Major League Soccer has announced its intent to expand to 28 teams, and while it may seem counterintuitive, I believe this is actually a good thing for the North American Soccer League. Further, it is a good bet that MLS isn’t stopping at 28, but rather 32 seems like a more likely number. MLS shares many owners with the NFL, and more than any other league, MLS looks up to the NFL.
The NFL has 32 teams and its owners seem quite content with that number. The NFL could easily support more than 32 teams; cities like Columbus, Salt Lake City, Portland, Orlando and Oklahoma City are as NFL caliber as Buffalo, Jacksonville, Kansas City and New Orleans. That’s before looking North to Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver or overseas to London or Frankfurt. So why doesn’t the NFL have 40 teams? It’s about maximizing revenue and value of the franchises. The scarcity of NFL teams drives the value up.
The illusion of scarcity is why MLS, with 24 franchises awarded to date, is only saying they are going to 28 teams right now, rather than coming out and saying that 32 is the end game limit. If there are four expansion spots left, and two of them are practically spoken for by Sacramento and San Antonio, that artificially drives up the value of the “last two” spots because there is more demand than supply. If there were six spots readily available, they would be worth less than just two. MLS will likely stop expanding once their owners, who again overlap in many cases with the NFL, decide they have hit a number that maximizes league revenue per owner and franchise value. The NFL has identified 32 teams as the sweet spot for revenue and franchise value maximization. MLS may determine the right number for their league is less than 32, but they are unlikely to decide it is more than 32 teams.
A 28-32 team cap for MLS is a boon for NASL. There are 70 markets in the USA that could support a first division soccer team. The top 10 metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) could likely support several teams, as they do in Europe only to a lesser extent here since the market for the game is less developed. NASL can likely put teams in different parts of the 10 largest MSAs, and be the most relevant team within a comfortable drive of the area they serve.
For example, MLS is moving into downtown Atlanta. The city’s northern suburbs are populated and wealthy, and traffic in Atlanta is notoriously bad. The MLB’s Atlanta Braves are moving to Cobb County north of Atlanta because of a sweetheart stadium deal and the fact that is an attractive part of the market to be in. An NASL team could thrive in Cobb County near the Braves, while Atlanta United FC flourishes in its downtown stadium shared with the NFL Falcons. The recent failure of the Silverbacks in that market is a result of not having the right owners in place with financial strength and determination to field a strong alternative to MLS. Challenging in an MLS market requires a strong backing with a good strategy to carve out their own niche.
Not all markets offer this opportunity, however. The top 10 markets, and perhaps Seattle-Tacoma, would be interesting bets as MLS-having locations NASL could compete in. The good news is as MLS selects its final 8 markets, there are plenty of excellent metropolitan areas that will be left over NASL.
Where will MLS go?
Teams 21-24 are set with Atlanta United FC due in 2017, Minnesota United FC moving from NASL to MLS in either 2017 or 2018, LAFC debuting in 2018 and Miami Beckham United finally nailing down their stadium site.
25 and 26 appear to be locked up as well. Sacramento ticks all of MLS’s boxes like no expansion bid before, and the San Antonio Spurs acquisition of Toyota Field and launch of a USL franchise has been done with an open wink and nod from MLS.
So there are 2 more open spots “available” for MLS, and likely a hard maximum of 4 additional berths beyond that. This is good for NASL. It is not as good for USL.
It is good because it will attract more qualified investors in soccer across the country – more than can possibly join MLS. These prospective owners will have three options: invest in something other than US pro soccer, invest in a developmental league in USL or invest in an aspiring alternate major league in NASL.
MLS commissioner Don Garber says they are talking to groups in St. Louis and San Diego, which would position the league to fill gaps left in those towns by potentially departing NFL teams. He has tossed out Detroit and El Paso in similar conversations before. Long ago, MLS coveted Cleveland and Rochester as well. The billionaire owner of FC Cincinnati probably isn’t investing in USL to stay there. The Charlotte Independence owners have signaled their intent for MLS. Arizona United hired Frank Yallop as part of a plan to drive to MLS. Louisville is talking about a stadium plan to land MLS. MLS rejected investors from Las Vegas.
