Every brand hopes to keep itself profitable by keeping itself new, distinctive and fresh.
Just take a look at any part of the sports world. Nike and Adidas battle for new looks, new technology, new ways to outfit athletes and force their brands onto players, coaches and fans. ESPN and Fox Sports attempt to use new shows, new apps and new in-game features to adapt and cling onto their fluctuating viewer bases. And sports teams are most guilty of this — they use new technology and new athletes to bolster the lineup and new coaches to shake up losing seasons.
But the introduction of “new” to sports leagues isn’t all that typical. The rules of the game stay stable from year to year. Same with the colors and locations of teams (unless you’re a fan of Los Angeles football). Trying to shake up a sports league is typically pretty difficult, as the institutions that govern and control individual teams stay steady and stable even as the way they are consumed adapts and develops.
In the MLS and the NHL, however, the opposite has proven true. And the introduction of new expansion franchises has led to a developed success that should not only be heralded, but also imitated, by any other sports leagues attempting to build, retain and increase success throughout fans both in America and around the world.
In the hierarchy of American sports, both the MLS and the NHL are fighting for a fourth place position. The American love for football, basketball and baseball has left these two sports often feeling like the odd ones out in cities that show undying loyalty and passion for other athletic endeavors. Here and there, that has proven to be untrue, but in the overall scheme of things, the MLS and the NHL have miles to go before they gain a dominant foothold in the terrain of American sports.
Yet somehow, these two leagues have latched onto fanbases through expansion teams in the past two years that have shaken up the leagues themselves, and the host cities’ interests in certain sports as a whole.
In the MLS, the addition of Los Angeles FC and Atlanta United resulted in massive explosions of fan support, with Atlanta setting MLS records for attendance and LAFC threatening to dethrone the Galaxy — historically the league’s most dominant team — as the top dog in Los Angeles. In the NHL, meanwhile, the introduction of hockey to Las Vegas led the city on a year-long journey from not having a roster to support a team to dominating the Kings in the first three games of the NHL playoffs.
In both cities, the keys to success have been simple: Know your audience and latch onto them tightly. Each of these cities is different. Atlanta was a city strongly rooted in its traditional American sports, yet with a booming youth soccer scene just waiting to be tapped into a supporter base for a professional team. Los Angeles was a city with an already established MLS team that had somehow missed a major demographic of majority Latinx soccer fans who live Downtown and felt disconnected from the polished club. Las Vegas was a city stocked with sports fans who were starved for a team to cheer for.
Since their inaugural seasons — Atlanta United last year, LAFC and the Knights this year — each of these expansion teams has showcased the ways in which hockey and soccer continue to grow on the outskirts of the American sports teams. They also demonstrate the values that teams in the MLB, NFL and NBA must continue to accept and rotate around fans in order to garner off-the-field (or off-the-court) success.
Ultimately, these teams will have a lot to prove before becoming mainstays at the top of their respective leagues. But if there’s anything to learn from these expansion programs, it’s that the power of the fans can’t be underestimated. And once fans are locked in, it’s hard to break that momentum.
Julia Poe is a junior majoring in print and digital journalism. Her column, “Poe’s Perspective,” runs Tuesdays.