Home MLS More MLS With Canadian franchise successes, MLS feels more and more like the NHL

With Canadian franchise successes, MLS feels more and more like the NHL


When MLS President Mark Abbott addressed the media at halftime of last Saturday’s MLS season opener between the Whitecaps and Impact at BC Place, he stated that the league was still focused on New York City as its next expansion market.

He said no deadline had been set to abandon a push to get a second team into the Big Apple. It’s clear MLS wants to have a second team in NYC, even though team No. 1 doesn’t play to regular sellout crowds in its spanking new stadium near Newark. There are other expansion bds. Orlando City of the USL has been vocal about its wish to be MLS team No. 20. And there are rumblings that if the Twin Cities — home of the current NASL champion — gets a new NFL stadium, that an MLS bid would be launched.

But, as you look at TV numbers and attendance figures — as an economist, not as a sports fan — you’d find it harder and harder to distinguish between the MLS business model and the NHL’s business model.

Both leagues see television numbers that are much stronger in Canada than the United States. Last week’s MLS debut on the NBC Sports Network — a game which included the major-market New York Red Bulls — drew a little more than 80,000 viewers across the United States. And that’s actually good news: the old Saturday MLS broadcasts on Fox Soccer Channel usually drew less than 70,000.

Meanwhile, the Vancouver-Montreal MLS opener drew three times the viewership of the NBC broadcast. That is, the RDS French language broadcast drew three times the NBC audience. Put the RDS numbers together with TSN, and you have more than 500,000 Canadians who were riveted to the game from B.C. Place.

MLS commissioner Don Garber, left, and then-Toronto Mayor David Miller, right, pose with a Danny Dichio Toronto FC scarf and the MLS Cup on Mar. 30, 2010 at the Air Canada Centre. They are joined by the members of Toronto FC supporters’ group, Red Patch Boys. Major League Soccer awarded Toronto FC the game for the 2010 season. PHOTO: STEVEN SANDOR

While there are great American markets where sellouts are the norm — Portland, Philadelphia and Seattle — there are many other markers where soccer is still very much a fringe sport. Just like the NHL. Weak in many American markets, strong in a few areas.

Meanwhile, B.C. Place drew 21,000 for the opener. Toronto just gathered more than 48,000 fans for its Champions League home match against the Los Angeles Galaxy. And, this weekend, the Impact are looking to draw in the neighbourhood of 60,000 for its home opener against the Chicago Fire. The Canadian markets are all strong. Just like the NHL.

Just like the NHL, MLS tends to attract suburban fan bases who make a little more than average. That’s why Volkswagen is a better sponsorship fit than, say, Toyota.

You can compare FC Dallas to the Phoenix Coyotes (two teams struggling for attention, playing in venues far far away from the city centre), D.C. United to the Islanders (good franchises with great histories that are struggling without new buildings) and the Columbus Crew to, well, the Columbus Blue Jackets (teams struggling for attention in a college football town).

OK, we’ve looked at how similar the hockey demographic is to the domestic soccer demographic (I use “domestic soccer” because there are Eurosnobs who won’t watch MLS. There are no Eurosnobs amongst hockey fans). But how does the NHL differ from MLS?

Well, the NHL is saturated throughout its strongest market. It has teams in seven Canadian cities, because it knows the revenue and interest it generates north of the border is greater than what can be earned in a country 10 times — population-wise — the size. MLS isn’t talking up more expansion to Canada. If I was Don Garber, I’d be beating every bush to see if there were ways to take advantage of this MLS surge in Canada, and to spread it to other key markets. I’d be scrambling like heck to figure out how to get MLS into Alberta, where people have more disposable income, per capita, than anywhere else in North America. Albertans, on average (according to Conference Board of Canada stats) make $20,000 more per year than the average Torontonian, and pay far lower taxes. And it’s the fastest growing population base in Canada.

Montreal Impact owner Joey Saputo, left, with MLS Commissioner Don Garber in February. PHOTO: MIKE WYMAN

(That being said, it needs to be stated that FC Edmonton owner Tom Fath has repeatedly stated he does not wish to make the move to MLS. It’s important no one makes a leap of logic and links my argument about how Alberta’s demographic can’t be ignored to an expansion bid from FC Edmonton which doesn’t exist).

Ottawa already had a failed bid for an MLS side. MLS shouldn’t forget about the capital. A Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal triangle could be a new Cascadia.

When we compare Canada and the U.S. (per capita), it’s easy to see that the average Canadian will spend more money and pay more attention to MLS than the average American. It’s a crazy shift. In 2006, MLS was still an all-U.S. league. Within half a decade, it skews heavily to Canada.

Canada has the magic elixir (save for Vancouver, but Vancouver has a team) that should make every sports business operator salivate — disposable income. Our economy didn’t take the beating that the Americans suffered. Our dollar is at par, which is crap for exports but fantastic for Canadian sports franchise operators, because it reduces labour costs (players) and how much it costs to play road game in the U.S.

So, while there are many who scoff at the notion that there will ever be even a fourth Canadian franchise, I would argue that, unless MLS can radically change its footprint, it will need more of Canada to push itself towards long-term viability. Canadians watch soccer on TV. Canadians attend games.

New York is nice, Orlando’s bid is noble. But, I would argue that nothing has made as dramatic effect on MLS — as a business — as the decision to open up the border with Canada.

