Every sports league has faced the question at one time or another in its history: Is expansion always a good thing? When Major League Soccer began in the U.S. in 1996 with an inaugural match that April, most owners, fans, and investors worked tirelessly to expand from the initial 10-team league.
Now, there are 26 teams in MLS, 3 in Canada and 23 in the U.S. By 2023, there will be 30 teams, so expanding is still on everyone’s mind, even though the league is no longer young. So, the question has to be asked, should MLS keep on adding cities to its lineup, or is there an ideal, maximum number that seems to make sense?
Some other professional sporting organizations appear to have reached a magic number, namely the NFL, NBA, and MLB, in football, basketball, and baseball, respectively. Here’s a quick look at some of the top moments that made the MLS what it is today:
Pro: It Brings in New Fans and Players
Adding more teams means adding cities and communities that benefit from having a pro soccer franchise nearby. The mere existence of a local squad contributes to more vibrant sporting atmosphere and eventually attracts more fans to the game. Not long ago, soccer was a hard sell in the U.S. market. Hosting the 1994 World Cup changed all that, and put the nation on a pathway toward becoming a part of the global soccer family.
Pro: It Helps the League Financially
Money makes the world go round, and it is essential for sports leagues. That’s especially true in nations like the United States where a particular game is relatively new. When MLS began with 10 teams in 1996, it was obvious that more were needed to bring in fans, investors, and top-ranked players. Packed stadiums and TV rights make money for all parties, especially the league. It’s probably true that if MLS has not grown as quickly as it did, the organization supporting it might have suffered and early death.
Con: Too Many Teams Hurt the National Team, USMNT
Complaints about top-tier players migrating from the national team to league squads have become more frequent. It’s a natural move from the players’ perspective because it usually means more money, a nice place to live, and a relatively stable career path. And while the U.S. is not the only nation to suffer from this phenomenon, it gets worse as expansion offers more opportunities for national squad members to opt out of their USMNT commitments and go pro on an expansion team.
Con: Second-Tier Teams Drop Off
The second-tier drop-out problem affects all professional sports that continually add cities to their roster. However, in a newer organization like MLS, down-stream competitors can get hit pretty hard with town after town keeps getting its own pro soccer squad. Rather than use revenue to bolster those lower-performing teams, the national organization spends it on adding new clubs, so the argument goes. Growth for the sake of growth can endanger struggling clubs that need more time to develop, attract top players, and build a fanbase.