Expansion decisions could help take MLS to next level
By Pat Martin, MLS Editor
New York, NY (Sports Network) -
The decisions made by Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber and the higher-ups in the league office in coming months are going to greatly affect the progress of the United States' top-flight soccer league.
Namely, which markets in which to expand, and how to go about following through with the slow and steady growth plan that has been in effect since the league's inception in 1996.
With the application deadline less than a month away for ownership groups and markets that are interested in being considered for the next round of expansion, things are starting to heat up at the league office in New York.
MLS announced in July that it intends to add two new clubs by 2011, and with Seattle and Philadelphia being added in 2009 and 2010, respectively, the two new teams will bring the league, which is currently at 14 teams, to 18.
That's a lot of work to be done over the next three years.
While no official applications have been submitted yet, Garber and his staff have been working with a number of groups to ensure that everything is in place by the Oct. 15 deadline.
Don Garber and his staff have been working with a number of groups to ensure that everything is in place by the Oct. 15 deadline.
"No one has submitted [expansion applications] yet, and I don't expect that they will prior to the deadline, or slightly before," Garber said in a phone interview with SportsNetwork.com. "We are working with a number of potential applicants so that we aren't just looking at a number of submissions but insuring those who do submit an application have a good chance of success should their application be approved.
"Many of them have come in and are working through different stadium scenarios, market plans and timing of team launches and a wide variety of other things that would affect their position in this process. There's a tremendous amount of interest from great owners in a variety of different markets, and that is just a positive thing for everybody who cares about the sport."
The markets that are currently being considered include Miami, Montreal, a second team in the New York area, Ottawa, St. Louis and Vancouver, among others. Portland and Las Vegas have also been mentioned, but the aforementioned markets appear to be the leading contenders, although Garber stated there were no front-runners at this point.
Miami, which competed in MLS from 1998-2001, was part of a two-team contraction in 2001 that shut down both Florida franchises and brought the league down to 10 teams. Now it appears the Sunshine State is in the running for another chance at an MLS club.
"Miami has resurfaced, there is a group that is interested in working very closely with a foreign club, and we have resurrected some of our discussions with various stadium sites down there," Garber said.
Barcelona President Joan Laporta reportedly traveled to Miami to meet with MLS officials and local businessmen recently, with the main objective being discussions geared toward creating a sister club to the Spanish La Liga giants.
Montreal, Ottawa and Vancouver are three Canadian markets that are in the running to join Toronto, which is currently the only MLS club that isn't located in the USA. Three National Hockey League owners spearhead the groups of owners interested in adding MLS franchises to their portfolios.
Liverpool owner George Gillet has apparently joined forces with the Saputo family, which owns United Soccer League (USL) club the Montreal Impact, in an effort to join the league. Gillet also owns the NHL's Montreal Canadians.
Eugene Melnyk, owner of the NHL's Ottawa Senators, made an announcement Tuesday that he plans to seriously pursue bringing a MLS franchise to his area.
"Ottawa made an announcement [Tuesday], and that is very positive," Garber said. "We have met with that group and believe that they are going to put together a terrific plan, one that so far we have been very impressed with, in the time we have spent with Eugene Melnyk and his group."
And Francesco Aquilini, owner of the NHL's Vancouver Canucks, is reportedly interested in investing in a MLS club with USL's Vancouver Whitecaps owner Greg Kerfoot and NBA player Steve Nash.
For any of those three markets to make sense, however, they have to make cents.
"Clearly with Canada we've got to ensure that we can create a Canadian business with national television partners and national sponsors and broad municipal, political and corporate support," Garber said. "We know that we can create the success locally that exists in Toronto, but we need to ensure that are able to transcend simple fan-following into a viable business.
"We are spending time working on that and ensuring that we can go to market with a new approach, which is not just 11 or 13 MLS teams and one Canadian team, but potentially more American teams but even more Canadian teams. That's something we have been working on for the last number of months."
A second franchise in New York is the most intriguing option. MLB's New York Mets are reportedly looking into purchasing a MLS club and could build a soccer-specific stadium near its new $600 million baseball stadium in Queens, N.Y., which is set to open next year.
"The Mets are looking at a stadium adjacent to the new Citi Field," Garber said. "It is a soccer-specific stadium that would be developed in the area in and around the new Citi Field."
While some argue that a second New York team wouldn't survive because of the attendance woes experienced by the current team, the New York Red Bulls, who are averaging under 16,000 per game this season in cavernous Giants Stadium, Garber brought up some interesting points.
"I don't think anybody ever expected from 1996 through today that the Red Bulls and the MetroStars before that would be selling out a 77,000 seat stadium," Garber said. "That was never the goal of that team. The question here really is what do we need to do to be sure that the Red Bulls can be more successful tomorrow than they have been in the past.
"Part of that hinges on that stadium [Red Bull Arena] in Harrison [N.J.] getting built and opening in 2009. We are convinced that they will have a much stronger fanbase once they are out of Giants Stadium, which as you know, hasn't really even been a facility that has worked well for the [NFL's] Giants or Jets.
"That coupled with the fact that we believe the rivalry with a team in the area will create some of that passion that exists in L.A. with Chivas USA and the Galaxy and the rivalries that sort of drive the fan support of teams throughout London and Milan and Rome and Mexico City. We think one of the things that will really take the sport to a much higher level in the metropolitan area would be two MLS teams."
MLS' Senior Vice President of Marketing and Communications Dan Courtemanche also stated that a couple of years ago, the then MetroStars had a fan survey and nearly 85 percent of their fans came from New Jersey. So if there were two New York teams, basically one could be made up of mostly New York residents and the other would be mostly New Jersey residents, possibly creating the type of rivalry that Garber alluded to.
St. Louis was in the running for a franchise when Philadelphia was awarded a team at the beginning of this year and appeared to be a leading contender for the next round of expansion, but now appears to be losing steam despite a strong soccer history and tradition in the area.
Jeff Cooper, chairman of St. Louis Soccer United, a group that leads the effort to bring a club to that region, seems to be backing off because of the price tag involved with dealing with MLS. The franchise fee will be a minimum of $40 million, and because of the competition of other markets, could be closer to $50 million.
These words by Garber should give St. Louis fans some hope though.
"Certainly the history of support for the sport is key and we continue to want to be in places where we know soccer can be successful," he said. "So you need more than a great owner and a stadium, you need to know that you are going to be able to have fans come out and passionately support the team."
Basically, Garber and the league have some tough decisions ahead of them. For the sake of the growing league and soccer fans in this country, lets hope they make the right ones.