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A few weeks ago, FanGraphs published a blog post advocating for aggressive MLB expansion. I rolled my eyes. The basis of the piece was that in 1910, when the first census of the World Series era was conducted (the World Series originated in 1903), there was one professional baseball team per every six million U.S. residents. Today, that ratio is pushing one per twelve million. The population has quadrupled, the number of teams has merely doubled, and the author of said piece—Michael Baumann—argued that this is robbing fans of the experience of having a local team.

Reading the piece again, I’m rolling my eyes again. Baumann makes unproven claims about individual franchise profitability in a hypothetical 48-team league. He neglects to address the attendance woes which plague bad teams while simultaneously arguing fans would show up for a team in Nashville (or more tongue-in-cheek, Texarkana) if it was merely capable of “giving a good account of itself in defeat.” The piece is riddled with points, and many are good (Major League Baseball is a cartel), but many are dubious (the Nashville/Texarkana line comes right before a paragraph that makes some broad psychological and sociological claims, implicitly and explicitly). I know nothing about Baumann, and I like FanGraphsand by blog post standards, the thing was worthwhile to the point that we’re continuing the conversation here. But we wouldn’t have continued it on the merit of the post alone. We’re continuing it because of Austin FC.

This year was the second in which Austin, Texas sported a team in any of America’s five most prominent professional leagues. It was a good year for the club competitively: Yesterday, they lost in the Major League Soccer semifinals. It was also a good year for the club financially: The team has the longest-running sellout streak in the league. Fans are showing up. Austinites are paying attention. And it’s not only the novel in-person experience, manufactured to replicate a soccer match in an established, non-American stadium, with chants and named sections and a big ol’ drum. Yesterday, I was invited to an Austin FC gamewatch at a friend’s house. People evidently watch this team on TV.

Austin FC’s popularity snuck up on me. To the extent I thought of anything surrounding the club’s formation, I thought an MLS team could do well by MLS standards in Austin, but I didn’t expect it to become enough of a cultural phenomenon that friends of mine would care to plan their Sunday around a game they weren’t attending. In some ways, the interest is assumedly a reflection of Austin’s growth: The larger Austin becomes, the further population sprawls away from the University of Texas campus, the more diluted the Longhorn presence becomes, the less of a college town Austin is. The larger Austin becomes, the more people there are who might have an interest in professional soccer and the availability to turn that interest into measurable support. The UT football team’s total attendance will still dwarf Austin FC’s over the 2022 calendar year, by a factor of nearly 2-to-1, but I’ve heard more about Austin FC this season than I heard about the Chicago Fire in eighteen years spent living in the Chicago metro.

And so, I went back and re-read the FanGraphs piece. And I wondered how big Major League Soccer wants to be.

MLS’s expansion, this last decade, has been rapid, aggressive, and seemingly successful. Atlanta United enjoys a substantial local following. Austin FC enjoys a substantial local following. Charlotte FC enjoys a substantial local following. None of these teams is more than six years old. Austin and Charlotte are brand spanking new. It’s possible newness is a fleeting advantage, but it’s also possible that by targeting large-enough cities with few enough professional teams, MLS is onto something.

Those sixteen teams who competed for the World Series title from 1903 through 1960 played exclusively in big cities. Each of the five largest cities at the time of the 1910 census had both one American League and one National League team. Each of the nine largest, with the exception of Baltimore, had at least one team in either league, and Baltimore’s professional baseball team—an earlier version of the Orioles—had moved only eight years earlier to New York, where they eventually became the Yankees. Here’s how the landscape shook out:

Population Rank City # of MLB Teams
1 New York 3
2 Chicago 2
3 Philadelphia 2
4 St. Louis 2
5 Boston 2
6 Cleveland 1
7 Baltimore 0
8 Pittsburgh 1
9 Detroit 1
10 Buffalo 0
11 San Francisco 0
12 Milwaukee 0
13 Cincinnati 1
14 Newark 0
15 New Orleans 0
16 Washington 1

It was a regional league, concentrated in the Northeast, but the country’s population was concentrated in the Northeast as well. Massachusetts had nearly as many residents in 1910 as Texas. New York had more residents than Georgia, California, Virginia, Washington, Colorado, and Florida combined. Baumann is right about this: America’s population was saturated with Major League Baseball teams. But. They were concentrated in the very biggest cities of the day, and while this was aided by the American League and National League’s lack of interaction, there still wasn’t a major league team in Buffalo. There are, today, major American population centers with no professional sports (the Inland Empire, in California), or with few professional sports (Austin, San Antonio). But across the five biggest leagues, the New York and Los Angeles metros have upwards of twenty teams, combined. In 1910, the NFL was still ten years away from its founding. The Stanley Cup was still a challenge trophy awarded only to Canadian teams. It had been about as long since the Civil War ended as it would be until the NBA was founded. Baseball didn’t exactly stand alone, but it was a lot lonelier than it is right now. The sports-per-person ratio has not decreased. It’s increased, and it’s at least equally as relevant as the baseball-per-person ratio Baumann uses for a foundation.

