The diversity our league faces when it comes to logistics (vast geographical distances; an array of mentalities and cultures; varying weather and climes) are enough to doom it from the very beginning. But, provided you have managed to overcome these obstacles, another challenge presents itself: what marketing strategy do you use to expand the league and fully reach the true potential of the sport in North America?
In other words: how much saturation of the overall and specific markets is needed to obtain a balanced, competitive, and entertaining league format, and how do you execute this strategy?
Part of successfully meeting the demand of consumers while growing at a sustainable pace and in a sustainable way is to practice target priority and select those locations best suited for the product you’re offering. This is true in any business, whether it’s hotdogs, electronics, movie theaters, or sports. Every entrepreneurial effort needs to be well-calculated. Otherwise the risk of failure is exacerbated and potentially inevitable.
Over the 17 years MLS has existed, it has practiced both poorly and fairly in this realm. The Contraction Era of the early 2000’s which saw the loss of both Florida clubs (Tampa Bay and Miami) came on the heels of the first round of expansion in 1998. One of those teams, the Chicago Fire, was successful out of the gate, cashing in on both the tradition of soccer in the midwest and its big city appeal by winning the MLS Cup and US Open Cup in their inaugural season. Their expansion brethren, Miami Fusion, failed to succeed in what MLS thought was a potentially viable market with large Hispanic populations and a tradition in the sport from the old NASL days. Many have debated why both Floridian clubs closed up shop, and I don’t suppose to expound on those theories here, but suffice it to say that I highly doubt the biggest problem they faced was a lack of enthusiasm for the sport, even in the then-soccer-opposed mentality in America.
MLS next expanded in 2005 with Real Salt Lake and Chivas USA. The former was the first in what was considered a third-tier market; the latter being introduced as a Latino alternative to the LA Galaxy with hopes of capitalizing on a potential derby between the clubs. RSL had their share of early financial troubles, but both clubs overcame their early years, and it paved the way for a more strategic approach of expansion in the league.
Commissioner Don Garber, in my opinion, now has it right — expand into areas by via pre-established clubs, or into areas that are led by immense fan support, thus minimizing the potential for failure. The former strategy was carried out first in 2009 with the essential “promotion” of Seattle Sounders FC from the old USL First Division. The latter strategy followed the next year when Philadelphia entered the fray as a brand new franchise promoted by the Sons of Ben supporter’s group.
Between 2009 and 2012, MLS has ushered in five clubs: Seattle, Philadelphia, Portland, Vancouver, and Montreal; bringing the total to 19 teams. Capitalizing on history, lineage, nostalgia, regional rivalries, and supporter culture, the league and its leaders have forged an even stronger organization than it ever was. And with the 20th team being brought in within the next two years, we should see further growth of the sport (both financially and fanatically) over the next decade or more. That is, if Garber and Company aren’t really serious about “capping” the league at 20 teams.
You see, Garber has publicly announced on more than one occasion that MLS will be taking a break of sorts after the 20th team (which, presumably, will be in NYC). While he hasn’t said it explicitly, it may be taken that he means a very long break from expansion. With markets like Orlando, the Carolina’s, Detroit, Minnesota, Las Vegas, and San Antonio all showing intent interest in joining the ranks of MLS’s finest, Garber may be able to be lured into agreeing on 22 or 24 teams in the next five years or so instead. Garber himself has said that the MLS Map is largely vacant in the Southeast, thus suggesting that expansion there is only a matter of time.
This is all speculation, however, and I must say that I agree with The Don that a brief hiatus from expansion would do the league some favors in terms of creating stability and allowing the sport to garner more attention in the country until the next phase. Having some amount of consistent scheduling would be vital to better establishing the league. But I would be severely disappointed if the league stops at 20 teams. I would even consider 24 teams as being too few. Despite what certain leaders in FIFA may say, a league with 16 to 20 teams is not and cannot necessarily be the tried-and-true methodology for every league around the world. As I’ve already demonstrated in the previous part to this series, the United States and Canada pose an extremely different set of circumstances to implementing a league. It is unlike any other country in the world, and it should be treated as such.
So, why stop at 24? Why stop at 28 or 30 or even 35? What are the true limits of this sport in this market? What is the fullest potential of soccer here in America? Can the Beautiful Game really dominate the American sports scene by moving into previously-unthought-of markets like Jacksonville, Florida, or Chattanooga, Tennessee?
