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The Angle

Who’s Next For MLS Expansion?

by on 19 December 2016

Ten cities, four* spots, same old considerations?

A little over one year ago, I wrote about the developing race for the 25th through 28th spots in MLS. What unexpectedly followed was a year in which the expansion process was set to a slow burn. The monthly expansion updates that we’d come to expect diminished, and we had twelve months without constant drip-drip-drip of news from cities battling for periodically dispensed spots in our nation’s first division league.

But the respite is surely over after last week’s announcement that the league would begin its formal process to select teams 25-28. Interestingly, interest in the league is now so intense that MLS was able to name drop ten cities who were expected to vie for the bids. The situation is a far cry from the NHL’s recent experience of having two cities bid for two spots, (and rejecting one of them all the same).

Of these ten cities, eight appeared on my list of sixteen last year. The three cities I pegged as favorites have made it through to this round, and some new groups have emerged where previously there was only potential. Most intriguingly of all, there are some really interesting decisions that the league will have to make. As I argued in the previous post, it’s easy to get lost in the weeds, but MLS’ expansion decision making hews closely to what you’d expect if you just looked at simple demographic facts. It’s no secret that MLS wants to expand in cities with more people and not less. More Fortune 500 companies and not less. Higher median income and not lower. We spend a lot of time parsing things like brand identities, ambition, and which fanbase “deserves” it more. But MLS ultimately thinks like a business, and so there’s been a predictability to their approach.

Will that hold true in this latest round? You can make a better argument that it will not. With the addition of Atlanta (No. 11) and Minneapolis-St. Paul (No.15), the league now has teams in all but three of the fifteen largest combined statistical areas in the US. The league also will have a presence in ten of the eleven contiguous US megaregions and some of their largest constituent islands. Given these accomplishments, there is less pressure on the league to check off certain “boxes,” as they’ve done in the 2010s with teams in Florida (check), the South (check), NY2 (check), LA2 (check, again), and the North (check). In theory, the league could chart a new course, with teams 25-28, picking clubs for their own quality, and advancing regional rivalries. Of the ten clubs and cities looking for entry, there are clearly five who are putting their hopes in this thesis, while the other five would benefit from a more geographic and demographic-based decision.

For what it’s worth, MLS’ official criteria are as follows:

  1. A committed local ownership group that has a passion for the sport, a deep belief in Major League Soccer and the resources to invest in the infrastructure to build the sport in their respective market.
  2. A market that has a history of strong fan support for soccer matches and other sporting events, is located in a desirable geographic location and is attractive to corporate sponsors and television partners.
  3. A comprehensive stadium plan that ensures the club will have a proper home for their fans and players while also serving as a destination for the sport in the community.

I take these as the baseline. All of the candidates will be able to demonstrate these features to a satisfactory degree. Even Nashville, which has no serious history of professional soccer, has hosted USMNT friendlies with distinction.

With all of this being said, let’s take a closer look at each of the ten cities who we know are publicly in the mix, ranked generally in order of likelihood of getting a club into MLS in this cycle. It’s possible, if not probable, that not all of these cities and groups will bid. But for the sake of this article, I’m assuming they all are, and that no bid has fatal flaws.

1. Sacramento

Demographic Factors:
Population (CSA): 2,513,103 (25th)
Growth (10-14): 4.07%
MSA Median Income: $46,106 (40th)
Fortune 1000: 0

Popular Factors:
Existing Major League Teams: 1
Obvious MLS Rivalry: San Jose Earthquakes (2 hours)
Current Team? Yes.
In Need of a Rebrand? No.
Stadium Progress: Ready to go.

Sacramento Republic FC remain the favorites for MLS expansion through the sheer effectiveness of their campaign. This is a bid about which MLS officials have been quoted as saying “It’s not a matter of if, but when.” They were the first runners up in the last expansion process, have a stadium plan ready to go, have maintained excellent attendance in USL, their brand is fantastic and (like Orlando) have only a struggling NBA team to compete against in the marketplace. The political winds also continue to blow in their favor. Former mayor Kevin Johnson, whose national reputation had nosedived amid scandal, has been replaced by the newly elected mayor Darrell Steinberg, who said in April of this year, “Yes, we need to be a Major League Soccer city.”

