Expansion Times; or, Will You Still Feed Me

The one thing to keep in mind about the Hillsborough verdict, again, is that this is not about Liverpool supporters.  It's about every fan.  This was vindication for every supporter, not just Liverpool.  It could have happened to anyone.  The tragedy was a relic of the days when fans were expendable, and the entire sport owes gratitude to those who did not accept anything less than justice and vindication. 

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Excuse the painfully inelegant segue.  And yes, I'm about to address a subject that deserves far fewer words and is of much less importance.  Look on the bright side, at least you're not getting another overview of What Prince Meant To Me.

Why are we afraid of MLS expansion?

I know, it's because of the 1970's NASL.  The NASL first hit 24 teams when they added six teams for 1978.  That same year four teams moved.  Compared to MLS, the NASL was as stable as Rasputin's autopsy.  There's an understandable lizard-brain reaction in American soccer fans to the idea of another implosion.  But those times aren't these.

You may not believe that Garber and MLS has earned the benefit of the doubt here, which is fine.  Throughout Don Garber's entire tenure, he has folded three teams and moved one.  That's over a period of sixteen years.  That's one year fewer than the lifespan of the entire NASL. 

Can it all go boom tomorrow morning?  Or in a few years?  I don't know, I really don't.  I can tell you how many stadiums have been built by and for MLS, how much more well-attended nearly every MLS team is than nearly every NASL team was, how much longer how many more teams have lasted than even the most successful NASL teams - but I can't tell the future.  I haven't seen the financial statements, and wouldn't know what to do with them if I did.

People who HAVE seen the financial statements, and have made decisions based on them, have bought in and doubled down, but maybe they're just as misinformed as Elton John was in the 70's, back when he broke poor Kiki Dee's heart.  If rich guys never made mistakes, Herbert Hoover would have served six terms.

Anyway, every time MLS expands, we've been citing non-existent FIFA regulations and trotting out doomsday spreadsheets and basically showing the calm, rational tranquility that American soccer fans have been famous for since the Caligiuri goal.

Here's a case in point.  Kevin Baxter is no dummy, and he too has recoiled at the thought of MLS manifest destiny:

But quality matters too and expansion could fuel a decline in the league's already uneven level of play since eight more teams means a minimum of 224 new players. League rosters are divided 50-50 between U.S. and foreign-born players, so if that split continues, U.S. colleges and the MLS academy system would have to produce another 112 first-division-worthy players in the next four years. That seems unlikely.

Baxter even-handedly closes with a great summary of the pro-expansion view:

Finding the right ownership groups will be even more important than finding the right cities, though. The North American Soccer League, forerunner to MLS, expanded itself into dissolution in 1984. Moving too quickly again could set teams up to fail, derailing Garber's master plan.

The commissioner is betting big that won't happen. Under his plan more teams means more fans, more revenue and, eventually, more money to pour back into player development and salaries, which will eventually improve the quality of play as well.

Now that Jorge Vergara has been shoved out of running a team, the Chicago Fire are now the best test of MLS due diligence of ownership.  Andrew Hauptman's poor stewardship of a (formerly?) popular team in an important market is uncomfortably reminiscent of the 1970's.  But the next batch of owners that have joined MLS seem much more accomplished and solid.  Anthony Precourt has, despite (or, vastly more likely, being totally unaware of) my misgivings, done a fantastic job reinvigorating the Columbus Crew.  Merritt Paulson is a nutcase, but one who brought a championship to his sold-out stadium.  Moral misgivings rightly abound with City Football Group, but no one's calling them uncommitted, let alone insolvent.  Be skeptical of Atlanta if you like, but those of us with gray hair in silly places recall his NASL predecessor in Atlanta was Ted Turner.  (For our younger readers, Ted Turner was basically a slightly more sane Donald Trump.)  And as far as I'm concerned, Don Garber finding a Minnesota MLS owner besides Vikings owner/literal racketeer Zygi Wilf is good enough by itself to induct Don Garber into the Hall of Fame as a Builder...if not a Player.

Okay, so LAFC's ownership group bears a slight resemblance to the cast of "It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World," and even Keith Richard is amazed that Miami MLS hasn't died yet. This is a still a vastly more reliable group of investors and potential investors.  NASL ownership groups were so fly-by-night I'm surprised they didn't firebomb Hamburg.

Worrying about talent is a classic case of taking a snapshot and confusing it for a movie.  Over the last fifty years or so, the major American sports leagues have doubled in size.  There is always a cottage industry in arguing which players of what era were better.  I tend to think that generally, the increased availability of major league jobs, especially highly paid ones, does more than any other single factor to develop and promote talent.  Pitching aces, quarterbacks, point guards and *WHATEVER THE IMPORTANT SKILLED HOCKEY POSITION IS, I KNOW JACK ABOUT THAT SPORT EXCEPT THAT FOR SOME REASON MAPLE LEAVES ARE BLUE AND DON'T FOLLOW GRAMMAR RULES* are jobs that have always been difficult to get, and the best of one era match up pretty consistently with the best of another.