This is where the application of market saturation comes in. Once again, I’ll turn to some cold, hard stats. I’ll present two charts and then discuss the data shown. The first is a list of the same countries from the Logistics part referenced last time. This time, the stats contain number of teams in the nation’s premier league; land area in square miles; square miles per team; most number of teams in a given 50 mile radius; percentage of teams in the league within that 50 mile radius.*I failed to include New Zealand with the A-League in my last article.
The next chart has the following info: number of teams in the nation’s premier league; percentage of the league located in cities with less than 100,000 people; number of cities with between 100,000 and 499,999 people; number of cities with between 500,000 and 999,999 people; number of cities with a million or more people.** All percent figures represent the percentage of the league within cities that fall into the specific population grouping.
Here is an updated list of maps for each of the above leagues: EPL, La Liga, Bundesliga, Serie A, Ligue 1, Brazilian Serie A, Primera Division, Liga ZON Sagres, RPL, Eredivisie, SuperLeague, Liga MX, A-League, J-League, MLS.
As you can see in the above data, and as explained in Part 2 of this series, the US and Canada hold within their bounds a much higher number of larger cities than any other nation that’s being looked at. But there are a few additional points that can be made regarding the data above.
Firstly, the first chart shows the consolidation of teams in and around given areas. In four of the countries listed (Argentina, Portugal, Netherlands), 50% or more of the nation’s premier league teams are centered around a 50 mile radius. Also, in eight countries (England, Italy, Brazil, Russia, Greece, Mexico, Australia, Japan), between a quarter and half of the leagues’ teams are centered around a 50 mile radius. This suggests to me that most top leagues around the world happen to be centered around dense metropolitan areas that can support multiple teams († See Footnote). For instance, Buenos Aires is home to all of the 13 clubs listed in the first list; and Portugal is such a small area that it relies on maximizing as many population centers as possible to justify its meager 16-team league. At first glance, MLS is not an obvious outlier having only 4% less of its teams in a 50 mile radius than the next closest nation (France at 15%). But if you take away the Chivas USA/LA Galaxy predicament, there are positively no teams that are within a 50 mile radius of one another. Even in the congested I-95 corridor, Philly, New York, and DC are outside of the designated radius.
Secondly, it’s quite obvious that the population centers of all non-US/Canadian countries (see the second chart) fall into one of three categories: 1) a few immense metropolis’ of several million people which host the vast majority of clubs, sprinkled with mid-range population cities with about one club each; 2) myriad low- to mid-range population cities with teams which are more-or-less evenly dispersed throughout the country; or 3) an even array of all the population centers showing host to clubs. Category #1, is probably best represented by Mexico and Japan, both of which have over two thirds of their league in cities with more than a million people, and around one-fifth in the 500,000 to a million range. The Netherlands and Portugal are examples of Category #2. Neither have a city over a million people, and only four with 500,000 or more between the two of them. This results in many low-population cities like Zwolle, Venlo, Setulba, and lowly Aveiro (population: 78,000) with their sub-200,000 and 100,000 populations hosting teams in the top tiers of soccer. We then have the likes of Italy or Spain which have virtually an even amount of representation across the population categories, even some in sub-100,000 cities.
Now, I can see a popular argument arising out of this data; one which claims an “apples and oranges” comparison to the leagues I’ve mentioned above. It could be said that all of the non-MLS leagues take special exemption to this idea of market saturation because of the promotion/relegation systems in place. But I beg to differ.
If anything, the presence of a promotion/relegation mechanism in a league is actually proof that some sort of market saturation (via target priority) is, in effect, being looked at, albeit in a roundabout way. I believe this is true because the organic nature that is exhibited by things like promotion/relegation encourage the reflection of the country’s nature in a tangible way. Meaning that what form a sports league takes on and how it is made up is a mirror image of how the country itself is developed and arranged. Moreover, that the success of clubs is determined in large part from the attention and intention of ownership and management suggests that the city which hosts the club is essentially proving its economic vitality via the individuals and groups that make up the club. When it comes down to it, healthy cities are more likely to have healthy clubs which are more likely to have a healthy supporter culture which is more likely to have a healthy hunger for the game which means that the city in question is a prime market for the league to “saturate”. This is why a league like Brazil’s Serie A sees 100% of its teams in the largest metropolis’ in the country (Sao Paulo at ~20 million, Rio at ~12 million) — the cities are made up of largely poor slums with a high concentration of impoverished football-playing youth roaming the streets. It could also be why so many clubs in Brazil (and elsewhere) are failing to pay their players the money they’re contractually obliged to pay them; a reflection of the inimical conditions of the society of Brazil. Perhaps Glasgow Rangers being relegated to the fourth tier of Scottish football due to their financial disasters is further proof of the growing fiscal issues of Scotland and the European Union in general… but that’s for another time.