So let’s say MLS goes to 32 teams and they are: 25. Sacramento, 26. San Antonio, 27. St. Louis, 28. San Diego, 29. Cincinnati, 30. Phoenix, 31. Charlotte 32. Detroit.
Those are eight of the biggest MSAs left on the table, so that’s a pretty significant list of open markets lost. One region I am leaving off the MLS list is Tampa Bay. Certainly Tampa Bay is larger than some of the other metro areas on the list and expanding to Tampa Bay strike a blow to NASL. I left it off because the current owner, Bill Edwards, is unlikely to want to give over the control necessary to join MLS, there is a nearby MLS franchise in Orlando, and failure of the Tampa Bay Mutiny once before. However even if we replace Charlotte on the above list with Tampa Bay, and NASL loses the Rowdies with all the history and tradition they represent, the overall trend would still be favorable.
Why MLS maxing out is good for NASL
Because it means MLS is done growing, which means if you are an ambitious independent USL team owner, what are you investing for? You either need to suck it up and make peace with being minor league playing MLS reserve teams, you close up shop or you move to a more ambitious league of fellow independent teams aspiring to be first division. This conundrum almost certainly awaits Louisville, which is too small of a market to attract one of MLS’s final spots. I would expect a defection of spurned independent USL owners who are locked out of MLS when it stops growing at 32 teams. Tulsa, Charlotte, Louisville, Pittsburgh and Austin are all markets with more potential than what that USL would be able to harness and would be ripe for NASL to poach.
Beyond the present USL towns, where does a maxed-out MLS leave great markets like Nashville, Memphis, Buffalo, Cleveland, Las Vegas, Baltimore, New Orleans and Milwaukee? Locked out of MLS forever, or waiting patiently until an MLS franchise falters enough to be relocated. Those are all strong potential MSAs for NASL to move into. Beyond that there are solid markets like Chattanooga, El Paso, Hartford and Birmingham, which MLS would never touch.
MLS going to 28 or 32 teams may mean NASL loses another franchise or two along the way, but it has so much more to gain by capitalizing on the demand generated by the prospect of MLS expansion along with the impact dwindling odds the USL independents have for moving up, as the game of soccer grows in popularity across the country.
If MLS goes to 32 teams, what could NASL grow into?
In a scenario where MLS stops at 32 teams, NASL could look every bit as major a league in terms of the markets it supports by putting teams in the top 10 MSA/TV markets as well as in top 11-50 markets passed over by MLS.
If you positioned NASL teams with the right investor backing into different sections of the top 10 MSA markets with MLS, you could put teams in Orange County, East LA, Ventura County, the Inland Empire or the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles; in the city or northern suburbs in Chicago; in Arlington or Fort Worth in the Dallas MSA; in the Sugar Land area of the Houston MSA; in the city or northern suburbs of Philadelphia; in northern Virginia or southern Maryland in the DC area; in the city or northern suburbs of Boston. This would be in addition to the Atlanta example above, as well as the existing New York Cosmos, Fort Lauderdale Strikers and Miami FC. Reports have a Peter Wilt-led revival of the Chicago Sting potentially following the city/northern suburb path mentioned above, as well as the Bay Area Professional Soccer group looking to land a team in San Francisco or the eastern Bay Area. While it might not be necessary to have teams in all of these markets, it would be helpful in getting NASL a good TV contract one day.
Add to those teams in Baltimore, Cleveland, Buffalo, Nashville, Memphis, Las Vegas, Hartford, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, Austin, Providence, New Orleans, Virginia Beach, and more. Not only are there enough markets to support an alternate first division of American soccer, but you have enough available markets to support a multi-tier pyramid structure with promotion and relegation, should NASL want to introduce the much in-demand system to differentiate the product it offers in the marketplace from MLS.
