Peter Wilt is one of the good guys of American soccer.
Which is perhaps a weird thing to say about an executive, but nevertheless the compliment is well-deserved. A former general manager of the Chicago Fire during their glory years, the fan-friendly Wilt delivered it all in six years at the helm: Entertaining football, a MLS Cup, Supporters’ Shield and two U.S. Open Cups.
But he’s also a soccer guy who clearly “gets” it: Under his watch, he’s led four different pro soccer teams in league attendance. Wilt is also arguably the first MLS executive to embrace hardcore soccer fans and supporters culture. When AEG fired him in 2005, the fanbase erupted.
Despite the cardinal sin of Wilt somehow not managing to find another job in the league, he is still a massively respected figure in soccer circles. So when Peter took the time to do an analysis of the open markets in the U.S. and Canada for Howler Magazine, naturally soccer dorks such as myself dived right in.
Wilt uses a comprehensive formula for breaking down the potential of open markets across the American landscape, featuring 10 main criteria: Population, Existing Sports Teams, Venue, Homegrown Population, New American Population, Young Adult Population, Youth Sports Participation, Corporate Support, Climate and Soccer History.
Peter then combs his findings with his considerable experience to assemble the rankings by population: The Big Cities, Midsize Markets, Small Markets, Markets w/ MLS clubs, Big Markets w/ Lower Division Soccer Clubs, etc.
Due to its massive sprawl, Los Angeles offers multiple opportunities. Southern California’s population is so spread out that there are many different areas that could support a pro soccer team.
The LA Galaxy’s home in Carson is in South Bay, 13 miles from downtown LA. The expansion LA FC will play its home games next to the LA Coliseum, which is in the same direction but only 2.5 miles from downtown LA. This leaves huge, well-populated areas to the north, east, and west of downtown LA and south of Carson in Orange County (home of the USL OC Blues) that could carve out their own market to support another professional soccer team in the area.
The good news? The Riverside San-Bernardino area made the big cities list. Unfortunately, though the potential is certainly there, the area lags behind more attractive options like Austin and Nashville.
It would be difficult to find two more dissimilar markets than Grand Rapids and Riverside-San Bernardino, yet they ended up ranked next to each other. The Inland Empire has a huge advantage over Grand Rapids in population (4.5m to 1.0m), Latinos (49% to 9%), and youth soccer numbers. However, Grand Rapids has a greater sense of self and commitment to the local community due to Riverside-San Bernardino’s smaller homegrown percentage (57% to 74%), proximity to LA and its professional sports teams, and limited unified local identity.
It’s an accurate assessment. Riverside is a soccer hotbed, and the area has an appetite for soccer: It doesn’t take very long to start spotting Xolo bumper stickers, representing the Tijuana Liga MX club that has support in Riverside as well as San Diego.
But the considerable size of the Riverside-San Bernardinho area and lack of identity makes it a challenging location to launch a potential soccer franchise, MLS, USL or otherwise. However, the area remains intriguing: It should be noted Antonio Cue (a.k.a. the owner at Chivas USA who cared) looked to the Inland Empire as a destination when the team were seeking to build their own stadium.
Central California performed better in the mid-size market list, as Fresno came in second only to the admittedly impressive Ohama, a location the more you read about, the better it sounds. That being said, Fresno is full of positives.
Five of the next seven in this list are driven by high Latino populations. El Paso (81%) and Fresno (52%) both have good homegrown population percentages as well. El Paso at 56% and Fresno at 64% indicate that many of the residents are second or third generation locals. (The U.S. average is 59% homegrown.) Average age for both markets is very young: 31.7 for Fresno and 31.8 for El Paso. The U.S. average is 37.7.
Rounding out the list is Oxnard and Bakersfield, passable options but not likely to see a pro team anytime soon.
Even though the Deltas are set to kick off NASL play next year, I have always dreamed of a MLS team in San Francisco. Surely Apple can buy off an impressive parcel of land in the area and tax-scheme their way around the cost? Or maybe donate a ton of cash to SFU and do something with Negoesco Stadium? Renovating Kezar Stadium?
A blogger can always dream.