Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber announced last week during the MLS All Star Game that the league would be expanding to 24 teams by the year 2020. Who will these additional 4 franchises be? We reached out to a number of people in the know from prospective MLS cities and asked them, why their city? It's a series we're calling MLS2020. You can join in on the conversation on Twitter using #MLS2020. Next up, we talk to Dave Laidig and Joe Leyba from mls4mn about Minnesota.
Total-MLS (TMLS): The league has released a number of criteria that they will base their expansion decision on. Let’s hit on each of the criteria.
Committed and engaged ownership: How does the current ownership of Minnesota United feel about bringing MLS to Minnesota and what have they done to make their intentions known? Are there any other potential ownership groups who could step forward to bring in a MLS franchise?
Dave and Joe (DJ): Minnesota United has expressed zero interest in going to MLS publically. Team president Nick Rogers has even been a bit hostile towards MLS expansion talk on Twitter, instead wanting to focus on the current NASL team. However, I don’t think it’s necessarily bad that they’re taking this stance for now.
The Minnesota Vikings have said that they’re interested in bringing a MLS team to Minnesota. The league office has confirmed talks between the two. The Vikings even went as far as getting a five year right to exclude other MLS teams from playing in their new football stadium. But when pressed for details, the Vikings say that they’re busy building the stadium and they’ll get into the details in a few years.
So if Minnesota United started publically saying they also wanted a MLS team, all of the sudden there is competition which could drive up the cost of a franchise. Is there more going on behind the scenes? Probably. But all the players are keeping their cards close to their chest.
And consideration of Minnesota needs to be viewed through the context of Minnesota’s previous ownership problems. We had the Minnesota Thunder, a popular lower division team from the mid-90’s until 2009. Our beloved Thunder was run into the ground by a con man, who skipped town (literally) leaving the team heavily in debt and payroll unpaid. In 2010, the National Sports Center (NSC) stepped in at the last minute and fielded a team. US Soccer then instituted new D2 guidelines which meant the NSC could not own the team and the team became an NASL-owned step-child for 2011 and 2012. Budgets were incredibly low, and staff was committed but over-worked. We believe the team would have been eliminated last year but for the decision of Dr. Bill McGuire to purchase the team last October. We are grateful to the current ownership for continuing Minnesota’s 24 straight years of professional soccer.
TMLS: A comprehensive stadium plan: Are there any discussions or plans in place for a soccer specific stadium in the Twin Cities area?
DJ: Our current soccer-specific stadium is at the National Sports Center in a Northern suburb, but is too small to work as a MLS venue. There have been plenty of rumors about another soccer specific stadium being built in the cities but there have been no announcements about one. The Vikings have come out and said that their new stadium is MLS friendly. But we don’t really know if the new Vikings stadium will offer a superior soccer experience or not. It’s the same architect that designed Cowboys stadium.
TMLS: Demonstrated fan support for professional soccer in the market: How has the fan support in Minnesota been for MNUFC and how do you think it would be affected by a MLS franchise coming to town?
DJ: With just a couple months of actually owning the team before the 2013 season started, attendance has more than doubled for MNUFC this season. The main supporters group, the Dark Clouds, have also doubled in size this season. Several players around the league have made similar comments that the Dark Clouds may not be the biggest fan group in the league but they are definitely the most creative.
The market wouldn’t be big enough for a MLS and NASL team. In a perfect world, MNUFC makes the jump.
TMLS: Support from sponsors, television partners and other constituents: What support does Minnesota have in place from these parties?
DJ: Minnesota United is actively working on making the team sustainable. The whole atmosphere around the club has changed to become more professional. One of the benefits of having Dr. Bill McGuire as an owner is he is networked with other CEO’s. I wouldn’t be surprised to see larger sponsors supporting the team in the next season or two. They’ve improved greatly this season but they’ve got a long way to go. And, of course, the Dark Clouds also have their own independent sponsors which allow them to enhance their game day experience as well.
TMLS: Geographic location: What makes Minnesota a good location for expansion?
DJ: The Twin Cities are the 16th largest metro area (15th largest TV market) with over 4 million people. The population is stable which helps build a supporter base, and has a high percentage of college-educated residents. The Twin Cities enjoy a high income level, and its bargain property values mean there is a good percentage of disposable income to support entertainment. We are in internationally-focused city, of the type that has generally done well with supporting MLS teams. Chicago and Kansas City are also within driving distance. And in 2005 the Minnesota Thunder won the Rocky Mountain Cup by beating both Real Salt Lake and the Colorado Rapids in the US Open Cup (both teams try to deny it). From the league’s perspective, traveling to Minnesota would be relatively cheap (airfare is low in comparison to some cities) and its central location in the US is relatively convenient for most teams. It’s a sports town, and an MLS team would fit in very well.
TMLS: A strategic business plan for the launch and successful operation of the club: With a NASL team already in place, how will Minnesota continue this plan and make it successful in MLS?
DJ: There are more than handful different scenarios that could take place for a MLS team to become a reality. An unlikely one is for MNUFC and the Vikings to partner in bringing a team. More than likely is there would be a 3rd party that we haven’t heard of gets involved with either party. As I said earlier, people aren’t sharing information about this. If the current MNUFC groups decides to make a MLS bid, then the transition would seem well on its way. Teams that start in a lower division have greater attendance and better long term support than teams created just for MLS. And we can understand why after witnessing the increase in marketing, business networking and media presence, and with the front office working out the operational and personnel kinks. If a different ownership group comes forward, it would really depend on their experience and commitment to the team. And it’s just too early to speculate on that.
TMLS: Finally, why should Minnesota be chosen for a MLS expansion franchise and what are the chances it does happen?
DJ: Minnesota has a long tradition of supporting soccer that goes back decades; we had the second best attendance in the old NASL days (behind the Cosmos), better attendance than the Sounders when we were in the same league, and growing awareness with the current MNUFC owners and rebranding. The Twin Cities metropolitan area is a thriving, growing, economically-stable place to market an increasingly more popular sport. And we already have strong ties to MLS (the MLS National Sales Center is located here) and youth soccer with one of the largest youth tournaments every year.
But really, Minnesota should be chosen simply because that would mean we could have USA vs. Mexico World Cup Qualifiers in our soccer specific stadium when it is 20 below out. Costa Rica got off easy.
We'd like to thank Dave and Joe for their time and if you have any comments or questions you can tweet us or mls4mn and use #MLS2020. You can also read more about Minnesota's chances at expansion on the Major League Soccer for Minnesota site.
(image courtesy of mls4mn.com)