Available markets are not the problem, not by a long shot. Qualified and motivated investors are the scarce resource for NASL right now. There are sure to be many groups who fail in their bid for a MLS team, whether they are independent USL clubs or investment groups that don’t presently operate a club. When the MLS musical chairs game is over, NASL will look more appealing to those left standing who don’t want to damn themselves to a minor league existence forever, and who are willing to make an investment in a league that has big time ambitions. As new investors emerge after MLS is maxed out, their choice will be between NASL and a USL that offers no growth beyond minor league purgatory.
NASL is like any challenger entrant into a business market with an established leader. It needs to find a different angle in the market to be successful and appeal to an audience that is not served by the leader. That niche can be its base of strength and it can grow from there. Just as Coke and Pepsi co-exist as successful soft drinks while there are plenty of alternative beverages (sports) available to the consumer, so too can MLS, NASL and USL each find their own path to success without requiring the failure of the other. For MLS, that success is to be the best American style sports league in US soccer. For USL, that is to be the best minor league supporting MLS. For NASL, that path is to be the best traditional soccer league in North America.
The Race for the final 8 MLS Spots
- MSA Ranking: 27
- MSA Population: 2.2M
- TV Market: 20
- Competition: NFL – None. MLB – None. NHL – None. NBA – Kings
- Regional Rivals: San Jose, Portland
- Current Soccer Teams: MLS – None. NASL – None. USL – Sacramento Republic. NPSL / PDL – Sacramento Gold
- Pros: Everything is in place. Ownership, stadium plan, successful minor league team
- Cons: None
- Odds: Almost certain
- San Antonio
- MSA Ranking: 25
- MSA Population: 2.3M
- TV Market: 37
- Competition: NFL – None. MLB – None. NHL – None. NBA – Spurs
- Regional Rivals: Dallas, Houston
- Current Soccer Teams: MLS – None. NASL – None (San Antonio Scorpions are technically on hiatus). USL – San Antonio FC. NPSL / PDL – Corinthians
- Pros: San Antonio Spurs’ acquisition of Toyota Field gives MLS an ownership group they can partner with and a stadium that can be expanded to MLS standards
- Cons: None
- Outlook: Almost certain
- Tampa Bay
- MSA Ranking: 18
- MSA Population: 2.9M
- TV Market: 13
- Competition: NFL – Buccaneers. MLB – Rays. NHL – Lightning. NBA – None
- Regional Rivals: Orlando, Miami
- Current Soccer Teams: MLS – None. NASL – Rowdies. USL – None. NPSL / PDL – Rowdies 2
- Pros: Only Detroit and Phoenix are larger TV markets that MLS isn’t already in or on the way into. As far as MSAs, Tampa ranks behind those two and San Diego as well as the Inland Empire. Al Lang Stadium provides a place in the short term while a MLS stadium gets built. Classic NASL brands have done well in MLS. The Rowdies already have a spirited rivalry with Orlando City
- Cons: Rowdies owner Bill Edwards is unlikely to be a partner that MLS wants to work with, and he may not want to work with MLS. A partnership with the Glazer family may be a better fit, if the Tampa Bay Buccaneers/Manchester United owners can either acquire the Rowdies from Edwards or be persuaded to launch a new MLS team (Mutiny 2.0?) to compete with them. A potential territory rights conflict with Orlando could be an issue
- Outlook: Unlikely due to the hurdles with ownership, potential territory rights issues with Orlando and the past failure of MLS in the market
- MSA Ranking: 14
- MSA Population: 4.2M
- TV Market: 11
- Competition: NFL – Lions. MLB – Tigers. NHL – Red Wings. NBA – Pistons
- Regional Rivals: Chicago, Columbus, Toronto
- Current Soccer Teams: MLS – None. NASL – None. USL – None. NPSL / PDL – Detroit City FC, Michigan Bucks