Sacramento’s liabilities remain. The city’s complete lack of major corporations is a disadvantage that is unique. Perhaps the city’s status as capital of the state may make it more appealing for sponsors. Or perhaps the city’s proximity to the Bay Area would help draw attention? That relationship is a blessing and a curse for Sacramento. The San Jose Earthquakes are a likely rival on the field, but may still seek to block Sacramento from joining and have endorsed Sacramento, probably after the Republic agreed to a payoff of some kind. From the league’s perspective, a “hot” rivalry between Sacramento and San Jose might help it capture local media and fan attention as the Hudson River Derby has in New York. MLS has not made a serious dent in the Bay Area and Northern California, and perhaps adding Sacramento to the mix could help on that front.

2. St. Louis

Demographic Factors:
Population (CSA): 2,900,605 (22nd)
Growth (10-14): 0.63%
MSA Median Income: $44,437 (65th)
Fortune 1000: 18

Popular Factors:
Existing Major League Teams: 2
Obvious MLS Rivalry: Chicago (4 hours, 15 minutes), Kansas City (3 hours, 30 minutes)
Current Team? Involved.
In Need of a Rebrand? Yeah, probably.
Stadium Progress: This is the big wrinkle.

There is no doubt that St. Louis is the city that MLS most wants to be in. This is a city with tremendous soccer history, a proven market for the sport, and just the right distance away from natural rivals Chicago and Kansas City. The problem in St. Louis since just about day one of the league’s founding, has been a lack of ownership. But that’s no longer a problem, as a wealthy, local, and committed ownership has emerged with a serious plan. Current USL team St. Louis FC is involved in the bid. The stars have aligned for MLS in St. Louis, thanks in large part to the gaping hole left behind by the departure of the NFL’s Rams. The city has already done a lot of the work in site selection and design, thanks to their failed attempt to keep the other football. After being publicly ridiculed by the team on its way out, St. Louis might be looking for a more loving sports relationship. MLS certainly sees an opportunity to replicate what the Sounders achieved in the wake of the relocation of the NBA’s Seattle SuperSonics, and land at last in a long sought after market.

The big question in St. Louis is whether MLS will get to decide in the first place. In April of 2017, the city’s voters may be asked whether to subsidize $80 million in public funding for a stadium estimated to cost $200 million. Direct public funding of stadiums is a perverse business, and the city of St. Louis surely has pressing priorities. Whether voters will agree to shell out that kind of sum for MLS feels like something of a test case for the league. While St. Louis would be a fantastic location for MLS, it’s hard not to root against a plan like this. That being said, if the measure does pass, St. Louis is all but guaranteed one of the first two open spots.

3. Charlotte

Demographic Factors:
Population (CSA): 2,537,990 (24th)
Growth (10-14): 6.83%
MSA Median Income: $46,119 (38th)
Fortune 1000: 15

Popular Factors:
Existing Major League Teams: 2
Obvious MLS Rivalry: Not really. Atlanta is the closest.
Current Team? Possibly?
In Need of a Rebrand? Yeah.
Stadium Progress: Conceptual.

Last year, I made a bold prediction that Charlotte would be the league’s 28th team. Not much happened in the time since to really validate that opinion, but it’s clear that the city’s current team is thinking about it and so are potential majority owners. Charlotte has a number obvious advantages that led me to be so high on it in the past. The city is fast growing, relatively wealthy, a decent size, and has a powerful corporate presence. To the extent that geographic gaps still exist in the MLS map, Charlotte fills one of them in the southeast.

I rank Charlotte third on this list because it seems to me to be extremely likely to land one of the four spots up for grab in this round of expansion. But to be more precise, I think they’re likely to land either the 27th or 28th spot. They do not seem to be far enough into the process to compete for the 25th and 26th spots. The flaws in Charlotte’s bid are that we know next to nothing about it. The local team is not particularly popular, the prospective owners are just that—prospective. The Queen City (Cincinnati is also nicknamed this) is the best test case of my belief that ultimately demographic and geographic factors are most important to MLS expansion.

