Los Angeles Football Club President and Owner Tom Penn, Executive Chairman and Owner Peter Guber, MLS Commissioner Don Garber, and LAFC Managing Partner and Owner Henry Nguyen, announce the new franchise, Oct. 30. (Photo by MLS)
The overall popularity of soccer in the United States has been slowly increasing for years, but with soaring viewership of the World Cup and overseas leagues, Major League Soccer is making moves to take full advantage of rising interest.
One of those moves is planting another team in the city of Los Angeles. The new club, known as Los Angeles Football Club, was announced Oct. 30, just days after the team Chivas USA ceased operations. Chivas ended the 2014 season with 19 losses and six ties. The team had the lowest home game attendance in the league, with 120,063 spectators during the 17 home games of the season, averaging to just more than 7,000. No other team in MLS has an average home game attendance of less than 14,947.
L.A.’s new team features a star-studded ownership group led by businessman Henry Nguyen and including Executive Chairman Peter Guber, who is CEO of Mandalay Entertainment Group, the owner and co-executive chairman of the NBA’s Golden State Warriors and co-owner of Major League Baseball’s Los Angeles Dodgers.
The 22-owner group also includes celebs such as former Los Angeles Lakers star Magic Johnson, USA soccer player Mia Hamm, former Boston Red Sox shortstop Nomar Garciaparra, author Tony Robbins and YouTube co-founder Chad Hurley.
The team will enter MLS in 2017, congruently with another expansion club in Atlanta.
Los Angeles already has an established club, the L.A. Galaxy, which has been in MLS since its inception in 1995. Where Chivas USA was not competitive enough in recent years to form a true rivalry with the Galaxy, LAFC’s ownership is hopeful they can become what the Los Angeles Clippers are to the Lakers or New York Mets are to the Yankees.
“Every movie needs a hero and a villain,” said Guber at the press conference to announce the team’s launch. “Every combination brings drama to it. We’re in the drama business. That’s the drama: Can we compete? Someone asked me, ‘How are you ever going to compete as the second team in the market place?’
“Well, I said, ‘Maybe by becoming the first team.’”
Every sports league thrives off of rivalries, but soccer has a long-standing global tradition of closely-located teams becoming heated rivals. That tradition has carried over to MLS in their most well attended rivalry games between the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers.
“Certainly in the sport of soccer, we’ve seen that local and regional rivalries are extremely popular,” said Dan Courtemanche, Exec.VP of Communications at MLS.
Play on the field may determine whether LAFC and the Galaxy can become newfound rivals, but that will not be the only factor. The team’s ownership group is now in search of locations for a new stadium – one that could help facilitate a schism between fans of LAFC and of the Galaxy, who play South of downtown L.A. at StubHub Center.
“At Major League Soccer, we have been looking at a variety of stadium locations in the city of Los Angeles over the past few years,” Courtemanche said. “Now that we have new owners and a new team, they are going to take over the mantle. We’re going to support them in their efforts to find a stadium location.”
The ownership group has stated that they are aiming to find a location within the next calendar year and break ground on a new stadium by 2016. They have a budget of around $150 million and plan to have capacity in the range of 25,000. The league averages over 19,000 per game.
Locations have not yet been stated by the group, but many have speculated that downtown Los Angeles or the South Central area is possible.
There has been a trend of MLS teams building soccer-only stadiums. Portland, New York, Houston, Montreal, Philadelphia, Vancouver and Kansas City have opened new venues within the last five years and San Jose is set to debut a new stadium next year.
“Having stadiums dedicated to soccer is one of the drivers in the success of Major League Soccer in the last 15 years,” Courtemanche said.
With one Eastern and one Western team coming in 2017 and the addition of clubs in Orlando and New York in 2015, the league’s two conferences needed to be evened out. The league elected to move Sporting K.C. (Kansas City) and the Houston Dynamo from the Eastern Conference to the Western Conference.
Both teams have been in the West before: Houston more recently, between 2006 and 2010, and Kansas City from 1996-2004. The two clubs were selected largely because their travel schedule will not be altered greatly by switching conferences.
“The mileage will probably be pretty similar,” said Dynamo Communications Manager Matt Pedersen. “The closer teams like Salt Lake and Colorado will be a similar distance to teams like Columbus and Chicago. The only bonus is playing Dallas twice a year, but all-in-all, it will pretty much be a wash.”
Houston hosting Dallas twice per season as opposed to every other year may provide a rivalry matchup like the one LAFC is hoping to build with the Galaxy.
“A lot of our supporter groups organize bus trips to go up there and they do the same to come here,” Pedersen said. “It will be good for them to make it a regular thing to make the trip.”
“Why most fans don’t mind the move back to the West is that our biggest rival is actually Kansas City right now and they’re going to the West with us.”
Outside of which teams they will root against, the one significant change will be road game starting times. Instead of beginning matches at 5:30 or 6 p.m., games on the West Coast will kick off at 9:30 or 10 p.m.
That might seem at first glance like a negative. In fact, Major League Baseball’s Houston Astros pushed their way to the American League party to get earlier starting times, but Sporting K.C. doesn’t see it that way.
“For Friday night games, usually 9:30 kicks are higher rated than 7:30 kicks in Kansas City,” said Sporting KC Executive Vice President of Communications Rob Thomson. “The hard part might be a midweek game, like a Wednesday night game. But for the most part we really hit the millennial demographic with the late kicks.”
Interviewed for this story: Dan Courtemanche (212) 450-1225; Rob Thomson (913) 387-3405; Matt Pedersen, (713) 276-752