There have been recent reports that tomorrow night’s inaugural Major League Soccer game for expansion side Orlando City SC against the other MLS expansion franchise, New York City FC, will be a sellout crowd of over 62,000 fans at the Florida Citrus Bowl. As of March 6, Orlando City reported over 13,000 season tickets had been sold for its first season while NYCFC reported over 14,000 season tickets sold for its inaugural season at Yankee Stadium. The successful marketing for both teams that haven’t even played a competitive game yet but have achieved tremendous success in ticket sales, has raised questions about where the league will expand next, and exactly how far the successful expansion push should go before it stops.
Since 2005, MLS has expanded from 10 teams to 20 teams, with plans for 4 more franchises by 2020. In that same time frame, the NFL, MLB, NBA, and NHL combined have produced just one expansion team, the NBA’s Charlotte Bobcats (now Hornets) during the 2004-2005 season. Intriguingly, the MLS has managed to benefit from the expansion thanks to increased average attendance numbers in each market, particularly in the Pacific Northwest.
While expansion teams, and even relocated teams often find financial success in their first season in a new home due to initial excitement surrounding the team, this excitement tends to wane as the team is no longer generating buzz as the new sensation in its respective market. Other concerns with rapid expansion for MLS could be the dilution of the talent pool, and the history of the league’s predecessor, the North American Soccer League. The NASL lasted 17 seasons, and was the only other major American soccer league to exceed 20 franchises, but the experiment only lasted three seasons as the league folded shortly after.
So far, expansion has benefited soccer’s image in America as the sport has spread its reach across the country. However, time will tell if the league has already reached its mature size, or if it can effectively reach the same size and scope of the other major sports leagues in America.