The Rams Effect on the U.S. Soccer Landscape
The NFL’s Rams are moving back to Los Angeles from St. Louis after a 30–2 majority vote by the league’s owners. The move to Los Angeles will include the construction of a brand new, state of the art stadium that will be the central piece to a larger park complex project in Inglewood, California.
What does the move by an NFL team have to do with soccer? In the case of the Rams, it has the chance to cause quite the change to the soccer landscape in America. The resurgence of soccer in America was helped directly and indirectly by the NFL, soit is no surprise that it continues to affect the landscape of the sport.
Major League Soccer has NFL connections at its roots. In today’s game, NFL names have often been involved in the ownership of MLS franchises: legendary owner Lamar Hunt owned two teams, Robert Kraft owns the New England Revolution, and Arthur Blank will see his Atlanta United’s inaugural season in 2017. Lamar Hunt was such a large part of helping MLS get started that the U.S. Open Cup was renamed the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. Even the league’s commissioner, Don Garber, came from the NFL in 1999
Soccer in St. Louis
A lot of the history in U.S. Soccer is usually centered on the northeast part of the country, however St. Louis has a rich history in the sport as well. The City’s rich soccer history can be traced back to the early 1900’s with the formation of the first ever professional soccer league in the U.S., the St. Louis Soccer League. The area’s soccer heritage includes the old NASL's St. Louis Stars, indoor soccer teams such as the Steamers, Storm and Ambush, a recent U.S. World Cup Qualifier against St. Vincent & The Grenadines, numerous friendly games by international clubs such as Chelsea and Real Madrid, and two Bosnia-Herzegovina national team friendly games.
Last year, St. Louis FC played their inaugural season in the United Soccer League in Fenton, a suburb or St. Louis at the World Wide Technology Soccer Park. While the team enjoyed a successful first season, they still finished with a losing record and missed the USL playoffs. On field results matter, however, off field success is also a good indicator on interest of the sport in the area. The team had the fourth highest attendance average in a league of 24 teams, with a 4,885 average, including selling out four of their last five games. The interest certainly seems to be there in St. Louis, but the question remains — does the city have it in them to attract Major League Soccer, pay the $100 million expansion fee, and build a soccer-specific stadium that could hold 20,000 to 30,000 fans? The Rams move from the city certainly creates a sports vaccuum that soccer would be happy to fill.
The Move from St. Louis
As the city of St. Louis worked hard to try and keep their Rams with a new riverfront stadium deal proposal, rumors that an MLS franchise could potentially be part of the new stadium deal (to help offset some of the cost to the Rams) began to surface. That rumor was short lived, as the Rams wasted no time bolting the gateway to the west.
The NFL’s loss, however, may become MLS’s gain. Don Garber stated during the MLS Superdraft, “The fact that there’s one fewer pro team there, I think, is a positive for our league as it relates to St. Louis,” launching a firestorm of support for a jump to MLS. The MLS to St. Louis blog site has been on top of the news and rumors since its launch in September 2015. Their latest posts centered on news that Missouri Representative Keith English was sponsoring a bill in the Missouri House of Representatives calling for a small sales tax bill, the goal being to help fund $100 million for a soccer-specific stadium to help the city in their MLS expansion efforts.
The Rams' move from St. Louis instantly put the spotlight on soccer as the void filler, but questions remain on who would lead the effort, where would the eventual team play, and does the first year success of Saint Louis FC really mean that the city is ready to support an MLS franchise?
New Stadium in Southern California
The new digs that the Rams ran to in southern California are expected to be unlike any current stadium and fan experience there is in the NFL and perhaps in professional sports. The new stadium will be situated in Inglewood, which is just outside of Los Angeles and expected to be the most expensive stadium project ever, as it not only includes an 80,000 seat stadium, but a performing arts center, retail & office space, homes, and parks.
What does this new stadium have to do with soccer? It is expected that the multi-use stadium will attract some of the top sporting events in the world, which can include but not limited to national team games, international club team friendlies, and possibly attract games for tournaments such as the Gold Cup or even a future U.S. hosted World Cup or Olympics.
The various U.S. Soccer teams have played all over the state of California at stadiums such as the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, The StubHub Center in Carson, and at the U.S. Soccer National Training Facilities, with games in 2016 now including the new Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara. The new stadium in Inglewood has the potential to become a de facto American stadium, and most likely host of some of the biggest U.S. Soccer games, the way the Azteca Stadium in Mexico City is home to the Mexican National Team or the Maracana is the home of the Brazilian National team.
Chargers Join the Rams
Another interesting scenario in play now is the NFL San Diego Chargers' move to the Inglewood Stadium with the Rams, now vacating another city of a professional sports team and possibly opening up a new market for MLS. Former San Diego Padres owner (and potential future owner of the Premier League’s Everton F.C.) John Moores is currently looking into the prospects of bringing an MLS team to San Diego. In the Moores scenario, the future MLS team would share a stadium with San Diego State’s football team, to be built on the current Qualcomm Stadium site.
There is another potential group that is looking into the prospects of an MLS team in San Diego, not yet identified. Both groups and any eventual MLS team would have to deal with the reality that Liga MX’s Club Tijuana is currently the number one team in the San Diego market with Xolos supporters groups, Club Tijuana watch parties, and even local news sports segments dedicated to sharing highlights and results from Tijuana games. The Liga MX outfit even has an academy set up in Chula Vista, and while plenty of international clubs have academies set up outside of their countries, the proximity between Tijuana and San Diego is only 20 miles, which is in closer distance than Red Bull Arena is to Yankee Stadium, homes of the two current New York MLS teams.
Any move by MLS into the San Diego market would not only have to deal with the expansion fee and stadium deal, but would have to contend with penetrating a market where an existing competitor currently resides.
The Landscape of Soccer Changes
The move by the Rams have set many things in motion that can, and perhaps will, change the landscape of U.S. Soccer as we know it. This shift has added potential markets to the already competitive list of expansion cities that already included Sacramento, San Antonio, Las Vegas and Indianapolis. The new stadium in Inglewood has the potential to put U.S. over the top in future international tournament bids such as the World Cup, by having a world class, media friendly site that will have the capacity and capability to host a World Cup Final, future U.S.-Mexico games, Gold Cup finals, friendly games between Latin American national teams, or even club friendlies such as the annual Guinness Cup games that normally attract teams such as Real Madrid, Manchester United, Chelsea and Juventus.
Soccer in America is currently experiencing a huge evolution, the Rams move to LA just might be part of the seismic shift that shapes the future of the sport in the U.S.