Every city in North America now thinks it can have an MLS team, okay?

MLS commissioner Don Garber may have opened the floodgates to new MLS hopefuls when he announced last summer that the league plans to expand by another four teams by 2020, but Atlanta, Indianapolis, Orlando, and Miami have nothing on this one:

State Representative Antonio “Moe” Maestas wants to transform downtown Albuquerque through a popular sport.

“There’s a market for soccer,” Maestas said.

He wants to see a Major League Soccer team call the duke city home.

“We’re as good a city as the next to get a team down the road,” Maestas said.

Well, no, you’re probably not — Albuquerque-Santa Fe’s media market size is 47th in the nation, right behind Austin and Greensboro — but sure, can’t hurt to try, right? And at the very least, it gets Antonio “Moe” Maestas’ (“Moe”?) name in the news. Maestas further told KRQE that MLS wants “to do at some point, 10 years down the road, a 32-team model similar to the NFL and so we just have to jump into that top 32” (news to me, but that certainly seems where they’re headed at this rate), and “stadiums just add a vibrancy to a city and we’re as deserving as anyone else to have that.”

Albuquerque is currently home to the Albuquerque Sol, which begins play this year in the USL Premier Development League, which is the fourth tier of U.S. soccer. If you’re wondering what level of play that is, KRQE helpfully reports:

More than 100 people came to try out and another tryout is expected this year.

In other words, it’s every bit as professional as this.

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34 comments on “Every city in North America now thinks it can have an MLS team, okay?

  1. PDL is a summer league for college players. It is not a professional league nor can it be if those players are to keep their NCAA eligibility.

  2. I’ve long suspected that the MLS would eventually balloon into a 30/32-team mammoth, mainly because all the cool kids in the American sports world have already done it. I dunno if Albuquerque would figure into that equation, but between the ‘underserved’ markets in the Midwest, and the one-horse sports towns in the Sun Belt, I have to think that the expansion rush will continue unabated until the league actually reaches a number in the 30’s.

  3. Please don’t do this to downtown Albuquerque. It’s a great area. At least dump the stadium in the ‘burbs like the rest of the MLS.

  4. There’s really nothing wrong with the idea of a 30-something team league, except that there’s some bizarre notion that those teams –need– to have stadiums that require subsidies to be built. The 18,500 seats mentioned for the Indianapolis stadium in today’s other MLS post makes it nothing more than a large high school football stadium. $87 million? I don’t think so. Spend the few $million you really need to spend and build it your-damn-self.

  5. Kei said “I have to think that the expansion rush will continue unabated until the league actually reaches a number in the 30′s.”

    Like the NASL, WHA, WLAF, USFL and so many others did?

    The one upside to MLS expansion past 22 teams (other than all that expansion dough funnelling in to the existing teams… which is the lifeblood that lead to the exsanguination of the leagues mentioned above…) is that it might lead to a limited promotion/relegation system between the two divisions MLS would likely have if it eventually was comprised of 24 teams or more.

    An MLS 1 with 20 teams and an MLS 2 with 12 (or 16/16, though that seems less likely to me) is a possible future. But I hope it doesn’t happen, frankly. The problem you have with adding what are inescapably tier 2 (or 3) cities like Albuquerque is that none of the other teams gains anything by playing them (like Columbus, for that matter). It’s fine if there are one or two plucky underdogs in the mix… but playoffs conducted between 8 teams no-one cares about cannot be sold to advertisers.

    Overexpansion also results in a dilution of the talent pool – which is already desperately thin. It’s all well and good for Garber to say that “the world is full of great players”. It’s true, but they aren’t going to turn down $250k in their own leagues and living at home to come to the US to play for the $50k league minimum. Like it or not, MLS is essentially a domestic league. Unlike other US leagues, it isn’t the best in the world and isn’t going to be close in my lifetime – no matter how many superannuated ex-stars they overpay to bring in from Europe.

  6. Keith: Very true.
    And in virtually every league in N.A., the membership would be 20 teams or less if it weren’t for public stadium (and often operating) subsidy. Leagues today don’t have to worry about expanding to cities that can’t support their product – they already know, like the banks and financial houses know, that taxpayers will fill any financial hole they make for them.

    This could totally work… but what is needed most is a local rivalry… so there would have to be teams in Santa Fe and Amarillo… come on Garbo, in for a penny, in for a pound….

  7. “…in virtually every league in N.A., the membership would be 20 teams or less if it weren’t for public stadium (and often operating) subsidy.”

    Why? Your conclusion assumes that teams can only survive if they can have stadiums they can’t afford to build themselves and that there are no benefits in being in smaller markets if they’re not subsidized. I don’t buy it. What would keep them from living with stadiums they can afford?

