I started working on this post a while ago, but got side tracked and never got back to it. Dave Clark's recent post entitled "MLS Must Go South" sparked some interesting conversation which caused me to dust off my work on this post, clean it up, and share it...
The first time I posted on this topic, I drew the ire of the infamous FakeSigi (a big deal for an armchair blogger like me). In follow up tweets he admitted that his response was fueled in part by the fact that I had posted it on a Sounders fan site (even though it had nothing to do with the Sounders). Undeterred by his intelligence-insulting hyperbole, I've continued to research and still believe that the theory is sound--the path to success for MLS is not via expansion alone, relocation may be needed as well (or at least the threat of it).
My original post may have struck some as "incredibly arrogant," but I'm not the first to insinuate that underperforming teams are a burden on the league as a whole (I used the words "looters" and "moochers"). In 2005, Don Garber himself didn't mince words when addressing questions about the league's slumping (at the gates, not on the field) teams in Kansas City and San Jose . His words: "This isn't a charity," clearly saying that these teams were not carrying their own weight. In a league where revenue sharing is required (details in my earlier post), allowing underperforming teams to siphon from the shared pot indefinitely is simply not tenable.
But wait, KC and SJ still have teams and they were not in the "Relocation Fodder" group from the first post. What happened?
After the break, a quick history of KC and SJ, discussion of how it may apply to current relocation candidate teams, and some info I dug up on possible expansion/relocation destinations...
One year after the Don's public flogging, in 2006, the Hunt sports group (still owners of Columbus and Dallas today) decided to sell KC to OnGoal, LLC for $20 million. Since the sale, OnGoal has been dogged in their attempts to get a soccer-specific stadium (SSS) built in Kansas City, Missouri and when that failed, they fell back to proposals on the other side of the river in Kansas City, Kansas. Meanwhile, they've demonstrated valiant fiscal responsibility by moving the team from high-rent Arrowhead Stadium to affordable CommunityAmerica Ballpark. In 2011, MLS fans in KC will benefit as OnGoal's efforts pay off with the opening of the yet-to-be-named stadium.
Less than a year after Don Garber picked on San Jose, ownership group AEG (also owners of the Galaxy) gave up on seeking a stadium deal in San Jose and moved the club to Houston. 2 years later Oscar De La Joya took a 50% ownership interest in Houston and vowed to "fight" for a stadium in Houston. After 2 more years of back-and-forth with the city of Houston, ownership and the city finally delivered results, and they will break ground within the next few weeks . Meanwhile, back in San Jose, the ownership of baseball's Oakland A's stepped up and convinced MLS that a stadium deal could be worked out which caused them to expand back into San Jose a year later. The most recent report is that they've convinced the city council to allow the stadium to be developed separately from the surrounding area, so now ownership is hopeful for a 2012 opening of that stadium.
So, in summary, in 2006 Don Garber publicly criticized two consistently underperforming teams (KC & SJ), and now, 5 years later, those 2 teams have turned into 3 and all 3 are on the brink of having their own soccer-specific-stadiums in or near their city centers. Ownership has diversified as AEG now only owns 50% of the Dynamo and the Hunt sports group was forced to sell KC. Now, I don't want to give all the credit to the commissioner. Garber was likely more of a puppet here, but his comment was probably a symptom of a larger, deeper, private conversation between the league and these owners.
Moving on, I have some quick points on to the "Relocation Fodder" list I created in my last post. I think I misstepped with the inclusion of Colorado in this list. Their stadium is barely 4 years old. The league is surely willing to limp them along another 4-5 years, possibly until 2019 when the cavalry arrives in the form of a direct light rail. Their sell-out crowd in 20 degree weather for the conference final and their eventual MLS Cup could serve as a shot in the arm in the near term. Either way, they deserve more time.
Note however, that both Colorado and Dallas are cautionary tales when it comes to teams building their own stadiums. The mantra of "if you build it they will come" does not apply directly to soccer-specific-stadiums. It's a little more nuanced than that. Something like "if you build it near your urban center, they will come." Houston, KC, SJ, RBNY, and Philly have all been wise to avoid a similar gaffe in their markets. Each of them have built (or are building) their stadium closer to their downtown areas and/or are very accessible via public transit.
Now, about that list of possible destinations for relocated teams I provided in my first post (Detroit, Miami, St. Louis, and Tampa). I admit up front I did very little research on that. I pretty much just rattled off cities I'd read about before who were interested in the MLS. My mistake (and I paid for it if you read FakeSigi's post).
So if those are bad examples for relocation destinations, what are the good examples? Are there any? Well, we've heard a bunch about DC possibly moving to Baltimore (more here and here) and Chivas possibly moving to San Diego (more here and here). Are there other cities where an MLS club could be successful? Indeed there are. As I researched this post, I found a study done for MLS in 2006 called An Analysis of Expansion and Relocation Sites for Major League Soccer (server appears to be having issues, alt link page numbers are different). In it they define two different statistical models for identifying cities that could support MLS teams:
The goal of this research project is to create a probability index for a city’s ability to support an MLS franchise based on the underlying structure of current MLS cities.
On page 17 they share their findings of the top cities that could support an MLS team. Their results table listed the following cities (in order based on their second statistical model): San Francisco, Washington-Balt, Chicago, Boston, New York, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Dallas, Hartford, Phoenix, West Palm Beach, Columbus, Atlanta, Kansas City, San Antonio, Denver, Houston, St. Louis, Seattle, Miami, Tampa, Detroit, and Portland. Note that many of the cities in their results have teams today (which is great) and that the only current U.S. based team (their study was focused on U.S. cities) in a market that didn't make the cut in their models is Salt Lake City. Based on the timing of this study, it's clear that MLS has followed their feedback as they expanded back into San Jose, and into Philadelphia, Seattle, and Portland as well. Clearly there are still some likely successful markets still available to the league via relocation and/or expansion.
Bottom line, it's been 5 years since Garber publicly threw his darts at KC and SJ. Maybe it's time for some tough love from the commissioner/league again. He may need to remind folks that the league can't support underperformers indefinitely. There are a few teams that need to get back on track, just like KC, Houston (relocated from San Jose), and the new San Jose did. I think it's time for him to call DC, Chivas, New England, and Columbus out on the carpet and hopefully put some "fear of the Don" in these owners so that they'll stop resting on their laurels and start making moves to place their teams on a path to success. Does that necessitate relocation? Maybe. I think it necessitates the threat of relocation and that can't be a bluff. Obviously he wasn't bluffing in 2006 because San Jose lost their team (for a few years anyway).
In closing, there's one thing I want to make clear. My efforts to research, think about, and post on this topic are motivated by a desire for the league to succeed. When I first attended a professional soccer match (the Sounders 2009 inaugural game) I was stunned with the crowd, the energy, and the event. Sounders games are not just two teams playing on a field in front of some spectators, they are a major event. I'm not writing about relocation in an attempt to deprive other fans of this experience, rather I really want to see all of the teams in the league enjoying similar success. More specifically, I think people who attend their first professional soccer match at any MLS venue in the country, should be met by a similar experience to the one I had and be blown away not only by the quality of the game on the field, but also by the chanting, singing, and screaming of everyone else at the event. When that's true in every MLS market/venue, the league will be on equal footing with some of the best leagues in the world.
K61's note: Part 3 of this series of posts can be found here.