It was, until recently, the same blueprint that Seattle was following under similar circumstances. Portland's professional soccer teams, including the Portland Thorns women's team that just took their league's championship, only compete with the NBA's TrailBlazers for fans' attention and don't spend much of their season doing so. It's a model that has worked remarkably well in Salt Lake City, where the more than 19,000 fans Real Salt Lake drew to Rio Tinto Stadium each game this season surpassed the 18,700 averaged by the NBA's Jazz in 2012-13. It's by no means a fair comparison, with Real playing fewer games in a larger building, but the lack of competition and the level of play that has sent the team to the playoffs each year since 2008, earned it an MLS Cup title in 2009 and helped it to the CONCACAF Champions League finals in 2010 has helped Major League Soccer thrive in Utah. Real has no fewer than eight supporters groups, a television deal that puts every game on local networks and an agreement with international powerhouse Real Madrid that funds a youth soccer academy in Utah and bring Real Madrid in for a game every other year.
That success is being replicated in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal, which have all earned MLS franchises within the past six years -- with Montreal earning its first playoff appearance this season with help from $2 million Italian striker Marco Di Vaio -- and has inspired fans in St. Louis and Orlando, Fla., to lobby for their own teams. In the Canadian markets where the NHL takes over in the winter and finishes by summer, the NFL is a non-entity and Major League Baseball and the NBA are confined to Toronto, each team draws more than 18,000 fans per match. Montreal's average attendance is nearly 21,000, which outdraws all but three U.S. MLS franchises.
If fans in St. Louis envision a similar result in their town, they need only look to Kansas City to see how that will work out. While Kansas City is one of the league's founding franchises and was started by Kansas City Chiefs owner and avid soccer fan Lamar Hunt in 1995 as the Kansas City Wiz, today's Sporting Kansas City is perhaps the best example of how MLS' startup past has bridged into its thriving present. The former Wizards have a 2000 MLS Cup to their credit, but also drew fewer than 10,000 fans per game for five seasons and fewer than 11,000 in the three years before moving to soccer-specific Sporting Park in 2011.
Sporting has since drawn more than 19,000 fans a year in each of the last two seasons -- outdrawing baseball's Royals in 2012 and missing their mark by fewer than 2,000 this year. It's never paid more than $500,000 for a designated player and the one currently on its roster -- Argentine forward Claudi Bieler -- is making a relatively scant $200,000. Sporting Park's "Cauldron" fan section teems with supporters groups, while the folks on the field have made the MLS playoff in each of the past three seasons and won the U.S. Open Cup tournament of U.S. soccer teams from various levels of play last year.
With each of the Los Angeles Galaxy's two MLS titles in the past two seasons, the money has won and the league's nearly 20-year-old formula for spending its way to popularity has remained intact. A look at the 2013 playoff picture, however, suggests the times and MLS' culture are changing quickly.
With another New York franchise on the way and expansion plans seeking other major-league deprived cities, this year's playoffs are showcasing the league's increasingly split personality.
-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.
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