    Neil often points out how the “Should we pay for this?” question is leapfrogged to get to “How are we going to pay for this?” Similarly, “Do you really need a $600 million stadium?” is conveniently ignored – because the answer is “No”.

  8. The 30-team leagues also work (to the degree that it’s considered “working”) by having massive revenue-sharing, much of which is underwritten by national TV revenues, of which MLS has next to nothing. So far MLS has managed to avoid much haves vs. have-nots tension, but I expect we’re headed that way if it becomes a matter of deciding whether to add another dozen teams and have the existing ones fund their payrolls regardless of whether they can sell tickets.

    Right now it seems like MLS is being run a bit like a Ponzi scheme, where current costs are being underwritten by getting another expansion fee every year. That can work so long as you start getting big-ass TV contracts by the time you have to stop expanding, but if not, you risk becoming the new ABA. (The new new ABA, that is; not the new old ABA, which had different problems.)

  9. Revenues, for one.

    The oft repeated call for subsidy almost always includes the invocation that “we are not NY” (which is, in most cases, true). Teams could live “within their means”, but they don’t. They spend in step with (if not to the level of) the big clubs, to one degree or another. In fact, the most successful leagues more or less require this through distributed revenue that must be funnelled into salaries.

    I’m not suggesting that this is right or good, just that it is what happens. The aggressive expansion of North American sports leagues to mid west and western destinations did not start until public subsidy for stadiums began in earnest in the 1960s. Assuming the population distribution in North America had occurred more or less the same way as it has done now, absent those subsidies you would still see a few west coast teams, but it’s unlikely you’d have the sheer numbers we have today in every sport.

    There was nothing stopping the St. Louis Browns, Philadelphia (and Kansas City) Athletics, Boston (Milwaukee) Braves and several iterations of the Washington Senators from living within their means… but they didn’t, as history shows.

    The Phoenix Coyotes would not exist without subsidy, nor would perhaps 10 other NHL teams.

    One can argue that absent subsidy the overall spending bar would be lowered (and, like the NHL and NFL, increased revenue sharing would be imposed). However, eventually the Yankees, Red Sox and Maple Leafs will make the point that they need a few of the other teams just to make up a league, but they don’t need all of them.

    Put another way, if you dropped the bottom six franchises (in terms of revenue/interest) from each of the major leagues, do you think the Total revenues would drop significantly? I don’t…

  10. Promotion/relegation isn’t going to happen because it would reduce the expansion fees, which are only being paid because MLS has the unique position of being considered kinda major league but willing to listen to mid size markets. Take the “major” out and you have nothing.

    NYCFC is the TV contract bet. I’d short it, though; pretty tough to compete with the Premier League et al.

  11. Recommendation to everyone, btw: http://www.amazon.com/The-NHL-On-Ice-Boardroom-Battles/dp/0385671466/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1392679390&sr=8-1&keywords=d%27arcy+jenish

    If you’re interested in sports business, this is a fascinating one, especially with regard to the NHL/WHA days (basically the NHL let every expansion pre-1978 in with promissory notes so they could pay player salaries) and the minutes of the Original Six owners meetings (where Boston and Chicago beg for money/players and the other teams call them, in nicer terms, welfare bums.

  12. No way the North American population ever buys into a promotion/relegation type system like in Europe. Especially with soccer, where teams are still looking to build a fanbase building it all up only to get ‘relegated’ would deflate any momentum that was already in play. Many European clubs already have enough history and tradition behind them they could take a hit of that magnitude.

    If you’re a Columbus or a Portland or an ‘Albuquerque’ relegation would most likely go unnoticed by most outside of those cities but if NY Red Bulls and L.A Galaxy find themselves playing in second division that’s a pretty tough sell to the TV people.

    Also, contrary to the European system, the MLS uses the draft as its feeder. The last place div.1 team would get relegated, while the last place div.2 gets a player that can more than likely step in right away and gets better.

    Also, selling free-agents on a div,2 squad is a whole other battle.

  13. The expansion fee issue doesn’t really play as it wouldn’t be ‘relegation out of mls’, it would be relegation within.
    If you are buying an MLS franchise, you are buying an MLS franchise. It doesn’t really matter if it’s MLS-1 or MLS-2 (and new teams would all start in -2). You can certainly argue that this would reduce fees if you like. I will only point out that people who could have had an MLS club for $10m in 2005/6 and refused to pay it are now perfectly happy to pony up $40-50m for same… and there seems to be more of them all the time.

