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MLS Expansion-Part Three: The Southeast

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BOGOTA, COLOMBIA - MARCH 23: Carlos Valderrama makes for a poor Waldo. (Photo by Luis Ramirez/Bongarts/Getty Images)
BOGOTA, COLOMBIA - MARCH 23: Carlos Valderrama makes for a poor Waldo. (Photo by Luis Ramirez/Bongarts/Getty Images)
Bongarts/Getty Images

The Southeast may be the last of these posts that isn't completely insane sounding. The markets here don't have the logistical problems associated with the Midwest and Canada. They share more in common with San Diego, where the general feel is that soccer can succeed there, but certain requirements must be met. Unlike New York, MLS needs to move into the Southeast market, but they have been burned before.

When the league contracted back in 2001, Miami and Tampa Bay lost their teams. Not many of us will cry over Miami's contraction, the city has always had a fickle relationship with sports. Also, they stole Preki from us for their last season, which can never be forgiven. I will cry over the Tampa Bay Mutiny's contraction only because the team's existence would ensure that I could post a picture of Carlos Valderrama (Also, a Fusion player, so again the teams are redundant.) on the site for no reason every time we play. Most people will look to attendance numbers as the main problem, but we should look at ourselves as well. Miami outdrew the Wizards, and their stadium was a high school stadium, a cheaper but more minor league move than Arrowhead. The Mutiny played in a football stadium like the Wizards, so their stadium problems are certainly familiar to us.

The outside players in historical sense are Orlando, Charlotte, and Atlanta. Orlando is actually one of the frontrunners for team twenty for numerous reasons. North Carolina is a hotbed for college soccer, and Charlotte is the largest city, if not TV market, in the area. Atlanta is the capital of the south in essence, but like Miami has had problems with professional sports recently. Nashville is a Columbus-like choice for MLS; it's not heavily saturated and recently has been a city frequented by US Soccer matches and other friendlies. As there are six markets, I'll try to be concise in this post, and list the essentials.


Atlanta

Market Size

Size is not the problem here. It is the largest market without a MLS team, and will probably be for a long time.

Soccer History

They were one of the initial clubs in the NASL and the article below shows how ready Atlanta was for that. However, the whole country was at a low-point before the NASL launched, so they aren't to be blamed for that failing.

In Atlanta, spreading soccer contagion at parade rest : The Global Game
"If you really want to go back and look at the seed of the Americanization of the sport in this country it was Williamsburg," says Dick Cecil, former vice-president and business manager of the Atlanta Braves, who owned the Chiefs.

They currently have one of the remaining WPS clubs, and an NASL club. Their NASL club is not on par with recently promoted NASL teams, with neither the history or attendance to move-up. The team took a break for a couple years as the owners looked over the soccer situation in Atlanta.

Stadium and Ownership

The most promising idea here is Arthur Blank building a new outdoor stadium meant both for the Falcons and an MLS team. The problems with that idea is can you draw enough soccer fans to make it not look ridiculous? Seattle can, but the Sounders have always been there. They just needed an identity, which Blank won't give. As much as his idea works, I can't help but see the Revolution and Robert Kraft in my head.

Sports Competition and Market Problems

Football is the problem as much as it is the solution. The problem with Atlanta is attendance or interest in sports outside of football. With such a pro-football climate, the results are evident. The Hawks are in the lower half of the league in attendance, despite a good but not quite elite team. The Thrashers went to Winnipeg after posting the third lowest attendance last season. The Braves went to the postseason for 14 consecutive seasons winning two World Series championships in that span, but every October you could see the empty seats in Atlanta. This is not to bash on the residents or fans of any of these teams. Simply an acknowledgement that discretionary income in the South goes to football if it's available in the fall and early winter.

Tampa Bay- St. Petersburg

Market Size

It is the fourteenth largest TV market and the fourth largest without MLS.

Soccer History

US soccer has firm roots here. They play here for non-Mexico matches more than any other city. The Rowdies played in the old NASL and their name has been revived for the current NASL franchise. Tampa Bay was also one of the original MLS cities.

Stadium and Ownership

The Mutiny were always a poor fit, because they played in a cavernous football stadiums. They traded their good players away and any positive feel they gained from a inaugural 1996 season was not going to get past that.

Q and A with Andrew Nestor, Owner, President and CEO of FC Tampa Bay | IMS Soccer News
I got to know them, got to know the market, and started to see the sheer numbers of people, not just registered youth soccer players, but the adult leagues here, the overall sports market. It’s a bit of a college town with UT [University of Tampa] and USF [University of South Florida]. And as you’ve seen what’s happened in Seattle, that young adult demographic, I think, is really important for a team to be successful.

If you click on that link, you'll have a creepy flashback and then read about what sounds like the new breed of MLS CEO/owners. The stadium obviously can't be a minor-league baseball stadium (They now play in another minor league park in downtown St. Petersburg as the sole tenant), but people see potential in Tampa still as a soccer market. Personally, I think Orlando is better fit, because of their ownership, but Tampa Bay would be slightly happier since I like them more than Miami.

Sports Competition and Market Problems

If the stadium solution is resolved, this is an open market. The Rays have no stadium and despite their success have not drawn well enough. The Buccaneers are popular, but have habits of going on long streaks of ineptitude. This is an easy market, but again only with a stadium in a downtown area. Look at how much people complain about Tropicana Field's location in downtown St. Petersburg.

Miami

Market Size

Miami-Ft Lauderdale is the sixteenth largest market and the sixth largest without an MLS club.

Soccer History

Nothing here appears helpful to their cause. They keep trying, and there has always been a soccer presence in the Miami region but it hasn't taken root like it did in the Northwest. There are many failures and few success stories.

