MLS to PDX: Slice, Dice & Doom

What appears below is more or less an argument as to why any “money man” would be insane to try to establish a Major League Soccer (MLS) team in the Portland, Oregon metro area. The bottom-line of this argument relates more to what the picture looks like heading into the investment; I’m neither pretending nor claiming to know what will happen if the decision to move into the Portland area occurs - though I do have my guess.

I’ll wrap up by saying where I think the present suitor - a real estate developer named James Reston - would do best...and that’s not going to be popular...

To begin with a full disclosure, here’s where I am on the whole question of MLS coming to PDX: I’m for it, but with no strings attached beyond the team being sufficiently successful to sustain itself. I don’t care if they put it in PGE Park, Hillsboro, Gresham, or the left side of my ass; if it works, it works. I am partial to PGE Park and for some selfish reasons - e.g. it’s central, there’s “stuff” around it, including adjacent public transportation options; I like that stuff plenty, but it’s not the controlling issue for me. But I’m not going to ignore a team in the greater Portland area, either. I like the game too much and for its own sake; if I notice the “atmosphere” that means I’m bored; typically, the action on the field gives me enough to yell about. Also, I’m perfectly happy with the status quo; I don’t have to live in an MLS market ‘cause that’s why god made TVs, right?

Part I: Why We're Doomed

Consider the following scenarios as investments and - this is crucial - think of the money and risk as being yours:

Scenario 1: Move into a decent facility smack in the middle of the city with respectable public transportation access, but lousy parking (I anticipate a rejoinder about bikes, but would only say, don’t over-estimate the extent to which your lifestyle decisions and preferences are shared). A secondary problem arises from the fact the facility is already in use by: two club teams, one of which you’d likely supplant and another that plays not only in another league, but another sport; there’s also the nearby, rather large public university, who have ambitions for their football team and, as such, the need for somewhere to play - e.g the same facility. The current contracts for the two club teams run one year past the generally understood window for getting an MLS team (I think, the Beavers/Timbers are there till 2011 and MLS is looking to get to 16 teams by 2010; after that, who knows?), which make negotiations with multiple entities both necessary and complicated - oh, and the city leaders, they don’t give a shit about any of this. You’ll also have to pony up for some kind of bleachers to get around the field - though that can wait - and refurbishing the turf, which, in all honesty, can’t. If you do grass - which the locals, sensibly, want - you’ll have pay for upkeep in a wet, rainy environment.

Scenario 2: There’s a stadium that sits immediately adjacent to a freeway that knots up, oh, two to three times daily. Unlike that highway/freeway (it’s not an official interstate, I suppose), no public transportation comes close to said stadium - and that means parking, which means driving, which, under current arrangements, means congestion. The parking, of course, will be built, but negotiations loom on paying for and providing for general transportation infrastructure to reach said parking. Arrangements could be made to ease congestion with the local transportation agency - perhaps by setting up shuttles from the light-rail that does, in fact, run not so far off - though that’s more negotiation with a partner with different priorities. Making all this more complicated is the fact that a fair chunk of the die-hard support for the current local club team is explicitly hostile to a suburban stadium and for reasons that run from sincere to delusional. Said support turns out in impressive-for-second-tier soccer numbers (and, frankly, that’s it; it’s no Rochester or Montreal) and they provide nearly all the color and noise at the current team’s games; that won’t matter so much as they say they’re not showing up in any suburban venue. Oh, and you’ll have to pay to refurbish the field here as well, not to mention chuck up another set of stands opposite the one that exists. Oh, one more thing: the youth soccer fields that seem part of the league model - you’re on the hook for those as well.

OK: Would you choose #1 or #2? Now, here’s the real question: why would you choose either one?

Expensive and complicated as both scenarios sound, the bigger rub is more fundamental: Portlanders - e.g. the ones who live in the city, work there and value the lifestyle - don’t seem to like professional sports, neither in terms of funding nor as a top choice for recreation, at least not much beyond the numbers that show up to see the USL Division 1 Portland Timbers. Can I prove that? Not really, but, assuming it’s at all accurate, it forms the decisive part of the problem. What follows from here is an attempt to explain why I’m thinking an MLS team in Portland won’t fly. The arguments grow from nearly nine years of residence in the Portland area (sigh...if you must know: 1995-97 and 2000-2005 in Portland proper (inner NE and Overlook neighborhoods); 2005-07 in Hillsboro) and, to some extent, the comments I’m seeing on local blogs and message boards tells me that a combination of factors would scuttle a Portland MLS franchise. On the most fundamental of levels, however, a curious intersection of competing lifestyle choices lays at the root of the situation. Is that wrong? I’ll get into this more below, but...are you fucking kidding me? Since when is supporting your local team a civic obligation?