Notice that the United States/Canada is one of only two leagues that has 100% of its teams in cities with more than a million inhabitants. As noted above, Brazil is unique in that it has the vast majority of its teams located in two cities: Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, by far the two most populous cities in Brazil. But for a closer examination of the contrast between these two leagues, look at the total cities with populations of a million or more — Brazil (16), US/Canada (57). This equates to nine (or 56%) of Brazil’s million-plus cities hosting teams, whereas 19 (or 33%) of the US and Canada’s million-plus cities are currently hosting MLS teams. To me, this indicates that there is plenty of room for growth in MLS.
For a better picture of what markets are being left out of top flight soccer in America, here’s a list of prominent cities with over two million people that do not currently have clubs: Miami, Atlanta, Detroit, Phoenix (all over 4 million people); Minneapolis, San Diego, St Louis, Pittsburgh (all over 2 million people); Las Vegas, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, New Orleans, Ottawa (all over 1 million people). The fact that Salt Lake City is considered a “third-tier market” in the US yet boasts 1.45 million people (and drawing in 18,000+ fans per game) is unbelievable when compared to other markets around the world.
Lastly, the tendency for dominant, perennial-favorite clubs in any of the foreign leagues listed above to be from cities outside of the most-populated in the country is quite rare. Take, for instance, two of the most dominant clubs in the English Premier League: Manchester United and Arsenal, who hail from Manchester and London, respectively. Manchester’s population is 2.5 million, while London’s is 13.7 million. Whereas bottom-table clubs like Burnley and Wolverhampton (both which have been relegated this past season) have populations of 78,000 and 249,000, respectively. We could expand the data I’ve collected in the above charts to include second and third division leagues from around the world to look at what population centers their teams are located in to give us a better idea of the correlation between successful clubs and larger cities, but my point here is that there is an obvious trend in many foreign leagues that see perennial favorites come from a mere one, two, or three major cities, with the rest of the league trying to gobble up the middle of the table or prevent themselves being relegated.
So, what do we make of all this data? What are the main conclusions we can reach, and how can we apply it to MLS and its format?
The most obvious conclusion I’ve reached while sifting through this data is the reiteration that the US and Canada (and the MLS specifically) faces a unique challenge that no other country even comes close to. This can be seen just by going to Wikipedia and glancing at the population figures for cities in each country. It can also be seen by glancing at the league maps referenced above, and taking note of the location of teams throughout the country. The sheer size of North America is enough to suggest that a minimum of 16 to 20 teams is entirely too few.
The other conclusion I’ve reached is that success of a soccer club off the field is not dependent on the size of a market. Instead I see it as dependent on the voracity of the target audience. The reason the Pacific Northwest has such rabid fan support of its soccer teams isn’t because they’re the largest cities (far from it!), it’s because they have a tradition of the sport. This may seem completely obvious, and it probably is. But this factors into the need for increased expansion in MLS.
For example, you could ask the question of whether or not the Sons of Ben in Philadelphia ever would’ve organized a supporter’s group before a team in the city was even talked about had it not been for the successes of DC United or the proximity to NY Red Bulls, both of which are just over 100 miles of Interstate driving to either city? Success breeds more success, and whether that initial success comes from superb ownership, a tradition of soccer being in the community, or the nearness of the sport to a certain location, I think it’s undeniable that a sport such as soccer can do anything but grow in a country like ours. It is rather contagious, and it’ll be a short while for it to infest other locations, too.
MLS can benefit from all this data and the conclusions reached by simply not restricting expansion after Team 20 enters the fray. Whether that 20th team is in NYC or Orlando, Florida, the fact that there are dozens of untapped markets in existence in America and Canada right now is all the reason needed to continue growing this fledgling, but vibrant league.
The trick to doing this growth properly is how to contain it and not get swept away with “soccer fever” like was the case in 1998. We cannot make poor expansion decisions that forces us to see another Contraction Era, 2.0. We need to do this intelligently, and so far I applaud the League and the Commissioner for how they’ve handled this challenge since 2004. But more needs to be done.
One of the ways MLS can expand smartly is through appealing to more markets via any way possible. And this is why Part 4 will focus on the American Appeal of the sport.
† The fact that most large metropolitan areas can support multiple teams is, to me, intrinsic to the health of the local economy rather than any other factor. That wealth tends to collect around large, bustling, vibrant cities is going to lend itself to the successful operation of a sports team. Perhaps another article on this subject is needed…