Monday, February 18, 2013

City FC: Why the MLS Needs OKC More Than NYC Right Now

Stadium lightsPhoto by Leon Brooks

Before the internet becomes engulfed with talk about the current MLS season, I’d like to take a quick look forward to the ones that will follow. Specifically, the addition of expansion teams within the next few years. Many have heard that the MLS filed for trademarks on the terms “Empire FC” and “City FC” on August 27. When I heard this, I was ecstatic. The more I thought about it, the more I believed that these were meant to be two separate teams: One for New York (which I didn’t really care about) and one for Oklahoma City.

As time has gone by, however, it’s become clear that these are both meant to be used for one single team in New York. This represents a missed opportunity, and possible failure, for a league which has been recently hitting all of its marks in terms of growth and improvement. In terms of growing the sport in the United States and maximizing profit for the league, a team in Oklahoma City would be much more practical and effective.

New York is clearly struggling with one team. They were fourth last year in terms of growth percentage based on attendance with a -7% growth percentage, even though they were third in the East with the MLS’s second biggest star in Thierry Henri. They’ve had trouble filling the stadium, even though it was among the first soccer specific stadiums for the MLS.

New York is an already saturated market, with both the Red Bulls and the Cosmos drawing in fans (the Cosmos who are on their way to having a new soccer specific stadium themselves, and who hope to join the MLS within a few years). And land there is expensive and hard to come by. If the Red Bulls can correct their negative attendance trend, or if the Cosmos prove to have the base of supporters they claim they’ll be able to draw in (their supporters group already has 1,000 members) then maybe a second New York team will be possible. However, as it stands, there are a ton of other markets ripe for picking with ready support and easy money.

There are many such markets in the Southeast and Midwest. Orlando, for example, wish to have their new NASL team make it to the MLS by 2015. But one of the easiest markets with proven potential (not to mention a place I happen to live near for most of the year) is Oklahoma City.

Most would simply dismiss OKC as being squarely in “football country” and therefore not interested in other sports. These people are missing out on a wonderful opportunity for growth and expansion of the league.

Firstly, this would be the MLS’s chance to strike the iron while it’s hot in the middle of the country. The three biggest growth percentages over the last year came from teams in the middle of the country, the Houston Dynamo, Columbus Crew, and the Chicago Fire. The other two teams in the region, FC Dallas and Sporting Kansas City each saw growth of about nine percent as well. Oklahoma has two chapters of the US National Team supporters’ organization The American Outlaws, and both the University of Oklahoma and the Oklahoma State University soccer teams have reported rising attendance numbers over the last several years.

Oklahoma City has proven its ability to get behind a team with the success of the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Thunder have drawn in an average crowd of 18,000 fans per game since they came to the city in 2008, and even through a dismal first two years. And this is a sport whose schedule competes directly with the giant that is American football. The MLS season has very minimal conflict with football’s schedule, and those games where it does are part of the playoff push and the MLS Cup Tournament, games which traditionally draw larger crowds.

The potential for gathering large crowds quickly and the availability of cheap, uncontested land makes OKC a great place for an MLS expansion. And there are other such markets throughout the South and Midwest. I’d hate to see the MLS take its first false-step of the past few years by attempting to oversaturate an already straining New York market and failing to recognize the potential elsewhere, so I hope they take the time to think through their options before rushing in to things. And I hope to own some Oklahoma City FC gear by the end of next year.

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