The tenor of the current debate, which is generally ignored outside soccer circles (see what I mean about the market?), effectively splits a sports-ambivalent population into still smaller chunks. Assume the key investor in this, James Reston, follows the advice most often seen on the Soccer City USA message board and goes for PGE Park. This plan relies on slivers within slivers of the general population to sustain the business side: urban dwellers, and largely liberal ones, who are not only generic sports fans, but soccer fans to boot. If Reston goes this route and centers operations in PGE Park, he’ll lose just about anyone who wants to drive to games (good riddance, you say? You’re an idiot, I say, unless you fit a sensible profile*). A lot goes into this: the local paper tells me families are fleeing Portland; declining school enrollments tell me the same thing. So, where will those fans come from who “grew up with the game” if their parents can’t/won’t drive them? Yeah, there’s public transportation, and, yeah, it’s easier to use park-n-rides to get the family into the city center as opposed to the other way around, but how many families will do that - and often enough to make the numbers tally? Lose the families, you lose a huge chunk of your market.

The flipside of this, and this could be specific to the Portland area, is the apparent reality that, by placing a team in the suburbs, a potential MLS franchise loses 5,000 dedicated fans right off the bat. While the odds are good you’ll retain a some of those fans (desperation will get a few of you), any kind of walk-up crowd will be lost outright (I swear, I’ve seen people at PGE Park exclusively and specifically to take advantage of the Thirsty Thursday promotion - which used to be much better, by the way). Whatever drives this - whether it’s an eco-conscious shunning of the suburban model, or just knee-jerk anti-suburban snobbery (hey, I thought like that till two years ago and feel OK calling it what it is) - the money to fund this thing belongs to the people who will spend it. And, if they don’t want to, fine; watching soccer isn’t a civic obligation - and, if one comes at it from the environmental side, that’s a higher calling...even if the steps one takes me be meaningless against the larger cultural backdrop (I’m just saying...). And, for the record, my environmental conscience isn’t sufficient to keep me from driving cross-town for the game.

The thing is, I see the tensions in play in the Portland area as, essentially, fatal to any potential MLS franchise. I don’t believe the “urban-only” crowd has the numbers to sustain a team - especially given the seeming preference among so many of Portland’s general population for the entire array of outdoor activities available in Portland. That crowd could, on the other hand, scuttle a suburban team by declining to make the entertainment commute. And I can’t see suburbanites pouring into Portland’s PGE Park for 15-25 games per season absent a parking and transportation infrastructure that will let them drive to the games. So, yeah, between this demographic/planning Charybdis and Scylla, I think we’re screwed.

Part II - in which I Think Like a Capitalist

If, on the other hand, I was compelled to invest, I’d go suburban. On the general level, America is still growing in the ‘burbs - and that pertains even to Portland, OR. Even with a good chunk of people relocating to Portland specifically, a big enough slice of Portland’s projected 1 million-plus future residents will fuel robust long-term growth in Washington County as well. And, sure, there’s an ongoing debate as to how well the re-urbanization/density boosting planning model will work here - and that’s certainly part of the appeal for people coming to the area - but, with a lot of that density looking set, again, for the Western suburbs of Portland (e.g. Hillsboro), planting a stadium out that-a-way keeps up with the reality that, in spite of global warming and Al Gore, we are still a car-based culture - (psstt...that drives demand for parking). Add a personal theory about where “mainstream” America wants to live (sorry...it’s the suburbs) and consider for a second what will happen if the MLS did go mainstream: yup, they’d cart the team off to a shiny new, publicly-financed stadium in the ‘burbs after all the families bitched about the lack of parking. Chuck in what I’d assume to be easier marketing to youth soccer teams (hey, can we have your mailing list? Sure!) and the whole thing just seems easier.

