Major League Soccer awarded a franchise to Minneapolis on Wednesday, continuing an expansion that will give the league at least 23 teams by 2018.
“We have a plan here that we believe in,” MLS Commissioner Don Garber said during a news conference. “A plan that we believe will take the sport to a higher level.”
It’s an aggressive plan that has seen the 20-year-old league double in size since 2004 despite the fact it says it is still losing more than $100 million a year.
Expansion teams began play in Orlando and New York City this season, giving MLS 20 franchises. And teams in Atlanta and Los Angeles will be begin play in 2017, a season ahead of Minneapolis, leaving Garber one short of the 24 teams he wanted by 2020.
Minnesota United FC, with a broad-based coalition of local investors led by Bill McGuire, beat out a deep-pocketed group headed by Minnesota Viking owners Mark and Zygi Wilf. McGuire, the former CEO of UnitedHealth Group, will operate the team alongside Minnesota Twins’ owner Jim Pohlad and Minnesota Timberwolves’ owner Glen Taylor.
As MLS has expanded geographically, adding teams in Canada, the Southeast and the Pacific Northwest since 2009, it has also managed to attract high-powered ownership groups. The Atlanta franchise will be operated by Home Depot co-founder Arthur Blank, owner of the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons; New York City FC is owned by Manchester City of the English Premier League and the New York Yankees; while the new Los Angeles franchise will be run by a 22-person group that includes entertainment mogul Peter Guber, owner of the NBA’s Golden State Warriors and co-owner of the Dodgers; former Laker Magic Johnson, another Dodger owner; former women’s soccer star Mia Garciaparra (nee Hamm); and self-help guru Tony Robbins.
Despite the fact that MLS has never turned a profit, new investors say they are drawn to the league by its rapid growth. Not only has MLS doubled its number of franchises in 11 years but average attendance topped 19,000 for the first time in 2014 -- more than either the NBA or NHL averaged. Last spring the league signed a record eight-year $720-million broadcast deal and Forbes Mexico ranks three MLS team -- the New York Red Bulls, Sporting Kansas City and the defending-champion Galaxy -- among the nine most valuable soccer teams in the Americas.
Minnesota United, founded in 2010 and currently playing in the second-tier North American Soccer League, plans to build a soccer-specific outdoor stadium in downtown Minneapolis, near the Twins’ Target Field and Target Center, home of the Timberwolves. The league said the investors are expected to file plans for a privately-built stadium by July 1. Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton has said he would not support the use of taxpayer funds for the stadium, which is expected to cost around $150 million.
Garber will now turn his attention to stalled attempts to place a David Beckham-owned franchise in Miami. Those plans have long been discussed but the Beckham group has been unsuccessful in winning support for a downtown stadium in that city, something Garber considers a requirement for awarding franchise rights.
Garber is expected to visit Miami in the coming weeks. Other potential expansion cities include Sacramento, where plans for a publicly-supported stadium are already in place; San Antonio; and St. Louis, where a proposed new stadium for the NFL’s Rams will include a support component.