Category Archives: MLS

Why MLS may be making a huge mistake

The Seattle Sounders have become the envy of all of MLS, succeeding beyond anyone’s wildest dreams for an MLS team, with by far the best fanbase in the league. From the day it started, the Sounders have been a truly major-league franchise in Seattle, something pretty much every other MLS team can only dream of. It would seem logical that if the MLS wanted to become a major league, if it wanted to continue its trajectory of growth, that its strategy for growth would be to find out what the Sounders are doing right and replicate it for their other franchises.

But there is one aspect of the Sounders’ success that suggests one thing that MLS has been doing – something that has been the cornerstone of its strategy for the health and growth of the league – may ultimately hold it back.

One thing the Sounders have become known for perhaps above all else in league circles is the experience on game day, which is widely praised as something unlike any other team in the league. Sounders fans pack CenturyLink Field to numbers unheard of for virtually any other franchise and create an atmosphere even the Sounders themselves can have trouble dealing with. The experience of a Sounders home game has been compared to that of a Premier League game. Hearing this, it probably won’t surprise you to learn that the Sounders have, by far, the largest attendance in the league, to the extent that the upper bowl of CenturyLink is covered up, not because the tickets there can’t be sold, but to keep the Sounders from having an even larger crowd advantage and create a more intimate atmosphere.

But that massive attendance hides a dirty little secret: there is only one other stadium in the entire league that could even hold as many people as the Sounders regularly fill CenturyLink with, DC United’s RFK Stadium. (Although the Houston Dynamo’s Robertson Stadium comes close at 32,000.)

Over the last decade, MLS has moved all but two of the remaining teams into “soccer-specific stadiums” with capacities around 20,000. The idea behind it seemed simple and innocuous enough: at the league’s founding, teams were struggling to fill cavernous NFL facilities that regularly topped 60,000. Soccer-specific stadiums would give teams a place of their own to call home, rather than piggybacking on the local NFL team, and NFL stadiums wouldn’t need to be contorted to fit a soccer pitch. And by reducing the capacity to something closer to, yet still greater than, what most if not all MLS teams were drawing at the time, it would create a more intimate environment that would draw fans closer to their teams.

But by setting the ideal size of a soccer-specific stadium at around 20,000, MLS was effectively accepting that the popularity of the league would never exceed that level – and that its fans would never reach the number, and the gameday experience would never achieve the quality, seen in Europe. 20,000 isn’t “normal” in the Premier League – that’s the size of its current smallest stadium, and there are only five MLS venues, one of them only barely, with larger capacities than that of Wigan’s home stadium, third-smallest in the EPL. The league’s top teams don’t seem to have a problem playing in stadiums with over 40,000 capacity. The Sounders’ success – at attendance levels that would be only mid-pack in the EPL – should have sent a message to the league that it didn’t have to accept 20,000 as its ceiling. Yet the league continues to build soccer-specific stadiums unabated; next year’s expansion Montreal Impact could never place higher than third or fourth in attendance this year, no matter what they did, thanks to the size of its stadium.

Besides the Sounders, four teams in the league are filling their stadiums to over 95% capacity: the Portland Timbers, the Philadelphia Union, Sporting Kansas City, and the San Jose Earthquakes. Throw out the Earthquakes, who are still the lowest-attendance team in the league despite their stadium-filling prowess thanks to a whopping 10,000-seat stopgap stadium, and the other three teams all have stadiums below 19,000 capacity, yet all place in the top half of the league’s attendance figures. None of the three have any plans to move into new stadiums or renovate their current ones, and in fact all three just moved into new facilities within the last two years. The Timbers and Union are fairly new franchises, but they seem to have strangled their capabilities to become Sounders-caliber franchises in the crib – especially galling in the case of the big-market Union.

Another two teams – the Vancouver Whitecaps and Toronto FC – are filling their stadiums to over 90% capacity. Yet despite having the third- and fourth-highest attendances in the league respectively, behind the Sounders and Los Angeles Galaxy, neither has any plans to move or renovate their stadiums either, though that’s not as outrageous as with the other teams. Toronto could conceivably expand BMO Field into the fourth-largest stadium in the league, but that’s nowhere near becoming a reality, and the Whitecaps are one of the three teams in the league that plays in a non-soccer-specific stadium but covers up seats, so expanding BC Place’s capacity, if warranted, would cost nothing.

