Entering its 20th season, Major League Soccer (MLS) is experiencing growth on multiple levels. What began as a 10-franchise operation in 1996 has now blossomed into a league with 20 teams across two conferences. This season, two new clubs will begin play in New York and Orlando, Florida. Each team debuts with high profile signings—Spanish legend David Villa and English star Frank Lampard will eventually play for New York City FC, and the Brazilian former World Player of the Year, Kaka, will play for Orlando City SC. Others internationals coming into the league this year include Liverpool legend Steven Gerrard and Italian star Sebastian Giovinco, both of whom signed multimillion-dollar contracts with the LA Galaxy and Toronto FC, respectively. More players throughout the world are starting to take MLS more seriously, as a potential career move and are thus beginning to keep the league on their radar.
“The important thing to know about soccer is that we don’t measure our growth in terms of exclusively North America,” says Ray Whitworth, MLS vice president of security and operations. “Soccer’s a global game, and we’re part of it. Unlike the other leagues who are based primarily in North America, we’re part of a much larger family around the world. We’re obviously concerned about our growth, like any other business in North America, but also view ourselves as being part of a global game.”
It doesn’t stop there. An Atlanta franchise will start playing in 2017, while a second team in Los Angeles is also set to begin playing in a few years. Each comes with solid ownership groups, including the likes of the Yankees, the Atlanta Falcons, Manchester City, or globally successful business and entertainment entrepreneurs.
Many squads are also establishing affiliations with United Soccer League (USL) teams, as that league progresses toward official Division Two sanctioning. In other cases, some MLS teams, like Seattle, are launching their own secondary USL-affiliated squads. From youth academies on up to the second-tier USL clubs, player development strategies are solidifiying across the league, something unheard of 20 years ago.
This year also marks another trend. American citizens currently plying their trades in Europe are coming back home to play in MLS. United States National Team stars like Jozy Altidore, Mix Diskerud, Brek Shea, and Juan Agudelo are returning home to take advantage of MLS’s growth.
New TV contracts also seem to be emerging left and right, both in the U.S. and in Canada, in English and in Spanish. More fans are watching and each new team brings its own authentic crew of supporters groups’ along with it, a very important improvement over 20 years ago, when the league seemed to market itself exclusively to nuclear families and soccer moms, an experiment that didn’t pan out. With the rise of supporters’ groups over the last 10 years, MLS games are now closer to exemplifying an authentic game-day experience one might find in Europe or South America.
But when it comes to growth, everything in MLS revolves around facilities. When MLS launched, every team shared its stadium with another tenant, usually an NFL team or a college football squad. There was no way to effectively reap the revenue streams, adequately maintain the pitch for soccer, or even feel truly at home. Now, as the 2015 campaign begins, 14 MLS teams play in their own soccer-specific stadiums, with even more venues planned for the future.
In particular, on March 22, the San Jose Earthquakes begin play in their brand new privately-funded facility, Avaya Stadium. San Jose was one of the 10 founding MLS cities in 1996—the inaugural MLS match was played in San Jose—but the team has never been able to secure its own permanent facility until now. Even after winning two MLS Cups, in 2001 and 2003, plus two Supporters Shields for the league’s best record in 2005 and 2012, San Jose has had to wait through the efforts of several different ownership groups across the entire history of MLS to get its own stadium. As of 2008, Oakland A’s owners Lew Wolff and John Fisher came on board as owners and eventual stadium financiers.
Avaya Stadium is set to be equipped with Avaya’s proprietary cloud-based technology, enabling fans to interact with multiple layers of data. It is the only stadium in the league to offer such customization and constantly evolving systems of fan engagement.
“The cloud technology will allow us to be more nimble as we build out the fan experience,” says Earthquakes President Dave Kaval. “We can adjust and adapt quickly to create new engaging experiences. We will have a lot of flexibility, and we can go after new opportunities as they arise.”
In other words, now, as the season begins, Avaya Stadium professes to be the only cloud-based soccer venue of its kind. With the Quakes and Avaya located right smack in Silicon Valley, the partnership is a unique one in MLS. It’s not just a company slapping its name on a building and then showing up to hang out in the luxury boxes. Avaya’s technology is all about engaging the customer, and now they’re scaling it up to a stadium of 18,000 people.
“It’s a natural synergy in a lot of respects,” says Peter Thompson, Avaya managing director for global sponsorships. “We have a new head office in Silicon Valley. The team is moving into a brand-new stadium in Silicon Valley. It’s quite a simple relationship to establish, actually. Not just in terms of new buidings. Our business is all about engaging the customers, the power of communications, and providing facilities. They obviously have a huge fan base they want to communicate with. They needed technology in the stadium, so we’re very natural partners in that respect.”
