One of the first rules you learn in argumentative writing is to not argue both sides of an issue, but when it comes to MLS expansion and the case for more than 28 teams I think there are valid points on both sides. Because of these points, I’m going to write two articles about them, one against and one for. That’s not cheating, right? Oh well…apologies to my old professors.
So part one: The Case Against MLS Expansion Past 28 Teams.
Expansion has been a core mission of MLS for several years. Since the league’s relative stability around 10 years ago, expansion into new markets, like last year’s Orlando expansion, and growth in existing markets, including the introduction of NYCFC & the swap of Chivas USA to LAFC, have made the league hundreds of millions of dollars and attracted new fans. With the league’s crap-but-getting-better TV deals, massive interest in local markets is the bread and butter for the North American league.
Commissioner Don Garber and crew set a goal of having 24 teams in the league by 2020. After LAFC, Minnesota
United FC, Atlanta United FC, and David Beckham’s troubled Miami franchise were given bids 21-24, Garber and some owners expressed interest in expanding to 28 teams, but gave no timetable. Its not a controversial stance, but I believe St. Louis and Sacramento are practically guaranteed bids, and San Antonio is the next strongest contender on the list.
But what happens when the league hits 28?
The biggest issues facing a league with 30+ teams are dilution of the talent pool, fewer large market vs. large market games on national broadcasts, being forced into more strict regional scheduling, and potential difficulty maintaining single-entity ownership.
The level of talent in MLS is probably most similar to the second division leagues in England or Germany. MLS has come a very long way and is entertaining to watch, even as a neutral with no specific team to support. But the talent pool in North America where the majority of players are drawn from is less than world-class. The more teams that are added, the more players are signed who may have been playing at a lower level were it not for the new teams’ existence. Given an adjustment of the DP rules or more money to spend on players, this could be avoided, but I’m doing my best to analyze MLS as it exists today.
Assuming that MLS and the television networks would “play fair” with who they broadcast, more teams would mean a less likely matchup of large market teams on national broadcasts. As I’ve said previously, TV ratings are rough for MLS, but they are increasing both in viewership and importance. For MLS to be considered a significant league by networks like ESPN or Fox (and not just their “soccer guys”), MLS games need to bring in enough viewers to make it worth them talking about throughout the week. Salt Lake City vs. Orlando isn’t going to get people who don’t actively follow those teams or the league to tune in.
Barring an expanded schedule, adding more teams could force the league to put more emphasis on regional scheduling. USL is essentially two separate leagues at this point, which is fine for a lower division league where clubs might not have the budgets to make huge trips every other week. But for MLS, the pinnacle of professional soccer in North America, a regional schedule would have one of two outcomes. Either it would make them look like their lower-division counterparts, or it would make them more aligned with MLB’s National League vs. American League where teams rarely play opponents from the opposite leagues. Maybe that’s ok for a North American league, but it would be different from most of the rest of the world.
Probably the biggest barrier to MLS expanding to 30+ teams is that Garber and his squad seem to have no intention on giving up single-entity ownership. Already at 20 teams we’re seeing issues with MLS’ convoluted rules on how international players are allocated to the different teams, most recently with a feud between DC United and Orlando City. Its hard to believe that adding 10 or more teams into the mix would ease those tensions.
There are factors that would seem to rule in favor of MLS expanding past 28, the biggest being the truck full of cash they get each time a team joins. I’ll expand on that and more tomorrow, but personally I think 28 is going to be the limit for MLS expansion.