More to the point, all these teams except Sporting Kansas City are fairly recent additions to the league, and their strategies reflect not only the lessons learned from what the Sounders did right, but what the early days of MLS did wrong. Most of the league’s early franchises still have not recovered from the catastrophic mistakes of MLS’ early days that alienated the existing soccer fanbase without attracting many casual fans. More recent franchises, founded in 2007 and later, have found more success, but will continue to be hamstrung by a stadium capacity limit set for the older, less successful franchises, during a less successful period for the league.

Of all the teams in the entire top half of the league in attendance, only three existed in their current markets prior to 2006: the Galaxy, Sporting KC, and the New York Red Bulls. Two of those teams renamed and, thus, rebranded their teams during that time, and two of those teams are in the top two markets in the country, making it relatively easy to attract a sizeable fanbase without being that major of a team.

Even more to the point, only three franchises founded in 2005 or later, all before 2007, aren’t filling their stadiums to 90% capacity: the Houston Dynamo, Chivas USA, and Real Salt Lake. I can’t stress this enough: every single expansion team since Toronto is filling their stadium to over 90% capacity. The Dynamo, as mentioned earlier, play in 32,000-seat Robertson Stadium, and are mid-pack in attendance (and will be moving to a soccer-specific stadium next year); Chivas plays in the fourth-largest stadium in the league, the Home Depot Center, where they play second-fiddle to the Galaxy; and Real Salt Lake is pretty close at 88%. The clincher? The four worst teams in the league in attendance not only existed prior to 2005, but were around for the league’s inaugural season in 1996.

Many of the league’s older franchises continue to struggle to fill their stadiums, even those in soccer-specific stadiums, but as Sporting KC is showing, that need not be the case forever, even though the Galaxy, despite their success on and off the pitch, are only filling 86% of the Home Depot Center. As the league continues to grow in popularity, their focus should be on continuing to grow all their franchises, including the established ones, to the levels of success the expansion franchises are seeing, to bring their entire league into the future. In this, their mantra should be: every team a Seattle. But if they continue pushing “soccer-specific stadiums”, it will only have the effect of keeping their new franchises in the past.

The latest in the sports television wars

Two pieces of news broke Wednesday in the sports TV wars:

  • NBC picking up MLS doesn’t mean much for NBC/Comcast, given how low MLS is on the totem pole, but it is very good news for MLS. It wasn’t that long ago that no one would have ever said that about a move to Versus, but this move gives MLS a shot at more featured time slots, a place on a channel that now has double the distribution, a chance to take advantage of any other big pick-ups NBC adds down the line, and a return to broadcast television. The MLS Cup will remain on ESPN for the time being, but MLS’ choice is to stay on ESPN or leave primetime – though they may want to unify their English-language coverage under one banner in three years, and I have a feeling NBC/Comcast may wind up with a better shot at it then than ESPN. It’s also bad news for Fox Soccer, for whom MLS was their main summer attraction. This move had been rumored in the past, especially when MLS went past their schedule announcement without a deal with Fox Soccer this season and considered buying time on Versus.
  • On the other hand, ABC managed to renew their relationship with the IndyCar series, despite some thinking that the whole series might be unified under the NBC banner after Versus took the cable contract some years back. This means ABC will maintain its long association with the Indy 500 that will now extend for more than half a century.

I’m undecided over whether to count MLS on my scorecard – I didn’t count when Fox picked up rights to Conference USA. MLS gets more press, but miniscule ratings. Should I count neither, both, or just one or the other? (I really need to update my Sports TV Contracts list from the first year of Da Blog…)

Sports Watcher for the Weekend of 11/22-23

All times PST.

Saturday
9-12:30 PM: College football, Yale @ Harvard (VS). You know how, when a week of college football is crap all around, “College Gameday” will sometimes go to a I-AA or lower matchup? In the early time slot, this is one of those weeks.

12:30-4 PM: College football, Michigan State @ #6 Penn State (ABC/ESPN). Oh wait, everyone hates the Big Ten.

5-8:30 PM: College football, defending Princeton-Yale titleholder #5 Texas Tech @ #4 Oklahoma (ABC). The latest Game of the Century just to come out of the Big 12. And the Title Game – which could have more impact on the BCS than any of the other Games – is still a couple weeks off.

Sunday
9:30-12 PM: NBA Basketball, Celtics @ Raptors (CBC). This will probably fill our NBA quota on weekends until college football season ends, and maybe after.

