Is MLS Becoming the Right Bet?

Robbie Keane and David Beckham have brought all the fans to the yard.

There was a New York Times article called "Did Newark Bet on the Wrong Sport?" and it discusses a largely ignored minor league baseball stadium in Newark, and the often full Red Bulls Arena in Harrison, NJ. It's a bit of an unfair comparison, since one is Independent Baseball, and the other is a major sports league with national coverage. That unfair comparison leads to the article's main point, that MLS has made the transition from NFL stadium filler to a smart investment for smaller cities. 

(Seattle of course being the huge hiccup in that point) 

The facts are these. When MLS launched in 1996, the LA Galaxy led the league in average attendance with 28, 916. The team didn't draw close to that again until 2008. In between there was many years of 20,000 in a stadium that can fit 90,000. Attendance jumped when the Home Depot Center opened in 2003, but it wasn't until Beckham's arrival that sellouts became regular occasions. 

Which is all to say, since it's founding 16 years ago, MLS has made two important changes. It thinks smaller, and it thinks bigger. The point the article misses is that MLS has never operated on a minor league scale. The minor league baseball stadiums in Rancho Cucamonga and San Bernadino combined couldn't contain a HDC sellout crowd. The Dodger's AAA affiliate in Albuquerque can only hold 12k. 

When MLS build a soccer specific stadium in a suburb or satellite city of New York, Los Angeles, or Dallas, they're building on the scale of the Lakers in Inglewood, and not the Inland Empire 66ers. A MLS franchise at this point is a major community investment. 

It's one that can pay major dividends. The Off Campus pub (or whatever it's called) made it's name off of it's association with soccer. In a suburban community like Carson, there's little else that can drive that much traffic to a small business. 

The flip side is the thinking bigger part. Bringing in David Beckham, Robbie Keane, Thierry Henry; these moves lead to sellouts. It's still a major city audience that MLS teams are trying to court, so while teams may play in minor league territory, they have to think like big city teams. They have to buy like big city teams. 

The other example I wanted to bring up is Portland. I mentioned Albuquerque; Portland was the minor league AAA affiliate of San Diego. They had a rich tradition, with the Portland Beavers name going back to the original PCL which played in cities like LA, SF, and SD. They kicked the Beavers out, renovated the stadium, and moved in a MLS franchise. The Timbers had tradition too, and now they have a consistently sold out stadium and national coverage. 

That last point is key. Triple A baseball, played in the Portlands, Sacramentos, and Albuquerques of the world, doesn't get a national TV package. It certainly doesn't get promos during Sunday Night Football. Yet MLS still gets this comparison with the Newark Bears of the world. 

There's no question that MLS has financial issues, but there's also no question that it has come into its own. The great thing about soccer is that it's an international game, and as such a team that plays its games in Carson gets written on by the BBC. 

What I hope we can discuss is what issues arise for you as a direct result of where the Galaxy play? Do you patronize local businesses when you drive in for games? For those out of towners, do you even think about the fact that the Galaxy play in the suburbs? 

Some of this came up for me when Chivas sent their survey around. If they were to build in Pomona, they'd be competing pretty directly with the Inland Empire minor league teams. Doesn't it just make logical sense for Chivas to build out in the IE? Any community with minor league baseball and within driving distance of a major city should jump for joy at the chance to bring a MLS franchise out there. 

The NFL/MLB did this in the 70s with their multipurpose suburban stadiums. I think the scale was too big there. If Carson had built the NFL stadium as was once talked about, and 65 thousand were trying to get to a game with the Avalon exit closed, it'd be pandaemonium. However, I was able to drive up to Saturday's sold out Galaxy game an hour and a half before kickoff without any problems. 

So what do you think? There's certainly a lot to digest, but I hope we can get a good discussion going. 

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