4. Cincinnati

Demographic Factors:
Population (CSA): 2,208,450 (32nd)
Growth (10-14): 1.58%
MSA Median Income: $44,914 (55th)
Fortune 1000: 14

Popular Factors:
Existing Major League Teams: 2
Obvious MLS Rivalry: Columbus (1 hour, 30 minutes)
Current Team? Yes.
In Need of a Rebrand? Doesn’t seem like it.
Stadium Progress: Suitable temporary stadium, but permanent home is conceptual.

No city or club has made such an impression this year as Cincinnati. As they were launching, more than a few people made fun of FC Cincinnati’s branding (FC literally stands for “Futbol Club”) and derpy video content. Then, the team took the field, and people started showing up to the games. And showing up. And showing up. The team averaged 17,296 fans a game, peaking at 24,376. Those are numbers that beat some MLS teams, and the league took notice. Garber visited a few weeks ago and the team’s fans made a show of support.

Like Sacramento, FC Cincinnati likely would join the league if it were up to a fan vote. But it’s not, and on the business side of things, Cincy is a less appealing pick. The metropolitan population is small—in fact, it would be the league’s smallest market. [EDIT: I’ve been partially corrected on this: the nearby CSA of Dayton, OH (1,077,665, ?0.22%) may be merged with the Cincy CSA in the future, forming a much larger CSA. Clearly a plan for drawing fans from Dayton would be key to the success of FCC’s bid] It’s hardly growing, and the median income is middling. A strong corporate base is an advantage, but here, MLS may be concerned about FC Cincinnati hurting the existing team in Columbus. Does the potential for a rivalry make up for the conflict between two relatively small markets in a big and important state?

5. Detroit

Demographic Factors:
Population (CSA): 5,315,251 (12th)
Growth (10-14): ?0.7%
MSA Median Income: $49,160 (16th)
Fortune 1000: 17

Popular Factors:
Existing Major League Teams: 4
Obvious MLS Rivalry: No, though Chicago, Columbus, and Toronto are close.
Current Team? No.
Stadium Progress: Conceptual.

Detroit is another city that has long been a target city for MLS. The market is the second largest where there is no current MLS club, and despite the well-known struggle of the city itself, the suburbs are extremely wealthy. The renegade NPSL start-up club Detroit City FC have gained accolades from across the soccer world, but they are not involved (fortunately and unfortunately) in the big money bid which has attracted MLS’ attention. This bid envisions a downtown stadium and entertainment complex at the site that currently houses a half-built (and unlikely to be completed) jail.

The Motor City is similar to St. Louis, in that a solid bid would automatically make it a favorite. But there are more question marks with Detroit’s bid than with St. Louis. The ownership group is smaller in Detroit, the land in question is currently owned by the county, and the stadium comes part of a larger planned development. All of these are complications. The city is also shrinking, the government cannot and should not spend money to support the stadium, and Detroit is the only one of the ten cities which already has all four other major sports teams. I’m suspicious of the Detroit bid, suspicious of government involvement in the land sale, and suspicious that MLS in Detroit makes enough sense anyway.

6. Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill (The Triangle)

Demographic Factors:
Population (CSA): 2,075,126 (33rd)
Growth (10-14): 8.49%
MSA Median Income: $48,845 (18th)
Fortune 1000: 4

Popular Factors:
Existing Major League Teams: 1
Obvious MLS Rivalry: No.
Current Team? Yes.
In Need of a Rebrand? Hah!
Stadium Progress: In the works, no public information.

Thanks to the ambitions of owner Steve Malik, North Carolina FC (née RailHawks) have publicly committed to bidding for MLS in this cycle. The Triangle is a weird, sprawling region, with no clear center and a nebulous identity. It makes sense, then, that Malik has rebranded his club to represent the state as a whole. It also makes sense operationally. It seems highly unlikely that MLS will place two teams in the Carolinas, at least in the foreseeable future. Thus, NCFC must first defeat Charlotte (who can be expected to push a pan-Carolinian identity), and claiming the bulk of the state as their own is a clear strategic imperative.

