The Long Read: MLS has come of age - now for the growing pains

The continued growth of Major League Soccer (MLS) has led to a surge in interest among prospective franchisees. But with places limited, the league has a tough job to decide where it expands next.

The Long Read: MLS has come of age - now for the growing pains

It may be an adolescent by North American standards, but Major League Soccer (MLS) is not the spotty younger brother it is often perceived to be. For the past two decades we have seen this juvenile among major leagues develop to a point of indubitable maturity, and last Saturday’s MLS Cup final between Toronto FC and the Seattle Sounders was just the latest confirmation.

With two of the league’s most fervent fanbases represented in their first ever championship game, the buzz surrounding this season’s finale was impossible to ignore. The match sold out in minutes, and would go on to set a new viewership record of 3.5 million TV viewers. And though it wasn't exactly a classic on the pitch, the tight, tense affair culminated in the glorious unpredictability of penalties whilst sporting all the hallmarks of a league in which the importance of winning far outweighs the value of taking part.

When the Sounders returned home for their victory parade on Tuesday, thousands of fans lined the streets of downtown Seattle to welcome them. It was a raucous, typically Seattle occasion, one that confirmed both the city’s passion for soccer and the Sounders’ long-held status as one of the biggest and best-supported clubs in MLS. Yet MLS is, by definition, a collective, and the Sounders’ burgeoning stature should be cause for celebration right throughout the league.

Back in May, I met members of the Sounders’ front-office at their headquarters close to CenturyLink Field, the yawning stadium they share with the NFL’s Seahawks, and afterwards I wrote this piece arguing that the club were as well placed as any in MLS to break out and become the league’s first genuine international brand. In reality, though, the Sounders are not a brand unto themselves, but one name in a much larger roll call of individuals, teams and organisations who are committed to seeing soccer succeed in one of the few countries yet to truly embrace it.

Under commissioner Don Garber, MLS continues to expand its footprint into new markets across the US. Next year, teams in Minnesota and Atlanta will enter the fray, with others to follow in Los Angeles and - if David Beckham can finally overcome his stadium troubles to get his currently stalled project off the ground - Miami soon after. The addition of those teams will take the league to 24 franchises, just four away from its target of reaching 28 in the coming years. 

On Thursday, following an MLS board meeting in New York, the league outlined its timeline for its next round of expansion. The 25th and 26th teams will be added by 2020, it said, and a further two franchises will join in the following years. Interested parties have been given a 31st January deadline to submit applications, with a series of in-person meetings set to take place during the first half of 2017.

Thousands of Seattle Sounders fans turned out to welcome home the new MLS champions on Tuesday.

The big question, then, is where MLS goes next - and it is not an easy one to answer. Prospective ownership groups and investors all over the US are lining up to join the party, hailing from places like Cincinnati, Detroit, Nashville, Raleigh-Durham, Sacramento, St Louis, San Antonio, and San Diego. Last week, the Carolina Railhawks rebranded as North Carolina FC and threw their hat into the ring, and they were followed the same day by the Tampa Bay Rowdies, who this year effectively relegated themselves from the second-tier North American Soccer League (NASL) to join the third-tier United Soccer League (USL) in a move seen as strategically savvy given the latter’s close ties with MLS. One can only assume that groups in other cities, not to mention other established clubs on the lower rungs of the US soccer ladder, are harbouring ambitions of their own.

Faced with this increased competition for places, MLS executives are being careful to remain non-committal, at least publicly, when it comes to league expansion, going only so far as to acknowledge and praise a formal bid, thank those behind it and, as was the case this month in Cincinnati, pay them a courtesy visit. Generally speaking, though, their modus operandi remains steadfast. When considering where and with whom to expand, the league insists upon a mix of stable and committed ownership, facility development, grassroots investment, marketing resources, and history of support for soccer in the local market. Such a prudent approach has served the league well so far and, if Garber has his way, won’t be changing anytime soon.

There are, of course, clear benefits that come with restricting access: expansion fees and franchise valuations, for example, are spiralling to unprecedented levels. When the Vancouver Whitecaps joined MLS as recently as 2011, they paid an expansion fee of US$30 million; by comparison, MLS said on Thursday that new teams for 2020 will have to pay US$150 million, while the league’s deputy commissioner Mark Abbott said earlier this year that fees could rise “as high as US$200 million” in the not-so-distant future.

All this will come as music to the ears of existing team owners. Even if the addition of new franchises dilutes their stake in the league and eats into their cut of overall revenues, those members already fully paid-up are seeing the value of their franchises growing with each passing season. Last year, Forbes estimated that the average team was worth US$157 million, up 52 per cent from 2013, and valued the Sounders at US$245 million, making them the most valuable team in the league.

Though the accuracy of Forbes’ figures is debatable, they go some way to illustrating the gradient of the league’s steep upward trajectory. But they also serve as a tip of the hat to the Sounders, who have become something of a showcase for MLS soccer and its single-entity model. The club is, on reflection, the epitome of the league’s progress: an expansion franchise backed by stable ownership, a team rooted in their community who boast an impressive following and, now, a league title to boot. As would-be investors bid to convince MLS of their value to the league and vie to be part of its future, Seattle's is a model they would all do well to follow.

For now, though, those in the running can take motivation from the fact that, heading into 2017, there has never been a better time to be part of the MLS club. As Garber said during a wide-ranging interview with ESPN FC last week: “We're building something special here, and all of us who are involved in the game, whether you're a media person or a sponsor or a player or a fan should be feeling pretty good about that.”