But just because the ratio is, realistically, different than Baumann portrays it to be, doesn’t mean there isn’t merit in the idea of radical expansion. For baseball, for soccer, for any professional league. Also: It’s possible that MLS is trying just this.

It feels a little arbitrary that the Big Four leagues in America (and Canada, for MLB and the NBA and NHL) have settled on 32 as the optimal number. The NFL and NHL are there. MLB and the NBA are on their way. It’s likely MLS will get there too, and imminently, and it’s unclear what happens next. Will MLS expand further? Will it give Baumann his 48-team experiment, but in a different sport? The other four leagues, after major twists and turns and mergers, arrived in similar places, but was this optimization or blind groupthink?

I hope MLS does expand rapidly, at the very least because of the experimental value. I want to know what happens when a league gets really frickin big. MLS is a vastly different animal than MLB or the NFL or the NBA or the NHL. Those leagues are the best in the world in their sports. MLS is not. Austin FC ranks 259th on FiveThirtyEight’s incomplete list of global men’s soccer clubs. It would be a sizable underdog matched up against Burnley, an English team this blog began covering as a joke because it was so irrelevant (we did, admittedly, fall in love, and the coverage has become depressingly unironic). In this sense, MLS is more similar to college sports than the Big Four, and if it expands, it will be more similar to college sports in that aspect as well.

There are a lot of college football teams (66 in the Power Five this year, counting Notre Dame and BYU). There are a lot of men’s college basketball teams (100 make the NCAA Tournament and NIT alone). They are not the best teams in the world at their sport. Quality’s important—I’d imagine it’s part of why American soccer fans care about the Premier League while English soccer fans laugh at MLS—but fans are showing up to Austin FC games in similar numbers to those of certain Premier League teams. Local identity is important as well, and its importance might be high. In a 48-team MLS, the powers that be would be trying out an imitation of the college model on pro sports, and in a way that could ultimately cross the gap and shape MLB (or the NFL, NHL, or NBA) after all.

Should MLS expand past 32, we’ll learn an important lesson in how capable fans are of following a single gigantic league. Nationally, college football revolves around a dozen or two dozen teams a year. College basketball behaves similarly at the national level, but is more regional in nature. Clearly, Americans can and do follow 32-team leagues, but 36? 48? 64? At some point, you start either regionalizing (as college sports have long done) or breaking apart by competitive ability (as European soccer has long done, with its system of promotion and relegation allowing water to find its level, and as college sports are now doing, with the SEC and Big Ten accumulating more and more power). The busiest soccer leagues in the world play fewer than sixty games a season. If you expand to be large enough, you’re not going to have interleague play.

Two other things we’d learn: Fargo, population 125,000, supports North Dakota State football. Could a city that small handle one professional club? Dallas and Fort Worth have a combined six million people in their metro area. How many teams, across all pro leagues combined, is too many for a people that size?

The cartel nature of American professional sports has, to date, forced lower-level leagues to be affiliated with major league teams. The AHL serves the NHL, more than a dozen minor leagues serve MLB, the G-League serves the NBA, and certain USL teams are affiliated with MLS clubs. It isn’t always this way—there are independent baseball leagues, there are unaffiliated USL teams, there are football leagues called the USFL and XFL and Arena Football League (not to mention Canadian football, not wholly separate from this conversation). If expansion goes on long enough, that may have to change, and that may be where the process ends, or at least slows enough to await the winds of new population growth.

But MLS is new enough, and soccer’s footprint is small enough, that it’s possible to try something out. American professional sports do suffer from their socialistic nature, with little upward mobility and radical subsidization of moochers, most prominently the Pittsburgh Pirates. Maybe giving more cities professional franchises—objects of local pride—could help change this. At the very least, we might invite each other over for more gamewatches.

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