A few weeks ago, Major League Soccer enjoyed a flurry of coverage in advance of its All-Star Game, which this year pitted the league All-Stars against Manchester United. MLS commissioner Don Garber was interviewed far and wide about league-related topics, but one of the most commonly discussed was expansion. Currently a 16-team outfit, the league will expand to Portland and Vancouver next year, and to Montreal in 2012 - but after that, then who?
Garber gave his thoughts on the subject to Grant Wahl, of Sports Illustrated:
If we could write the book, the next chapter would be a second team in New York... I hope our 20th team is in New York City. We've got a lot of work to do to achieve that. Beyond New York, Atlanta is still very engaged and started a committee to support the sport at a wide variety of levels. San Diego has just entered the mix. The man who bought the Silverdome in Detroit has been in discussions with us. I get probably 10 to 20 e-mails a day from fans in Miami trying to have us pay attention to their interest.
There is plenty of interest across the country for big-league soccer, and as the league zooms to 20 teams and beyond, you do have to wonder: could Minnesota be a destination for the league in the near future?
"Of course, any soccer fan would want to have the highest level of soccer here," says Brian Quarstad, who runs the wonderful Inside Minnesota Soccer. Quarstad may be one of the two men who know the most about soccer in Minnesota; Bruce McGuire, the other, publishes the great (and jaw-droppingly comprehensive) Du Nord Futbol, and echoes those sentiments. "As a fan I want the best," he said. "So I would be very, very happy to have MLS in this city. The future seems so huge to me these days."
On the one hand, Minnesota does have a history of supporting professional soccer. Minnesota Kicks games were famously well-attended in the NASL era in the 1970s, although depending on who you listen to, this was mostly due to the availability of free tickets and a certain lax attitude regarding the normal rules and mores of tailgating and fandom at Met Stadium. In the 1990s, the Minnesota Thunder - in the second tier of American soccer - were very successful, and although they fell toward the bottom of the league in the 2000s, they survived all the way up until 2009, becoming one of the longest-running teams in stateside soccer along the way.
On the other hand, the team that replaced the Thunder, the NSC Minnesota Stars, are having a rough go of it, in their first year. The Star Tribune recently ran an article about the Stars' attendance difficulties, titled "Pro Soccer: A game in search of fans."
Mlive.com did a story about the possible expansion of the league to Detroit; the Greek-born new owner of the Silverdome has an intriguing but slightly goofy plan to add two arenas in the lower deck of the stadium, then build a soccer field atop the arenas and transform the upper deck into a roof-less soccer stadium. In the article, the site lays out MLS's four criteria for an expansion team:
- Committed long-term ownership with deep pockets.
- Approved plan to build a soccer-specific stadium where the team would control revenue streams such as parking and concessions.
- A healthy media market
- A strong soccer fanbase
The first two seem like the highest obstacles to climb for Minnesota, but there may be some hope for local soccer fans. Minnesota Vikings owner Zygi Wilf might be the area's best chance; last winter, the Star Tribune reported that part of Wilf's plan for a new Vikings stadium would involve getting an MLS team to play in the stadium as well. While this may have simply been stadium-related posturing - Wilf said the same when the team was trying to get a stadium in Blaine - he may be the only person with the ability to pull off bringing an MLS team to town, and he has supposedly had interactions with commissioner Garber about the idea. And while playing in the lower bowl of an NFL stadium doesn't fit the MLS mold of soccer-specific facilities, that formula has been successful in Seattle, where the Sounders lead the league in attendance, drawing 36,000 fans a game to Qwest Field, the home of the Seahawks.
Quarstad says that, while the Stars may be struggling at the gate now and the Thunder may just have folded, this isn't necessarily the end of the idea that soccer can succeed here. He said, "Have we ever had a high-profile pro soccer team, that's playing fairly successfully, in a decent urban stadium, and that's been marketed well? I don't think you can say that has ever happened."
McGuire backs up that point, noting that other MLS teams have had a similar history. "Toronto had wretched attendance when they were in the same league as the Thunder," he said. "And Seattle was not a blockbuster in that league either - not remotely at the attendance levels of Montreal or Portland. More like Thunder numbers. And those two cities have blown the roof off MLS. It's not about how those expansion targets draw these days - with serious owners who really know how to market a pro sports team they can draw huge numbers."
