Fifteen years ago, MLS launched with teams in downright psychedelic uniforms playing on football fields; some of MLS’s earliest highlights look like the two teams are playing on a lacrosse field. In 2011, the situation has vastly changed, as most MLS franchises have their own soccer specific fields or compounds with only a few still sharing their stadiums with an NFL team. The multitude of stadiums has also allowed MLS franchises to own another revenue flow which has led to marked improvements of the product on the pitch. As part of the MLS Talk 2011 preview, we will take a look at the stadium situation for MLS franchises and how it has helped their fortunes, as well as those that are still waiting to build their first home.
The announcement of the Houston Dynamo new soccer-specific stadium this offseason added this franchise to the list of clubs with their own grounds. In the past year, the New York Red Bulls and Sporting Kansas City debuted new soccer complexes (with KC’s unveiling coming in a few months) while new MLS franchises like Philadelphia and Portland join the league with new stadiums already in place. And this may be the biggest indicator of the success of the league – instead of hunkering down in a football stadium for a few years, hoping to gather enough revenue and support to build your own place, these teams plan on having their own stadium from the beginning. Montreal will join MLS in 2012 with Saputo Stadium, their soccer-specific grounds built in 2008.
The state of stadiums in MLS can be divided into a few categories, and there are some similarities among these clubs based on where they play:
Teams playing in a multi-use facility and looking to get out: Sadly, some of MLS’s most storied franchises are in this category. DC United and the New England Revolution’s plights are well documented, but these clubs suffer from a financial drain of resources from lack of control over where they play. While both have been competitive in the past and still get good talent, they will begin to fall behind their brethren in finances and be unable to get the higher-priced talent they need. While it sounds like United’s search for a stadium site is beginning to make progress, the Revolution are still looking at yard markers and Patriots logos for the foreseeable future.
Teams playing in a multi-use facility and happy to stay: There is a marked difference between the two aforementioned clubs and Seattle’s situation. Qwest Field, while known as the home of the Seattle Seahawks, has the type of design that makes it a good venue for soccer as well. Sounders fans have adopted the stadium as their own and have made it the only NFL-MLS partnership that seems to work without problem.
Teams moving to their own stadium in the next four years: These are the teams that will show how big of an advantage having your own stadium and the revenue it brings in is for a professional team. Most of these clubs were in the DCU/New England situation, but are hoping shiny new places attract casual fans and their dollars. This is a model that all professional sports follow – build the new stadium/arena that is a nirvana for the hardcore fans but has enough aesthetic qualities to attract the casual fans and their families. Fans are eagerly anticipating the Houston/San Jose/Sporting KC new fields and the benefits the clubs will accrue from them.
Teams playing in soccer-specific stadiums: This number is growing and that is only a good thing for MLS as well as these individual teams. It used to be that the Galaxy were the class of the league with the Home Depot Center; now arenas like Rio Tinto and Red Bull Arena give their teams a real home field advantage. The problem with many of these new stadiums are their locations – Dick’s Sporting Goods Park is in Commerce City, not Denver. Pizza Hut Park is in Frisco, not Dallas. And while being located outside of a major city is not a death warrant for a franchise (the New York Giants and Jets play in the Meadowlands after all) but it would be better to have these stadiums closer to the fans.
What do all these new soccer stadiums mean for MLS this year? Fans can expect to see the beautiful game played in nicer stadiums, and this does make a difference for the product on the field. Watching a playoff match or a rivalry on TV in a soccer specific stadium looks nicer if nothing else. The money that comes from these stadiums will also make the teams more financially secure, helping the league become more financially secure. These new stadiums are both a sign of MLS progress and the sign of a brighter future for American soccer.