Saturday, November 10, 2007

An Interesting Hypothetical Problem

I've been meaning to post on a bunch of things lately, but every time I come up with an idea, Tom over at Pitch Invasion beats me to it, which is really bringing out my jealous side because I can't match him for output. OK, be honest, I can't really match him for quality, either. It's like he's on speed or something. Any of my regulars not reading Tom's stuff is missing out, so do check in with him regularly.

Any-hoo, I've finally found a topic he hasn't quite covered yet so here goes:

What with the success of TFC, the Wizards seemingly secure in Kansas City (albeit in the dinkiest of stadiums), the Earthquakes coming back to San Jose via expansion in '08 and the announcement of a franchise in Seattle starting in '09, MLS is starting to resemble a real league with real prospects. A 16-team league by '09 means a real 30-game schedule with home and away across the whole league and possibly (dare I say it?) the end of this two division nonsense.

Now there are of course some possible drawbacks to this expansion stuff, most notably, a thinning of an already somewhat stretched talent pool. One needs only to take a look at the Toronto bench to come to the conclusion that the Seattle expansion draft has the potential to be exceedingly gruesome even if their coach's draft strategy is as wily as Mo Johnston's.

I'm not sure this is such a big deal. If talent becomes a problem, it's always possible for the league to relax its ludicrously complicated Roster Rules (caution: clicking on that link may make your head explode) to allow more foreigners in to keep standards up. If the league is genuinely healthy and teams are making money at the gate, that shouldn't be a problem.

So let's take it as read that this expansion thing is a success and that MLS goes from strength to strength. There's no shortage of possible sites for expansion. In Canada, both Vancouver and Montreal could probably sustaing teams. In the US, Portland is often mentioned (a great potential foil for Seattle) and of course there's Philadelphia where, famously, the Sons of Ben supporters club is just waiting for someone - anyone - to set up shop and give them someone to cheer for.

All great, of course, but is there a limit?

Well, the NASL made it up to 24 teams for a few years (a great NASL page is available here - it contains the intriguing stat that the Minnesota Kicks managed an average gate of over 30,000 in 1977 and 1978, which is frankly amazing). OK, so history records that didn't go so well, but arguably that was because so much of the marketing centred around one team - the Cosmos - and a number of their superstars such as Pele, Beckenbauer, and Claudio Caniggia (pictured, above).

(The Cosmos, I have realized, are to MLS what Voldemort is to Hogwarts: something of a bad memory, an ancient story of a dark lord who destroyed himself through overweening ambition. Above all, it is a Team Which Shall Not be Named)

Anyways, say - just say - that MLS could sustain its current NHL-sized crowds in more than 20 markets. Could it expand even more? And what would be the consequence?

Climate makes a schedule with more than 30 games a bit dicey - which would seem to give the league a natural upper limit of 16. That said, just as we have unbalanced schedules with extra games to get us up to 30 matches in a 13-team league, we oculd have unbalanced schedules with fewer games in a 20 or 22-team league. The NASL made a go of a 30-game schedule and a 24 team league for a number of years. But more than 20 teams probably puts paid to a unified league - we'd be back to divisions again.

And what if - mirabile dictu - football just keeps moving from strength to strength. and the demand for franchises grows and grows? Is there a point where MLS would just tell new potential franchises to bugger off? Or - say it softly - might there be a possibility for a second league with relegation and promotion?

Admittedly, that would be a really hard sell. But as soon as the league hits the 20 teams mark - and it's not utterly farfetched to suggest that this might happen within a decade - it's hard to argue that football can only exist in a single-league format. And if MLS were to reject franchises, we'd be back into the wonderful world of USFL-style rival start-up leagues and anti-trust cases. They'd have to at least consider a pyramid as an alternative.

As things stand, that's a problem Don Garber et. al would love to have. But it might not be so funny around 2015 - in fact, it could get quite ugly.

I'd say "stay tuned" but the likelihood of me continuing to blog for another decade is pretty low, so on the off-chance this actually happens, just reminisce and think well of me.


Anonymous Tom said...

You are far too kind, AG.

The limits-to-expansion would certainly be a pleasant problem for MLS. I suppose that eventual possibility is indeed a reason for sticking with the Conference/Playoffs format.

12:55 PM  

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