Against that, though, name me the segment of the population with the greatest disposable income: isn’t it the 20-35 range, y’know, before the critters come? They tend to favor cities, right? Then again, will the incoming population match the cultural profile of the people currently in Portand - e.g. lukewarm to professional sports? See? I’m back to the ‘burbs...messy stuff.

Before walking away for this subject, I do want to give a shout-out to one vocal sub-population in the local debate: the people who prefer the Timbers as they are. To put it crudely, they’d rather have a “boutique soccer team” that they can see and support on terms they prefer and enjoy. And I respect the hell out of that because it understands that losing the family crowd constitutes a trade-off and accepts it. What I can’t abide is the assumption that a team at PGE Park will somehow be successful because, hey, it worked in Toronto, right? And that’s based on - what? - the precisely nine games of Toronto’s existence and wishing away differences in the public life of both cities? The best one can say is what looks to be working for Toronto might work Portland....and I doubt that.

(NOTE: I thought I had read a post somewhere that did a really phrased the above position well; can't find it now...starting to wonder if I imagined it.)

Anyway, that’s my mental project for the past couple days all wrapped up. I spent a stupid amount of time trying to find useful population projections for Multnoman (Portland) and Washington (Hillsboro) county, but instead labored through a series of articles by people for and against Portland’s “smart growth” policy...and the quality of that work, as judged by my layman’s eye, varied wildly. If anyone has access to population projections - good ones, dammit - feel free to pass ‘em on; all this does have me curious. The thing is, I know what’s planned for the region - I read page after page of that vague, "build-it-they-will-come" pap and can tell you all about who participated and what we'd all really, really like to see happen...what I don’t know is what will happen when that planning meets stubborn, irrational human beings....God bless ‘em....

But, bottom line, I do think Reston would have to be crazy to invest in Portland. That said, I hope he stays off his meds long enough for a live test.

5 comments:

Tom said...

Very interesting and thoughtful perspective. I'm kind of on the let's market to urban twentysomethings like Toronto did bandwagon myself. (Particularly as I see how the Fire have stalled by failing to do this well in recent times, and are starting to really piss off their most loyal fans. And the move to an anonymous suburb has not helped much.)

I suppose I place more importance on the atmosphere in the stadium than you as part of soccer's appeal - I see keeping the likes of the Timbers Army onboard as crucial.

But it's great to read an alternative viewpoint, it's certainly made me think.

The Manly Ferry said...

Right. The Fire is the counter-argument (good perspective on this here) - and I think (can't say for sure, but think) that they do have a rail line that gets pretty close and the commute still sucks. But there's also the reality that the Fire simply hasn't been all that interesting for the past couple years; and they're outright dire this season (one win over Columbus, nah...).

Anyway, it won't be easy and breezy no matter where they put the team. Still, for reasons of personal preference, I'd like to see more BMO Fields than Foxboros (to me, the worst stadium situation in MLS), so let's hope the "Toronto experiment" holds up.

Tom said...

Getting to Toyota Park via public transit is not very easy. The best way is to take the CTA Orange Line to the end of the line, Midway Airport, and then catch a special bus that goes to the stadium every twenty minutes. I did this for the first time on Sunday (usually drive) and it took me almost 2 hours. I was one of just 4 people on the bus an hour before kickoff.

Whereas, of course, Soldier Field was a lakefront venue and everyone knew how to get there (and knew about the existence of, unlike TP). But the Fire also got better crowds in Naperville, a more vibrant suburb than Bridgeview, so I suppose it also matters which suburb you build in.

True, the team has seen better days, but in my opinion, they should be encouraging Section 8 to expand and give the stadium more atmosphere, not obstructing their progress - an ongoing issue, as the Stadium worry about offending AYSO groups etc.

I went to Toronto for the recent Fire game there. I was impressed. Whilst the hype is out of control after just a few games, there's no doubt they've tapped into something, and it was nice to watch a game where it felt the whole stadium was into it, and not just there chewing on nachos.

Jeremy said...

MLS or USL is not the EPl and even the most casual soccer fan they can tell that within five minutes of attending a MLS or Timbers match.

So why do they stay (and come back)? Some stay for the entertainment (read Timbers Army) and others stay and come back because the Timbers may not me ManU but they are OUR team and others stay (mainly parents here) because the players are so acessible and their kids look up to them.

