Expansion: Is Miami 2.0 a Bet That MLS Can't Afford?

When last we left the topic of MLS EXPANSION, I was opining (I do so love a good opine) that out of the six remaining expansion candidates, the two remaining Canadian cities (Vancouver and Ottawa) were on increasingly shaky ground.

Partly it's due to the fact that further Canadian expansion is going to require substantial revenues from "commercial businesses" as the Commissioner puts it (I'm not certain what other kind of business there is, but no matter); revenues which he spent most of last summer trolling around up there looking for with a signal lack of success.

And as he put it, "The more teams we add (in Canada), the more it takes away out from growing our footprint and our television ratings in the United States.". Put another way, without some big corporate dollars to offset those two items, MLS is indeed better off to expand in the US.

As for the two remaining candidate cities, Ottawa is simply a non-starter on almost every level, and Vancouver, while an enticing prospect, has made virtually no progress on getting local government to budge on the waterfront stadium project.

Yes, they're spiffying up B.C. Place, but they're never going to sell that as a permanent home. Seattle got a pass on the building issue, but for Vancouver, no SSS, no MLS.

(Note: as Garber makes the Grand Tour of candidate cities, he makes all kinds of happy noises about each one. Ignore everything he says.)

So if, for the sake of argument, we eliminate the Canadians (at least this time around), then that leaves only four possibilities: Miami, Portland, St. Louis and Atlanta.

Miami is the bid that the conventional wisdom now says is the clear leader.

In this, they join a long line stretching back a decade: Rochester, Oklahoma City and Montreal can tell them how much the CW is worth in this regard.

Unfortunately (they're my favorite candidate) their bid is looking shakier by the day.

When the bid was first announced, the fanfare was almost deafening: Barcelona, one of the iconic clubs in the world, wanted to invest in Major League SOccer in the US! What could be better than that?

Well, as it turns out, a whole lot.

To start with, Barca's President has stated that they figure to make about $9 million a year on the MLS investment. This would be almost twice what the Galaxy - the league's purported revenue leader - is reportedly making, and they have all those Beckham shirts out there.

Barcelona apparently feels that an MLS team will help establish their brand in the US market, and one of the advantages of this is that, yes, they'll be selling trainloads of Barca shirts.

Well, perhaps. They certainly understand souvenir sales better than I do.

However, from my humble standpoint, there are two problems with that theory:

First of all, BARCELONA GEAR IS NOT EXACTLY HARD TO COME BY in the US, and I daresay that putting an MLS patch on the sleeve isn't exactly going to light up the phone lines. In fact, it might very well be considered a negative by a whole lot of current Barca fans.

Secondly, they apparently haven't noticed, but Barca is sponsored by Nike. All MLS uniforms are supplied by adidas. And since shirt designs are proprietary, the MLS Barcelona shirt will have to look very different from the La Liga Barcelona shirt.

Thus, if it's brand identity they're pushing for here, they're out of luck.

Then there's the whole "We'll stock the club with players from our farm teams, supplement them with a few Americans if we have to, bring in an aging Superstar or two and kick some serious MLS ass" theory.

I'm seaching my memory here, because I seem to recall hearing that plan before. Who was it....darn, I'm just not coming up with it.

In any case, this scenario - call it the Chivas plan - only works if you do indeed win, and win big. A Barcelona-branded MLS team that loses to Salt Lake City and Seattle on a regular basis is of zero interest to existing Barca fans.

Then there's the question of all these brilliant young players that Barca would be bringing into their side. It sounds terrific when Barcelona CEO Joan Laporta says it, but as JACK BELL POINTS OUT there's one small problem: all MLS players, every last one, is under contract with MLS.

Thus, in order to bring in their rising young stars to give them some experience or whatever the idea is, Barca is going to have to release them from their contracts with the club and let them sign with Major League Soccer, who will then be under no obligation to - would in fact be stupid to - hand them over when Barca decides they want them back.

As LUIS BUENO POINTS OUT, while Chivas USA was supposedly going to engage in this same kind of "player sharing" scheme, "Over the past couple seasons, the only thing Chivas USA and Chivas de Guadalajara share are red stripes".

Then there's the question of salary: even if their MLS partners are willing to give them a pass on the player contract issue - which is very doubtful at best - there's no way on Earth that they'll also give them a pass on the cap. And how many budding young Barcelona players are going to be willing to come to Miami for even the MLS minimum (currently $33,000) let alone the Developmental salary (currently a sack of rice and four cans of Spam per week)?

Finally, there seems to be a somewhat disturbing attitude on display from the Barcelona group.

As ANDREA CANALES NOTES Laporta is now insisting that MLS accept their big and let them start play in 2010.

The problem with that is that last January, in trying to put the screws to - excuse me, to "encourage" - Philadelphia and St. Louis to submit their bids, Garber announced that whoever got there first would be the only team enering the league in 2010, and later reiterated that no more teams would be allowed in the same year as Philadelphia.

Furthermore, Laporta is now saying that Barca's bid is a one-time, "take it or leave it" proposition, and if MLS decides to either not accept them this time around OR not accept them for 2010 that they'll withdraw their bid forever.

I'm not terribly positive here, but I'm thinking that Phil Anschutz, Clark Hunt and the rest of the owners don't really respond all that well to what amounts to a threat. Barcelona seems to feel that MLS is frothing at the mouth over the prospect of landing them.

I think they're mistaken. I think the owners don't see them any differently than they see Joey Saputo, another guy who thought MLS couldn't live without him.

Coincidentally, as all these questions were arising, Commissioner Garber was making his stop in Miami for the ritual "formal presentation" of the bid.

It didn't go well.

Garber mentioned that FIU had artificial turf, and that the league would prefer grass. Marcelo Claure says he explained to Garber that "that's the best turf there is".

Well, I'm glad we've cleared that up.

Then Garber asked how long it was going to take for Miami to get a soccer stadium built. Claure allowed as to how he wasn't particularly interested, that he liked FIU just fine.

Garber inquired about the lack of luxury suites. Claure told him they didn't need them.

Basically, the Barcelona group is STARTING TO GET DEMANDING, acting as if they're doing MLS a favor.

And here's the thing:

MLS screwed the pooch in Miami the first time. To say that the Ken Whoreowitz disaster left a bad taste in the mouths of South Florida soccer fans is an understatement of colossal proportions.

MLS can't afford another Florida fiasco. If this outfit goes down, be it due to hubris if nothing else, the league will be finished there forever. There will be snow on the hills of hell before they get another shot.

Which brings up the final - maybe the fatal - issue:

Barcelona is run by a Board of Directors. Laporta is the President, elected for a four year term (which in fact expires in 2010). What happens two or three years down the road when Laporte has been replaced, the MLS investment is bleeding money, notoriously fickle South Florida is staying away in droves and the projected 78 bazillion shirt sales don't materialize?

Particularly if the world economy continues it's death spiral, or even just stagnates for awhile, who's to say Barcelona's board won't look to cut some costs? What's to stop them from ringing up Don Garber and saying "Thanks for everything, but we're pulling out"?

And is that a risk - however small - that MLS can afford to take?

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