Saturday, November 22, 2008

Montreal pulls out of MLS expansion

Update: Great (or not-so-great) minds thought alike here: Duane wrote about this at the same time I did. Check out his post below for more thoughts on the matter.

With all the focus on Canadian football this weekend, the interesting news tonight on that other kind of football (European, not American) might be overlooked. According to The Associated Press (via The Globe and Mail), Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber announced Friday that Montreal has officially dropped out of the crowded field of entrants trying to get a MLS franchise. Some of Garber's quotes and an analysis of what this could mean for the other Canadian franchise bids follow after the jump.

From the story:

Garber said that Montreal's delegation — led by Joey Saputo and George Gillett, who owns Liverpool FC in England's Premier League and the NHL's Montreal Canadiens — had informed him within the past week of possible trouble.

"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," Garber said. "I'm not sure they were able to come to terms in this economic environment." ...

"They're out for the next round of expansion," Garber said. "I don't think it's gone forever but it's gone for now."

This is a pretty big shocker. Duane ranked Montreal as 90 per cent likely to get in his initial evaluation of the bids, and many others, including famed American analyst Yves Galarcep, concurred. In fact, it was even speculated for a while that Montreal would jump the queue entirely and replace Philadelphia as a franchise entering in 2010 instead of in 2011. Thus, this is a dramatic twist worthy of a daytime soap opera, and also perhaps one of the first real quantifiable effects of the economic crisis on sports.*

*Interestingly, Gillett was on Prime Time Sports for almost an hour today and discussed how the economic crisis might affect sports for a good part of that, but never once mentioned soccer. The focus was on the Canadiens. Keep in mind that he's facing massive debt issues in England with regards to Liverpool that could result in fire sales of players [James Ducker, The Times of London] or even the team [Ian Herbert and Andrew Warshaw, The Independent]. If things are in that bad shape over there, you can bet he has no money to pay a high Montreal expansion fee and renovate their stadium, especially with the hits his investments have likely taken recently (if his stocks are like anyone else's). It would have been nice to see Bob McCown and Stephen Brunt ask him about Liverpool's troubles, especially with the economic focus of their show; that was probably nixed by McCown's hatred for all things soccer, though. It's too bad; he might have landed a nice scoop on the Impact.

Keep in mind that this didn't come completely out of the blue, though. Back in September, there were musings and rumours floating around about how the club might decide to stay in the USL. I saw where the club was coming from, but ultimately concluded that MLS is a much better long-term solution for them. Duane was less gentle. Remember that they do have a very strong and high-profile USL franchise, though, and a nice new stadium that's USL-suitable, but would need significant expensive upgrades to be MLS-ready. If they can't pull off the MLS expansion at the moment, it may hurt them down the road, but they'll still be successful in the USL for the immediate future, and they may get another shot at MLS once the economic situation improves.

Paradoxically, though, what's bad for Canada in one way may be good for the country in another. It's obviously disappointing that the Impact won't be playing in MLS in the near future; they're a great team, and they already have a good rivalry with Toronto, plus their success in the CONCACAF Champions League seemed a natural foundation on which to create a strong MLS franchise. However, Montreal's loss could be a gain for Vancouver and Ottawa. Montreal had the best of the Canadian bids by many evaluations; with them out of the picture, the other two cities look better by comparision. This is especially important considering that Garber added that the Canadian bids are strong, but "expanding into Canada might jeopardize the growth of the sport in the United States" (the AP writer's words, not Garber's).

"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."

With comments like that, it seems likely that MLS would have been hesistant to expand by only two Canadian teams even if Montreal and Vancouver had the best bids. Thus, if the league decideds they're going to stick with the quota of only allowing two teams to join in 2011 and will only include one Canadian team in that, Vancouver's chances look a lot better all of a sudden. Again, Duane's a much bigger Vancouver skeptic than many thanks to the stadium issue, and he had them ranked third in the initial list behind only Montreal and St. Louis.

Garber also had some very positive things to say about Vancouver, as the AP story goes on to show. "Garber called Vancouver's presentation "one of the best I've ever seen, and I was involved in sports expansion in (the NFL)," he said." That's some high praise right there. Furthermore, the man is smart; he endorsed the rivalry concept I've been promoting for quite a while. Rivalries are what sell, especially in sports that aren't necessarily as popular, and soccer has a better tradition of fierce rivalries than almost anyone else. There's a long-established rivalry on the West Coast between the USL versions of the Vancouver Whitecaps, Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers; bringing them all into MLS gives the league a strong West Coast presence and a great way to sell those games to fans, advertisers and television networks. Vancouver-Toronto would be a similarly great rivalry to sell to Canadian television and marketers.

Ottawa's bid, which seemed somewhat ridiculous at first, also seems to be growing stronger.

Ottawa blew us away," Garber said. "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."

That's good to hear, but a presentation can only do so much. Ottawa may still be a longer-term project, and there are also issues with their bid coming into conflict with the CFL plan. What could help them is if rather than limiting expansion to two teams, the league goes ahead with four or five and brings in both Vancouver and Ottawa to strengthen the Canadian part of MLS and try and pick up a lucrative national television deal. Ottawa isn't as helpful as Montreal in that regard, but it's still something. Still, when you look at the other bids and how they're shaping up (especially with Albert Pujols buying in in St. Louis), Ottawa seems to come up a bit short.

We'll see what becomes of this, but this decision could substantially change the MLS expansion discussion. The favourites are out, and that will make room for some of the challengers. The question is if Vancouver and Ottawa will be in that group.

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