So the on-field product at this level cannot be enough. Sadly. People have to want to come out of the pride of supporting their hometown team and the promise of a good time for a good value.

Combine that though with a non-rosy glasses observation of what is going on in Toronto.

Have you ever been there? Talk about a pretty sterile and boring major city. Yes a generalization but it is no Montreal or Vancouver that is for sure. And Toronto did horribly in the USL 1st Division when located out in the burbs.

So where are all those new, crazy, young, non soccer-mom fans coming from in Toronto?

That downtown stadium and team has given alot of the twenty-thirty something folks who are clearly not oriented towards the mainstream something that is cool, fun, and "hip" to do that is also supporting their city. Never understimate the importance of that.

The Timbers and more importantly the Timbers Army offer that right now at a smaller level. If you gave the intrepid leaders in the T.A. 1/10 of the Toronto marketing budget within two years they would have 5K regulars in the North End.

Remember - the Timbers have done NO marketing to speak of whatsover in the past 6 years. Any success is purely organic. Imagine the combination of MLS teams with the likes of Beckham coming to town with an edgy, urban marketing campaign with MLS dollars- you would sell out PGE on a regular basis. I guarantee it.

The Manly Ferry said...

Jeremy, I'll only say, very good comment, totally valid points. But you ought to lay-off the "soccer-mom" fans; I know mom's with twice the mouth and pent-up rage than you'd find in a Marine. I'm not saying you're wrong, so much as I'm suggesting don't write 'em all off.

And, thanks, Tom, for the insight on the Chicago transportation; I read something similar in something Jamie Trecker once wrote. It sounds pretty bad. You also hit on two points that I wanted to get to in the original: variety in the suburbs (unbelievably, it exists); how MLS (and the USL for that matter) are dealing with supporter's groups; and I'll acknowledge here that I'm about the only fan I know who is totally indifferent to the latter (in truth, I find them distracting from time to time).

Somewhere down in the archives of the Timbers Blog, you'll find a pretty sharp note that Bob Kellett felt compelled to write to one corner of the powers-that-be (don't have time to look....sorry). Given how widely and often I read about supporters/security issues, that's something that's not going to go away. As such, yeah, front office needs to manage it far better, but so do the fans. By total coincidence, I came across an item on the Timbers' Army policing itself today - and that's the ideal, certainly; it shouldn't take more than accepting ground rules to help the security people keep shit in perspective. This doesn't mean rolling over when they challenge stupid crap, like the size of flagpoles, bringing drums, etc. It's simple, harmless stuff like curbing language in a public place, or not making it central (and I write this as someone who has HORRIFIED small children; I am damned loud and have a horrible mouth), not throwing anything on the field, etc. etc. Just give security a safety zone and they're more likely to give a wide berth. A second piece is responding wisely if, say, someone wields a drum as a weapon and the front office bans drums; go along with the rule to show you're trainable, come up with something to stop it from happening again, then approach them. But, as (I think) Bob said in his note, this requires a dialogue and front office has to be willing to come to the table. If they're not, well, they're getting what they deserve.

Finally (shut up Jeff!), the types of suburbs thing - and this is big for me. I used to hate suburbia. Just frickin' hated it, swore I'd never live there, etc. The thing is, I'm living today in downtown Hillsboro and can say, with a completely straight face, that I have not had to change my lifestyle behaviors one iota; more to the point, if diversity is measured simply as the ratio between caucasians and "other," Hillsboro is more diverse than any Portland neighborhood I've lived in - no, I'm not kidding. Walk down the right streets, and you won't hear a lick of English. Some of the commentary on the Soccer City message board suggests an incredible ignorance of Hillsboro. Sadly, other parts do hold: e.g. what Hillsboro looks like around the stadium site (yep, sprawls-ville); acknowledging that, at this point in time, Mexican fans prefer Mexican clubs (in Hillsbor, especially, so many Club America, Chivas, Monarcas, Cruz Azul, UNAM, etc. jerseys; I did see a Chicago Fire jersey once - yep, did a double-take.)

What's the point of all that? The whole Hillsboro/Beaverton area will evolve on its own, regardless of what happens in Portland. No one knows what that will look like, but some recent chatter talks about another direction. What you'll find behind that link may not be the answer - personally, I view the Pearl District as Yuppie Hell - but the discussions aren't what they used to be.