Keith Hickey: MLS expansion will display nature of league's ambitions

The markets MLS chooses to add in the next few years will indicate how the league's owners see its eventual place in the sporting landscape.
The Major League Soccer All-Star week is a surreal experience. It feels like the soccer universe has collapsed upon itself. World-class athletes swarm like impossibly confident mosquitoes. The national (and international) media descends upon the host city, joined by fans from near and far, team and league executives, corporate sponsors and MLS owners of both the established and aspiring varieties.

I met owners from two of those aspiring clubs that week, two clubs whose MLS ambitions represent radically different paths that Major League Soccer might follow as it seeks to add four more expansion clubs by the end of the decade.

On Wednesday, I interviewed Orlando City’s Brazilian investor, Flavio Silva. He was joined by Phil Rawlins, his fellow owner, Alexandre Leitao, president of sports marketing firm Octagon's Brazilian arm and Brent Lashbrook, the “MLS to Orlando” project director. On Thursday, I had a chance meeting with Sacramento Republic President Warren Smith.

I was just one of many media hacks to get face time with the Orlando delegation that week. The Lions were tipped by many to be a strong contender for the 20th MLS expansion team before the combined muscle of Manchester City and the Yankees landed that particular milestone in New York City. Still, the seat of Orange County, Fla., is widely considered an inevitable destination for MLS expansion, and the well-connected men behind the project are keen to promote that perception, along with their bullish vision for the future of the club and the league.

“MLS is going to be the biggest, and No. 1 league in the world in the next 10 years,” declares Silva. “I’m talking about numbers, I will give you an example. You asked me about Brazil, MLS already has 50 percent more average attendance than Brazil. This number is fantastic. I saw in an article in Brazil this week... MLS is No. 3 in the world, it has 91 percent for... (Silva searches for a word, and after a few seconds, is helped to various answers of ‘occupation’ and ‘capacity).’

“Brazil is No. 31.”

But everyone watching MLS knows the strong, steady growth of league attendance, the value of soccer-specific venues, and the various Seattle Sounders, Chivas USA and New England Revolution-shaped caveats that go along with those figures. Orlando wants to build a strong local club, yes (and Silva rattles off Orlando’s 8,000-person average figure proudly), but its owners really strike out for something new and exciting when it comes to selling that club to a wider audience.

“We intend to bring Brazilian stars in the first season, in 2015,” Silva admits bluntly. It’s not about launching some Samba-flavored version of Chivas USA, however. “This is a very interesting question, and dangerous as well. It would be a mistake to try and build a ‘Brazilian’ club in the U.S., it’s not going to happen like that. We’re going to build an American and local club for the community.

“But, of course, I’m a Brazilian, I will take advantage of my connections in Brazil to expand our marketing; for selling products, for selling our brand, and many other opportunities involved in that. For example, we have 1.5 million Brazilians that go to Florida every year, it’s a lot. We believe that most of these people would go to the stadium to watch our games, because of the Brazilian owner, we’ll have Brazilian players, we’ll attract many Brazilians to our stadium.”

Orlando would give MLS something it’s missing, pushing the league into the Florida market it retreated from over a decade ago with its tail between its legs. It puts MLS closer to the long-coveted southeastern TV markets of Atlanta and Miami. Furthermore, its unique position as the most-visited city in the U.S. opens up a slew of new opportunities.

It’s also a huge risk. Orlando is, in professional sports terms, a tiny city. While Columbus is often derided for being small-market, it has a city population of over 800,000. Orlando’s core is under a quarter million, with the majority of the region’s metropolitan population living in decentralized sprawl. Orlando’s success would depend on tourists, suburban fans, and television ratings, a sharp departure from the locally-driven success the cream of the so-called “MLS 2.0” clubs have experienced. A third failed franchise in Florida could ruin MLS' hopes of Sunshine State expansion for a generation.

A different kind of risk is presented by the capital of California. The day after the All-Star game, I was waiting in the lobby of the Downtown Kansas City Marriott with Brian Straus of Sports Illustrated, who introduced me to Warren Smith, the President of Sacramento Republic FC.

While Sacramento has generated nowhere near the level of buzz that Orlando has, Smith is committed to bringing top-flight soccer to the River City, and the form his campaign is taking is a familiar one. Since the Sons of Ben helped Philadelphia land the Union back in 2008, every aspiring market (including Orlando) has tried to leverage the fervor of its local support in combination with a soccer specific stadium plan.

In Sacramento’s case, the local support came in the form of “Sacramento Soccer Day” on July 18, with a pair of exhibition games headlined by English Premier League side Norwich City, the unveiling of the team’s name and craft brewery label-resembling badge, and the debut of the Tower Bridge Battalion, Sacramento’s supporters group. The event drew 14,014 people, a smallish but not terrible crowd in MLS terms. Also in Sacramento’s favor are its potential rivalry with neighbor San Jose (Sacramento is about an hour from the Bay Area) and its coach, MLS playing legend and coaching mixed bag Preki.

MLS 1.0 was about survival, keeping the league around long enough to establish the idea of an American soccer league in people’s minds. MLS 2.0 has been about creating successful local clubs and enticing regional rivalries. In MLS 3.0, the task will be selling those clubs and those storylines to a national and international audience.

And that’s why the contrast of Sacramento and Orlando is so important. Sacramento’s risk is that it represents more of the same for MLS, a smaller version of the Portland that Smith is so intent on emulating. The league could continue its 2.0 phase indefinitely, adding small, fervently supported clubs that turned small profits. It’s a state of affairs plenty of smaller leagues would be thrilled with. Outside of soccer, it’s a strategy the National Hockey League has been pursuing, abandoning its poorly-received southern strategy in favor of a triumphant retreat into its traditional northern strongholds.

On the other hand, the league could go for the brass ring and attempt to claim the untold riches promised by MLS 3.0. International marketing, superstar players, lucrative TV deals, private jets, and perhaps most importantly, respect. In some ways, like the addition of NYCFC and the signing of Clint Dempsey, the league is already moving in this direction. But those deals were relative no-brainers, to team up with such a deep-pocketed ownership group and to sign the U.S. national team captain when he became available. Expanding into Orlando would be a real risk, and a true signifier of which way the league’s ambitions lie.