MLS might have trouble ever becoming the best soccer league in the world, but it’s well on its way towards becoming the biggest!
Here’s what Detroit Pistons owner Tom Gores and Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert said in their joint announcement that they had partnered up to bring an MLS franchise to Detroit:
“Detroit is rising and we know firsthand the power of sports to lift a community and drive a civic renaissance. We are very excited about the prospect of bringing Major League Soccer to Detroit and building an ownership group that represents a cross-section of investors.”
You could swap out “Detroit” in that paragraph for any number of cities and it wouldn’t seem out of place. Sacramento, St. Louis, and the other cities vying to get in on the next wave of MLS expansion have all used the language of revival and civic pride when announcing their MLS intentions. This tracks with MLS’ twin desires to get teams and downtown stadiums into midtier cities throughout the nation and attract a younger, hipper crowd to full those seats.
The high attendance numbers third-division Sacramento Republic FC gets are a clear indicator that fans (at least in that city) want an MLS team and will support one. Expansion MLS teams have all drawn tons of fans (into the stadiums, at least) and even Atlanta United FC, which doesn’t exist yet, has sold over 25,000 season tickets, so there’s plenty of evidence pointing toward a desire for MLS soccer across the country. Read one way, expansion is a savvy way to balance supply and demand. Fans get more soccer, the league gets more fans. But whether or not sudden expansion from 20 teams to 28 in under a decade is good for, you know, the actual soccer on display in MLS, is another, trickier matter.
One of the entertaining, infuriating facets of MLS is a bone-deep commitment to parity. The salary cap keeps teams from spending themselves into unresolvable debt, but it also artificially depresses wages and limits growth. This all ties down the potential talent level of the league to somewhere near mediocre and creates a league where teams like Colorado and Philadelphia can go from competitive to dogshit to competitive in the span of a few years, while even big spenders like L.A. and New York can’t spend enough to separate themselves from the pack in the way they’d presumably like to. That’s neither necessarily good nor bad, but it is also not the mark of a league that truly wants to be the best in the world in the near future.
Expansion will only thin the talent pool unless the salary cap expands too. MLS’ standard of play has been rising, but it’s still not exactly good. Opening up 200 more roster spots ain’t gonna help. MLS teams have wisely targeted young players from second-tier leagues (Sweden, Norway) and second-tier international teams (Ghana, Switzerland) to flesh out their rosters, and players who fit that bill and are willing to choose MLS over a European league are of finite supply. As cool and strange as, say, Wayne Rooney suiting up for the Detroit Motor Hunks (free name suggestion) would be, MLS’ standard of play is much more about where the median talent level is, not which European star will cash their chips in to trek across the Atlantic and spout the company line.
For a league that makes a disproportionately high percentage of its money from attendance rather than TV contracts, expanding into soccer-hungry markets could raise revenue for teams to put into player salaries. A larger geographic footprint with fans in some very large cities makes future TV rights more valuable, which in turn would also increase revenue and eventually—hopefully—trickle back down to the pitch. Both hypotheticals help MLS fans and the league’s balance sheet, but neither directly addresses talent dilution.
It’s clear that fans are enthusiastic about the idea of going to an MLS game with the gang and having a fun night out, without any real concern for how good or bad the product itself will be, nor even paying too much attention to the league outside of the stadium. (Remember: no one’s watching the games at home, and in modern times, the money that fuels real, radical growth in sports comes from TV.) The Detroit announcement barely talked about soccer at all. If fans will mosey on into the stadium, whip out their credit card for a scarf and a couple brews, and hoot and holler for Real Local FC for 90 minutes regardless of the quality of the soccer, what real incentive does MLS have to spend more money improving the on-field product? If MLS teams are instruments of civic renaissance and “community assets” first (read: marketing gobbledygook meant to sell you a “fan experience,” not an entertaining on-field product in its own right) and soccer teams second, that’s good for the leagues owners and fans. (Nor, by the way, is it good for the development of young talent, which could be its whole own post here.) It’s not as if leagues should disregard the existence of soccer-hungry fans out there, but another good way to serve them is to work towards creating a better product to sell.