This is the 1st guest post by TSG community member Jacob Chambliss. Well done.
As promising as the latest MLS expansion teams seem, their inception does little to dull my own apathy regarding the league’s newest franchises (Disclaimer: I do love Jay DeMerit).
This lack of excitement has nothing to do with my stance on soccer—I love the sport. Nor does it have anything to do with my Eurosoccer snobbery—I firmly believe that MLS is a growing league in more ways than one, and its future looks very promising. My problem with these expansions has to do with where my couch is located…in Atlanta, Georgia. There are no MLS teams anywhere near the Southeastern United States (or the South, as I refer to the geographical region in this post), and this saddens my heart.
Put simply, the reasons for MLS backing of teams in my region can’t overcome the cons. Any talk of expanding the league into the South seems ludicrous when measured against the inevitable revival of the NY Cosmos, for example. This certainly seems to be the stance of the MLS execs; in recent online forums with both Miami and Atlanta soccer fans, the resounding message is that expansion priority will go to establish another New York team.
This comes despite the fact that MLS has at least one eye on setting up shop in the South. According to Dan Courtemanche, Executive Vice President of Communication for the MLS, expanding to the Southern region has long been one of Don Garber’s goals. When asked why this hasn’t happened yet, Courtemanche’s response was quite revealing.
While some would argue that soccer in the South can’t flourish because of the dominance of college football and Title IX—which basically restricts SEC schools from having men’s soccer teams—this does not at all seem to factor into Garber’s thinking.
Such a position ignores the soccer culture that exists in the South (did anyone see how packed the Georgia Dome was for the Mexico friendly last week?), and loses sight of the real issue behind potential MLS expansion teams. The problem isn’t so much college football here as it is with college football. That is, aspiring expansion teams into this region face an uphill battle procuring the proper facilities for their athletes.
Garber and Courtemanche were both pretty adamant about this—new expansion owners either need to have plans to build a soccer-specific venue for their team, or otherwise have ownership over whatever venue they intend to share with other teams. Here’s where the problem comes in.
Take the two recent cities under scrutiny by MLS—Miami and Atlanta. Both have subpar attendance for their professional teams already. They also have problems unique to their areas—Miami is so far away from any other MLS team the potential of this being the first “Southern” MLS team is a stretch (not to mention the heat), and Atlanta is a city with no natural boundaries…one can live forty minutes away from the city proper and still claim to live in “Atlanta,” which certainly contributes to the poor attendance of the professional teams already in place there.
This presents a double-edged sword to anyone attempting to plant soccer roots in the region. On the one hand is the difficulty of securing professional facilities for aspiring owners, and the second is MLS’s desire to plant new teams in regions already saturated with MLS franchises. When pressed for why Courtemanche was so positive about soccer in the South while priority goes to New York, there was no response—either somebody knows something I don’t, or the preferred method for Garber right now is to focus on developing MLS rivalries.
This also would seem to preclude the South from consideration for expansion—would D.C. United really view Atlanta as a threat? Would anybody care about Miami’s team more than they would the sun? I’d say it’s doubtful, and for that reason I sense a bit of a double-standard in their preference to expansions—should MLS look to “expansion” in the geographical sense of the term, or should it focus on amplifying the regions in which it already has a presence in order to bolster its (weakening) tv rating? As an Atlanta resident, I’d pick the former, but I’m also not Don Garber.
Again, I want to reiterate here that college football shouldn’t have an impact on the decision to build an MLS club here. As Matt has pointed out to me, you currently have Generation Adidas, the SuperDraft, and the DP to establish your team base—and with the renewed focus on development academies and the reserve league, player prospects for the MLS in general are looking ever brighter. From a supporter’s perspective, the issue isn’t whether there are soccer fans here, but how to draw those soccer fans collectively around a team centered in whatever city the MLS decides to move in on.
This does not mean that all is lost for my Southern soccer supporters, however. Courtemanche pointed to two models for expansion that have worked well for lobbying teams. The first is the Philadelphia Union, who owe much of their existence to their excellent supporters’ group The Sons of Ben. While the owner assumes the business risk associated with founding a new club, it was the Sons of Ben who lobbied for funds to build the stadium, and they took an active involvement with the ownership during the club’s development—a clear-cut sign to Garber that this was a team that would draw fans.
The second example would be Seattle; a team backed with strong ownership that drew up a solid business model for Garber to look at, as well as ownership in Qwest field—which swayed Garber’s decision in their direction despite the fact that it was a turf field. In Atlanta’s situation, the latter parallel doesn’t look great—currently, I’m only aware of the Blank family (headed by Arthur Blank) who have shown any interest in owning an Atlanta club. Even here, the lack of any concrete stadium plans really hurts the team, as the Blanks have no stake in any professional stadium in Atlanta, and would probably require a professional team to relocate before attempting to move on a venue in the region. Barring a huge revival in organized supporters’ interest in bringing the MLS here, then, the future of the MLS in this region looks bleak for now, I’d say, but not utterly without hope.