- Pros: Largest TV market that MLS isn’t already in or on the way in. Detroit City FC support is excellent for NPSL level
- Cons: No present ownership group or viable stadium
- Outlook: Likely. Despite the fact that the Detroit MSA is not growing in population and has struggled economically, it remains one of the country’s largest markets. If a wealthy Detroit-loving sports owner such as Dan Gilbert were to partner with the grassroots movement that is Detroit City FC, that package would be hard to turn down
- MSA Ranking: 28
- MSA Population: 2.1M
- TV Market: 34
- Competition: NFL – Bengals. MLB – Reds. NHL – None. NBA – None
- Regional Rivals: Columbus, Toronto
- Current Soccer Teams: MLS – None. NASL – None. USL – FC Cincinnati. NPSL / PDL – Cincinnati Dutch Lions
- Pros: Carl Lindner is a billionaire owner, just the type MLS likes. Proximity to Columbus would make a strong rivalry
- Cons: A stadium plan would be needed. Potential territory rights issues with Columbus
- Outlook: Lindner’s wealth makes them a frontrunner
- St. Louis
- MSA Ranking: 19
- MSA Population: 2.8M
- TV Market: 21
- Competition: NFL – None (Formerly- Rams). MLB – Cardinals. NHL – Blues. NBA – None
- Regional Rivals: Chicago, Kansas City, Minnesota
- Current Soccer Teams: MLS – None. NASL – None. USL – Saint Louis FC. NPSL / PDL – St Louis Lions.
- Pros: St. Louis is a market long coveted by MLS. The area has a long soccer history.
- Cons: No sufficient ownership or stadium plan.
- Outlook: Likely. MLS openly covets this market and wants to make it work. With the NFL Rams leaving for Los Angeles, MLS is salivating at the opportunity to fill the gap. MLS seems to want this as badly as they previously wanted a second New York metro team. They may make a controversial move to make it happen, just as they did by selling City Football Group the rights to New York City. However, their best near term stadium option went away when the Rams chose to abandon St. Louis’s waterfront stadium offer for greener pastures in downtown LA. MLS will have to see if St. Louis is willing to modify that plan to suit a soccer specific stadium.
- San Diego
- MSA Ranking: 17
- MSA Population: 3.2M
- TV Market: 28
- Competition: NFL – Chargers. MLB – Padres. NHL – None. NBA – None
- Regional Rivals: LA Galaxy, LAFC
- Current Soccer Teams: MLS – None. NASL – None. USL – None. NPSL / PDL – Albion SC Pros
- Pros: With the Chargers potentially leaving for Los Angeles, the market could only have a MLB team to compete with which is rare for a market of this size
- Cons: The Chargers are leaving for a reason, which is that it is hard to build a stadium in San Diego. Garber says he is talking to a potential ownership group
- Outlook: Likely. While the league could live without 5 teams in California, San Diego is one of the best markets left without MLS. Former Padres owner John Moores is said to be interested in bringing a MLS team to town, while Landon Donovan recently squashed rumors that he was looking to rebrand the San Diego Flash and move them up to USL
- MSA Ranking: 12
- MSA Population: 4.4M
- TV Market: 12
- Competition: NFL – Cardinals. MLB – Diamondbacks. NHL – Coyotes. NBA – Suns
- Regional Rivals: Salt Lake, Colorado
- Current Soccer Teams: MLS – None. NASL – None. USL – Arizona United SC. NPSL / PDL – None
- Pros: One of the largest remaining markets in the country without MLS, the Phoenix MSA is also growing rapidly. Arizona United SC ownership has expressed a desire to move up to MLS.
- Cons: In addition to the lack of an ownership group and stadium, the hot weather can be an issue.
- Outlook: Moderate. Phoenix is an attractive market, but do the Arizona United SC owners have the wealth MLS likes to see? Phoenix billionaire Robert Sarver just invested in Spanish Segunda division club Mallorca instead of putting his money in MLS. Attracting an owner of Sarver’s net worth would do wonders for a Phoenix bid.