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  1. john kasper

    July 23, 2013 at 9:21 pm

    I think if the MLS was to come to Canada they should have 2 cities sharing a team. Example…say the team is called Alberta Adrenaline…they could play half their home games in Calgary and half in Edmonton. Plus, small towns in Alberta would be cheering the team and could possible go outta their way to see them. This is just an idea I have, I know it doesn’t have much to do with the thread, but if people do think Edmonton or Calgary are too small then they should share a team and name it “Alberta.”

  2. Lorne

    March 28, 2012 at 4:44 pm

    With the MLS the goal was to create a modest sustainable league that would gradually and consistently grow the game in the USA. FIFA promotes nation based soccer leagues. Canada is an interloper upon the US soccer establishment. My feeling is that there is a strong sentiment in the US against a strong Canadian influence upon their soccer league. One or two losing Canadian teams in the MLS may be tolerable to Americans, but make no mistake, the USA owns the MLS. Canada`s growing influence in the MLS is not an invitation to dominate their league.

    • Taylor John

      February 16, 2013 at 4:36 am

      Every single north american league could or at least do have 2 Canadian cities where the teams will not fold, Toronto and Vancouver, the bottom line is where can the league make the most money. settle in New York which already has 2 teams per sport or start a team in a growing, sport craving city like Calgary. i look at this way, statistics say with Canada;s population grows 1.3 each year, the time for the population to double with be over 50 years, that;s only 66 million people too. The u.s has over 10 times Canada’s population, Canada will never have a bigger influence on the MLS for a long time. but the way the league is growing, maybe many years from now Canada will have 3 or 4 more teams, maybe even an east coast team. I hope for a Halifax FC one day….

      • schwabsays

        October 19, 2013 at 7:55 pm

        I can see it now… the Halifax Phantoms..

  3. Ken Jamieson

    March 20, 2012 at 8:21 pm

    Two points I would like to make on this subject:

    First, while 2nd Div attendance can be a barometer of MLS potential, two of the recent MLS forays into 2nd Div territory had unimpressive numbers in the USL but have had excellent numbers in MLS. I speak of Toronto where the USL Lynx were averaging less than 1,000 a game in the years prior to TFC, and Seattle, where the Sounders had difficulty getting 2,000 people into a 4,000 seat facility at Tukwila. In the case of Toronto even historical support for the original NASL franchise, which was a good barometer in Vancouver and Montreal, would not have predicted the TFC support. The Blizzard and its predecessor the Metros-Croatia rarely averaged more than 6,000 a game in the 70s and early 80s.

    The second point I have to make is that Canada once had nearly a quarter of all 1st Div clubs in this part of the continent. In 1981, when 21 teams constituted the NASL, 5 of them were in Canada (Calgary, Edmonton, Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver). Granted Calgary only lasted a year, Montreal three and Edmonton four; and the league eventually died out three years later, but the fact remains that they were there. In 1981 Montreal averaged 23,700; Vancouver 23,200; Edmonton 10,600; Calgary 10,500 and Toronto 7,200. These are not bad numbers, especially considering both Edmonton and Toronto had weak teams (12-20 and 7-25 respectively). As well, the overall league average was barely 14,000. In 1981 North America was in recession, the NASL had only a handful of games televised nationally and the internet wasn’t around.

    I would think a fourth MLS team in Canada would have a good chance of success.

  4. Jonny B.

    March 17, 2012 at 10:31 am

    P.S. – I hope the rumours are true about FC Edmonton getting to train in the new fieldhouse next to Commonwealth Stadium. That would have to be one of the premiere training facillities in any cooler climate.

  5. Jonny B.

    March 17, 2012 at 10:28 am

    I hope that the obvious interest we have in the big three cities somehow translates to a stronger national program. It always seems strange that we rank behind so many nations with populations smaller than The Golden Horseshoe alone.

    About adding Canadian teams, I could see Ottawa working just as a function of proximity, but they haven’t really demonstrated much interest. Edmonton seems to have more interest, history, and general sporting prowess, but just the opposite problem with its isolation. Maybe if Edmonton builds a soccer specific stadium and starts getting 8,000 out to NASL games they could do it, but we’re talking 5 years minimum, if absolutely nothing bad happens.

    Don’t get me wrong, I consider myself an optimist, but to me being an optimist just means all four pro teams and both leagues surviving for an extended period.

  6. TrevB

    March 16, 2012 at 11:00 pm

    I think they do that because they were, for so long, by and large ignored by the pro sports leagues in the States. So they turned to something very local, and very supportable. I think only recently has there been a push towards getting some pro teams into these markets (i.e. Tennessee Titans, etc). An investor and league would have to accept the building a fan base there will be a longer term project, and may never compete with the big college teams in attendance.

    As a Canadian, I have to say I am always surprised by the level of fan support college teams receive in the States.

  7. Al Clark

    March 16, 2012 at 7:00 pm

    You missed the opportunity to draw comparisons to the NHL’s struggles in the South East too, including the relocation of ATL to WPG.

    Good article again though Steven.

    • Steven Sandor

      March 16, 2012 at 7:24 pm

      Al, it’s an excellent point. I read a great article in the AJC after the Thrashers relocated about how Atlanta identifies itself as a college sports town first. And I think that is true with a lot of cities in the southeast… their “Pro” teams are Georgia, Georgia Tech, Florida, Florida St., THE Miami U., etc.

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