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MLS Expansion To Southeast, Probably Not An Impending Disaster

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MLS is moving South and East. Four expansion franchises will enter the league in the next few years. Three will be located in Miami, Orlando and Atlanta. The league has not had a team South of Washington D.C. and East of Houston since folding the Tampa Bay Mutiny and Miami Fusion in 2001.

Isolating the foreign import is tempting. But, ultimately, MLS is subject to the same market forces as other sports. The track record from similar expansion projects into the region, by the NBA, MLB and NHL over the past 30 years, has been mixed.

The NBA was successful. The Magic have brought in star players through the draft. The Heat brought in Pat Riley and big-time stars through free agency. Both have competed for titles on the court. Both consistently rank in the top half of the league in both attendance and financial measures. The Hawks have been in Atlanta since 1968. They tend to rank near the league’s bottom in attendance, though that matches the team’s performance.

MLB expansion has been a disappointment. The league added the Marlins in 1993 and the Devil Rays in 1998. Both clubs have won. The Marlins loaded up for two World Series wins in 1997 and 2003. The Rays have reached the playoffs in the AL East four times since 2008. But both through poor ownership and poor stadium deals, languish near the bottom of the league in both attendance and financial measures. The Braves have been great on the field, though have had sporadic complaints about attendance.

NHL expansion has been a clear disaster. It has been more than 20 years. Both Florida teams, despite occasional success, have lost money and struggled to draw fans. The Panthers tarped over part of the arena to gloss over attendance problems. The Thrashers, Atlanta’s second attempt at an NHL team, did the same before being moved to Winnipeg. The league’s great leap southward has been one (if not the) major culprit for the league’s financial trouble. Trying to use NHL franchises to create hockey markets failed miserably.

David Beckham, Commissioner Don Garber and Mayor Carlos Gimenez Press Conference

These examples provide some lessons that could shed light on challenges new MLS clubs will face.

Are the owners committed? Ownership commitment is vital. Fortunately, MLS is a different league than it was in 2001. The league isn’t seeking investors. It’s charging them exorbitant rates for entry. Miami will have David Beckham, cash from Bolivian billionaire Marcelo Claure and marketing expertise with British TV executive Simon Fuller. Orlando is fronted by Brazilian media magnate Flavio Augusto da Silva. Arthur Blank is a respected NFL owner who has wanted into MLS for  years. All three groups should, at the very least, be adequate stewards. Expect the two Florida teams at least, to be aggressive from the onset.

Does a market exist in those cities for MLS? It’s not clear. Miami, playing in Fort Lauderdale, never developed a fan base. Fickle sports fandom, a large transplant population and summer heat and humidity remain factors. Atlanta checks every box for an MLS expansion site (population, young population, large Hispanic community). But that has been true for other leagues and it has almost never translated into vibrant sports fandom. Orlando does not have enough of a history with professional sports for a true gauge.

Do they have the stadiums? Orlando received public funding for a downtown, soccer-specific stadium, which is good for the club. Atlanta will play in the new Georgia Dome. It’s free and settled, though MLS does not have a great history playing before empty crowds in giant football stadiums. The real question there is Miami. David Beckham’s preferred Port of Miami site is problematic and controversial. Playing at FIU’s football stadium or the Dolphins’ stadium could make it way less of a scene.

Can they attract star players? This could be a key advantage for Orlando and Miami, and decisive for establishing teams in those markets. European and South American stars are attracted to Florida for the same reason American ones are. The weather is nice for much of the year. There’s no state income tax. Orlando’s owner has connections in Brazil. There’s a lot of smoke that Brazilian star Kaka could join Orlando in 2015. The combination of David Beckham and Miami could also prove a potent attraction. Cristiano Ronaldo at age 32 in 2017? Atlanta could be a harder sell, with no beaches and home games on artificial turf.

Predictions: Miami will become a league power, at least in terms of marketing (Please name them “Miami Vice”). They will get star players to come there. Further loosening of financial and desginated player restrictions only help them. Orlando should be a solid addition. My biggest worry would be Atlanta. It’s the hardest sell for players and fans. The cavernous stadium could be onerous if the team does not make an initial splash. Arguments for Atlanta, as a market, sound a lot like the vague arguments for MLS’ potential TV clout, which have not materialized. Whether adding these teams was worth diluting the league’s talent pool will be open to interpretation.

[USA Today Sports]

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