Friday, March 20, 2009

MLS: Vancouver and Portland rekindle West Coast rivalry

Today's announcement [Jose Romero, The Seattle Times] of Portland as the 18th MLS franchise could mean great things for the league, especially considering how Vancouver was named as the 17th franchise [Marc Weber, The Province] on Wednesday. Of course, there are many great reasons behind this pairing, but one of the most interesting is the history between the cities. Way back when Duane first called the race for Vancouver and Portland on March 3, his MLS source stated that the decision was made due to "stadium plan, political support and geographical factors". The stadium plans and political support are obviously crucial, but much ink has been spilled about them already, so it's those geographical factors that deserve further examination.

Vancouver, Portland and Seattle have had a natural soccer rivalry since the days of the old NASL, and that rivalry has carried on through the USL; all three cities had USL teams from 2001-2008, rekindling the old flame. Moreover, the geography of the region is well-suited to rivalries; it usually takes about two and a half hours to drive from Vancouver to Seattle and just under three hours to go from Seattle to Portland. Thus, there's been plenty of travelling support for all of these teams at the USL level, and that tends to make the games much more interesting. One of my favourite Whitecaps games last summer was their 2-1 victory over the Timbers, complete with about 30 Portland fans who made the six-hour trek north for the match armed with drums, horns and high spirits. A good crowd of away supporters adds a lot to a match and galvanizes the home fans, so that was great to see. Imagine how much more exciting those trips will be with all three teams in MLS.

Rivalries are crucial to building, expanding and selling sports in this day and age. There's a big reason why Arsenal-Tottenham or Real Madrid-Barcelona clashes are much more anticipated than your typical game. It's not just soccer, either; the Yankees and Red Sox have driven much of Major League Baseball's popularity, the regular Maple Leafs-Canadiens clashes in the 1950s and 60s helped Hockey Night in Canada take over the Saturday night airwaves and the Lakers and Celtics were a huge factor in the rise of the NBA. Those matchups draw huge amounts of fan and media interest, which leads to more people in the stands, more viewers of the TV broadcasts, more rights/advertising fees and dramatically increased profits.

However, MLS has had a tougher time developing rivalries. Yes, there still are plenty of hated opponents for each team, and I'm sure the readers of this blog could provide quite the list. The problem is that most of them haven't really jumped from the sphere of the diehard fans to the sphere of the general public, which is what you need to see real economic benefits from rivalries. Like in other sports, the hardcore supporters will often tune in to each and every game their team plays regardless of opponent, but the Yankees-Red Sox or Celtics-Lakers clashes go beyond that and reel in members of the general public who may not even follow the league or the sport all that closely.

In my mind, there's a good chance that Vancouver-Seattle-Portland could have the potential to draw in those casual fans, certainly on a local level and perhaps on a larger scale. There are several crucial reasons why. For one, these cities all have a significant population base of their own but also have the potential to pull in fans from their suburbs and the remainder of their state or province. Another key point is that each city only has one to two other professional teams competing for media and fan attention in season; the Canucks (NHL) and Lions (CFL) in Vancouver, the Seahawks (NFL) and Mariners (MLB) in Seattle and the Blazers (NBA) and Beavers (Triple-A baseball) in Portland. Most of those seasons don't overlap significantly with MLS; the NHL and NBA are there for the first couple of months (depending on how far your team goes into the playoffs), while there's a bit of NFL overlap at the end of the season. Baseball and the CFL bring more of an overlap, but the CFL is one game a week which can be avoided with careful scheduling (and that's made easier by the shared MLS/CFL stadium) and there are so many baseball games in a season that an individual one doesn't usually get a huge amount of attention or coverage.

Even more important is how all of those other teams are in separate leagues. Seattle, Portland and Vancouver have long been rival cities, but soccer is now the only professional sport where they can duke it out for bragging rights (thanks to the long-ago departure of the NBA's Grizzlies from Vancouver and the more recent exit of the Sonics from Seattle). By contrast, New York and D.C. probably have one of the stronger rivalries in MLS, but that rivalry has less ability to draw outside attention as those cities battle in baseball, basketball, football and hockey as well.

Also key to the equation are the supporters' clubs. All three cities have long had passionate and organized fanbases, and those groups can do a lot to promote a rivalry. As I mentioned earlier, they aren't too likely to bring in extra income on their own for these games (as many of them will be there regardless of the opponent), but if they get fired up for these games, that can add to the passion and intensity surrounding them and spill over into the general populace. It's a common human reaction to get excited about something if there are other people passionate about it.

One final point in favour of these rivalries working on a large scale is the pre-existing media interest. Soccer has been recognized as a key sport in each city for some time now, and the papers (particularly The Province (which even runs soccer columns from Whitecaps GM Bob Lenarduzzi every Friday), The Seattle Times and The Oregonian), radio stations and TV stations have picked up on that. There's always been good coverage when these teams have played each other in the USL; expect that to be taken even further when they're played out on the MLS stage. It remains to be seen if these rivalries can be sold on a national level, as that hasn't historically worked too well in any sporting league. With the large and passionate fanbases in each city, anything is possible, though. In any case, the rivalries will certainly be big in each of the three cities and likely in those states and provinces as well; that's a great starting point.

This is not an isolated view, by the way. Consider Lenarduzzi's comments to Marc Weber of The Province when Vancouver's successful bid was announced Wednesday; he said that he'd love to see Portland in with the eighteenth slot even over a Canadian bid like Ottawa and specifically referred to the old NASL rivalry.

"As much as I’d like to show my national colours, it would be absolutely unbelievable if it could be Portland so that we could recapture that rivalry we had in the late 70s and early 80s [in the NASL].”

Back in February when I laid out the case for Vancouver in MLS, one of my key arguments was the ready-made rivalries with Seattle and Portland (and also Toronto). There were plenty of other reasons to give Vancouver and Portland expansion franchises, including the finances, the ownership groups and the stadium plans. However, the rivalries may be one of the most important factors in the growth of the game on the West Coast, and they may prove a key selling point for MLS.

[Cross-posted to The 24th Minute]

Update: 4:38 P.M.: Don Garber apparently also shares my line of thought. From Weber's story yesterday:

"MLS commissioner Don Garber said he's excited to recapture that derby feel from the NASL days.

'The passion in the NASL was the Northwest rivalry," he said. 'We're going to be able to replicate that with Vancouver and Seattle, and if Portland comes in you get that trifecta. That was a big part of what intrigued us and what excites us.'"

Weber also has a piece today about the excitement in Seattle and Toronto thanks to Vancouver getting in.

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