A guest piece for AFTN by Devon Rowcliffe
With the possibility of DC United becoming the second MLS club to move cities in less than a decade, I would like to share several ideas for preventing Major League Soccer clubs from ever having to relocate in the future.
But first, a personal introduction. I am, admittedly, “that guy”. Constantly unleashing my puritanical moaning across the internet about Houston Dynamo and Orlando City SC – or more specifically, chastising the fact that both clubs were born out of franchise relocation. (And bear with me when I use the F-word – franchise – for I am not using it as a synonym for “club”.)
I detest relocation. It makes my skin crawl. In my mind, it is the most fetid act of betrayal in professional sports.
Most fellow North Americans simply roll their eyes at my disparaging rants about relocation. Compared to me, they seem quite laissez-faire about the concept of a sports club having an itinerant existence. So how did I come to hate relocation so much? And why is my mindset different than the average North American soccer fan?
THE DEATH OF WIMBLEDON FOOTBALL CLUB
(Or, the Oakland/LA/Oakland Raiders)
I started off life as a baseball fan, having spent much of my formative years at Nat Bailey Stadium, Vancouver’s baseball venue. And after investing several years of my childhood cherishing my local baseball club, it returned the favour to me by… moving to California. Without a single word of warning.
My adulation was instantly harpooned. So was my interest in baseball. Perhaps I should have been prepared for this, as baseball franchises being relocated was nothing new; but the cocoon of my youthful ignorance had protected me from that. Until one day, when my childhood fantasy became hemorrhaged in an instant.
Several years later, flipping channels on a rainy Saturday morning, I stumbled across English football. It filled a void. Clubs with more than a century of history based entirely in a single community, where the concept of relocation was entirely alien. Fantastic.
Perhaps it was my fault, but just a couple of years after I developed an interest in the English game, Wimbledon FC betrayed their fans by relocating to Milton Keynes (a grim “new town” in Buckinghamshire). It was completely unheard of: in England, a system of promotion and relegation is usually what helps to grease the wheels of Darwinism. The idea of a club being moved simply because the owner fancied a different town – especially a club that had been in the country’s top level of football and had recently won the FA Cup – was unprecedented.
But what surprised me most about Wimbledon’s relocation (as a clueless North American still learning about the country where football began) was the massive backlash against the Dons’ migration. And not just from traumatized Wimbledon supporters who were directly hurt by the move, but from football supporters from across the entire country. An organized movement called for a boycott of all matches at Milton Keynes. Football fans were strongly encouraged not to follow their club to away matches there, as ticket purchases would help to put money into the hands of the new Milton Keynes “franchise”, thus legitimizing the reprehensible act of club relocation. Most English football fans were repulsed by the notion that an American-style franchising system might come into play, and that other clubs could be relocated in the future.
Milton Keynes Dons became derisively known as “Franchise FC”, an object of significant scorn that is still reviled in English football today.
SUBMISSIVE ACCEPTANCE VERSUS SOLIDARITY/ACTION
When an American professional sports club is relocated, however, fans simply shrug their shoulders and accept defeat, believing that it’s all part of the franchise system. And that’s arguably the biggest reason why U.S. sports club owners think they can get away with it – U.S. fans are so passive about and accepting of the concept of relocation that they don’t put in the required effort to prevent relocation. Nor is there any significant solidarity between fans across the country to stop relocations.
Quite simply, American sports club owners know that they can get away with it. And so relocation regularly occurs.
Professional spectator sport is ultimately about the fans. Without fans, no club, league or sport can succeed. And that gives fans a tremendous amount of power – but only if they have the courage and fortitude to wield that power. Fans (with relatively modest resources) have the ability to influence or even derail the relocation plans of multi-millionaire owners – if they’re willing to become more active, by putting the time and energy into doing so.
FRANCHISES TRUMP CLUBS (Or, Milton Keynes Dynamo)
Flashback to 2005: San Jose Earthquakes owner Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG) announce their relocation to Houston. AEG, valuing their MLS franchise (ownership of a spot in the league) more than the actual San Jose Earthquakes club, move to Houston, thus killing the club in the process.
