Capitalizing on soccer’s steady growth in the United States, which continues to bask in post-World Cup fervor, Major League Soccer on Thursday unveiled the start of its new era, one it hopes will help take it toward becoming a serious player on the global stage. In 2015, the league will enter its 20th season and house two new teams, while it starts to reap the rewards from a landmark television deal. Yet despite its success story, it continues to be blighted by the family’s black sheep, Chivas USA. While outlining the next phase of MLS on Thursday, Commissioner Don Garber suggested he may have to, at least temporarily, turn the lights out on the Los Angeles team.
The contrast couldn’t have been sharper. At a press conference to unveil what MLS is branding as the next generation, complete with shiny new crest, it was again forced to deal with the issue of an organization that has been a continual headache since launching in 2004. Born as a local rival to one of the league’s flagship teams, the Los Angeles Galaxy, and an offshoot of famed Mexican club side Chivas Guadalajara, Chivas USA has continued to struggle on the field and off. The franchise became so troublesome to MLS that it opted to buy out owner Jorge Vergara in February for $70 million. The plan was to sell the team and rebrand it in time to kick off the 2015 season in March as part of the new 21-team league, but Garber has now admitted that the team may have to spend a year, at least, on the sidelines.
“We expect to be able to close an agreement by the end of the season,” he said. “Once we get an ownership group in place, we’ll sit down with them and make a decision as to whether or not we’re going to keep that team operating in 2015 and beyond.”
A decision could be made on a new owner when the league holds an owner’s meeting on Oct. 6. And while Sports Illustrated, which first broke the story, reported that the franchise could fetch more than the $100 million received from the owners of new expansion franchise New York City FC, any new owner faces serious challenges. Chivas is 6-16-6 on the season and will miss the playoffs for the fifth season in a row. It currently shares the StubHub Center with the LA Galaxy, but has attracted an average attendance of just 6,492, which is less than half the second-lowest attendance in the league and pales in comparison to the Galaxy’s 20,163. Chivas’s lease at the StubHub Center ends at the end of this season.
MLS has been adamant that they want to keep a second team in Los Angeles, but that a new stadium is a must. It could take some time for that plan to come to fruition, however. A key part of MLS’s growth from the difficult early days of the league, when teams played in sparsely populated football stadiums, has been its encouraging and in many cases demanding of soccer-specific venues. Sporting Kansas City has been perhaps the biggest success story in this regard -- rebranding in 2011, moving to a new stadium, and attracting sellout attendances, while achieving success on the pitch.
But getting planning permission for stadiums in ideal, downtown locations remains difficult. The league broke with its requirement for stadium plans to be in place for new franchises when allowing English Premier League giants Manchester City and the New York Yankees backed New York City FC to buy into the league for a record fee last year. But having had plans knocked back to build a stadium in Queens and the Bronx, NYCFC is now expected to spend the first three years of its existence, at least, playing in Yankee Stadium. Elsewhere, a prospective expansion team in Miami, backed by David Beckham, has yet to receive the go ahead due to its failure to get the greenlight for a downtown home. Las Vegas now looks to be encountering a similar problem.
Orlando has succeeded where that trio has failed and will begin play next season before moving into a downtown stadium in 2016. Atlanta will then join in 2017 as part of MLS’s plans to have 24 teams by 2020. But, as the cases of Miami and Chivas USA show, it remains broadly cautioned expansion. The specter of the spectacular collapse suffered by the North American Soccer League in the 1980s when soccer last had a big boon in popularity in the U.S. still lingers prominently, and explains why Garber continues to be adamant on retaining the league’s single-entity status, despite growing criticism.
He has reason to believe in the current path. From 2015, ESPN, Fox Sports and Univision will pay MLS a combined $90 million a year until 2022, a massive increase on the average of $18 million a year it pockets from its current TV deal. The watershed contracts come despite MLS still struggling to attract a sizable TV audience and even experiencing a ratings drop last year. As the league and quality on the field improves, MLS will hope to convince soccer-savvy fans that it is a competition worth watching alongside the major leagues from Europe.
As well as possessing some of the best players in the world, another reason the English Premier League has been such a successful worldwide export, not least for NBC in the U.S., is the packed, passionate stadiums. As MLS begins its new generation, it must decide whether a struggling team in a near-empty stadium will be more damaging to its carefully controlled, growing reputation than it going off the grid completely.