By Neil deMause
Last weekend, Major League Soccer kicked off its 19th season, and -- no, wait! Don't go away! Even if you think soccer is two hours of watching people kick a ball around for no good reason, or, conversely, if you think real soccer (i.e., the kind played in places like Spain and Germany by the best players in the world) is unparalleled but MLS is a third-rate substitute, stick around: There's going to be interesting stuff about leagues that sell franchises for the price of an SUV, how the rest of the world thinks we're nuts with our distinctions between "major" and "minor" leagues, and why New York doesn't have five baseball teams. Really.
OK, so let's start again:
Saturday was opening day for the 19 teams in Major League Soccer, and that's the last time anyone will ever be able to say that, because starting next year, MLS will no longer be a 19-team league. It will be a 20-team league, welcoming in a second team in New York (or a first team, if you don't count the New York Red Bulls just because they play in New Jersey), or maybe 21, if Orlando manages to get its new stadium approved by then as well. It's all part of a floodgate-opening surge of expansion that, if all goes according to plan, will take MLS from a tidy 10 franchises in 2002 to a projected 25 in 2020, putting it within shouting distance of the leagues that most American sports fans consider "major."
MLS would no doubt like you to think that this is because soccer is surging in popularity, and there's a smidgen of truth to that: A handful of clubs (Seattle, Portland, Montreal -- not coincidentally three of the most recent expansion cities) consistently sell out, and the possible relevance of the U.S. team in the upcoming World Cup could boost interest as well, especially as more top U.S. players sign with MLS. But, seriously, it's not like soccer is taking the U.S. by storm: The latest poll numbers asking Americans their favorite sport found soccer tied for seventh (seventh!) with golf and swimming (swimming!).
More likely, the soccer-team-in-every-pot movement reflects the same motivations as when the NHL abruptly went from six teams in 1966 to 18 in 1974: greed and fear. As Stanford sports economist Roger Noll explains, there are three reasons for a league to expand:
- Television rights fees, which national networks will only cough up for if a team has a presence in most big markets;
- Expansion fees, so long as they're high enough to make up for the diluted cut of TV money that each team will get (and the diluted chances of winning a trophy, which owners do actually care about even if it doesn't convert directly into simoleons); and
- Blocking out other leagues from muscling in on their territory, which was what the NHL had in mind when it decided to go on an expansion binge in order to keep the Western Hockey League from making a move for a national TV deal.
For MLS, which has a TV contract the size of a thimble and no real competitors on the horizon (the recently revived NASL has settled in more or less comfortably as a top minor league), the big money is in the expansion fees. League commissioner Don Garber, who had previously insisted that cities build soccer-only stadiums in order to have a shot at a franchise (a move that has resulted in a bumper crop of soccer-only stadiums in suburbs like Chester, Pa., and Bridgeview, Ill.), has more recently been open to bending that rule, and little wonder why: Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al Nahyan, the Abu Dhabi trillionaire who bought England's Manchester City club in 2008, is paying a record $100 million franchise fee for the rights to a team in New York City.
With that kind of coin on the table, Garber can overlook the fact that the team will likely have to make do with Yankee Stadium as its temporary home. It's not quite the new American Basketball Association's business model of offering a franchise to anyone who can come up with $20,000 (which has resulted in an epic list of ABA teams that have gone out of business, many without ever even taking the court), but in the same, ahem, league.
But while it's easy to laugh at cities like Indianapolis, Austin and Albuquerque pitching themselves as ready for soccer prime time, how ridiculous is it, really? After all, in Europe, the top sports leagues routinely include franchises in cities a fraction of the size of what would be considered "major-league" in the U.S.: Dortmund, Germany, whose soccer team went all the way to the Champions League final last year -- what could be called the "World Series of European soccer" if the World Series were open to the winners of dozens of leagues in multiple countries -- is roughly the size of ... hey, look, it's Albuquerque!
