It’s been often overlooked that as MLS expands and is adding four new clubs in the next round of expansion, that television market size and media profile might factor heavily into the decision making process. While some markets have established themselves at the lower division level, others that have not might be under strong consideration because MLS needs to have a stronger mix of larger TV markets in its portfolio when its marketing arm SUM negotiates the next TV rights deal that includes the league in the 2021-2022 time period.
By the time the next TV rights is up for bidding, MLS will have expanded from 24 to 28 teams.
It makes business sense for MLS to pursue the top TV markets because the more people who tune in to MLS games on TV, the more money MLS can receive in the future from lucrative TV contracts and sponsorships. MLS is already in the top 10 largest TV markets in the United States. Those top 10 cities are: (1) New York, (2) Los Angeles, (3) Chicago, (4) Philadelphia, (5) Dallas/Fort Worth, (6) San Francisco/Oakland/San Jose, (7) Washington DC, (8) Boston, (9) Atlanta and (10) Houston.
So, in MLS’s decision making process to select the next four cities that the league will expand to, the TV market size is a huge factor. Here is a look at each of the prospective 12 MLS expansion markets (in alphabetical order) and the television profile for each including how large a Hispanic TV market each is.
Nielsen rank – 22 (overall) 36 (Hispanic)
Charlotte’s bid is impaired after the failure of the city to approve a multi-million dollar funding package for a stadium. Charlotte is an attractive market and MLS would like to place a team somewhere in the southeast to create rivalries with Atlanta and DC United. However, Charlotte’s bid does not include the owners of the existing USL club, the Charlotte Independence, and seems to be suffering from an unrealistic expectation of public funding.
Charlotte is a growing TV market with a large corporate community. This one makes a lot of sense for MLS but the time might not be right.
Nielsen rank – 36 (overall) 92 (Hispanic)
FC Cincinnati averaged the highest attendance per game in 2016 of any US-based club outside MLS. In fact, FCC averaged 17,296 fans per match, a number that would have ranked ahead of several MLS clubs. Still market size is prohibitive for Cincinnati as is geography with Columbus nearby along with fellow expansion-bid city Indianapolis.
It’s difficult to fathom MLS putting a team in this small a TV market. However, few lower division teams have ever gained the level of support as FC Cincinnati.
Nielsen rank – 13 (overall) 43 (Hispanic)
Detroit provides the biggest mystery of the MLS expansion sweepstakes. It’s a big market and no doubt a place where MLS wants to be. It also boasts one of the most visibly successful non-professional clubs in the country, supporter-managed fourth division Detroit City FC. DCFC isn’t just another fourth division side, it’s a sensation. And the type of supporters the club has attracted have no interest in joining MLS.
This leaves a fractured soccer market and with no established club to pull up, maybe MLS passes for now. But it’s tough to see how MLS wouldn’t push hard for a market this big before the next TV contract renegotiation.
Nielsen rank – 27 (overall) 57 (Hispanic)
Indy Eleven are the most successful club in NASL in terms of ticket sales and market penetration. The club would have an instant rivalry with Columbus and Chicago in MLS. But securing public support for a soccer-specific-stadium has been a difficult haul for the club and perhaps the MLS bid is simply leverage to put pressure on state and local officials?
Nielsen rank – 29 (overall) 55 (Hispanic)
Controversially, MLS has reached out to John Ingram to lead the expansion bid cutting out Nashville SC (formerly Nashville FC) an organic supporters grown club that now is moving to USL. This is a strong market with a growing TV profile and a natural rival for Atlanta United FC. But still, Nashville remains a likely outsider in this round of expansion.
Nielsen rank – 12 (overall) 9 (Hispanic)
USL club Phoenix Rising FC just rebranded for a second time in four years under new ownership. They will lead what is despite the area’s market size a long shot bid along with additional investors.
Phoenix might eventually have an MLS team but it is unlikely to be in this expansion group.
Nielsen rank – 25 (overall) 33 (Hispanic)
North Carolina FC of NASL are among the most impressive soccer organizations outside MLS. Owner Steve Malik recently secured an NWSL franchise and has been given massive plaudits behind the scenes by decision makers about his role in salvaging NASL this winter.
The television market is large enough and the soccer supporter community strong enough to justify MLS bringing NCFC up. While on the surface the market looks fractured between men and women as well as pro, college and youth, an MLS club at the very top of that pyramid would bring all parties together. This is a logical addition that brings a TV market without major pro sports competition other than NHL.
Nielsen rank – 20 (overall) 9 (Hispanic)
On the surface, Sacramento is a slam dunk – as close to a sure thing as MLS will ever witness, yet they seem to be hedging by talking up other markets. The Sacramento Republic of USL have maintained consistently strong support. But a new independent ownership group has popped up for an MLS bid, creating some bad feelings not only locally but across the country among hardcore soccer fans. Still, Sacramento is probably leading the pack for expansion. Political support is strong and the city has a turnkey stadium plan.
The size of the television market also justifies Sacramento’s inclusion. The only drawback is close proximity to San Jose, a club that’s never really penetrated the nation’s sixth largest TV market. The new Avaya Stadium is about a two hour drive from Sacramento. But perhaps MLS will see that a semi-local derby can only help grow the Quakes footprint in the critical San Francisco/San Jose/Oakland TV market.
Nielsen rank – 21
The spiritual home of American soccer looked a sure thing not long ago. But local political opposition to public stadium funding and the strength of other bids has killed lots of the momentum. Still St Louis remains a large market outside MLS and one with an incredible history in the sport. This remains a likely destination for the league sooner rather than later.
Nielsen rank – 32 (overall) 7 (Hispanic)
San Antonio has proven over the last five years an ability to consistently support a minor league product, and have an established stadium location, excellent ownership with the San Antonio Spurs and all the local political support that is needed. But San Antonio is a smallish TV market. However, it must be noted the size of Hispanic television households in this market, which might give SUM incentive with Univision’s renegotiation in 2021/22.
This is a sleeper strong market and bid. I would not be shocked if San Antonio wins a spot in MLS.
Nielsen rank – 28 (overall) 12 (Hispanic)
The flavor of the week is a market fraught with danger. The area has never shown a sustained ability to support local pro soccer and with Xolos right across the border in Liga MX, a higher level product than MLS can offer is available to local fans who are willing to drive to Tijuana. Still, it appears political support is coalescing for this bid. But San Diego remains a smallish TV market with little history of supporting local club soccer. MLS should pass on this one.
Nielsen rank – 11 (overall) 20 (Hispanic)
The largest television market without MLS currently has a lot going for it. On the surface, the Tampa/St Petersburg bid should be a sitter – a large market with lots of local political and business support, a deep-pocketed owner in Bill Edwards and an established club with a historic name (The Tampa Bay Rowdies). But concerns are abound beginning with the desire to play in St Petersburg rather than Tampa, and the previous failure of MLS in this market.
Also, the close proximity to Orlando, one of MLS’ flagship teams might work both ways. MLS does not have two clubs outside two largest cities in the country as close as Orlando City and the Rowdies would be geographically.
Still, the club has an established stadium and fan base which should tip the scales in its favor especially if David Beckham’s stalled Miami bid collapses completely.
Who gets teams?
If I had to pick four, I would say Sacramento, St Louis, San Antonio and Tampa Bay with Raleigh/Durham a close fifth and ready to claim a spot if one of the above stumble. Each market makes sense from a TV standpoint. San Antonio’s inclusion owes itself to a large Hispanic population and outstanding ownership coupled with a settled stadium situation.