Could shutting down Chivas USA be an option for MLS?
For MLS, the Promised Land is visible when it comes to problem child Chivas USA. How to get there is much harder to discern.
The league has stated that it expects to have new owners in place by the end of the season that will keep the team in Los Angeles. At which point, the club can expect to finally move on from the era of former owner Jorge Vergara that was characterized by mismanagement and lack of investment. A rebrand and a new stadium plan are sure to follow.
But in the process of consummating the deal, a decision will have to be made. Do the new owners go dark for a year or more, or do they decide to muddle through, take their lumps for a while until a new stadium is built, and then relaunch?
A report from Sports Illustrated last week indicated that the former -- and more nuclear -- option is being seriously contemplated. MLS Commissioner Don Garber, speaking Thursday after the launch of the league's new logo, confirmed as much, saying, ''Once we get an ownership group in place, we'll sit down with them and make a decision as to whether or not we're going to keep that team operating in 2015 and beyond."
Yet sources have confirmed to ESPNFC.com that some in the league office are dead set against the idea of Chivas USA going on hiatus. The thinking is that such a decision would create an impression of instability, despite the impressive momentum the league has generated in recent years. It's a perception Garber and MLS owners have fought against since the days when two teams were contracted following the 2001 season.
"The idea of a hiatus is likely a condition of a new ownership group buying the team at a big number," said one league source who asked to not be identified. That same source confirmed SI.com's report that the club would be sold for about $100 million.
Yet a compelling argument can be made that the optics surrounding Chivas USA are doing more damage to MLS than a hiatus ever would. The club is about to miss the playoffs for the fifth year running, and the average attendance of 6,942 is last in the league by a long way. One source said that some Chivas home games this season have been witness to less than 1,000 fans actually in the seats at StubHub Center, where the club plays its home games. That's why a well-thought-out rebrand without the financial burden of the club continuing to play in MLS is such an appealing prospect.
"Chivas in the L.A. market is beyond an afterthought," said David Carter, who heads up the Sports Business Institute at USC's Marshall School of Business. "I think even most soccer fans aren't aware that they are in this market. So I think there's going to have to be a substantial reboot, and you can't do that quickly. Certainly they've atrophied over the last few years to the point where if they take a year off, it's going to be like 'if a tree falls in the forest.'"
Two recent examples point to the difficulty of that proposition. Following the 2005 season, the San Jose Earthquakes were moved to Houston and became the Dynamo. The San Jose market went dark for two seasons before an expansion team was placed there in time for the 2008 campaign. Granted, the name of the franchise remained, but it's the closest approximation to a hiatus that MLS has experienced.
In this instance, regaining the trust of the fan base and regenerating momentum have taken time. The team's soccer-specific stadium is set to open in 2015, seven years after MLS returned to the Bay Area. It speaks to the problems of re-engaging fans and creating interest, even for a fan base as eroded as Chivas USA's.
The other example is Sporting Kansas City. When current owner OnGoal LLC acquired the then-Kansas City Wizards back in 2006, the thought was that a new stadium would be in place within two years. It ended up taking five years, a period that witnessed the club playing in a minor league baseball stadium.
"Just the fact that we had owned the team for a longer period of doldrums than we originally anticipated, probably further motivated us to say, 'We need to rip the Band-Aid and start over from a brand perspective,'" said OnGoal CEO Robb Heineman.
Now Sporting Kansas City is held up as the gold standard of rebrands, with the club winning a title in 2013, consistently selling out its stadium, and creating a massive footprint in the community (the club won its first MLS title in 2000 under previous ownership).
"Rebrands aren't easy," said Ted Philipakos, a player agent and professor of Sports Business at New York University. "Sporting Kansas City made it look easy because they did everything right. They had smart, aggressive people; they pushed all the right buttons."
It is SKC's approach that gives hope to current Chivas USA President Nelson Rodriguez, who said he has had discussions with the league about keeping the Chivas USA name for another season.
"Kansas City took their time to make sure that their rebranding was going to be everything that they wanted it to be, and I'm not sure they would have been able to achieve all of that if they had ceased operations," said Rodriguez via telephone. "As difficult as it would be to return as Chivas USA, there are still some advantages to that.
"Everything is a function of time and money, both of those. And so if sufficient resources were applied, I think a rebrand could still take shape. I also think if we returned as Chivas USA, but improved our investment on promotion and marketing and driving fans to the game, I think we could still be successful."
No two situations are alike, however. Heineman said the thought of shutting Kansas City down was "never considered." In his mind, the decision for Chivas USA isn't so clear-cut.
"Whatever momentum is there, you lose that by going away," he said. "Unless you've got your ducks in a row on how you come out of that -- knowing you've got a firm stadium situation in hand, an ownership team that's going to be able to breathe new life into a brand -- I don't think it's as easy as shutting down and turning the lights back on and all of a sudden it's going to be better. It's going to take a pretty well-sequenced set of steps to turn it into something special."
The stadium is the centerpiece -- and most uncertain aspect -- of that process. MLS deputy commissioner Mark Abbott indicated that the league has been in talks with USC about possibly building a stadium where the L.A. Sports Arena sits, though he alluded to other options as well. For Carter, all the more reason for MLS to take its time.
"This market is really tricky," he said. "We haven't had an NFL team for 19 years because this market is very challenging despite its size. The guys in MLS are sharp, they'll get it right, but they need to make sure they don't rush into something."
MLS has long insisted that a condition of the Chivas USA sale was keeping the team in Los Angeles. That didn't stop some potential expansion candidates from inquiring about purchasing the team and then relocating it. This would clear the way for an expansion franchise to be placed in L.A. at a later date. Sacramento Republic president Warren Smith, who along with new owner Kevin Nagle is attempting to land an expansion team in California's state capital, told ESPNFC.com earlier this week that the club had sounded out MLS about acquiring Chivas USA but had been rebuffed.
"We threw the idea out, but [MLS] shared that they have plans for Chivas and [relocation] wasn't on the table," said Smith. "So we've just focused on the expansion franchise."
That leaves the ownership group that wins out, whomever that might be, to decide what path to take. MLS will be hoping they choose wisely.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.