NCFC must also get their act together faster than Charlotte, who are still not well organized. Malik has indicated that his club is working swiftly on a stadium plan, and he could score an edge over the nascent Charlotte group in time. If the expansion process works faster, it will be to NCFC’s advantage. But if the Carolinas question slips to the second pair of this expansion cycle, and NCFC have not closed the door on a bid from Charlotte, then I suspect they’ll have an advantage. The Triangle simply doesn’t have as many people (it is the second smallest of the ten cities considered, and would be the smallest MLS market), nor as many corporations as MLS would like. The NHL Carolina Hurricanes’ struggles at the gate could also complicate The Triangle’s bid.

7. San Antonio

Demographic Factors:
Population (CSA): 2,328,652 (30th)
Growth (10-14): 8.69%
MSA Median Income: $39,140 (126th)
Fortune 1000: 7

Popular Factors:
Existing Major League Teams: 1
Obvious MLS Rivalry: Houston (2 hours, 45 minutes), Dallas (4 hours)
Current Team? Yes.
In Need of a Rebrand? Slight.
Stadium Progress: Already built, would need expansion.

San Antonio have fallen the furthest of any of the expansion hopefuls. While once they were considered a top-tier contender, other cities now look like surer bets. Last year, I wrote, “…the longer the expansion process becomes, the more San Antonio’s stock may fall.” As the expansion process has drawn out, I believe that observation has been borne out.

The Alamo City simply cannot compete demographically. Its population is small, it has few major corporations, and its population does not have a lot of spending power. San Antonio also has a complicated relationship in this process with Austin, which through sheer perception of trendiness is often mentioned in these articles. The Texan capital is just an hour from Toyota Field, where San Antonio FC play. But the two are considered separate metro areas, and (without living there) I can’t say I’ve seen much evidence of a shared identity between the two. San Antonio’s expansion hopes likely rest on their ability to sell a vision that will draw fans from Austin and capture both markets (a USL outpost might be involved?). The one advantage that San Antonio hold is their association with the NBA’s Spurs, who hold a reputation for being among the best run sports operations in the country. But after a year of ownership, it’s not entirely clear from the outside that the Spurs are determined to win this MLS race.

8. Tampa/St. Petersburg

Demographic Factors:
Population (CSA): 2,915,582 (21st)
Growth (10-14): 4.75%
MSA Median Income: $37,406 (156th)
Fortune 1000: 7

Popular Factors:
Existing Major League Teams: 3
Obvious MLS Rivalry: Orlando (1 hour, 45 minutes). Hide yer kids.
Current Team? Yes.
In Need of a Rebrand? Not needed, but trademark issues could be interesting.
Stadium Progress: Site controlled by the team, preliminary design complete.

The Tampa Bay area is unique among the markets discussed here in that it has already had an MLS team. But since the Mutiny folded in 2001, there’s been little talk of MLS returning. Bill Edwards, the owner of the USL’s Tampa Bay Rowdies, is determined to change that, and has, in his fashion, indicated his determination to make a bid. Tampa Bay is among the largest metro areas where MLS is not currently playing, and Edwards has control of the stadium site and has engaged the stadium experts Populous to redesign Al Lang Stadium for MLS.

Yet I think Tampa have several issues to overcome. The city already has three major league teams, and is the least wealthy of all of the cities on this list (and in the country, only Oklahoma City, New Orleans, and El Paso have lower median incomes). As with several of the other teams, the proximity to another club is an issue here, though the potential for a good rivalry is the familiar counterbalance. Above all, I think Tampa Bay has an ownership problem. Edwards repeatedly clashed with the last league his team played in, and he is now suing them. He clashed with a local group to win control of his stadium. He’s been dogged by allegations of improper conduct. And I’m not convinced he’s wealthy enough for MLS, which means he’ll have to cede some control to minority partners. I think he’d also be well advised to take a step back and hire someone (Perry Van Der Beck?) to be the front man for this bid. There’s no evidence of that happening yet.

