MLS Expansion Update - May 2016

Fourteen months ago we discussed the pros and cons on a variety of potential Major League Soccer expansion locations so I thought revisiting the topic was due.  In American sports, few properties seem to be more in demand than a Major League Soccer franchise. Considering the plethora of cities, government officials, and investment groups lobbying for their place at the table, clearly the interest has only increased since our first expansion update.

Before we expound on potential markets, we should reflect on what Major League Soccer is seeking in a prospective location.

The league has three primary focal points:

  1. Committed local ownership with deep financial resources.
  2. Stadium plan where the ownership group has venue control.
  3. A history of strong support for soccer and other sports that attract sponsors and TV partners.

The Case for Expansion
Money - Cash is king! Continued expansion provides MLS a larger national footprint, making it more valuable to broadcast partners. The current TV deal ends after the 2022 season, and MLS owners will undoubtedly want to cash in. This likely uptick in funds should (in theory) lead to higher wages for players. And for a league that still struggles to pay bottom tier players, this isn’t be a bad thing.

Exposure - A larger national footprint will also help increase the exposure of MLS and soccer in general in America. It will also lead to the development of more youth academies, which in turn should lead to a larger talent pool for the US Men’s National Team.

The Case Against Expansion
Those against MLS expansion insist that additional teams will dilute the talent pool. Many soccer purists (and some soccer hipsters) also rag on MLS for exceeding the amount of teams in most first division Euro leagues.

Revisiting March 2015 Expansion Update
The markets included in the original expansion update were:
Austin TX, Charlotte NC, Indianapolis IN, Las Vegas NV, Nashville TN, New York City NY, Oklahoma City OK, Pittsburgh PA, Raleigh NC, Rochester NY, Sacramento CA, Saint Louis MO, San Antonio TX, San Diego CA.

Where do those markets stand today? 

Austin, TX – The Austin Aztex of the United Soccer League have taken a one-year hiatus from the league while they try to finance and build a stadium. Despite that there does seem to be mutual interest between the league and the Aztex franchise. The biggest point of contention is that the club doesn’t have a stadium project in place or a deep pocketed local investor group. Working in its favor, the city council is advocating for an MLS team, even funding research on the viability of a team in the market. That is at least one hurdle cleared but plenty more lay ahead.  
Current Expansion Status: Maybe someday but not anytime soon.

Charlotte, NC – North Carolina is one of the country's soccer hotbeds, with its top level youth teams, a slew of perennial college programs, and strong support for the sport as a whole, yet it is often overlooked. The USL’s Charlotte Independence has pulled no punches about their intentions to ascend to Major League Soccer. A renovation to the city’s Municipal Stadium is in being considered and studies are ongoing to establish if the city can support an additional professional sports team. To me, it is a no-brainer. The city’s downtown has a thriving financial district and an ever growing populous. I emphatically stated this before and I’ll say it again… The Carolinas should have an MLS team.
Current Expansion Status: Looking more and more unlikely.

Indianapolis, IN – In March of 2015, Indianapolis seemed to be a strong contender for landing one of the coveted expansion spots. Peter Wilt, the soccer executive who built the original Chicago Fire club, was in charge, the team had 7,000 season tickets sold, and the renderings of a downtown stadium were immaculate. Fast forward 13 months later and Indy Eleven are destined to stay in the minor leagues of American soccer. The stadium was shot down, the fandom has cooled off, and Peter Wilt skipped town. Indy Eleven’s shot at MLS expansion is now a distant memory.
Current Expansion Status: Zero, zilch, nada, not happening.

Las Vegas, NV
– Many major American sports leagues have kicked around the idea of expanding to Sin City but none have yet to take the plunge. MLS was one of the first to really consider the idea. In the 2000’s a Las Vegas investment group was rumored to have offered to buy the Columbus Crew with the plan of moving them to the desert, though the move never materialized. MLS executives have talked openly about their interest in the city but a legitimate ownership group has yet to step forth. The market seems destined to land a major league sports franchise. Just last week a group was pitching the possibility of an NFL franchise. The NBA and NHL have also waffled back and forth. MLS could be the innovators and capture the heart of an unsaturated market.
Current Expansion Status: 50/50

Nashville, TN
– Ahh, yes, the allure of Music City, USA. I absolutely love this market for a variety of reasons. The supporter-owned NPSL team, Nashville FC is not only a great story but captures the love of soccer in the market. Nashville FC is truly a grassroots franchise started by local soccer enthusists. Until recently the southeastern region had zero MLS franchises. The League has made it a point to reverse that trend, opting to place franchises in Atlanta, Orlando, and likely Miami. Nashville would be another step in the right direction to cover this still relatively untapped region.
Current Expansion Status: If I was a billionaire this is the market I’d go to but since I am not, don’t count on MLS anytime soon.

New York City, NY
– I do not actually believe MLS would place 3 franchises in one market. My thought with another NYC area team was that I am and was absolutely baffled by the New York Cosmos. They operate as if they are already at the top of the US soccer pyramid, and I can only fathom them doing so for one of two reasons: They simply want to be the biggest fish in the small NASL pond. Or they envision MLS eventually having promotion / relegation and they’d be positioned for promotion from the start. I don’t know what is going on there but if I were a betting man, I wouldn’t put a cent on the Cosmos ever leaping to MLS.
Current Expansion Status: Not happening.

Oklahoma City, OK
- OKC has Energy FC playing in the USL and Rayo OKC in the NASL. OKC officials are looking to establish the market as a truly “major league” city and with only one major sports team (Oklahoma City Thunder of the NBA) an MLS franchise would be a step in that direction. The owners of USL side OKC Energy FC have a long-term vision, to make their club a future candidate for MLS expansion. They want to prove that Oklahoma City is a viable market and one that can support a Major League Soccer team. OKC is the 45th largest media market in the country, which isn’t overly appealing and without much buzz or a deep pocketed ownership group, my guess is OKC will not be an MLS city any time soon or ever.
Current Expansion Status: No dice!