    That said, I’m not saying it “will” happen, just that it could if MLS continues to grow beyond 24 teams (FIFA has never, to my knowledge, sanctioned any league with greater than 24 teams in any of it’s divisions). With a 30-32 team league, a fully interlocking schedule cannot happen, of course. In fact, it would pretty much have to operate with divisional play only assuming two 16 team divisions.

    The free agent argument also applies to European soccer, and they deal with it by agreeing mutual contract termination (or including a relegation release clause within the contracts themselves) for financial reasons. If you follow the sport, you’ll regularly find teams that are relegated releasing or selling on a half dozen of their highest paid players. As for that “not working” for fans, well, it doesn’t seem to do much damage to baseball teams that load up for a run during the off season and are often unloading those players 3-4 months later.

    The same thing happens in real estate. You often find the same people who turned up their noses at modest rowhouses when they were available for $50k rushing to buy them during a boom for $125-150k. Supply and demand are trickier than one might think.

  14. Where do you live where houses are 50k?….;)

    I was talking more from a fan interest p.o.v than a business one. In baseball, they can sell the notion that every team has shot at the World Series every year. Whether they realistically do or not. Every team has a 0-0 record and can make it to the big dance.

    Same with hockey, every team has a chance at the Stanley Cup, NBA Championship, SuperBowl and so forth. You’re selling the hope factor. I just don’t think you could do that with a second division MLS. What would the sales-pitch be? ‘Buy season-tickets for our team! We have no chance at winning the championship and we had to give up our best players cause they don’t want to play for us any more. I don’t think that would fly.

    In college sports, Div.1 is the only one you hear about on a national scale. It’s where the best players go and teams have a chance at the biggest championships. There’s no national spotlight on Div.2 NCAA football because it’s not the best of college football and garners little following outside of the schools and towns themselves. Top recruits don’t attend Div.2 schools just like free agents wouldn’t play Div.2 MLS.

  15. General consensus is that, if Toronto and Buffalo would acquiesce, Hamilton would be a knockout NHL market. Was at a Hamilton Bulldogs game Saturday night, and would be shocked if there were more than 3,000 there, paying less than $30 and in most cases less than $20 for tickets.

    Cities pay for the stadiums, owners pay for the fees, fans pay for the tickets, for the big leagues with no attachments. Buffalo’s a complete disaster, but fans still can see the Blackhawks and Canadiens every game. Adding conditions like promotion and relegation zaps the fees to nothing, and worse, destroys the value of the team for the owner him/her self if they do get relegated.

  16. “Put another way, if you dropped the bottom six franchises (in terms of revenue/interest) from each of the major leagues, do you think the Total revenues would drop significantly? I don’t…”

    I guess it would depend upon your definition of “significantly”, but there would be some drop in every case, some more than others. In baseball I think I’d define it as significant because so much of the revenue is local, TV and tickets. Drop six MLB teams and that’s 486 fewer games played. NFL would be hurt the least just because of the number of games. But you can’t completely dismiss the impact on overall interest by having local teams in 32 markets. It’s not nothing. And lower national interest would affect national TV revenues.

    In any case, I don’t think we can say that the subsidies have helped revenue balance in the long-term, so can we be sure that living within their means would make things any worse?

  17. There will be no relegation or promotion. Even the European leagues want to get rid of it, but there is too much history there to do so, but the formation of the EPL B League might be the start.

  18. I’ll be ordering that book too — thanks, Ty! I’m also a fan of this one, a bit old now but still some terrifyingly hilarious stuff about the league’s dodgy origins: http://www.amazon.com/Net-Worth-Exploding-BookThat-Changed/dp/0140129219

  19. It’s the American owners and Phil Gartside that are leading any charge to rid English soccer of promotion/relegation. But that’s because it’s Gartside’s Bolton that gets relegated. It’s so part of the game not just in England but globally that I don’t see how it’s ever gotten rid of.

    As for the pyramid scheme nature of MLS someone alluded to… The league’s financial condition is not dependent on selling new teams. The salary cap is so pitifully low that teams can cover their expenses through the gate. And MLS draws very well. Attendance in the league is actually very strong. Its TV numbers, however, are beyond pathetic. Owners are just selling more teams because that puts money in their pockets. Free money… to a point. At some point expansion will NASL-ify the league (as someone alluded to).

    I get the feeling that Garber hired a consulting firm that is telling him what he wants to hear and drumming up some data to support it. The talent in MLS is already marginal. A 50% increase in the number of teams without a substantial increase in the salary cap (and with that there will have to be revenues from someplace) would dilute the talent pool and send the quality of the league back to 1998 levels.