12:30-2:30 PM: MLS Soccer, MLS Cup (ABC). Sadly, the main reason I’ve been ignoring the MLS is because their weekend games have been on eminently-ignorable Fox Soccer Channel. My soccer-crazed dad has asked me to include this paragraph: “To borrow a theme from John McCain, David Beckham is one of the biggest celebrities in the world. He is not, however the best player in MLS. That honor will go to either the Columbus Crew’s brilliant Argentinian Guillermo Schelotto – who led Boca Jumiors to several Argentine Championships between 1997 and 2007 – and The New York Red Bulls Juan Pablo Angel – who comes to MLS from Columbia. So this might not be ABC’s “Marquee matchup,” of say, Beckham’s Galaxy against Cuahtemoc Blanco’s Chicago Fire. It is, though, an intriguing matchup of two hot teams with brilliant star players. I will be watching.”

5:15-8:30 PM: NFL Football, Colts @ Chargers (NBC). Because the MLS Cup knocks out both of the regular doubleheader spots. At least it’s a lineal title defense.

Sports Watcher for the Weekend of 11/8-9

I think I need to take another break from the Watcher in a few weeks. All times PST.

Saturday
9-12:30 PM: College football, #20 Georgia Tech @ #16 North Carolina (Raycom Sports). Wait, why didn’t ABC pick this up for their ACC package? Clemson-Florida State? The Bowden Bowl is less than pointless this year!

12:30-4 PM: College football, #2 Penn State @ #19 Iowa (ABC/ESPN). There are no fewer than six games between two teams ranked in my Top 25 this week!

4-7:30 PM: College football, Kansas State @ #7 Missouri (FSN). The item below bumps out the latest Big 12 Battle of the Century.

7:30-9:30 PM: MLS Soccer, Real Salt Lake @ Chivas USA (Fox Soccer Channel). Didn’t we just do this last week? Who cares about a team with a name like Real Salt Lake?

Sunday
10-12:30 PM: NBA Basketball, Raptors @ Bobcats (CBC). Wait, the Raptors are on a national network that penetrates into parts of the United States???

12-4 PM: NASCAR Sprint Cup Racing, Checker O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 presented by Pennzoil (ABC). Judging by the ads, the Chase is actually getting interesting???

Honorable Mention: 1-3 PM: PBR Rodeo, Built Ford Tough World Finals (NBC). Thank God for NASCAR bumping this bleep off the Watcher.

5-8:30 PM: NFL Football, Giants @ Eagles (NBC). Flex Scheduling Watch is probably coming later tonight, folks.

Sports Watcher for the Weekend of 11/1-2 (with a Halloween bonus!)

All times PDT, or PST, as applicable. I briefly forgot I had set this for the morning…

Friday
5-7:30 PM: NBA Basketball, Bulls @ Celtics (ESPN). Whatever.

7:30-10 PM: NBA Basketball, Spurs @ Trail Blazers (ESPN). Without Oden it’s just “Spurs @ a non-playoff team that doesn’t have its much-hyped superstar that’s proving to be Sam Bowie 2.0”.

Saturday
9-12:30 PM: College football, Miami (FL) @ Virginia (Raycom). Probably the only ACC game I’m going to spotlight all year.

12:30-4 PM: College football, defending 2008 BCS titleholder #2 Florida v. #11 Georgia (CBS). I’m going to be watching this but mostly writing my platform examinations. Speaking of which, due to rain any examinations I complete today won’t be posted until after 9 PM PT.

3-5 PM: MLS Soccer, Chivas USA @ Real Salt Lake (Fox Soccer Channel). The other two MLS playoff games today would have fit in perfectly well on one tripleheader, but only this game is on TV.

5-8:30 PM: College football, defending Princeton-Yale titleholder #1 Texas @ #6 Texas Tech (ABC). Watching this while writing examinations as well.

Sunday
12-4:30 PM: NASCAR Sprint Cup Racing, Dickies 500 (ABC). You can tell we’re in the home stretch of the Chase when the start times start moving to noon PT.

5-8:30 PM: NFL Football, Patriots @ Colts (NBC). Without Tom Brady and the Colts being any good it’s just “a possible wild card contender with a nobody QB @ a total scrub team”.

Wait, WHAT? The MLS edition!

Take a look at the “About Major League Soccer” list at the end of the article: MLS is expanding to Philadelphia and no one told me? They’re quadrilateraling and no one told me?!? (The WNBA really needs to get on the ball here!)

MLS already has 16 teams as of 2010 – the addition of Philly will re-balance the conferences at 8 apiece – and will add two more later, as will be announced either later this year or early next, which is insane. You might want to think about breaking them up into divisions within the conferences at this point, certainly once you hit 20.