But with MLS, there's an eye test that's even more conclusive.  If talent pool truly diluted with every new team, today's MLS teams would only be half as good as their 1996 counterparts.  I've been watching that long.  Not the case.  The talent dilution MLS, as in any other league, experiences diminishes over time.  Talent expands to fill the spaces available. 

Which leads me to think that we might have been looking at expansion all wrong.  Why are we afraid of expanding MLS to a size unprecedented in professional sports? 

Bill Peterson once said that there were hundreds of available spots for pro soccer teams in America.  He was crazy.  But let's say we go to a huge, but easily divisible number, like sixty-four.  That would cover, very roughly, every single metro area in the US and Canada above a million people.  Playoffs would be so easy even a parent trying to understand Common Core could grasp it - eight divisions of eight.  Top two qualify for playoffs.  Top four, if we're really feeling the MLS 50% ethos.

How could such a monstrosity be manned and marketed, you ask.  Or perhaps yell.  Well, the NCAA does it with multiple sports every year.  And with metro areas that barely deserve the term "metro."  They don't need to put every team on nationwide television.  Their championship tournaments draw from all over the country, because so many people are invested in the competition on some level. 

It will be more difficult and time-consuming to get fans invested enough in MLS to watch, say, Portland and Columbus in a championship.  But the NCAA gets people to care, deeply, about teams in Tuscaloosa and Durham. 

I'm not saying that MLS should expand to 64 by next year.  Two teams every four years or so seems to be working fine. Yet every time Don Garber opens the bidding, people act as if the ceiling is going to fall in.  Well...maybe there isn't really a ceiling.

You might ask how such a vast number of teams would be able to field sides that could compete with the best in Mexico.  The correct answer is, who cares.  Eventually, strong, well-supported club teams in the US will probably get a collection of guys together that could beat Tigres or America - but I'd settle for 48 or 64 teams that get CONCACAF'd by road goals.

I shouldn't even have to say this by now, but no, we wouldn't have vertical divisions.  The NCAA doesn't relegate, and neither should MLS.  All MLS2, MLS3 and MLS4 would do is re-create the New York-Penn League.  Our model here is the SEC/Big 10/Pac 10/Big 12/ACC, working against each other on the field but with each other in the marketplace.

The real benefit of more first division club teams would be in the national team.  If it's deepening the US player pool that floats your corpse - well, hey, you don't plant fewer fields if you want more corn, do you?  Look, finding eleven guys to work together is always going to be a crapshoot.  If revenue sharing keeps salaries down to a degree that the best US players still have to go to Europe?  Wonderful!  More jobs for more Americans!  The point here is to build a huge middle class. 

The real point is to build the sport.  More teams means shorter distances to drive, more games to watch, and more local connection for fans.  Any milestone you want for American soccer - CCL, World Cup, video game covers - will be financed by fans.  Detroit, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Louisville could all join the league.  Not only would Columbus not be hurt, they would have a whole ton of sexy rivalries to market.  They'd have more fans visiting, and more of their fans visiting other places.  All of which helps build the kind of atmosphere that gets new fans to join the fun.

It's possible that with success, especially the kind of success we're fantasizing about, will turn MLS into Animal Farm, imitating their neighbors by hoarding revenues and pitting communities against each other.  I see hope in a number of ways.  Eventually, communities will get wise to funding arenas and stadiums, and by the time MLS rolls in asking for the third, fourth or fifth public playpen, even America's mayors and city councils might get wise.  I don't see any kind of future where the public builds a bunch of MLS stadiums - so I don't see a future where one city's group of soccer fans gets played against another, the way football fans/suckers do.

And there probably is a ceiling on how many top level pro franchises our hegemony could handle before diminishing returns set in.  The Super Bowl probably won't get any more viewers if the NFL uses the NCAA model and expands all the way down to Grand Rapids. 

But I don't think the event horizon of diminishing returns is 28, or 32.  It may not even be 40.  Especially with MLS marketing a different in-game experience.  The NFL is all about putting on a show for television.  If you don't attend a soccer game, on the other hand, you're missing out.  Well, in order to market THAT, you have to make the product accessible.

I just picture a realization that MLS is not marketing a product like baseball and football...and therefore, is not competing with baseball and football.  They are not marketing to the same fans as Real Madrid and Manchester United...and therefore, do not have to make the same assumptions on what those fans are looking for. 

It's like Shaw said.  You see things that are there, and ask why? But I see things that aren't there, and say "AHHHH! GET THESE BUGS OFF ME!"