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Support & Expansion, Part I: Is MLS Growing A Fan Base?

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Major League Soccer is growing. What does the expansion model mean for soccer fans in New York City and Orlando?

David Manning-USA TODAY Sports

Major League Soccer is in a period of unprecedented growth. No top flight American soccer league has seen the development of this many teams in such short amount of time. Starting from 10 original clubs in 1996 to now what Commissioner Don Garber promises to be 24 teams by the year 2020, MLS is betting big on soccer in the United States.

With expansion teams New York City FC and Orlando City SC to begin play in 2015 and Atlanta Phoenix (name still pending, but won in a fan vote poll) starting play in 2017, there’s a lot of talk about the importance of support and fan base in these cities that will decide the fates of these and any new clubs. MLS and its owners know that their teams must appeal to the fans, which means stadiums have to be accessible, entertainment value for the money needs to be worth the price of admission, but most importantly, the fan base must be able to identify with the new team.

Creating buzz for a new team that fans want to be a part of is the first step to having a successful sports franchise. There must be a natural draw that has people coming back and building a relationship with the club. This is arguably more important than securing a stadium for the new team, which in the past has been prerequisite number one for potential owners to bring in a new MLS franchise. But establishment of a fan base is paramount, because otherwise who would be there to fill your brand new, state-of-the-art soccer facility once the team arrives?

The Tale of Two Cities

New York City FC

New York’s biggest soccer supporters group, the Borough Boys who support NASL side and storied New York City soccer club The Cosmos, had worked hard since 2008 to bring top tier soccer to New York City. The New York Red Bulls, who currently reside in Harrison, New Jersey didn’t speak to the identity that a team within city limits would. In 2010, The Cosmos returned to New York, when they opted to come back to the second tier North American Soccer League, instead of seeking MLS expansion. When MLS announced that there would be another team coming to New York, and backed mostly by owners of English Premier League’s Manchester City, it seemed that MLS was hoping that The Borough Boys would drop The Cosmos for the big leagues of MLS and NYCFC. Instead, foreign ownership of the team left a poor taste in the supporters’ mouths, and the identity that the Borough Boys have wanted for their city club was not being fulfilled by leadership of NYCFC. The Borough Boys released a statement regarding the New York expansion club in 2013:

"While we are pleased that Major League Soccer has signaled their commitment to establish a franchise in New York, we are ultimately disappointed and concerned about their expansion announcement. For years we have been told by MLS that a stadium was required in order to award a club, for years we were led to believe that MLS was committed not just to obtaining a club here but also that the club would represent New York and what we stand for.

"While we always desired an MLS franchise, what we never desired was being forced to accept a foreign club’s world wide branding ambitions, using New York City as a vehicle to promote a separate soccer club abroad. The news that Manchester City will be establishing a new MLS expansion franchise, using "synergies", cross promotion and color schemes of the parent club can only be described as disheartening."

The Borough Boys have supported the New York Cosmos not only since their re-emergence into NASL, but before then when the club first made public its intentions to join top-tier soccer in 2009.

"Over the past three years, we have been working closely with the New York Cosmos, in part because we felt they were the best choice for MLS expansion and in part because they demonstrated a commitment to being an authentic New York club, a club that was born of New York, made its history in New York, and a club who’s very iconic status in this great city attracted countless members to the Borough Boys."

With the Borough Boys publicly stating their allegiance to the New York Cosmos, it has already put the MLS New York expansion team in a difficult position. Instead of capitalizing on the backing of organic New York soccer support, they now have to market to a whole new set of fans, essentially manufacturing a fan base from followers of soccer who haven’t clung to the second division Cosmos, and who don’t identify with the New Jersey based New York Red Bulls.

New York City Football Club might have more issues to focus on that could directly and indirectly influence their growing, but not quite there yet, fan base. NYCFC has made official that they will play its first three seasons in MLS at Yankee Stadium while a location for their own stadium is still being pursued. New York Yankees President Randy Levine has also stated that if a site within New York’s city limits could not be secured, ownership would look to place a stadium elsewhere. Meaning NYCFC would once again distance themselves from the "city identity" it’s boasted about since the announcement of the new team, and potentially pushing themselves further away from the fan base they want to attract.

Orlando City SC

Orlando City Soccer Club was granted expansion into Major League Soccer in November 2013, although it may be better viewed as a promotion of sorts from the USL Pro ranks. Orlando City SC started play in the third division league in 2010 and were awarded a spot in MLS after just four seasons. That pace of promotion into top tier soccer hasn’t been seen in the league before - Portland and Seattle had played in USL for years before their 'promotion' to MLS -  but to soccer followers around the US, Orlando City 2015 makes sense. They have a club that’s been successful in their league on the field, and also has an organic and passionate following, spearheaded by Orlando City SC’s Iron Lion Firm. That interest is only bound to grow, since Orlando has only one other sports franchise in the city competing for entertainment dollars.

Awarding expansion to teams like Orlando City SC is what MLS should be looking to do for the next two slots for expansion that will close out Garber’s "24 by 2020" campaign. Rewarding clubs that have success on the field and a loyal fan base that follows them has the potential to create an easily marketable product that translates into a positive revenue stream for MLS. The winning history and mentality is already there. The strong following within the team’s city is already there. Pair that with television contracts, major marketing and branding campaigns, and these successful lower-division clubs can bring even more excitement to these soccer-crazy cities that have already shown potential as a major league club. But don’t take it from me, the Don said it himself back when the new team was being unveiled.

"We are proud and excited to welcome Orlando to Major League Soccer…from the success of the Orlando City Soccer Club, to the incredible fan support and passion in the community, this is a new market that really excites us."

It seemed like, with Garber's statement on Orlando City SC, we might see more successful lower-division clubs given the opportunity to play in MLS. That remains to be seen, because although Portland, Vancouver, and Seattle all have history linked to the old NASL, there hasn’t been a promotion like the one Orlando has seen - the club coming up wholesale, no rebranding or discontinuity with its past.

But with the addition of Miami and Atlanta, Garber and the league have shown that they're more interested tapping the markets in the southeast than continuing the trend of incorporating already successful soccer clubs into MLS. I suppose starting from scratch appears a better option when lucrative expansion fees can be had at a range of $70 to $100 million per team.

Part II of Support & Expansion, entitled 'The Curious Case Of Atlanta,' comes out at 1 p.m. today.