9. San Diego

Demographic Factors:
Population (CSA): 3,263,431 (18th)
Growth (10-12): 5.34%
MSA Median Income: $47,067 (27th)
Fortune 1000: 5

Popular Factors:
Existing Major League Teams: 1-2
Obvious MLS Rivalry: Second fiddle to both LA (2 hours) teams.
Current Team? No.
Stadium Progress: No idea.

Like St. Louis and Detroit, there is no doubt that San Diego is a city that MLS has eyed for a while. The size of the city’s region means that proximity to both LA teams is irrelevant, though San Diego’s rivalry with either would only ever be second best. But given its size, wealth, growth, and other factors like its Hispanic population, San Diego is undoubtedly an MLS target.

What sets this city behind the others is the complete lack of any public interest in expansion. If there is actual interest, we don’t know much about it. San Diego has another complication as well, which could break for the city or against it. The possible departure of the NFL’s Chargers could give MLS a hole to fill, but it may also have already soured residents against any kind of public help for stadium construction (which is a good thing for the world, but bad for MLS).

10. Nashville

Demographic Factors:
Population (CSA): 1,788,434 (36th)
Growth (10-14): 6.95%
MSA Median Income: $44,223 (67th)
Fortune 1000: 10

Popular Factors:
Existing Major League Teams: 2
Obvious MLS Rivalry: Vaguely Atlanta.
Current Team? Not really.
Stadium Progress: No idea

Nashville was by far the most surprising city to appear on MLS’ expansion interest list, and it’s easily the least likely city to actually achieve its ambition. The main reason is because Tennessee’s capital is small (Detroit’s metro area is over three times as large), and already hosts two other major league teams. The city is also only starting a USL team now, and that effort is not directly associated with the MLS effort (though it could be, in time, of course). If Nashville FC were a Cincinnati-like success, it might put the Music City on the MLS map. but why would it jump ahead of Cincinnati itself? Relative geographic isolation and Nashville’s reputation as a destination are its only two apparent advantages.

***

But wait… what about…

?. Miami

Demographic Factors:
Population (CSA): 6,558,143 (10th)
Growth (10-14): 6.35%
MSA Median Income: $38,632 (132nd)
Fortune 1000: 13

Popular Factors:
Existing Major League Teams: 4
Obvious MLS Rivalry: Orlando, probably.
Current Team? LOL.
Stadium Progress: LOLOL.

The elephant in the room is David Beckham’s hopeless MLS venture in Miami. At the present rate, the city will be consumed by the sea before Beckham builds his stadium. But patience is obviously wearing thin. Presumably if something doesn’t change this year, than it’s back to the drawing board. Moreso than Detroit or St. Louis, Miami is the one city that MLS wants. The city is huge, it’s growing, it’s a massive destination, and it’s the American gateway to Latin America and the Carribean. The league’s chances of one day playing host to Cristiano Ronaldo are evaporating every day that the Miami mess drags on.

Will Miami’s fiasco open up a fifth spot for one of the teams above? It might, though I wouldn’t bet on it. The league really, really, wants to be there. They wouldn’t have put up with this if Beckham had decided to take his team anywhere else. But hey, don’t count out the alternative.

***

Prediction time. MLS will seek to add smaller cities with proven fanbases in conjunction with major markets, so we’ll get two of each type of aspirant. The next two teams to join MLS will be Sacramento and St. Louis (if the referendum fails, the league and the ownership will find a way to either get around it or better yet, pay for the damn thing themselves). Two years later, MLS will add Charlotte and Cincinnati. The Detroit bid will fizzle over site control complications. San Diego won’t bid. The remaining teams will all find themselves in the second division, awaiting MLS’ inevitable bidding process for 29-30.

Plausible? Completely wrong? We’ll find out a lot more in the coming year.

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