In 1988, one unfancied team, one which had risen from the ranks of the English amateur scene to reach the top division in less than ten years, won the F.A. Cup, beating the hot favorites Liverpool in the final at Wembley. That team was Wimbledon F.C. Based in Merton, a suburb of south-west London, the team had risen from humble beginnings and finally gained entrance into the Football League in 1977. After a couple of eventful seasons, which included both a promotion and relegation, Wimbledon ascended the football pyramid, gaining 3 promotions in 5 seasons to reach the top level of English football for the first time in their history. Their no-nonsense style was embraced by the fans, and the collection of players – few of whom ever gained international recognition – cultivated a Them-and-Us team spirit, and became forever know as the “Crazy Gang”.
Just 15 years later, Wimbledon Football Club was moved 90 miles north to Milton Keynes, an industrial wasteland of a town that hitherto had had no soccer pedigree. The congested soccer scene in London (14 league clubs in the 2003/2004 season), coupled with the ever-increasing Premiership, meant that smaller teams were finding it hard to gain traction and garner enough support to be able to survive. The owners of Wimbledon F.C. decided to move the club north, and despite vehement opposition from both Wimbledon fans and fans of other teams (no doubt fearing this could set a precedent), the move was rubber stamped by the F.A. and off they went. In June 2004, the name of the team was changed to MK Dons, along with club badge and colors. The team became dubbed “Franchise F.C.”,a clearly derogatory reference to the practice in U.S. sports of moving unprofitable or unpopular teams.
Fans of the ‘original’ Wimbledon, upset at their treatment at the hands of the owners and the F.A. (hardly the most reliable of organizations at the best of times) decided to start again. They formed a new team, based in the part of London from whence the original team began, and entered the team in 9th tier of the football pyramid. Now, 7 seasons later, they are in the 5th tier, with a good chance of getting promoted to the Football League in May.
Last Saturday, both teams drew their respective games in the FA Cup first round, and as luck would have it, were drawn together in the Second Round (assuming each team wins the replay). For fans of the new team, A.F.C. Wimbledon, this potentially represents a halcyon moment, the point at which their community club can finally come face to face with its arch nemesis. There was talk at one stage of A.F.C. refusing to play the game, because a lot of the fans refuse to acknowledge the existence of the ‘other’ team, but this seems to no longer be an option. Indeed, the rancor felt towards the existence of MK Dons is probably not as high as it once was, partly because of MK Dons’ failure, (it’s possible that the teams could be playing in the same division next season) but largely because the greatest bone of contention, that 1988 F.A. Cup victory, was “given” to the new team in 2007, after much wrangling as to which of the two were the true heirs to the Wimbledon legacy.
American sports in general are used to the idea of franchises; the possibility the the owners of a team can decide to move the location of that team, sometimes to the other side of the country. In Europe, this is considered a rather strange affectation, something that is not very well understood. In soccer, especially, this goes to the roots of the ‘football clubs’ – community based organizations that traditionally recruited players from within a very local catchment area. This more organic way of doing things explains why, for example, there are 13 Football League clubs coming from within London, and 8 within the Greater Manchester area, a county with a population of around 2.3 million people. There are currently 92 league clubs in England (Tiers 1-4) with another 154 in the remaining tiers (5-7). Nearly 250 recognized teams is a genuinely astounding number in a country as small as England. If the system was run in a similar way to professional American sports, the number would probably be about 32, with maybe a similar number of ‘minor’ clubs, although without any chance of movement between the two sections. (This would almost mean that my own team would disappear after more than 100 years!)
I’m not going to criticize the franchise system that MLS runs. Indeed, I think it is the only way that soccer could have progressed so far in such a short time. However, as the league looks to expand further, twenty seems to be generally accepted target for the desired number of teams. Presumably once that number has been reached, new clubs will only be opening at the expense of another; that is, a franchise ‘moving’.
This has already been seen in USL. Jason wrote recently about the move of the Austin Aztex to Orlando, and with the struggle that the club faced in increasing supporter numbers, it would probably not be a surprise to see other teams look at the possibility in the future. Once MLS hits that 20-team ceiling, sooner or later owners will look at revenues much closer than they may have been up to this point. Naturally it’s unlikely that teams in huge markets owned by multi-national corporations will be packed up and sent to Nebraska, but I think some of the less glamorous teams will be open to relocation under the correct circumstances.
Picture this; it’s 2015. There have been 20 teams for three seasons, the most recent additions being Montreal Impact and Saint Louis Buds*. Suddenly, the owners of the Cosmos name have the financing in place to create a second NY team, but the commissioner, (a Mr. J. Klinsmann) rules out the possibility of a 21st team. In response Pele and the gang go stomping around the US hoping for a team in a smaller market with an owner looking to sell.
In time, they stumble across a team like Colombus Crew, or Real Salt Lake, teams who are fairly isolated geographically and may be struggling for revenues (and before you go off on me, please remember this is hypothetical!) and therefore receptive to the idea of moving to New York, probably to be a part of it (whatever ‘it’ is).
Whilst this scenario is somewhat far fetched, uprooting teams with firm support and a relatively successful history is not unprecedented (Brooklyn Dodger to LA in baseball, Baltimore Colts to Indianapolis in football). It can’t be too much of a stretch to expect it to happen in MLS at some point, although I think it would be inadvisable for two reasons.
First, soccer fans in the US have worked very hard to get MLS to the level it is now. Owners and MLS execs have helped, obviously, but it’s the desire of the fans that has given MLS its credibility, and will continue to do so in the future. Being soccer fans, they are probably less likely to accept the movement of teams than sports fans ingrained with the franchise culture – in this respect, the cross-pollination of European soccer culture probably helps. Moving a team could prove damaging to the goodwill of those fans. And second, MLS is still very young. Any team that is having difficulties attracting fans through the turnstiles or into the club store probably has not done everything it can to make those options desirable for fans. Before any team was allowed to move I would hope that MLS would demand a ‘cooling-off’ period, in which the team needs to do everything within its power to gain traction locally, and the fans would also have a duty to encourage their friends and family to join in.
In truth, the simple fact that MLS is a young league will probably forestall a franchise move. Several of the expansion clubs are simply existing teams being allowed into MLS, and so a market and desire for soccer has already been established. Having been built on a basis of financial surety, the league has protected its teams well from the fear of bankruptcy (something that European leagues would do well to learn from) and in all honesty, the future looks healthy, at least to this interested party.
It’s doubtless of little comfort to their fans, but one positive upshot of Wimbledon’s plight has been to switch off the British public to the possibility of relocation in the future. At the time, fans of smaller clubs worried that their team would be the next ‘franchise’, but the bad feeling generated by MK Dons has probably put an end to that. Still, it’s not all bad news for the embattled club; there’s a chance they couldhost a World Cup game in 2018.