So with Philly, Atlanta becomes the largest Nielsen market without an MLS team, and – ta da! – Atlanta is one of the teams on the short list of potential expansion candidates. (Montreal, Ottawa, and Vancouver are among the others? Is soccer THAT big in Canada?) Detroit is the largest 2000-definition metro area without an MLS team (followed by Atlanta) and is next on the list of Nielsen markets, but isn’t on the short list to get a team. Instead, it’s Miami (repeating a bad experience and leapfrogging fellow-Florida-bad-experiencer Tampa, along with Phoenix and the Twin Cities, on the Nielsen market list)… along with St. Louis and Portland, the #21 and #22 media markets respectively?!? It’s not even as small as #31-33 KC, Columbus and Salt Lake, but… they really are going for soccer markets, and I didn’t even think St. Louis was that big on soccer. Maybe they’ve seen Wizards viewership numbers.

St. Louis is #18 on the metro areas list but, in addition to all the ones above except Tampa, leapfrogs Cleveland (who pays attention to Columbus just like in hockey) and San Diego (weren’t they supposed to get Chivas USA at one point?), and Cleveland, Orlando, and Sacramento on the markets list (the latter two are stepbrothers to larger nearby markets everywhere except the NBA anyway – but then again, so is Portland). On the metro areas list Portland also leapfrogs Tampa and Pittsburgh (who’s right behind it on the markets list).

(Worth noting: Most of the cities on the list would also be in the Eastern Conference, necessitating Kansas City to move West. Portland and Vancouver are the only exceptions.)

The final college football rankings of 2007 (and other musings)

I’ve kept track of who won my College Football Rankings for three years, counting this year. The first year, the title went to Texas, as my rankings correctly predicted the winner of the national title game. The second year, it went to Louisville as the Big East got disrespected.

This year, West Virginia’s beatdown of Oklahoma threatened to topple them, but for two out of three years, the BCS and my rankings agree on who is the true national champion: LSU.

Longtime readers know that I have, on occasion, remarked on the standing of professional sports leagues and their market penetration, this being an example. I’ve realized that I haven’t had any words on Seattle’s long-time-coming MLS team, which will result in an uneven distribution of teams between Eastern and Western conferences. Seattle bypassed Philadelphia, Atlanta, Detroit, Phoenix, and former MLS home Tampa Bay to put the league’s 15th team in the #14 media market. But being a Seattleite myself, and especially being the son of a soccer fanatic, I’m actually a little surprised MLS didn’t come here sooner – this area is one of soccer’s few homes to truly devoted fans, and MLS is sure to carve a niche should the Sonics move. It’s like having a hockey team in Buffalo – there aren’t going to be a lot of people, but boy will they be devoted. The only possible objection I’d have is that MLS didn’t try to re-establish itself in the South, especially with the WNBA putting a team in Atlanta. But I’m sure they’ll do that in a matter of years to put the league at a nice, round 16 teams.

By the 2000 definition, Philadelphia, Detroit, Atlanta, and Miami are the only larger metro areas without an MLS team. I erred on my earlier post on the Atlanta WNBA team, where I said that Seattle had been the largest metro area with a WNBA team but no MLS team; not only does that honor also go to Detroit, but Detroit wasn’t even dethroned by Atlanta. Phoenix would have inherited that crown had I been right.

Sports Watcher for the weekend of 4/7-8

All times PDT.

Saturday
12:30-3 PM: MLS Soccer, Colorado at DC United (ABC). Finally, the MLS season opener doesn’t compete with the Final Four pre-show. Of course, now it’s up against the first round of the Masters…

4-7 PM: College Hockey, Michigan State v. Boston College (ESPN). The third-biggest championship the NCAA administers. Of course, it’s light years behind even women’s college basketball and isn’t really that far from last place.

7-10 PM: Ultimate Fighting Championship, UFC 69 (PPV). I could write reams on why UFC is whipping boxing’s ass right now, but I’ll save them for a later date. (But a word of advice: If you want to become really mainstream and not elicit comparisons to illegal cagefighting or pro wrestling, dump the steel cage. I don’t know of any fighting organization of any kind that doesn’t use anything more than the classic ropes.)

Sunday
11:30-4 PM: PGA Golf, The Masters Final Round (CBS). You know, if that Tiger Woods gets a few more major wins, maybe, one day, if he’s really lucky, he’ll be enshrined in the Hall of Fame.

5-8 PM: MLB Baseball, Boston @ Texas (ESPN). Even though Curt Schilling will be Boston’s starter, we’ll still be caught up in Dice-K mania.

Next weekend: Hot NHL playoff action! (cue crickets)