(Sunday, November 30, 2008) -- As Major League Soccer officials gathered in Los Angeles for MLS Cup 2009 and held their various league meetings, the expansion picture seemed pretty clear. Yet, things have changed considerably since and now it is much less obvious as to which two new cities will enter MLS in 2011.
As MLS Cup approached, many outside of MLS's most inner circle felt it was a pretty sure thing that Miami and Montreal would be granted the news franchises. Now, however, it has been announced that the bidders from Montreal have taken themselves out of the running and things are now wide open, at least as far as who might accompany Miami into the league.
After Fred Wilpon, owner of Major League Baseball's New York Mets, said he would not be ready to make an offer to start a second MLS franchise in New York City until at least 2012, the league asked for formal applications for two new franchises to be awarded early next year. It received seven from Miami, Portland, Ore, Vancouver, Ottawa, Montreal, St. Louis and Atlanta.
With the addition of Seattle, which will start play next season, and Philadelphia which begin in 2010, MLS will have expanded to 16 teams. The two additions in 2011 (or perhaps 2012) will bring the league to 18 teams, which world governing body FIFA says is the ideal maximum for a first-division league.
MLS has been very careful not to appear to be favoring one applicant over another. But in various statements made over the past few months, it has seemed clear that in order to extend its television market "footprint," the league and its broadcast partners considered a team "south" of Washington, D.C. to be of great importance.
That meant either Atlanta or Miami. The Atlanta bid was headed by Arthur Blank, owner of the National Football League's Falcons, and clearly someone who the MLS board of governors was quite interested in bringing into the fold.
However, Miami then put together an ownership group headed by city resident Marcelo Claure, a Bolivian who owns Brightstar Communications, a multibillion-dollar company that is one of the largest Hispanic-owned businesses in the United States, as well as the FC Bolivar soccer team. He in turn announced his partner in the venture would be FC Barcelona. A deal had been struck to use Florida International University's stadium for two years while a soccer-specific stadium was under construction.
Many around the league new consider Miami to be a done deal for one of the 2011 expansion slots. The combination of Claure's billions and Barcelona's soccer expertise would add immeasurably to the league.
In the past, the league's board has clearly been leaning towards adding a second team in Canada. That argued for either Montreal or Vancouver. Montreal would be a natural rival for FC Toronto, a recent and successful expansion team, while Vancouver would serve the same function for the new Seattle franchise.
Vancouver has stadium issues that are not resolved. Montreal, meanwhile, had become the odds-on favorite, presenting an ownership group that included Joey Saputo, owner of the Montreal Impact of the second-tier United Soccer Leagues First Division, and George Gillett, owner of the National Hockey League's Montreal Canadiens and the part-owner of Liverpool of the English Premier League. Saputo owns a new stadium that could be expanded to an MLS-sized facility and everything seemed set.
Now, Montreal has backed off. "Montreal has had to evaluate what kinds of private capital they needed to refinance their stadium to fund the expansion fee, and what kind of public support would be available," MLS commissioner Don Garber said. "I'm not sure they were able to come to terms in this economic environment."
Interestingly, Saputo, in a press conference in Montreal, had a very different view on what happened. He told reporters, "Montreal never at any point withdrew its bid from the process. We were rather informed that our bid was not retained."
As he related what happened, the Saputo-Gillett interests said they put in a bid worth $45 million (Canadian), which included money to increase stadium capacity but which included no dependence on any outside source for funding. He said MLS rejected the bid.
"Finally, last week, after receiving an invitation to the MLS final, but still no news on our proposal, five weeks after submitting our bid in October, I was informed that our bid had been outright rejected because it never met the $40 million (U.S.) expansion fee.
"We have the capacity to pay the $40 million U.S. expansion fee," but explained that to pay that amount as an expansion fee would put the new franchise in too deep a initial hole given the present economy.
This seems to open the door for Vancouver or Ottawa. Garber said that "Ottawa blew us away," in a presentation made to the board of governors in Los Angeles. "They do give a very focused plan as to where they'd build the stadium. Their presentation was not just about how they were going to build the stadium, but how they were going to build the sport."
Garber also indicated that Vancouver had made a solid presentation.
Still, Garber also issued a warning that needs to be understood. He cautioned that as much as the league would like a Canadian rival for Toronto, further expansion in Canada was not a sure thing because it might jeopardize the growth of soccer in the United States.
"We don't have a lot of commercial businesses in Canada today," Garber said of league sponsorships. "The more teams we add there, the more it takes away out from growing our footprint and our television ratings in the United States."
In other words, show us some love -- and the money - if Canadian business interests and media companies want MLS to further embrace their country. Left unsaid was an impetus to act quickly or the 2011 expansion opportunity will pass.
Probably, the main beneficiary of Montreal's withdrawl is St. Louis and the ownership group headed by local attorney Jeff Cooper. It was announced last week that MLB's National League Most Valuable Player, Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols, was joinging the ownership group. With a soccer-specific stadium on the drawingboard already, St. Louis' bid is looking a lot better than it was before Montreal withdrew.