Thursday, December 11, 2008

Does MLS expansion make sense in this economy?

Just about every American is feeling the pinch of the current economy. Whether it's as trivial as fewer presents under the tree, or something as serious as unemployment, it's safe to say that many people are hurting.

And this isn't just limited to the common working man or woman. Look no further than today's sports dailies and sites and you'll discover that the NFL, MLB, and the NBA are all laying workers off by the dozens. Even worse, Arena Football League is reportedly cancelling it's 2009 season due to the poor economy.

Yet, given these conditions, MLS continues to trump expansion. Seattle, that great Northwestern soccer bed, will join the fold next year. They've got a ton of season tickets sold already. They've got Microsoft cash and a rabid soccer fanbase. That's fantastic for all parties involved. I think Seattle was a worthy choice.

But Philadelphia, which was awarded a club for 2010, is having difficulty getting its much-hyped soccer stadium financed. Rio Tinto, the corporate moniker attached to Real Salt Lake's brand new stadium, just laid off 14,000 of its workers worldwide. Shocking, I know.

So, with that in mind, does it make any sense to talk about Portland, Miami, St. Louis or Vancouver?

The answer is no.

No, because one needn't look any further than the "Big Four " - MLB, NBA, NFL and NHL - to see that the economy is already wreaking havoc on their workforces. Even NASCAR, the much-heralded "fastest growing sport in America" has teams shedding employees faster than a lap around Bristol.

MLS has added more franchises (5) in the past four years than the Big Four (1) combined. I understand that MLS is a much younger and smaller operation, and thus, expansion is a much greater prospect there than in other well-established forums.

But, that's five more clubs that will need money to pay its staff. Add Philadelphia, and now you've got six. Money's already tight in MLS. Developmental players make less than the price of a Hyundai Sonata. Plus, the league's collective bargaining agreement expires at the end of 2009. Guess who's going to be asking for more money?*

(*Answer: Owners and players. Get the popcorn ready.)

It's a wonderful thing to talk about expansion. It signifies prosperity. MLS has come a long way since its inception 14 years ago. Yet, let's not forget that nothing happens in a vacuum. MLS cannot allow itself to think too far ahead into the future without paying attention to what's going on now.

It wasn't too long ago that the league had take the extreme measure of retraction in 2001. And back then, the eoconomy was actually healthy. It's been said that history may not always repeat itself, but often times, it tends to rhyme.

Let's hope that MLS doesn't have to sing the second line of the chorus.

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