Major League Soccer boosters are always going on (and on) about how much the league is growing, and whether or not there's anything to the more outrageous claims about the league's popularity, they have a point in at least one sense: the league is definitely getting larger. Last week, for instance, MLS announced that Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank had successfully purchased their newest expansion franchise. This brings the number of MLS teams up to about 43, by our rough count. It's good news for everyone with a financial stake in the league, and bad news for everyone else.
Obviously, MLS is expanding because the league thinks this will make money. That's fine; soccer isn't charity. The question is how this particular money-making scheme fits with the league's supposed larger strategy of organic growth and sustainability. Happily, we can judge it by criteria MLS has set out itself. According to the league, there are four factors it weighs when judging an expansion candidate: a committed owner, a soccer-specific stadium, the media/demographic market, and the local fanbase.
The ownership one is easy. Arthur Blank is very rich, and his time running the Falcons has proven his willingness to spend his money.
The second factor is where problems start to arise. The new team will play in the new Falcons stadium that should be finished in 2017. That doesn't seem like a good plan, since the whole idea of requiring soccer-specific stadiums grew out of the various problems early MLS teams experienced in outsized and ill-suited NFL venues. However, it's now looking like the stadium issue was less of a requirement and more of a recommendation, given that New York City FC, like Atlanta, is set to play in another team's place—in their case Yankee Stadium. Maybe it'll work better for them than it has in New England and D.C.
As for the market, it cuts both ways. On the one hand, Atlanta is a big media market; on the other, it's not immediately clear that pro soccer works in that part of the country. The two previous southern MLS franchises, the Miami Fusion and Tampa Bay Mutiny, lasted only a couple seasons before getting contracted. Atlanta is a big, diverse city, but it doesn't have the Latino population MLS usually targets. It's also possible that the market is already oversaturated. This is a college sports territory that couldn't sustain an NHL team and isn't exactly crazy for its local MLB and NBA teams even though they're usually pretty good. It's not obvious that Atlanta is pining for yet another pro team to ignore.
The final criterion for a new franchise is the local fanbase. This one again doesn't look too promising. As mentioned above, Atlanta's demographics don't scream "soccer supporters," and it's not like the region has some deep soccer tradition to tap into, the way St. Louis does. The city has long been a tantalizing candidate for pro soccer, much for the reasons they finally have a team now, but none of the clubs in upstart leagues have really caught on, and there's no reason to think that the people of Atlanta are just waiting for a MLS side to galvanize their latent footy love.
So Atlanta does have a good owner, will not be playing in a soccer-specific stadium, has a large though saturated market, and has no existing or projectable soccer fanbase to point to. Why did MLS pick them, then?
For the money! Expansion in sports is almost always tied to the size of franchise fee the league stands to make. MLS and its constituent owners/shareholders are getting handsomely paid from this deal. In this case, Blank is reported to have paid a $70 million expansion fee. That might not sound like a lot when compared to the $550 million just paid for the lowly, small-market Milwaukee Bucks, but it's a nice chunk of cash in return for not really doing anything.
There's also a chance this will help MLS get some of the real money in sports: a better TV contract. This season is the last one under the current rights agreement. In theory, at least, expanding into the Southeast means a larger TV audience and ostensibly gives an entire region of the country a possible rooting interest, which could make the TV rights more valuable. At any rate it likely won't hurt.
So if MLS is clamoring to take Blank's money, why is he so ready to give it away? Because he'll get paid, too! The chief appeal of a team to Blank is in precisely the area where his bid clearly runs afoul of the stated MLS criteria: that shiny new football stadium. True, Falcons games will go a long way towards subsidizing that big new building of his, but there are still 357 days in the year in which it will sit empty.
As we've noted before, there's tons of money to be had in the stadium game. Besides just the home NFL team, stadiums host concerts, conventions, high school and college football games, college basketball games—the list goes on. That's part of the reason why MLS has been so adamant on teams building their own stadiums; it assures the money will come in from somewhere, if not from soccer.
Having a guaranteed act that brings in thousands of ticket buyers every couple weeks in the summer is just another steady paycheck justifying the new stadium's price tag. And since it is at best the secondary moneymaker in Blank's sporting food chain, there's probably no pressure for the MLS team to turn an immediate profit anyway. Plus, a few years down the line he could sell the team back to MLS for a profit, just like the Chivas USA owners did. Either way, the rich get richer.
If the deal might sort of make sense when viewed through the prism of a brand-conscious Rovellianism, though, that doesn't mean that MLS fans and those who want to see soccer in this country grow have to like it. From their point of view, this team is bullshit. What should be most important—at least for those of us whose checks don't come with an MLS logo on them—is the quality of play on the field. Rapid expansion—by 2017, MLS will grow from 19 teams to 23—is not going to help with that. Even big MLS boosters aren't watching Sporting Kansas City and Chicago Fire games and thinking, Wow, this is so great, too bad those bench guys can't get any run! They'd be great with some playing time!
MLS is adding four additional teams, which means 90 or so additional squad positions. This waters down an already watered-down league whose strict salary cap rules essentially limit each team to three high-end players. Without significantly improving its talent base, which would mean coming up with an entirely new business model, the league has no way to fill those spots with the kind of top-quality players who could help turn what is already only a decent league into a good one.
In all, the league probably figures that the risk of expanding to places like Atlanta isn't too big to turn down immediate financial rewards. If all works well, they'll add a new partner in mediocrity and putter along profitably. If it doesn't work out, they can just relocate the team to some city where MLS wouldn't be a fourth-tier attraction. If it really doesn't work out, contraction isn't so scary.
This seems pretty short-sighted, though. Every year—every week, even—more and more Americans are falling in love with the beautiful game. With every Premier League game broadcast on basic cable, streamable on mobile devices, and available on demand after the fact, not to mention the ready accessibility of other European leagues, it's increasingly easy for fans to watch the best of the best. Why they should instead watch new teams full of players who aren't good enough to play in a third-tier league is the question you'd think matters most, and yet it's the one MLS hasn't really gotten around to answering.
Photo via MLS