Pittsburgh, PA
– In 2013, the USL’s Pittsburgh Riverhounds announced the lofty goal of joining MLS by 2023. I personally love the market and think it is one of the better sports towns in the country. It’s also a top 25 media market which should be enticing for the league, but the Steel City seems as if it is far behind a slew of other cities. Without the necessary financially strong ownership group or an MLS sized stadium, Pittsburgh’s MLS dream will never become a reality.
Current Expansion Status: More of a personal wish of mine than a legit possibility.

Raleigh, NC
- The Carolina Railhawks are one of the premiere teams in the NASL. They have a beautiful soccer specific stadium with a capacity of around 10,000. A move up to MLS sounds great on paper, and while I believe the Carolinas deserve a team, I’d give the nod to Charlotte first and foremost.
Current Expansion Status: Keep dreaming.

Rochester, NY
– Rochester was once a formidable candidate for MLS expansion due to the success of the Rochester Rhinos. The Rhinos averaged over 10,000 fans per game in the early 2000’s, leading Don Garber to state "At some point we want to find a way we can have an MLS team in Rochester." Rochester was more of a pipe-dream in my own mind than an actual viable market for MLS expansion. For the sake of the underdogs out there I wanted to toss the name into the conversation.
Current Expansion Status: Hell will freeze over before this comes to fruition.

Sacramento, CA - In Sacramento, the prospective ownership group is prepared to spend $100+ million on expansion fees and another $200+ million on a soccer-specific stadium. Garber has publicly stated that Sacramento is MLS ready. With Sacramento Republic FC having nearly 10K season tickets and a stadium project well on its way, Sacramento is a slam dunk.
Current Expansion Status: It’s unofficially a done deal.

Saint Louis, MO - St. Louis has been a candidate for an MLS team since the league was founded. The city even launched a task force to seek out the viability for a stadium and team. Many soccer pundits consider Saint Louis to be the unofficial soccer capital of America. With a rich soccer history, and a bevy of talent that permeates the United States Men’s National Team and MLS, having a team in the market should be a given but the magical deep pocketed ownership group that is needed has been lacking. Since the NFL’s St.Louis Rams packed their bags for Los Angeles, MLS has become a real priority for the city, and the city has become a priority for the league. Finally!!
Current Expansion Status: Bet your first born child on it.

San Antonio, TX - San Antonio is home of San Antonio FC of the USL. The franchise already has support from city and county officials, an 8,500-seat soccer-specific stadium that is capable of expanding to the MLS desired 20,000, and the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs as owners. They cities demographics have “MLS fan” written all over them and it is an unsaturated sports market with only one other major league team in town. Now it becomes about dotting some I’s and crossing some T’s, and San Antonio will be an MLS market in due time.
Current Expansion Status: You could probably bet your step child on this one and still be ok.

San Diego, CA
–On paper, San Diego seems perfectly logical for an MLS franchise. With its rich soccer history, beautiful weather, a heavy Hispanic populous, and massive youth soccer system it seems like a no brainer. But much like Austin, an ownership group has never materialized.  Even when a potential ownership group rumored to include, USMNT legend, Landon Donovan the buzz was minimal. Lastly, with LA Galaxy, LAFC, San Jose Earthquakes already in the fold and Sacramento well on their way I can’t imagine one state (even as large as California) having 5 teams.
Current Expansion Status: Nope!

New Markets Materialize
While I attempted to be as comprehensive as I could in my original piece new markets were bound to come up over the last 14 months. As of today, the two most prominent are in the heartland of the country, the Midwestern cities of Cincinnati and Detroit.

Cincinnati, OH – One must appreciate the ambition of Cincinnati FC but I do believe them catapulting their city into the mix after two whole weeks of success in the stands is a bit premature. Being the 36th largest media market in the country Cincinnati is a moderately sized location for broadcast partners to consider. I was born in raised in Ohio so I want nothing but great things for the state's soccer scene but Cincinnati doesn’t strike me as a locale that should be of heavy interest for MLS.
Current Expansion Status: Too soon to say.

Detroit, MI – Detroit, come on down… You are the next contestant on The Price is Right!!  Talk about coming out of left-field! The motor city went from not even a possibility when we released the first MLS Expansion piece, to being a front runner today. Major League Soccer recently announced that league executives met with an investor group representing the Michigan city. You can thank the two billionaire NBA owners- the Pistons' Tom Gores and Cavs’ Dan Gilbert- for such a hasty move to the top. Personally, I don’t get this one at all. Detroit is a city on the decline from an economic and populous standpoint. The current minor league squad in town, Detroit City FC, helped muster up some buzz for soccer in the city but their fans do not seem too enthralled with the thought of MLS expansion in the market. 
Current Expansion Status: Out of left field but this one seems very likely.

My Two Cents
When asked during an interview last week to rank the league's expansion candidate cities, MLS commissioner Don Garber named his top seven markets:

  1. St. Louis
  2. Sacramento
  3. Detroit
  4. San Diego
  5. San Antonio
  6. Austin
  7. Cincinnati

When not asked during an interview at any point and time, MLS fan Mike Crosky announced his top seven markets:

  1. St. Louis
  2. Sacramento
  3. Charlotte
  4. Nashville
  5. Pittsburgh
  6. San Antonio
  7. Las Vegas

Only time will tell which markets will come to the forefront. What are your thoughts? Which markets would you like MLS to expand to and why? Let me know on Twitter @mikecrosky.