MLS Expansion: TV Must Be the Key (UPDATED)

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The Sports Business Journal reported on Friday that MLS is looking at five potential markets for the next round of expansion and very notably omitting perhaps the most important market of all.

The paper reported that New York City appears dead for the next round. However, a second NYC area team should be a priority for MLS as well as a return to Florida.

From my vantage point, MLS’ biggest problem isn’t the quality of play (which is decent enough), the poor standard of tactical coaching, or attendance (which is actually quite good if not top shelf by any truly objective standard). It is the mere fact that the league struggles on TV. In fact the term, struggles is a massive understatement.

In the last round of expansion MLS embraced two markets with a rich NASL/USL history as well as an amazing sized fan base. But neither is a particularly attractive national TV market.

MLS’ TV ratings have declined by a steep level since the contraction of the league’s two Florida franchises. In 2000, MLS had more viewers on ESPN than today and more games on network TV than today. Contraction took MLS out of the nation’s 4th most populated state and away from several large TV markets. TV markets ironically enough, that continue to post some of the highest TV ratings for the US National Team’s English language broadcasts (and in the case of the Miami/Fort Lauderdale market a high Spanish ratings as well) while posting average or below average ratings for Major League Soccer.

It is important to note that MLS got higher ratings on ESPN when the league was buying time on the Disney family of networks. Today ESPN pays MLS a rights fee and gets fewer viewers. Even more distresing are reports that Spanish language TV flagship station Univision is reporting a substantial MLS ratings decline on its subsidiary Telefutura this season. Viewership on ESPN Deportes, which is in far fewer homes than Telefutura are up however this season.

We’ll get back to Florida in a minute, but first let’s visit New York, which unlike Florida appears to be out of the expansion mix for the next set of teams. It’s no secret that the New Jersey based Metrostars/Red Bulls have failed to make a dent in the critical New York media market. MLS must find a solution to this problem. While paid attendance for Red Bull is sure to increase with the opening of a new stadium in Harrison, NJ, the TV ratings are probably not likely to see any significant change.

MLS needs to bite the bullet on this one and put a second team in the New York metropolitan area, growing the league’s brand through a rivalry with the Red Bulls. This will lead to more TV exposure in the largest TV market in the country and to more mainstream media interest since much of the elite sports media hails from the Northeast.

If MLS does not commit to a NYC-2 franchise, Red Bull must seek an accommodation with the new USL-1 team heading to Long Island next year. That would involve playing a Big Apple Cup competition between the two teams and selling the TV rights, independently of MLS and USL if necessary.

Rumors persist that USL, as a league may undergo some sort of overhaul structurally before the 2010 season begins. With the collective bargaining agreement pending in MLS, it is possible that when 2010 rolls around the two US professional leagues will be willing to renew their partnership ,which was broken off earlier this decade or even enter into something more comprehensive. However, we must assume that will not happen, thus it would be wise for the two NYC professional clubs to work with one another to raise the profile of the sport locally, until MLS finally expands again in the area.

Florida has always been logical for the sport. The NASL was a big hit in Fort Lauderdale (Miami Area) and Tampa/St Pete and did reasonably well for a time in Jacksonville. Every successive start up league targeted Florida, whether it was the ASL, the APSL or the USISL. When MLS began play in 1996, Tampa Bay was an original market. Miami/Fort Lauderdale was added in 1998.

It’s also very apparent that US Soccer has a lot invested in Florida: from the targeting of youth clubs in the US Development Academy setup, to the USSF Bradenton Academy. Additionally, Florida provides many of the players that are in the US player pool at all level both youth and full national team. Additionally, youth soccer is massive in the state encompassing all demographic groups.

Ethnic populations of both Latins and Caribbean Islanders are well represented in Florida, and that is why despite not having an MLS team for eight years and having four full seasons without any professional football, Florida continued to attract high profile international friendlies. Additionally, Miami is the only city that has hosted at least one match in each of the past seven Gold Cup tournaments. The Gold Cup is marketed by SUM and they keep returning to Miami, time and time again despite the perceived failure of the market in MLS.

Tampa Bay was contracted in 2001 largely due to stadium and ownership issues. That year the Mutiny was among the worst teams in MLS history, and struggled at the gate. However, in the clubs first five MLS seasons, attendance and results were respectable even if playing in a large football stadium was not.

Attendance in USL cannot be used as a predictor as to MLS success. Toronto and Seattle lagged towards the middle or even the bottom in USL-1 attendance. But promotion to MLS has seen both markets hit home runs for MLS. At the same time markets such as Rochester and Charleston consistently outdrew Seattle and Toronto in USL-01. But nobody realistically has suggested them for MLS in the last several years. (Rochester, recall was a prime MLS expansion candidate in the late 90s and did have a decent following for the NASL.)

In fact while attendance is poor for Baseball’s Florida Marlins, its local TV numbers are in the top half for MLB. Chances are a renewed MLS team in Miami may lag in attendance but not in local TV viewership or interest.

As evidenced by the TV ratings for USMNT matches and the turnout for the Gold Cup every two years, Miami/Fort Lauderdale remains a very viable football market despite the perceived failure of the Fusion and struggles of Miami FC in USL-1. In fact the Fusion as with the Tampa Bay Mutiny were contracted more due to ownership and stadium issues than anything else.

Tampa Bay’s attendance if you take out the most brutal summer months of July and August was actually competitive with the entire league except perhaps Los Angeles from 1996 to 2000. But the club was owned by MLS itself and when no stadium plan or suitable buyer stepped forth (Malcolm Glazer was interested but in the politics of NFL/MLS ownership, some of the founding MLS owners did not want to play ball with him) and thus the team was contracted.

In Miami/Ft Lauderdale, Ken Horrowitz the investor-operator of the Fusion did not want to continue to absorb the sort of losses every MLS club was absorbing at the time. Several owners/investors bailed on MLS in the first six years. AEG went from owning one team, the Colorado Rapids, to seven teams as individual investors bailed. (AEG owned the Chicago Fire from its inception in 1998 but bought five teams that were previously owned by other investors)Basically, the situation in Miami though it was turning positive by the end of 2001 under bthe inspired leadership of Doug Hamilton was more to do with an uncommitted owners and the unwillingness of AEG to bail out the Fusion than anything else. Claiming the market “failed” is shortsighted and incorrect unless it is fair to claim every markets whose team was sold by an original investor also “failed.”

It is also possible that an elevated profile for MLS internationally will help bring “soccer snobs” in both New York and Florida through the gate in the future. Supporting MLS which was not seen as respectable, by European and Latin fans in Miami’s past failure and New York’s continued troubles may be less of an issue going forward thanks to SUMs marketing genius. At the same time it can be strongly argued from top to bottom the level of play in MLS circa 2000 was stronger than today, but a softening of “eurosnobs” towards the league appears to be underway.

In summary, attendance is one thing, but MLS has a major TV problem. With average ratings lower than bowling, poker, college volleyball and small conference college basketball and football, the league needs to think TV in the next expansion. This reality leaves MLS with two logical choices: New York and, a return to either Miami or Tampa.

While St Louis’ soccer tradition is admirable and I have previously advocated expansion to that market (ahead of Philadelphia, Portland or Vancouver), the continuing decline in MLS’ TV numbers since pulling out of the Florida market has made me rethink my view. Should NYC-2 continue to not be an option, then St Louis should be the second choice.

(UPDATED CONTENT UNDERLINED)

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