Both also have a pretty good idea of one ingredient that needs to be part of the mix here, in order for an MLS team to survive - a place to play downtown. "Seattle and Toronto both made the smart move of building their stadiums in the downtown area," said McGuire. "Just look at the buzz the Twins have gotten off the location of a new home. It matters."
Quarstad goes even further. "The whole concept of making these teams more urban is where it's at," he said. "Looking at who the target market is, it's the 21- to 45-year-old males. They will go to the beer garden, will buy food, will buy apparel, will go support the team. MLS has found out it's not the moms and the pops that support a team. And where are you going to find this target market? Uptown. The U of M. Northeast Minneapolis. If you put a team in an urban facility that has drinking and entertainment and is accessible by mass transit and bike - that's never been tried here in the correct way."
This isn't to say, of course, that there are no problems. The local media's coverage, or lack thereof, may well be an issue. Said McGuire, "One thing that we do not have that other expansion cities have is that their local newspapers were covering soccer in a very real way long before MLS was brought to town. The local press had a lot to do with the teams getting off to a great start, because they had really experienced soccer writers in place for a long time. Our newspapers and sports radio basically ignore the sport, and their few stories are generally anti-soccer."
Both papers in town use out-of-season high school reporters to cover the Stars, on the rare occasion they do cover the team. While the Star Tribune has several knowledgeable soccer fans on staff - including Page 2 correspondent Michael Rand, who columnist Patrick Reusse once accused on television of being "kind of a soccer kisser-upper" - it's not a priority for the paper.
"I think the attitude towards soccer [at the paper] has certainly changed," said Rand. "There's a lot more people that pay attention than five or ten years ago. It's not like there's a bad climate for soccer journalism. I think soccer as a relevant thing to cover, the major soccer stories like the World Cup, I think that's gotten way more mainstream acceptance in our newsroom."
Rand admits that the paper doesn't do much for NSC Stars coverage - but for pragmatic reasons. "I covered the Thunder fairly regularly for quite a few years, starting back in 1998 when they went to the A-League championship and then for several years thereafter. That changed, and I think the reasons were two-fold. Staffing issues at the paper forced us to rethink everything we cover; we only had so many people to devote to that.
"And I really think when they moved to Griffin Stadium [also known as the football field at St. Paul Central High School - ed.], they lost a little of their core audience and became less relevant. It became a little more minor league, and it was kind of apparent to us, at least, that they weren't quite as serious. Our coverage kind of reflected that. Their attendance was no longer growing, and they were no longer sustaining the audience that required staffing a vast majority of the games.
"It's the chicken and the egg thing - is there less interest because we cover them less, or do we cover them less because there's less interest? But I would hardly gauge what the Star Tribune thinks of soccer based on how we cover the Stars. We're a different market than a lot of minor league soccer teams would be. You'd get more coverage in a smaller market, but we're a pro sports market."
Minnesota does have one of the most crowded sports scenes in the country. MLS begins in late March and ends in late November; the team would go up against all four major pro teams and all three major Gopher sports during that period, not to mention the host of minor teams - the Swarm in lacrosse, the Saints in baseball, the Lynx in basketball, and so on. "Most major cities don't have that," says Quarstad.
That said, Rand is certain that things would be different, media-wise, with an MLS team. "You would see a much different level of coverage. There's no doubt in my mind there'd be a full-time guy. Maybe not a year-round guy, but I could definitely see it being someone covering that team, and off-season news, and every single home match in the least. Away matches too - I don't know about travel, that's a tricky thing. But as for a full-time guy who's writing features and such, I have no doubt in my mind."
As for a possible future as a Minnesota MLS beat writer, Rand just laughed. "I don't know, that'd be a fun team to cover," he said. "The MLS is a good league and a good enterprise, and they've made some strides; having that in the market would be very fun."
So, can a team survive? Quarstad is optimistic. "By the time we would get a team, in 2018 or whatever, MLS will have a better idea of how to set up a team and make them successful here," he said. "I hate to gamble, and I hate to be bold, but I'd give it better than a 50-50 chance."
There's no MLS team in Minnesota's near future. The state still needs a new Vikings stadium and a serious owner like Zygi Wilf to make it even plausible, and so it may be five or ten more years before it can even be seriously considered. That said if MLS chooses to continue expanding, the basics are in place here, and you can bet that Minnesota will be in contention for a team.