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. First up, we talk to Ole Olson from Soccer STL about St. Louis, Missouri.
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: We have heard the big issue with St. Louis expansion is a committed owner to step in and bring the cash and commitment to landing a franchise. Is this the case and are there any prospective ownership groups willing to step forward?
Ole Olson (OO): Through failed attempts by previous potential owner, Jeff Cooper, St. Louis is a risky play for many potential investors. Stan Kroenke (Arsenal and Colorado Rapids) and Shad Khan (Fulham) were the obvious choices before but now that both local investors have their hands in other soccer related ventures, therefore it seems unlikely that St. Louis will be able to find a local investor from the currently identified prospects.
TMLS: A comprehensive stadium plan: Have there been any discussions on a soccer specific stadium being built in the St. Louis area to help land a MLS franchise?
OO: Despite being the home of US Soccer in the 80's at the St Louis Soccer Park now owned by the St Louis Scott Gallagher SC that plays in the US Soccer Development Academy, there have been no soccer specific stadium discussions recently. There was a rumor promulgated by a local public affairs website.
At this point, my bet for the best opportunity in this area would be a shared stadium with the St Louis Rams of the NFL. The Post-Dispatch looked at new stadium possibilities but the political climate would need something more to support a public component. A partnership similar to what the Vikings are considering might offer that possibility. The previous thought was that the Rams would return to LA but as I understand it, the new football stadium there has stalled, limiting the Ram's options.
TMLS: Demonstrated fan support for professional soccer in the market: We’ve seen St. Louis have good crowds for friendlies like Manchester City v Chelsea this summer. Why has previous attempts at bringing professional soccer to St. Louis failed and what would be different this time around as far as fan support if St. Louis were to land a MLS franchise?
OO: Over 100,000 tickets have been sold for the Chelsea vs Manchester City game (May 23) at Busch Stadium and the upcoming Real Madrid vs Inter Milan match (Aug 10) being held in the Edward Jones Dome, home of the Rams.
Here are some attendance comparisons for friendlies in other cities:
AT&T Park in San Fran holds 41,000 – attendance for July 31 match: 22,208
University Of Phoenix Stadium in Phoenix holds 63,900 – attendance for August 1 match: 38,992
Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis holds 67,000 – attendance for August 1 match: estimated 40,000
Busch Stadium in St.Louis holds 46,861 – attendance for May 23 match: 48,000+
Edward Jones Dome in St.Louis holds 66,000 – estimated attendance for Aug 10 match: 50,000 and counting
The earlier effort, which featured an NASL team, failed due to inadequate funding, something that Major League Soccer identified as an issue when it denied Jeff Cooper's early efforts to land an MLS team.
There is regular traffic on I-70 to Kansas City as fans attend Sporting KC games. As the Lou Fusz Wipke U18 girls noted prior to their departure for the US Youth National tournament last month, Overland Park Soccer Complex is like a second home for them and thousands of youth soccer players in this metro area as they travel there several times a year for tournaments (it's an excellent facility).
The excitement for professional soccer has been stoked most recently with the announcement that the St Louis Ambush had joined Major Indoor Soccer League (MISL) which has thousands recalling the earlier incarnations.
An investor is the critical element in changing the nature of the conversation.
TMLS: Support from sponsors, television partners and other constituents: What support does St. Louis have in place from these parties?
OO: It's difficult to measure but using the Ambush (MISL) team as an example, all three major TV stations were on hand for the initial press conference introducing the team ownership. Each TV station has also returned to do interviews with Head Coach Daryl Doran and did the Post-Dispatch. Tryouts were held this past weekend and players from 13 states were in attendance. Using the attention the major media outlets here have offered this new team is a very strong indicator of what could be expected with a Major League Soccer team.
TMLS: Geographic location: If St. Louis were to join the league they would establish a nice rival for Sporting Kansas City. What makes St. Louis a good location for expansion?
OO: The biggest rivalry St Louis has is with Chicago, fueled by 900+ games between the Cardinals and the Cubs through the years and going back a century from the time when St Louis was the largest city in the Midwest.
Expansion to 24 teams will make Major League Soccer the single largest professional sporting league IN THE WORLD. The league already runs an unbalanced schedule, meaning Eastern Conference teams play primarily within their Conference. I would expect them to move to three or more conferences and the focus would be on one or two items – rivalries and/or TV markets. St Louis falls on the low end of the TV market equation so I would guess our better opportunity falls to the geographic rivalries available. It would also match the Conference model currently in place for the US Development Academy.
TMLS: A strategic business plan for the launch and successful operation of the club: What kind of plan do you think St. Louis will put in place to make sure their franchise is successful in MLS?
OO: An active effort has begun to bring the US Soccer National Hall of Fame to St Louis. The group spearheading that effort will have a website in place soon and they are already working with the major sponsors in town to support the effort as well as prepare for a possible MLS team. The development of regional sponsors was the critical item that RelEvent Sports Marketing noted when they met with a supporters alliance recently.
I think by the time St Louis is in a position to deliver on a plan there will be several more examples of what needs to be accomplished. As a single entity league, Garber has noted the value Portland, Seattle and even the 'new' Kansas City have offered the entire league. The league is in a different place now then it was a decade ago in that respect. Which leads to your final question.
TMLS: Finally, why should St. Louis be chosen for a MLS expansion franchise and what are the chances it does happen?
OO: Portland and Seattle are seen as the best examples of what can be accomplished. Neither is a 'perfect' but the sum has been greater than the whole. The fan base is locked in, there is a good possibility that a stadium deal can be completed with the Rams which leaves ownership. Kroenke is a Missouri native and owns Arsenal and there are also established club relationships here with Celtic (PDL St Louis Lions owned by Tony Glavin, Glasgow native and brother of a former Celtic player) as well as West Ham United (Missouri Rush). As the EPL goes international that may be the source of an owner much like NYC FC.
We'd like to thank Ole for this time and if you have any comments or questions you can tweet us or Soccer STL and use #MLS2020. You can also read more about St Louis chances at expansion on the Soccer STL site.
(image courtesy of UPI/Bill Greenblatt)