The Los Angeles sports scene has an established rule of twos. Lakers and Clippers. Dodgers and Angels. Kings and Ducks. Trojans and Bruins. Go all the way back to the mid-1990s, remember when men in leather helmets carried pig bladders across the Coliseum floor, and you still had the Rams and Raiders. It’s just the way the Xenu wants it.
Perhaps that’s why Major League Soccer expanded into Los Angeles in the first place. The universe didn’t give it a choice. And if that’s the case, there should be little surprise that Thursday, three days after the original “LA2” (Chivas USA) was disbanded, a second franchise was born. Apparently nothing in L.A. is secure enough to be alone.
Unfortunately, it’s still unclear whether L.A.’s rule of twos actually applies to Major League Soccer. Although Chivas USA had more good years than bad at the gate (averaging 15,613 over its first eight seasons), the franchise will be associated with StubHub Center’s abandoned east stand – the empty seats that provided an unintended trademark for every Chivas broadcast. It’s hard to get around most of that blame lying with Jorge Vergara, but a potential zero-sum game – a push and pull for relevance – might have set in after the expansion fever cooled.
That game is two-fold. There’s the overall L.A. sports market – one that’s dominated by the Lakers and Dodgers, has time for the Bruins and Trojans, but casts its other teams into as-needed niches. The Kings are only relevant beyond hardcore fans when they’re winning Stanley Cups. Same goes for the Galaxy’s MLS Cups.
Then there’s the soccer battle. How much bandwidth is there for the game in the city’s sports landscape? How much of that is already siphoned off by Liga MX and Europe? To what extent can it grow? These questions aren’t unique to the Los Angeles market, but when you’re talking about casting a second team into the mix, answers become more important. If, in theory, the Galaxy has a chance to go from niche to mainstream, how does putting a second team in that market help?
And then there’s the old lark, one that happens to be true: LA is not your typical sports market. Move there for any period of time, and all the clichés play out. Yes, there’s always something to do, and that something to do often involves the pristine simplicity of enjoying the California coast. Combine that with a culture where people flock north, south, and east at 5 p.m. each weekday, and establishing any broad relevance in the market is difficult. You not only need to cultivate a fan base, but you need to convince those fans that your product is worth a.) cutting into family time (made more precious by the hours spent in commute), b.) driving back into the city, and c.) choosing your product over the various other things to do in the Los Angeles area. Disneyland costs just under $100 per head these days, but try telling your six-year-old Major League Soccer’s the better value.
Not everybody in the L.A. metro deals with that exact scenario, but parts apply to every one, creating a dynamic where it’s difficult for “second tier” teams to enter the broader conversation. Galaxy coverage is sparse on the local news, and some games are played without representatives from most television or radio in the press box. You’ll go hours listening to sports talk radio without the Kings being mentioned, and even the Clippers, with two of the top 12 players in the NBA (Blake Griffin, Chris Paul), have trouble cutting into a market the Lakers have cornered for themselves. The landscape is crammed, competitive, and calcified.
Despite all that, the rule of twos prevails. All of the Angels, Clippers, and Ducks have loyal followings, and most data from Chivas USA’s history suggests it could have done the same. In that light, the question isn’t so much ‘can LA support two teams?’ Instead, better to ask at what cost.
The Galaxy has coasted in this market for some time, able to rest on legacy and trophies while forgoing imagination and innovation. It’s an established brand, but as the buzz generated by today’s press conference showed, it’s also a brand that’s left many looking in at the party. For whatever reason, there’s a section of Los Angeles soccer fans that haven’t bought into the club. The star power of players like Landon Donovan and David Beckham hasn’t transcended soccer’s niche. They’re the high school’s in crowd, segregated by their prestige. For some, they’re Mean Girls.
With the vast, resourceful ownership group that was unveiled today, Los Angeles Football Club seems set to challenge that. Co-habitation with the Galaxy? Nuh-uh. They’re looking at a number of other places, a Sports Arena/Coliseum location that will be more accessible to most. And with a face as recognizable as Magic Johnson’s, the franchise will have its chance to snare some of that scarce media attention, even if the team sits on the shelf for two years. “Magic’s team” will be the lead sports story when it finally debuts.
And when that happens, LA FC (or whatever it’s called, come 2017) will have its chance. It will be able to use the strategy it develops over the next two years, the undoubted millions it will spent to build a recognizable squad, to become a real number two. If all goes right, they’ll be more than the Clippers or the Ducks – far more than Chivas USA.
They’ll be the Bruins to the Galaxy’s Trojans. And they’ll make LA’s rule of twos stand up.