Stadium and Ownership

There must be a stadium in a population center...not Fort Lauderdale,

Sports Competition and Market Problems

This is one of the strongest TV markets for soccer in the United States. The problem is that these loyalties are spread far and wide. The Hispanic population supports their original countries and the clubs they grew up with or their parents did. While MLS should be looking to expand into Hispanic markets because of the prevalence of soccer in Latin America, it hasn't been proven that allegiances to other leagues and teams can be shifted. Unlike the cities above, I'm almost certain that the MLS will take another shot at Miami, but I'm not sure that is wise and it wouldn't be my first or second choice in even its own state.

Orlando

Market Size

Orlando is the 19th largest TV market and seventh largest without a MLS club.

Soccer History

Orlando's history with soccer is much shorter than the other cities above. That has as much to do with the the cities growth as any other factor. The city has quadrupled in population since the 1960s. So a market that was once not as viable as its neighbors is now the prime candidate for Florida expansion.

The Citrus Bowl hosted World Cup matches in 1994 and Orlando has had lower level teams since the 1980's.

Stadium and Ownership

Orlando City won the USL Pro last year and has been talking with Garber about making the move to MLS. They have the strongest attendance in USL Pro and have sold more season tickets for next year.

Major League Soccer in Central Florida? Orlando City making conversation and taking steps. - Central Florida News 13
Unfortunately, the economic downturn has kept Orlando’s tourist money from reaching the Citrus Bowl, but the upgrade plan is still there. While Florida Citrus Sports and the local government has college football bowl games in mind, there is no reason that a refurbished Citrus Bowl couldn’t become the next Century Link Field (Seattle’s home to the NFL’s Seahawks and the MLS attendance leading Sounders) A 20-thousand seat soccer specific stadium downtown would be ideal, but isn’t practical at this point in time.

Like a broken record, I will again complain about using a football stadium for soccer. However, given an turn in the economy, Orlando is one of the cities that can afford to build a soccer-specific stadium in the future. Also, judging by attendance lately for their USL Pro team, a Sounders-sized crowd for some of their games is not unreasonable.

Sports Competition and Market Problems

The Orlando Magic are the only top level professional team in Orlando. The market could easily fit another team into it, especially an MLS squad. This is where Orlando is far ahead of the other two Florida teams. If they can get 11,000 to watch a USL Pro squad, I have no fear that they could draw 20,000 to watch an MLS squad.

Overview

This is honestly the second best option for MLS past a second MLS team in New York. I would argue that reestablishing in the southeast is more important than trying to force New York to love you, but I don't run the league for a reason. However, I wouldn't doubt that if no one comes forward in New York this is where team number twenty comes from. The similarities to Portland as a market (but without the Timbers history) make it ideal for expansion with limited competition and a growing market. If Dwight Howard leaves Orlando, that competition is even weaker.

Charlotte

Market Size

Charlotte is the 25th largest market and tenth largest without a MLS team. It must also me noted that two other large markets are nearby. Durham-Raleigh is actually a larger TV market(ranked 24th), but is also comprised of many smaller, mostly college towns. Greenville, SC and Asheville, NC are combined to form the 37th largest TV market.I picked Charlotte because it is centrally located of the three.

Soccer History

North Carolina is currently the D-I men's soccer champions, and the women's team has won 20 of the 29 women's soccer championships. Other universities like Duke and Charlotte have solid programs.To emphasize, the area has lots of history in soccer, but none professionally. The appetite for the sport is there; it just has no history to tie into.

They do have a NASL team who was the best team in the regular season last year, but the team is only five years old. Their attendance pales in comparison to Orlando's average drawing 3300 fewer fans a game with their highest attendance six thousand fewer..

Stadium and Ownership

There is no ownership or stadium situation in place. There would have to be in any case a temporary stadium, and as always the options are too large or too small.

Sports Competition and Market Problems

NASCAR and college sports are the big problem here, so much that Charlotte has turned down teams dying to move there. The Charlotte Hornets moved to New Orleans, which is now smaller than Charlotte due to Katrina. However, there wasn't a large difference before Katrina in the two cities. The Panthers are a late season competition problem, but not as large as college sports and NASCAR.

Overview

It's on here almost as a courtesy. I think that this is a great secondary market if the NASL actually establishes itself as a legitimate second division. However, the problems here are too great to start an MLS franchise.

Nashville

Market Size

Nashville is the 29th largest TV market and the 14th largest without an MLS team.

Soccer History

Much like the two cities above there isn't much history. I included Nashville as it has recently been part of US Soccer's plans. The US team plays there often, especially for the market not having a MLS team or a history in the sport. The upcoming Olympic qualifying will have a group stage in Nashville.

Stadium and Ownership

LP Field is most frequently used for US Soccer matches. Its benefit is that it has natural grass whereas many of the new NFL stadiums are switching to Field-turf surfaces.

Like Charlotte, this is another city not in immediate contention so neither city.

Sports Competition and Market Problems

The Titans and Predators are the only two teams in the market. The Titans haven't had problems because outside Jacksonville the NFL doesn't have struggles with attendance given the sparsity of games. The Predators have always had problems, leading to rumors and apparently some real effort to move them to Kansas City a few years ago.

Overview

It's not a market that will be soon expanded into, but US soccer will continue to give it friendlies and tournament matches. Like Charlotte, it's ideal for a secondary team, but again this requires a true second division league.

This will be by far the longest of the series. The rest of the country will be split up into two groups with three cities each so nothing this expansive. Canada will also have a short piece. Hopefully, I'll get to the Midwest next week. Happy New Year to everyone and thanks for giving me the desire to write such long pieces of speculative fiction.