- Oklahoma City
- MSA Ranking: 42
- MSA Population: 1.3M
- TV Market: 45
- Competition: NFL – None. MLB – None. NHL – None. NBA – Thunder
- Regional Rivals: Dallas, Houston, Kansas City
- Current Soccer Teams: MLS – None. NASL – Rayo OKC. USL – OKC Energy. NPSL / PDL – None.
- Pros: Good support for the Energy from the USL fan base.
- Cons: A relatively small market compared to the others on this list, but the MSA is growing almost 7% from 2010 to 2014. Competition in the local market from Rayo OKC. Ownership and stadium are issues.
- Outlook: Outside chance. The market has become an unlikely battleground between NASL and USL, and they have supported their USL team well, but it is still a modestly sized market in the southern midwest region of the country where MLS has a strong presence (KC, Texas teams) and a higher expansion priority in St. Louis.
- MSA Ranking: 22
- MSA Population: 2.3M
- TV Market: 24
- Competition: NFL – Panthers. MLB – None. NHL – None. NBA – Hornets
- Regional Rivals: Atlanta, DC
- Current Soccer Teams: MLS – None. NASL – None. USL – Charlotte Independence. NPSL / PDL – Charlotte Eagles
- Pros: A fast growing market in the Southeast. Fills a map gap between DC and Atlanta.
- Cons: Average attendance of only 1800 in their first USL season, typical stadium issues. Does Queen City Soccer Club have the money to pay for a franchise or would a new owner have to emerge?
- Outlook: Moderate – if MLS wants a team in the Carolinas, it is likely to be a fight between Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham. Charlotte is the larger market, both are growing rapidly, but Raleigh has less major league competition for sports dollars
- MSA Ranking: 33
- MSA Population: 2.0M
- TV Market: 25
- Competition: NFL –
NoneColts (sorry about that!). MLB – None. NHL – None. NBA – Pacers
- Regional Rivals: Chicago, Columbus
- Current Soccer Teams: MLS – None. NASL – Indy Eleven. USL – None. NPSL / PDL – Indy Eleven NPSL
- Pros: Indy Eleven enjoys tremendous support for a D2 team. It is unclear whether the current ownership can afford MLS, but Reno USL owner Herb Simon is a billionaire who owns the Indiana Pacers and whose Simon Properties is based out of Indiana. He could purchase Indy Eleven to give it MLS caliber ownership, while making his Reno asset Indy’s USL affiliate
- Cons: Indy Eleven’s stadium plan has had trouble getting approved
- Outlook: Outside chance. While the success of Indy Eleven impressed, the emergence of FC Cincinnati and MLS’s likelihood to go after Detroit and St. Louis means midwestern spots are pretty much spoken for
- MSA Ranking: 43
- MSA Population: 1.3M
- TV Market: 50
- Competition: NFL – None. MLB – None. NHL – None. NBA – None.
- Regional Rivals: Columbus, Chicago
- Current Soccer Teams: MLS – None. NASL – None. USL – Louisville City. NPSL / PDL – Derby City Rovers
- Pros: Louisville City is a well-supported club and the market does not have any competition from major league sports teams.
