Yesterday Dave Clark covered some of Don Garber's comments about the future of the league. I agree with his (Dave's) follow up comments on where the league is going (MLS 3.0) and the great things achieved since the league began (MLS 1.0). Reading that post made me think back to my previous posts regarding the need for relocation, not expansion, in MLS. My first post on the subject boldly (and possibly arrogantly) ranked the teams based on their performance off the field and identified 5 teams as "relocation fodder." In the follow up post, I discussed how relocation and the threat of it had historically helped some teams evolve and flourish and I also discussed some possible destinations. I still think relocation and/or the threat of it is going to be an important part of MLS' next 2-3 years in addition to (and possibly instead of) continued expansion. Permit me to expound on this...
Dave's post had a graph projecting future MLS attendance numbers if they are able to sustain current trends. Overall league attendance is up about 6% this season. Looking back over the last 8 years of MLS attendance stats, the impact of the 4 most recent expansion teams is startling. Here is a graph plotting MLS attendance including these teams, and where it would be without them.
Note a couple things in this graph. First, the massive drop off in attendance widely reported in 2009 was significantly dampened by the introduction of Seattle. Second, if you exclude the 4 most recent expansion teams, the league is still well below the high they achieved following the 2006 World Cup.
So what's going on with the clubs that were in the league back in 2008? Looking at the most recent numbers Jeremiah reported on SBNation, we can see that LA and Toronto continue to draw big, KC is getting a huge boost from their new stadium, DC got a big boost probably from the arrival of Charlie Davies, Colorado got a bit of a boost from their championship , 5 teams have managed to stay within +/- 5% of their 2009 levels, and NE, Dallas, Chicago, and Columbus have dropped. NE's drop off will likely get worse before it gets better as the club continues to find new and creative ways to alienate their supporters group. Columbus is experiencing the most precipitous fall down 26% from last season. Unfortunately, the league can't expand its way out of these problems.
Interestingly, league expansion is starting to lose momentum anyway it seems. For starters, the expansion fee continues to rise. It was $30M for Seattle and Philly, $35M for Portland and Vancouver, and Montreal is on a 5 year payment plan for their $40M fee. These numbers likely mean the next expansion ownership group will pay about $50M. Also, note that we're at the end of July already. In 2007, an announcement came in November that the league was expanding into Seattle. In 2008, Philly's announcement came in February. In 2009, Portland and Vancouver's came in March. Montreal's came in May 2010. We've gone from making an announcement immediately following the season to later and later into the next season. Considering the next team will likely have to build a soccer-specific-stadium it's probably safe to conclude MLS will have a year off between Montreal and the 20th team at this point (more on why that's a good thing later on).
For prospective owners interested in getting a club in their home town, relocation is starting to look attractive. With the expansion fees approaching $50M and some obviously under achieving clubs continuing to perform poorly it may be cheaper to buy an underperforming team and relocate them rather than pony up the crazy money for a new team. They may have to pull a Clay Bennett maneuver first where they make a fake attempt to turn the team around before giving up and making the move to a new home. To some extent, I think that's what may be happening with Chivas USA as they "search" for a new stadium deal. California's aversion to using public funds for stadiums is well documented, so I wonder if this is a ploy to eventually relocate the team. Since Chivas USA has less than 1000 season ticket holders , a faux identity that fans don't gravitate to, and another club in LA to compete with, I don't think they would be missed nearly as much as the Sonics have been from Seattle.
There have been signs that DC may also be on the move soon. Don Garber put some public pressure on DC a few months ago. The Charlie Davies loan is only one year. Can they keep their attendance up without him? Can their current success propel them into a soccer specific stadium deal in DC? Time will tell.
Ben Grossman recently wrote a piece with a similar message on relocation, not expansion, looking to be in the league's future (and best interest). He proposed that the league is trying to apply the breaks to the rapid growth plan for a few years to allow for the quality of play on the field to improve. How nice would it be if the league didn't expand after Montreal in 2012, and clubs had a year, one year, where they didn't have to deal with personnel loss in an expansion draft? Grossman makes the point that having a year or two off from expansion will allow the product on the field to develop and improve rather than being slightly diluted each year with repeated expansion.
Given this world that MLS leadership has created for themselves, the next 2-3 years will be precedent setting in terms of how big the league wants to get, how much they want to charge for further expansion teams, whether they'll continue to pressure underperforming teams to get their house in order, and whether or not they will allow owners (existing or new) to relocate current teams. There may be a rocky road ahead for some cities/clubs/owners. Overall, Don Garber's vision of MLS being a top league in the world by 2022 depends very much on how the next 2-3 years play out.