The Expansion Bubble

Maybe it's just me, but it sure seems like the bloom is starting to come off the MLS expansion rose.

Back in January, when the league declared a race to the $30 million finish line and Philadelphia managed to breast the tape ahead of St. Louis, it seemed like half the cities on the continent were warming up their cars for the midnight trip to TP Don Garber's house with cold hard cash.

And with the pipeline San Jose-to-Seattle-to-Philadelphia all loaded up, and a dozen other guys right behind, the only real debate seemed to be whether MLS should stop at 18, 20 or 65. Don Garber's phone was ringing off the hook, like a round-heeled cheerleader a month before the Prom.

Yet even amidst the loud cacophony of self-congratulation based on the "if so many really rich guys, who got so rich because they're financial geniuses and thus know a good investment when they see one, want to buy in to MLS then that proves MLS is a strong, viable business with a future" theory, there were cautionary voices and warning flags.

And now that 2008 has proven, if nothing else, that there are a lot of really rich guys who are actually pretty dumb, maybe someone ought to take a long, sober look at where the league is going.

Let's start with this year's expansion team, the San Jose Earthquakes, or Quakes 2.0 as some would have it.

They were granted an expansion team based on a basically meaningless promise from the league to the city that they never really thought they'd have to fulfill. But along came Lew Wolff with some really convincing sounding noises about building a stadium and MLS took the money.

Now the whole thing is beginning to look like a classic example of the value of verbal agreements. Wolff has announced a "scaling back" of his plans, whereby the stadium, when it eventually gets built (not a single shovel full of dirt has yet been turned and won't be for a long time) will be a bare-bones 15,000 seater - "expandable" to a whopping 18,000 - with few amenities and no luxury boxes. The "$100 million" project has shrunk to $60 million and then $40 million, amidst quibbles about how much of the quoted price originally included land acquisition costs.

Put another way, they were better off in Spartan Stadium, the building they vacated to move to Houston. Put even another way, Wolff is planning on building Saputo West. All that's missing is the Porta-Potties.

Next up is, of course, the reborn Seattle Sounders a team for which there is little reason beyond 1) a lust bordering on the pathological for Paul Allen's wallet and b) a childish attraction for minor celebrities who host cheezy game shows.

(Feel like being offended this morning? Then check out THE SECOND HALF OF THIS VIDEO from yesterday's "unveiling" of the Sounder's new uniform line. Watch Drew Carey preening and posing and then ask yourself what other professional football team would allow this kind of second rate garbage)

(New drinking game: watch a Sounders game and take a hit everytime they mention Drew Carey or show his face. You'll be completely hammered by the half.)

Yet MLS was so enthralled with the idea of bringing in Paul Allen (as, it should be noted, a MINORITY investor) that they decided that the whole "Soccer Specific Stadium" thing was, really, more like a guideline than a rule. So the excuse making commenced:

Yeah, everyone has been saying that MLS needed to get out of 70,000 seat football stadiums, and Team drew Carey will play in a 70,000 seat football stadium, BUT, see, they have an incredible, new, super-duper plan which will make the place look small. Granted this "drape a tarp over the empty seats" strategy was first used, with no discernable effect, in MLS back in 1996, but Seattle's tarps will be nicer. Or something. Totally different.

And yeah, MLS is trying to get teams off of plastic fields, so of course The Drewsers will play on a plastic field, but this is REALLY GOOD plastic, the famous Fieldturf, which is so great for soccer that Mo Johnston is begging MLS to let him use allocation money to rip it up.

Next up will be Philadelphia which, for some reason, has been forced to actually come up with a soccer specific stadium which is something more than a pile of blueprints and promises. Apparently Philly can't be trusted, so they had to actually bring the goods up front.

Which brings us to last October 15, the Great "Step Right Up and Make Your Bid" Extravaganza, whereby the nine candidate cities were going to take their best shot and the new "Expansion Committee" (incredibly, MLS never had one before this year) would select two, or four, or six or however many teams they found themselves excited about.

Well, as we all know, nine became seven when two bids failed to show up. Then seven bacme six when Joey Saputo, the sure-fire-shoe-in candidate decided - after a year of loud noises - that he really didn't have the money.

Joey clearly expected special consideration, but MLS is still kicking themselves for letting Toronto into the league for $10 million - the bargain of the century - and they're not about to give another Canadian team a discount.

In fact, the whole Canadian boomlet, whereby mental defectives like Jen Chang were saying as recently as this summer that MLS ought to give ALL their expansion teams to Canadian cities, has come crashing to the ground, amidst great wailing and gnashing of donut-stained teeth.

What's the problem? Well, as much as it offends Canadians to hear it, Don Garber has spent a considerable amount of time over the last year scouring The Great White North for the "commercial sponsors" which are the lifeblood of MLS.

And he's come up empty.

So the other day, Donny finally said what everybody else has thought was obvious from the beginning: if all Canada can do is sell game tickets, even if it means selling out 20,000 seaters every week, then MLS is better off expanding exclusively in the US, where each team in a given metropolitan area has the potential to boost US TV ratings and US sponsorship dollars as US companies look at the US attendance numbers.

Put more bluntly, 20,000 tickets sold in Vancouver don't benefit the league as much as 15,000 seats sold in St Louis along with the increased TV footprint and expanded reach for corporate sponsors.

So in less than a year we've gone from a total, moon-eyed infatuation with expansion into every nook and cranny of Canada to the point where the league is reevaluating whether ANY Canadian city ought to get a team.

And the beat goes on.

Later: The US candidates.