By Jason Davis
Consistency, as a concept or policy, does not hold much sway over Major League Soccer. Since its inception in 1996, the league has been marked by an incessant need to shift and change as conditions dictate; when you’re running a soccer league in a country not known for its appreciation of the sport, the ability to alter at will is an asset. Survival, long the league’s primary focus, meant consistency—on everything from the format of its competition to the rules governing player signings—was a luxury it could not afford. The lack of a consistent policy on a wide range of issues—both competitive and commercial—left league leadership able to reverse a previous tack without causing many waves in the growing fan base.
These days, MLS is consistent on at least one issue: expansion. For the better part of the last year, MLS and its various mouthpieces have been unwavering in their commitment to expansion in one particular place. Commissioner Don Garber makes no apologies about it, and is adamant in the wisdom of the pursuit. MLS VP of Communications Dan Courtemanche repeats the party line to anyone who asks, echoing Garber, almost verbatim, at every turn. The refrain is so consistent it’s propagandistic. There’s only one message, and there will be no deviation. MLS knows what it wants on the expansion front, and they working hard to make it happen.
Expansion, as a modern function of professional sports, typically goes like this: potential ownership groups with money and a plan submit bids to the league, who then pick from among the interested bidders (and taking into account things like market strength, existing fan base, TV penetration, etc.), giving birth to a new franchise. That’s the way MLS has done it since beginning the expansion era in 2005, and it would be reasonable to expect the league to go about awarding team number twenty in the same way. Except they’re not, at least when it comes to one particular market: New York City.
MLS has turned the franchising process on its head, and they have no qualms about telling anyone who will listen. While the Miamis, Atlantas, San Antonios, et al, of the world (or at least fans acting on behalf of those cities’ candidacies) are playing by the old set of rules, a second New York franchise is getting all the help MLS itself can offer. This is proactive, opportunistic franchising, complete with a dedicated staff at MLS headquarters in Manhattan actively working to find a suitable place to build a soccer stadium before an ownership group has been identified, or a franchise fee negotiated. For this one special case, MLS has reversed the usual dynamic.
“For the first time the league is taking the lead to develop the stadium plan; the architects, the environmental consultants, economic consultants will all work for the league,’’ Garber told the media in March.
“That’s how important a second team in New York is. … We’ve looked at 19 different sites in the last 18 months. We’re narrowing it down, getting focused in handful of locations.’’
The latest news in the league’s bid to get their teeth around the Big Apple is the refinement of that focus, in the identification of a plot of land in Queens that is just the right size for a small MLS-style soccer stadium. The news broke through the Wall Street Journal, in a story covered with a shiny layer of PR gilding, and it was via the aforementioned Dan Courtemanche’s Twitter account that the American soccer community become aware of the development. MLS is not only consistent in their desire to place team within the city limits of New York, they’re anxious for the world at least to see their progress.
Queens isn’t Manhattan, but it ticks off several of the league’s must-have boxes: urban setting, ample public transportation, and an address that reads “New York, New York.” Part of the New York expansion message it the belief that ownership groups will line up to pay MLS for the rights to run a New York franchise. From the outside, it looks like a case of putting the cart before the horse. Then again, it’s hard to imagine they would go through all of this effort if they didn’t have a strong reason to believe a serious investor exists.
Why MLS is so intent on planting roots inside the limits of the country’s biggest market is less clear than their intention to do so. Most of the words used to this point refer to the stadium-building process, the full, untapped potential of the New York market, or the fee the league expects to receive for a team in New York ($100 million, per the commissioner himself, which is more than double the biggest expansion few paid to date, but doesn’t explain the desire for a NYC team by itself). None of the talk speaks directly to the motivations for adding another team to a metropolitan market which already has one just across the river in New Jersey. The rhetoric has been entirely about making it happen, not specifically why it should.
New Jersey is not New York, as anyone from that very crowded part of the world will tell you. The Red Bulls have struggled to capture the imaginations of New York’s soccer fans, meaning that the idea a second New York team would cannibalize the Jersey club’s base is only partially true, and is certainly not something MLS sees as a problem. The theory goes that New York has millions of soccer fans who don’t make the trip to Red Bull Arena because the trek is too far, the transportation too difficult, the team too inaccessible. It’s probably true that a second New York team would draw from a substantial group of fans that don’t currently identify as Red Bulls fans, and it’s probably true that nothing the Red Bulls can do would fully capture New York. MLS may just see a second team, placed within the city itself, as a way to get the country’s largest city on board with the league.
It’s difficult however not to see this effort as one tied directly to the last frontier of MLS success: television ratings. The league’s ratings are stagnant, its current TV rights deals miniscule. New York drives national network interest, and because the Red Bulls (due to their location perhaps, or because they spent too many years playing in an oversized turf-line NFL stadium) don’t have have much pull within the city, MLS could view a team in Queens as a way to juice their TV prospects.
The league’s survival is no longer in question. Attendance is respectable. Dedicated purpose-built stadiums with MLS teams as primary tenants provide a permanence few thought possible 15 years ago. The only thing missing is a truly national TV presence that brings the big, transformative money through the door. That money will mean the difference between MLS remaining a peripheral player on the American sports scene and within international soccer circles and MLS evolving into a competition that can compete with the non-NFL domestic sports and a upper tier soccer leagues. In other words, with everything else going so well, and most of the old problems checked off the to-do list, TV success is the most pressing issue facing Garber and MLS.
As the song goes, if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. When it comes to the “anywhere”, MLS isn’t doing too badly. But the league has yet to truly make it “there”, and they’re not going to stop until they do.
On that front, MLS is consistent.