Isn’t it bizarre that a mere spot in a league is perceived to be of more value than an actual club? What was AEG’s point of creating an MLS club in San Jose in the first place? Did they care about the community in San Jose at all, or was it merely a convenient place to drop anchor? Was it to give the community of San Jose a club to call their own, or was it to simply “grow the sport” nationally, with the interests of actual San Jose fans being a mere afterthought?
That’s the problem with franchised leagues that permit relocation: a spot in a league is sometimes worth more than not only a club, but the emotional connection between that the club and its community of fans. And ultimately, isn’t it because of that emotional bond why any of us bother to become fans of a club in the first place?
So for two years, San Jose supporters had no club. And it’s entirely feasible that it could have remained that way. San Jose fans are lucky that another rich owner decided to re-establish the club. But what if such a white knight wasn’t to be found?
SAN JOSE, AUSTIN… NEXT UP: DC UNITED, COLUMBUS, NEW ENGLAND?
Relocation in North American soccer hasn’t stopped there. English Premiership side Stoke City board member Phil Rawlins, who has emigrated to the US, moved Austin Aztex to Orlando, Florida at the end of the 2010 season (despite a 25% increase in attendance from the 2009 season). Had he attempted to do this to Burnley FC, he’d spend the rest of his life looking over his shoulder every time he stepped foot in northern England. But, again, here in passive North America, the victims of the relocation made a brief stink, while the rest of the continent shrugged its passive shoulders in contempt.
And with the dust barely settled on that, another MLS relocation scenario looms with DC United. The baseball stadium that they play in is old, a poor fit for soccer, and the lease charge is exorbitant. So the club has asked for planning permission to build their own stadium. After years of negative responses and red tape from local government, the ownership group have threatened to leave Washington DC.
But it’s the future that concerns me most. MLS has stated that it intends to cap the league at 20 clubs (or is that “franchises”?). If true, once the league achieves that number, there would be no way for new clubs to enter, given the absence of promotion and relegation here in North America. So if a city in the MLS-barren southeast of the U.S., for example, wants to join the league in the future, there will be only one way to get in – by relocating a franchise. And that would almost certainly mean the death of yet another North American football club.
How do we solve this problem? In a league based upon franchises, is it possible to ensure that MLS clubs won’t be extinguished again in the future?
Here are five ideas for ensuring that the clubs in Major League Soccer won’t be asphyxiated by their “benevolent” owners in the future:
SOLUTION ONE – FRANCHISE LEAVES, CLUB STAYS
Perhaps the best solution of all: let a franchise relocate if it must, but keep the associated club alive in its home community.
What if, when AEG moved their franchise spot from San Jose to Houston and created a new club (Houston Dynamo) based around that franchise, they had been forced to keep San Jose Earthquakes alive as a football club? Admittedly, that club would no longer be in MLS. It might have played in the professional second-division (NASL) or third-division (USL Pro). It could have been relegated down to the short-season USL PDL, a fourth-tier league aimed primarily at giving college students competitive matches during summer. Or perhaps San Jose Earthquakes could have even dropped down into the amateur USASA (D5). And while dropping down four divisions, and going from professional to completely amateur would have been a shock, at least the hardcore fans would still have had a club to support. Surely that would have been much better than instant oblivion between San Jose supporters and their local football club.
In order to ensure that a club would be kept alive after its associated franchise is relocated, MLS franchise owners would need to enter into a contractual obligation to continue operating that club, even if they decide to relocate their MLS franchise elsewhere. Move DC United’s franchise to a different region and start a new club there if you must; but DC United as a football club must continue on for the benefit of the fans – even if that means playing in a (much) lower division.