So Avaya gets to roll out a new generation of its products, to not only make the fan experience much more participatory, but also to help provide enterprise solutions for the front office, the marketing team, the interactive video screens, plus cloud-based data mining of player statistics accessible by the fans in real time. For fans, the possibilities are endless. People might be able to walk out on the concourse and view interactive social media feeds, share documents, plus player information, game data, and all sorts of elements they can also tap into on their phones while back at their seats. There also exist numerous ways in which corporate groups and event planners can take advantage of the technology during non-game days.
“There are a lot of things going in there, that I’ll have to say, and for our IT guys, I’m really excited to be working on this,” Thompson says. “Because it’s taking a lot of ideas and pushing them in different directions they wouldn’t normally go.”
Not too far behind San Jose on the stadium front, one finds D.C. United, a four-time MLS Cup Champion, but a team always having to settle for playing in RFK Stadium instead of its own specific facility. D.C. played in the inaugural MLS match, against San Jose in 1996, and just like San Jose, D.C. United has finally turned a corner after 20 years. Last December, the Council of the District of Columbia approved The District of Columbia Soccer Stadium Act of 2014, effectively green-lighting plans for a new venue in the district’s Buzzard Point area.
“It’s real,” declares D.C. United COO Tom Hunt. “We’re talking about a very long, arduous process for us, to finally get it across the finish line.”
To be located a few blocks southwest of Nationals Park, home of Major League Baseball’s Washington Nationals, the soccer stadium should open sometime during the 2017 season, Hunt says. The Nats ballpark has already helped vitalize the area, plus the subsequent areas east of the ballpark, but the new D.C. United Stadium promises to extend the vitalization southwestward.
“From a district standpoint, it’s going to help jump start development and be a catalyst for economic development by, some people estimate, 10 years,” Hunt says. “The Sports Entertainment District that will be created will do unbelievable things here and really ratchet up the world-class-ness of D.C.”
Even though MLS has only existed 20 years—nothing by comparison to many European leagues—D.C. United has always been considered one of the league’s storied teams. When MLS began, D.C. won the title in 1996, 1997, 1999, and then again in 2004, basically taking home the championship four out of the first nine seasons. But just like San Jose, the franchise never really found a way to build a permanent home or even keep the same ownership group for a reasonable amount of time during the league’s initial growing phases. Contraction and/or relocation always seemed imminent.
“D.C. has some very good fans, and many of them were soured over time because the promise of a new stadium kept coming and going over time,” Hunt says. “There were folks on the sidelines saying, ‘I don’t think it’s going to happen.’ Even in 2008, there was a lot of discussion about that being the year, if it didn’t happen, the team would potentially go somewhere else. So we’ve been battling those headwinds for quite some time.”
Most newly built facilities in MLS hover around the 18,000-25,000 range. Hunt says 18,500 is their intended sweet spot. There’s no reason to build a larger facility and then not be able to fill it to capacity. A much better approach is to build smaller, sell the place out over and over again, creating demand, and then expand when it’s necessary and/or feasible to do so.
Both teams, San Jose and D.C. United, have dealt with uncertain futures since the league’s inception. In San Jose’s case, the franchise was relocated to Houston in 2005, then relaunched as an expansion franchise in 2008, but with all its original stats, records, and trophies intact. In the cases of both markets, the recent successes at overcoming obstacles and securing new stadium scenarios signifies major progress for MLS, and also for tens of thousands of fans in both cities.
All of which, in the end, bodes well for jobs. At least in San Jose’s case, the team’s partnership with Avaya might even change the entire way in which jobs and careers are considered in management of future facilities. Thompson says that since Avaya has already implemented similar cloud-driven, mega-systems in places like the Dubai World Trade Center or the 2014 Winter Olympics, their technology has been able to reduce the amount of overhead for everyday operations while simultaneously increasing the amount of data flowing throughout the facility.
That is, for a soccer stadium, it doesn’t just mean the club is more efficient, it means the team gets more efficient use of the stadium, especially for events on non game-days. The data networks, the net cloud, the interactive screens, proprietary apps, instant document sharing, and stadium ad banners aren’t just used for day-to-day, team-based operations. They can also be used for conferences and events in the suites, on the concourse, or anywhere on the property. So although the overhead might be reduced in managing the day-to-day business, Marshall says the throughput of other events in the stadium increases. This is exactly what he says Avaya has discovered when implementing their systems in other environments.
“You can see that happening at Avaya Stadium, as well,” Thompson says. “You could well see that with having flexible communications and data facilities, there’s a lot more throughput in the stadium, which potentially then leads to new jobs and the ability to have a much more fully utilized business.” FM
(Image: Ryan Knapp/Creative Commons)