- Cons: There’s a reason why major league sports teams haven’t come to Louisville, it is a relatively small market and it isn’t growing very fast
- Outlook: Highly unlikely. Cincinnati is a larger, nearby market with a more monied ownership group. If Cincy gets in, Louisville can forget about it
- MSA Ranking: 46
- MSA Population: 1.2M
- TV Market: 27
- Competition: NFL – None. MLB – None. NHL: Hurricanes. NBA – None
- Regional Rivals: DC, Atlanta
- Current Soccer Teams: MLS – None. NASL – Carolina Railhawks. USL – None. NPSL / PDL – RailHawks U-23s
- Pros: The new Carolina Railhawks owner has bigger ambitions for the team, which local writers infer means he wants to move to MLS. There is talk of a new stadium in downtown Raleigh, which would be an upgrade over their current SSS WakeMed Soccer Park. There is not a lot of pro sports competition in the market, and it is one of the fastest growing markets in the country
- Cons: Charlotte also wants a MLS team and it is has more of a major league profile than the research triangle area. MLS will have expanded by three teams in the Southeast and may not feel it needs to add another market in the region
- Outlook: Moderate. It is likely that one of Raleigh-Durham or Charlotte are getting into a final MLS slot – but not both
- MSA Ranking: 35
- MSA Population: 1.9M
- TV Market: 49
- Competition: NFL – None. MLB – None. NHL: None. NBA – None.
- Regional Rivals: Dallas, Houston
- Current Soccer Teams: MLS – None. NASL – None. USL – Austin Aztex (on hiatus). NPSL / PDL – None
- Pros: Austin shares many cultural characteristics with the Pacific Northwest cities that have embraced MLS. It is described as the little blue dot in the middle of a big red state. It is also one of the fastest growing MSAs in the country, with 13% growth between 2010-2014.
- Cons: Can a major league team rival the University of Texas for Austin’s sports dollars? While the Austin Aztex have drawn well for a minor league soccer team respective to the levels they have played at, they seem to be snakebitten
- Outlook: Unlikely. With San Antonio on the cusp of MLS, Austin is probably blocked. Texas is unlikely to be awarded 4 teams
- El Paso
- MSA Ranking: 67
- MSA Population: 0.8M
- TV Market: 98
- Competition: NFL – None. MLB – None. NHL: None. NBA – None.
- Regional Rivals: Dallas, Houston, Colorado
- Current Soccer Teams: MLS – None. NASL – None. USL – None. NPSL / PDL – None
- Pros: MountainStar Sports Group wants to bring a pro soccer team to El Paso. The group owns the successful El Paso Chihuahuas AAA baseball team and just over the border they own FC Juarez, a rising club in the Mexican second tier. It is a market without competition for major league sports
- Cons: Don Garber may have thrown El Paso’s name out there, but it is a small market with only moderate growth
- Outlook: Highly unlikely. Like with Austin, if San Antonio gets into MLS, which seems likely, Texas will have three teams which is plenty. MountainStar Sports Group would be better off looking at NASL (or even USL)
- Las Vegas
- MSA Ranking: 30
- MSA Population: 2.1M
- TV Market: 42
- Competition: NFL – None. MLB – None. NHL: None. NBA – None
- Regional Rivals: LA Galaxy, LAFC, Salt Lake
- Current Soccer Teams: MLS – None. NASL – None. USL – None. NPSL / PDL – Las Vegas Mobsters
- Pros: There is support from the city government as well as from investor groups to bring MLS to Las Vegas. Having struck out bringing other pro sports to the city, it would likely be easy to work with Vegas leadership on normally difficult issues like a stadium. Jason N. Ader of the Sands Group has been vocal in his desire to bring MLS to Vegas
- Cons: Despite being a nice sized market which is growing well, as the legalized gambling center of the USA, Sin City has been shunned by every major sports league. MLS appears to be doing the same
- Outlook: Unlikely. What was essentially a rejection letter from MLS to Las Vegas became public despite the city openly courting the league. Las Vegas is better off proving themselves in NASL or USL. Only huge minor league attendances like what has been seen in Sacramento could turn the tide. If the Scorpions relocate to Las Vegas as has been rumored, the city may get the chance to raise its appeal if fans come out in droves to support their NASL team
- TV market rankings from StationIndex.com
- MSA data from Wikipedia
Editor’s Note: In a previous version of the article, we neglected to recognize that Indianapolis does in fact have an NFL team in the Colts. We apologize for the omission, as it was unintentional. Thank you to William for pointing out the mistake.