miami, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Oklahoma City, Orlando, Ottawa, Phoenix, San Antonio, Sacramento and St. Louis.
"From what I've heard, they envision somewhere between 24 and 26 teams. Who knows if that's where they'll end up," Smith told SI.com. "Frankly, the league is at a point where it can monetize some of these franchise areas."
Abbott, recently promoted to president and deputy commissioner, addressed the subject again this week. He said that while MLS hasn't set specific targets or timelines, executives are beginning to envision a league larger than 20 teams -- the standard first-division size around the world. Whether it's NFL owners in Minnesota or Atlanta looking to fit soccer into new stadiums or ambitious minor league clubs like Orlando City or the San Antonio Scorpions that imagine becoming the next Portland Timbers, MLS is now awash in suitors.
"What we always said was that we had a plan to get to 20 and then we would evaluate what we would do when we got there," Abbott said. "As you think about what the expansion plans after 20 should be, you have real-world markets and people and stadiums that you can be dealing with as you think about that strategy. It's no longer an abstract issue. There are very credible ownership groups and stadium plans and markets that are expressing interest."
As a result, the league now is "evaluating what the plan for expansion beyond 20 will be," Abbott said, adding that he envisions no fundamental change in the competition structure (such as an East-West split or a tiered system with promotion and relegation).
"We have not yet determined the number of teams and the ultimate size in the league. That's the process we're undertaking."
Reports out of England this week suggested that Beckham stated his intention to reveal his MLS plans "in a few months". The English icon made a very public visit to South Florida in early June and met with Bolivian billionaire Marcelo Claure, who owns Miami-based wireless company Brightstar Corp. and 18-time Bolivian champion Club Bolívar.
Abbott said, "We've talked to (Beckham) about Miami. That has clearly become a focal point."
MLS commissioner Don Garber has said that a presence in the Southeast "isn't an if, it's a matter of when," and that MLS might even plant two flags in Florida if Orlando City, which has been a massive success at the USL level, can finalize a deal on a downtown stadium.
Smith hopes to see Sacramento in that position in the next couple of years.
"We recognize that there's competition and we're competing against cities that are also trying to attract MLS," he said. "Orlando is a good example of what we're trying to implement. They're very, very close and now have a well-heeled owner [Brazilian entrepreneur Flavio Augusto da Silva] who can help them buy into the league."
Smith is relatively new to soccer and a new believer in MLS. He was part of the group that sold the Portland Timbers to Merritt Paulson back in 2007. He remembers thinking Paulson's MLS ambitions were "crazy".
Now Smith understands why he has so much expansion competition.
"The league, to its credit, has finally got a foundation that's investable, whereas it might have been a little bit more speculative back then," Smith said.
There's growth. There's more cost certainty because of MLS's single-entity structure and salary budget. There are favorable demographics -- Smith cited last year's ESPN study that found that pro soccer was the second-favorite sport among Americans aged 12-24. And for those like Smith who believe that sports teams are a public asset, MLS is by far the most accessible, even if there's a $100 million entry fee.
"It's a civic amenity that brings people together and provides value in the community," he said. "It's a sport where you don't have to build a $400 million stadium to compete. It allows cities interested in quality of life in their community an additional amenity that isn't as risky or as difficult as some of the other sports."
And so the race is on.