Part of the reason is that European soccer uses a "promotion and relegation" system that, to Americans, seems crazy: If you finish in the bottom rung of your league, you get bounced down to the next rung, while the best teams in the top minor league move up. Picture Houston, Miami and the Chicago White Sox being sent to Triple-A as punishment for their 2013 crimes while Durham, Oklahoma City and Las Vegas moved up. (Now picture Fox executives crying.)
Another factor in why major sports teams are a relatively scarce commodity in the U.S., though, is that leagues like it that way. The main reason why even a franchise like the Jacksonville Jaguars is worth nearly a billion dollars, after all, is that it's not like you can pick up one on eBay, or even start your own: The only way to join the big-league owners' club is to apply for one of the teams that have already been minted.
It's a situation that has led to some scenarios that would be impossible in other nations -- Los Angeles with no NFL team, for example, not to mention New York with no more than two or three in any sport despite being triple the size of the next-largest city. (In fact, without the threat of upstart leagues, big cities would almost certainly have even fewer teams: Both the New York Mets and Los Angeles Angels came into being only to forestall the threat of Branch Rickey's proposed Continental League.) In England's Premier League, Noll points out, six of the 20 teams play in London -- and every city with at least half a million people (roughly the dividing line between major- and minor-league cities in the U.S.) has at least two top-level soccer teams. To have the equivalent number of teams in the far more populous U.S., he calculates, you'd need leagues with 150 teams apiece.
But wait, you're thinking, even if you waved a magic wand -- tarquinii remova! -- and banished sports leagues' monopoly power, increasing the number of teams in top American leagues to, let's say, a more manageable 50, how would all those Louisvilles and Hartfords ever manage to compete with the richer teams, when there are already such huge disparities between the sports haves and have-nots? Wouldn't this just create more Kansas City Royals and Phoenix Coyotes of the world, forced to stumble along on reduced payrolls and revenue-sharing checks without ever sniffing the resources available to their rich big-city cousins?
The answer would be in the other half of the equation: The first thing you'd get if leagues could no longer limit franchises would be a land rush to the big media markets, which would so dilute the revenues of the teams there -- one-fifth of New York is no better than all of Phoenix -- that it would go a long way toward leveling the playing field. It's a calculus that would work better in some leagues than others -- Noll says that when he ran the numbers a couple of decades back, maximum reasonable league sizes came to "for the NFL, close to 50, baseball close to 40, the NBA about its current size, and the NHL already too big" -- but there's nothing magic about the 30-or-so-team threshold we're at now, other than that current team owners feel like it strikes a reasonable balance between raking in expansion fees and keeping their slice of the revenue pie as big as possible.
That's the pure economics way of looking at it, anyway: In the real world, some problems crop up that aren't so easily swept under the rug by assuming a spherical cow. For starters, where would all these teams play? (Europe, with its promotion-and-relegation system, features a vast number of mid-sized stadiums that can be expanded on the team's dime when necessary, something that isn't exactly part of the U.S. sports tradition.) And there's the small matter of finding talent to fill all of those rosters -- though given the nature of bell curves, it's likely that there are plenty of minor-league players out there who aren't much worse than a lot of the guys currently on big-league rosters. It's not like anyone really complains about the massive talent dilution of 1970s hockey, is it?
For Major League Soccer, then -- somebody reading this must still be wondering about MLS, right? -- the "let a thousand teams bloom" plan is less crazy than just a shift in strategy from maximizing monopoly power to cashing in at a time when franchise values are on the rise. (It doesn't hurt that all those new players that will be brought in to fill rosters would likely be earning close to the $35,000 league minimum.) For everyone in a smaller city waiting on a team in a more fashionable sport, meanwhile, it's less demographics then Steinbrenners and Joneses standing in your way. Yes, yet another reason to hate the Yankees.
Neil deMause is a Brooklyn-based journalist who has covered sports economics for Slate, the Village Voice, Baseball Prospectus and a bunch of other places you wouldn't remember. He runs the stadium news website Field of Schemes, and co-authored the book of the same name.