When an MLS franchise is awarded to an ownership group, they should be required to sign a contract with the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) or the Canadian Soccer Association (CSA) so that in the event of a franchise relocation, the ownership group would have to continue running that club in its home community for “X” number of years. Perhaps a certain annual budget (for at least several years) should be agreed to, and that fee should be paid to the USSF/CSA as a bond for running the club for the subsequent several years – and without it, the USSF/CSA would refuse to sanction the relocation of the MLS franchise.
And even better than merely forcing new MLS franchise purchases to participate would be to impose this upon all current MLS franchise owners.
SOLUTION TWO – SUPPORTERS BECOME MORE VOCAL/ASSERTIVE
Second, we as supporters need to assert the concept that clubs are more important than franchises. It is the clubs that are why we bother to become supporters in the first place. We don’t support our local football club so that we can help a franchise owner make a profit, nor so that the league can hit their annual targets for TV ratings. We support our local football club because it is OUR club – albeit emotionally ours, rather than legally.
If clubs continue to be killed every time a franchise is moved, this process will continue to thwart the growth of professional soccer here in North America – particularly when MLS hits its cap of 20 clubs, and the pressure for relocation becomes higher than ever. If I can be certain that my club will exist in my community in 50 years, I will put a tremendous amount of passion, time and money into supporting it. However, if it could have been relocated to three different cities by then, why should any of us bother to make such emotional investments into clubs?
If short: as supporter, we need to become less passive and less accepting of our clubs being destroyed. We need to demand that our clubs will remain, and that there will be a proverbial shit storm against the franchise relocator, the league, and the USSF/CSA if our clubs are killed when a franchise is relocated.
Our clubs play in a league of franchises, and like it or not, that’s the disappointing reality that we all have to accept for now. But that doesn’t mean that we have to sit on our hands and meagerly watch as our clubs are destroyed when franchises are relocated. We have a voice. If owners who relocate franchises are happy to kill our clubs in the process, then the Independent Supporters Council (ISC) can organize a continent-wide boycott of that franchise’s new team (just as the Football Supporters’ Federation in England successfully organized a boycott of all Milton Keynes Dons matches for several years). But these actions will only work if there is solidarity – if we all care, and if we are all assertive enough to raise our collective voices when it matters.
SOLUTION THREE – MLS ENTRY ONLY TO EXISTING (LOWER-DIVISION) CLUBS
Third, Major League Soccer should stop awarding league franchises to ownership groups that are not currently running a successful football club. Only clubs currently in existence, and operating successfully in a lower division (ideally division two), should be allowed to buy an MLS franchise.
This demand might surprise some people, given the success of Toronto FC and Philadelphia Union, two clubs that were created only after their respective ownership groups were awarded MLS franchises. But if clubs were forced to start their existence in the lower divisions prior to joining MLS, the concept of clubs and their associated league franchises being innately intertwined would be significantly unraveled. As a result, there would be an expectation that these clubs would continue to exist, even if their associated MLS franchise were relocated to a different city. Rather than disappearing into oblivion, fans would expect their club to simply go back down to the lower-division league where it began its existence.
If an ownership group can catapult themselves directly into North America’s top-flight by buying their way into Major League Soccer, it’s no wonder why there is such a dearth of successful second and third division clubs here. And that’s a huge problem for the growth of football on this continent, when the middle of our football pyramid is so pathetically anemic. Requiring clubs to start their lives in a lower division of American soccer would be an immense help in addressing this problem as well.
It’s also less risky for MLS to pluck D2’s best clubs than it is to award a league spot to a group that have never before operated a football club – which is a risk and a big leap of faith. In fact, I’m surprised that the USSF hasn’t already pressured MLS to do this, considering the profound success of the three Cascadia clubs – which were all “promoted” from D2.
Remember during the MLS franchise bid process back in 2009, when there was interest from FC Barcelona (Miami), as well as groups based in New York City and even Ottawa? Imagine what the NASL/USL Pro would look like today if those ownership groups had all established lower-divisions clubs as part of a long-term process for joining MLS. And imagine the New York Cosmos playing D2 football!
