Is success bad for American pro soccer?

MLSSeattle Sounders FC set attendance records while playing in a football stadium. Sacramento Republic FC sells out a 20,000-seat municipal football bowl. And New York City FC is playing at Yankee Stadium next season. Are these events good or bad for American pro soccer?

According to J Hutcherson, general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002, these events are bad because disruptive business models threaten the stability enjoyed by MLS and USL Pro in recent years. He posted a thoughtful piece on the future of American pro soccer, arguing that stability in the sport was more important than disruptive quantities. Money quote:

At all three levels, the message is clear. If one market can succeed, so can others. MLS chased Seattle’s record-setting accomplishments by the revival of pro soccer in Kansas City. Sporting KC’s story is the new template to cover older teams, small markets, soccer-specificity, and anything else that fits with a revival of the product. If they can do it, so can you. The excuses might exist, they might even be market specific, but Kansas City overcame worse.

It’s tough to argue against. Soccer revitalization efforts only need to work once to prove the point. Meanwhile, the league teams that continue to suffer have very little room to keep doing business as usual. Ambition doesn’t allow for teams acting as schedule fillers season after season. Break even is no longer the goal when teams — at least to the public — appear to be doing quite well.

This, more than anything, is the next stage for American pro soccer. It’s replacing one version of ambition that focused on stability with another that focuses squarely on success. That was part of the tepid response to MLS announcing expansion to Atlanta and one of next season’s expansion teams announcing that they’re playing at a baseball stadium. It doesn’t fit that new template. Atlanta didn’t introduce itself with the same preexisting fan support for soccer. NYC FC sold itself as a meld of the biggest market in the country with some of the biggest economic players in world soccer and one of the biggest brands in American pro sports. Now, they’re working around the New York Yankees home schedule as a secondary tenant.

Now, it’s true that Seattle provided a remarkable blueprint for future MLS teams, but we’re not sure every MLS team will follow suit: the goal for New York City FC owners is a soccer-only facility, and team before Seattle (i.e., Vancouver) experienced success playing in a football stadium. Still, with all the buzz surrounding pro soccer these days, it’s important to remember the past rollercoasters of pro soccer in America: crowds of 50,000 for soccer matches, following by a quick dose of reality. Sustainability should be the goal for the American soccer industry, and we’re not sure Sacramento Republic FC playing in a football stadium is a threat to the sustainability of the sport.

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August Publications