  20. The absolute lunacy that is in city & state governments throughout the country is nothing short of mind numbing. BANKRUPT cities like Detroit continue to find a way…even around a city’s BANKRUPTCY to help a professional sports team secure tax breaks/funding to build a new stadium to “reinvigorate” the downtown area…and the local & state governments BUY IT!!! How they can rationalize with a straight face the investment in a new stadium that 100% of the time benefits the team, and the team alone, is nothing short of shocking to me. This continues throughout the country, as enumerated on this site, and every day I continue to be flabbergasted.
    A simple “Google” search by someone in local & state government would provide all the data points they would need to vote “NO” on providing tax breaks or other “creative funding” to professional sports teams. “Revitalizing the neighborhood,” “Jobs,” etc. etc. etc….the return on investment in giving tax breaks or other funding to multimillionaire sports teams owners who use those BS reasons for needing city & state funds for a new stadium should be EASILY refuted.
    I am absolutely DISGUSTED by the incompetence of city & state government, or corruption involved in these deals.
    Here in Chicago, a deal is being rammed through to provide a sports stadium for a PRIVATE Catholic University (DePaul) funded through the mayor’s slush fund that is the TIF program…for a stadium even Depaul students and faculty DON’T WANT!!! Oh, and of course, the DePaul athletic program is an absolute joke…and a new stadium isn’t going to change that…especially on the city taxpayer’s dime. Oh, and of course the stadium is located nowhere near the DePaul Lincoln Park campus on the NORTH side of the city…no, the new stadium is to be built on the SOUTH side…genius.

  21. Are the MLS attendance figures juiced much with giveaways, does anyone know? I know I’ve almost never paid full face value on Red Bulls tickets, but I don’t have a good sense of how many other discounts teams offer.

  22. What I’ve always found interesting about MLS stadium deals is the amount of free land “for development” that team owners seem to get–even more interesting is how this land is almost never mentioned in local press (or when it is, it is usually derided as land that “nothing would ever happen on anyway” even in red-hot real estate markets like DC and NY).

    The many iterations of the DC United stadium talks have always included a healthy dose of land for private usage–which again allow a “team owner” to rather cheaply become a real estate option investor at almost no cost to himself. While expansion fees are nice, free land can be nicer and longer lasting as a benefit.

  23. Neil:

    To my knowledge, MLS numbers are “tickets scanned” and not “tickets purchased.” I’m not sure how many are discounted.

  24. It depends on the team: Crappily-ran ones like Chivas USA or New England, yes or most likely. Places with lots of filled seats and great atmosphere like Seattle, Portland, Kansas City probably not.

  25. Jon: since someone else already mentioned Detroit…

    My point was that as markets change (housing where I live in the early 90s was very affordable), people’s notion of ‘value’ changes as well (the same people that wouldn’t by an ex rental condo for $50k in 1992 were falling over themselves to buy one for $150k in 2006)

    Michael: Absolutely true. There is no “major push” to rid european football of promotion and relegation. Owners like Gartside would love it as it guarantees them money that they haven’t actually earned, but there is no chance it will disappear.

    One of the changes any form of P/R within MLS – should it ever come – would drive is an increase in the ludicrously low salary cap, or possibly it’s elimination. The reason MLS still has the cap where it is isn’t that all teams want it… NY, LA, Seattle and Toronto’s of the league would love to be able to outspend their rivals by even greater factors than they do (in Toronto’s case, with absolutely nothing to show for it). It’s the “one club one vote” factor that prevents it (Columbus, DC and Dallas, for example, are just never going to vote for major cap increases. Nor would an Albuquerque or Sacramento). A two tiered league would allow low revenue clubs to continue to exist without hamstringing the larger ones as they currently do… and those controls are one of the main things holding MLS back IMO.

    Garber is caught between the old world and the new in a way… the very thing that has prevented his league from failing in the way it’s predecessors did is also one of the major obstacles to it’s continued growth.

    Which model wins going forward?

  26. GDub:

    Well spotted. Most sports stadium plays are actually free/almost free commercial real estate plays.

  27. www.mlssoccer.com/news/article/2014/02/20/mls-commissioner-don-garber-addresses-leagues-purchase-chivas-usa

    Well, I guess the unanswered question of why Stan Kroenke would buy land “for an MLS club” in LA when he already owns one elsewhere might just have been addressed…

  28. This article has Garber insisting that Kroenke won’t be allowed to buy an L.A. team when he already owns another one. Also refers to him as “Stank Kroenke,” which is totally going to be his nickname here from now on:


  29. Virgin markets are hard to come by in major league sports. So don’t laugh. My suggestion is to set up an NASL club to test the potential MLS market.

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