What Union owner Jay Sugarman wants to see in MLS expansion candidates

Fire FC Cincinnati Soccer-29062017-0001
FC Cincinnati’s dramatic run to the semifinals of the 2017 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup has helped fuel the city’s bid to become a Major League Soccer expansion city.

Philadelphia Union majority owner Jay Sugarman is a member of Major League Soccer’s expansion committee. He is one of six people in the group, all of whom are owners. The New England Revolution’s Jonathan Kraft chairs the committee and is joined by Sugarman, the Chicago Fire’s Andrew Hauptman, Sporting Kansas City’s Cliff Illig, Minnesota United’s Dr. Bill McGuire, and the Seattle Sounders’ Joe Roth.

Illig, McGuire and Roth are new additions to the committee this year, according to the Sports Business Journal. The committee had been composed of five members, and expanded to six after the departures of Columbus Crew owner Anthony Precourt and former Orlando City president Phil Rawlins. (Precourt’s departure is notable, because he’s trying to move his team to Austin, Texas, over the vociferous objections of fans in Columbus and the whole of MLS.)

In the next few weeks, the expansion committee will be making some very big decisions. It’s expected that the league will announce its next two expansion cities in mid-December. Those teams are likely to begin playing by 2020. They will be the 25th and 26th franchises in MLS after Los Angeles FC joins in 2018 and the David Beckham-owned Miami organization joins some time thereafter.

During a recent interview with the Inquirer and Daily News, Sugarman spoke about his work on the expansion committee and what he is looking for in candidate cities.

What do you make of the situation in Columbus?

I’ve got to refer you back to the league for that.

There are some candidates for expansion that are near or at the front of the line right now — in particular, Cincinnati, Nashville and Sacramento, according to Sports Illustrated. When you are judging potential expansion cities, what do you look for?

As you can imagine, there are many factors. I think the combination of ownership, stadium, community, rivalries. [Those] have always been front and center.

I think it always starts with ownership, then the sense of, “Is there a soccer community? Do they have the right stadium solution? How does this fit the map as we grow as a league?” We still don’t cover the full map the way we would like. So, are we building regional rivalries? Are we making sure we have a warm weather-cold weather balance?”

There’s a lot of small things. But I think we don’t even get to those questions if we don’t believe in the ownership and community pieces in place. The fortunate thing is, we have a lot of interested parties. These are reasonably complex things that have to all come together and succeed.

So the league is not rushing it. They’re doing very deep vetting, and they’re letting as many people as are interested put their best foot forward. Then we as a committee, together with the league, sit down and really start to score these expansion opportunities on these key criteria — and there are some very good candidates.

I think the process is working. I think that for the league, creating an expansion committee was a great step. We can learn from our past successes, and we can learn from our past mistakes. I think we have a lot of wisdom sitting around the table, trying to make sure we make the right choices for building the best league we can.

There is a target to announce the next two [expansion cities] relatively soon, but we’ve also said we’re going to announce two beyond that sometime in the future. So we’re already thinking about what the league looks like with 28 teams in it, from a schedule standpoint, from a travel standpoint.

We want this league to be the best it can be, and we need to grapple with those questions now, not when we have a full complement of teams.

The public focuses on the stadium factor a lot. Maybe sometimes more than it should. But given how much the subject is talked about, how do you judge the stadium part of an expansion bid?

I think it’s critical. I think that in-stadium experience is what the league has been built upon. You know it when you feel it. You get in that stadium, and every seat is a great seat. The crowd is into it. That’s what the league is going to grow on: people coming to these games and realizing what an incredible sport and what an incredible environment it is.

I think [Union chief business officer] Tim McDermott has been very focused on that in-stadium experience, and I think the team does a great job of that. So we want to see that in each new expansion opportunity.

That stadium is the core experience. If you’re not getting that right, it’s going to be hard to do anything else. We need to make sure our stadium environment is one of the best in the city. I think we’ve had some success with that. If we’re winning, if that stadium is packed, people who come for the first time are going to realize what a great opportunity it is to bring friends and family. In that setting and that environment, there’s nothing like it.

I’ve been to Portland, I’ve been to Seattle, I’ve been to Atlanta. Those are incredible environments. Orlando, too. When you get it right as an owner, there’s nothing better than seeing that part succeed. Then you’ve got to translate it onto TV, you’ve got to translate it into the media, and we want to translate it internationally.

I’ve been sitting with some of the heads of different leagues recently, and they’re watching MLS. That in-stadium experience, that media experience, need to be top-notch. People are paying attention. We now need to deliver the goods.