SOLUTION FOUR – EVENTUAL PROMOTION/RELEGATION
(OR AT LEAST A USSF 50-YEAR PLAN)
Fourth (although admittedly less realistic) would be to have promotion and relegation here in North America. Rather than buying their way into MLS by purchasing a franchise and having league suits decide which clubs can compete in MLS, clubs could automatically enter the league by winning the second division. Struggling clubs would find themselves relegated, and stronger clubs would take their place. Promotion and relegation could allow the concept of franchises to potentially be scrapped, thus eliminating a major cause of relocation.
However, given the single-entity structure and high franchise purchase cost ($40 million for Montreal joining in 2012) in MLS, the only likely way that promotion and relegation would be introduced into MLS is if the league starts its own second division (MLS2). The setup would probably look similar to Japan, where there is promotion and relegation between the J1 and J2 in Japan’s J.League, but no formal up-and-down with the lower divisions (D3 and below). NASL and USL Pro (the second and third division league, respectively) are simply too fragile to enter into a formal arrangement with MLS at this point, and thus MLS would likely have to set up promotion and relegation on its own.
Huge obstacles remain. The USSF’s lack of interest in creating a healthy D2/D3, and their almost complete attention solely to MLS, means that lower divisions above USL PDL (D4) are in a shambles. I mention this because even if promotion and relegation were only to exist within MLS, the league would still need far more thriving D2/D3 clubs (who would probably start life in NASL or USL Pro) to absorb. We would also need many more clubs on the western half of the continent – at present, Los Angeles Blues are all alone on the west coast in D3, and San Antonio (a new club starting in 2012) will be the only D2 U.S. club in the western half of the country.
The question is: does either MLS or the USSF have any desire for promotion and relegation? We don’t know, because unlike the Japanese FA, which has a publicly-available 50-year vision for that how country intends to grow its club football, there is no such document from the U.S. soccer authority (or if there is, it certainly hasn’t been made public). While promotion and relegation is impossible in the immediate future, could/should it happen in the next 10/25/50/100 years? Does MLS want it? Does the USSF want it? Do the fans want it? For the health of club football and its growth here in North America, this discussion needs to happen.
SOLUTION FIVE – FORMAL SUPPORTER INVOLVEMENT/OWNERSHIP
Fifth, I would like supporters to realize a formal voice in how their clubs are operated. This could come in the form of independent supporters’ trusts, in which fan representatives could sit on the club’s board of directors and have a formal voice in club operations. Victoria Highlanders in the USL PDL recently became the first club in North America to offer their supporters 30% ownership through shares (via season tickets). And although MLS has an odd structure (where club owners only actually own 49% of their MLS franchise, as the league is the majority owner of all of its franchises), there’s no reason why supporters couldn’t have a formal voice within that 49%, and possibly even have an ISC representative on the league’s board of directors.
When supporters are an active and participating part of a football club, that club is more likely to be seen as valuable on its own, rather than just as a disposable cover draping a league franchise. It would also help a club in its efforts to remain alive in its home community. For example, have DC United supporters played an active and organized role in expressing their displeasure about the difficulties of procuring planning approval from the District? Have they lobbied politicians, demanded their support, and threatened to vote as a block for whichever candidates support their objectives? If not, would DC United supporters have been more likely to have played such an active role if they had a formal ownership stake in the club?
DIFFICULT DECISIONS AHEAD FOR THE USSF
Achieving these five proposed solutions (particularly forcing MLS franchise owners to contractually agree to keep a club alive after franchise relocation, and clearly communicating a long-term vision for the growth of American club football) won’t be easy. Interestingly, although these proposed solutions relate to MLS and its member clubs, the decisions would almost all be for the USSF to decide and to act upon.
Your move, Sunil Gulati.
Devon Rowcliffe is based in Vancouver, and is a major proponent of supporter-owned football clubs. He has been a member of the Vancouver Southsiders for nine years, and recently became a season ticket holder at Victoria Highlanders FC – the first partly-supporter-owned football club in North America.