PAT HICKEY, The Gazette
Nine cities, including Montreal, are in line to bid for two expansion franchises in Major League Soccer, which, in theory at least, is the height of professional soccer in North America.
The principals in these cities – we’re talking Joey Saputo and George Gillett here in Montreal – will be asked to fork over an expansion fee that could be as high as $40 million.
The question everyone should be asking is: What do you get for your money?
Let’s start with MLS, which was born out of the soccer fever that surrounded the 1994 World Cup in the United States. Someone mistakenly believed the support for this one-off event was evidence Americans had suddenly developed a passion for the world’s most popular game.
But the latest attendance figures show, if anything, popularity for pro soccer in North America is waning. The average attendance at MLS games this past season was 16,459. That’s down 1.8 per cent from last season.
Only three teams – the L.A. Galaxy, Toronto FC and DC United – averaged more than 20,000. Ironically, they all missed the playoffs. The San Jose Earthquakes, the latest expansion team, averaged only 13,713. The Kansas City Wizards drew a league-low 10,686, which is about 2,000 less than the Impact drew.
Looking for growth? It’s non existent. The average attendance is lower than it was in the league’s 1996 inaugural season.
League revenues are up, but you have to wonder how much of the increase comes from selling expansion franchises. At one point, MLS concentrated on strengthening its existing franchises and cautiously added teams. In recent years, it seems to be addicted to expansion, because it knows it can fleece prospective owners.
Why would anyone want to invest in a business that is stagnant at best?
How about a chance to compete against the best?
The MLS comes up short in that area. Four MLS teams competed in the CONCACAF Champions League; two of them fell by the wayside in the preliminary round and the others were eliminated in group play. The United Soccer Leagues, the supposedly weaker league that is home to the Impact, had two teams in Champions League play – the Impact and the Puerto Rico Islanders – and they advanced to the quarterfinals.
There are some impressive big names in MLS like David Beckham, Juan Pablo Angel and Marcello Gallardo, but the Beckham experience has left a lot to be desired. Beckham plays for the Los Angeles Galaxy when he’s not playing for England or AC Milan, or watching the Olympic basketball final in Beijing. During his first two seasons in MLS, he has appeared in only 25 of the Galaxy’s 60 games.
In a league that has extensive revenue-sharing, MLS should be concerned with attracting cities that have a proven track record of success, which should put Montreal on the top of the list, especially when you consider the success of Toronto FC.
But Montreal might be better off joining Vancouver, Ottawa and some of the other cities seeking MLS franchises and starting a league of their own or shoring up the existing USL. They’d save money on the franchise fees and would be able to give their fans a more affordable product. The threat of such a move might even convince MLS to reduce its exorbitant franchise fee, because the reality is that the MLS needs Montreal more than Montreal needs the MLS.