Football

Collin Giuliani’s 2 For 3K: The Challenges of Rayo OKC

Collin Giuliani’s 2 For 3K: The Challenges of Rayo OKC

A major soccer league in North America wants to expand further into the country. After hitting a few bumpy points, they’ve established themselves in recent years as a good soccer league in the country. While the quality definitely has a way to go, there are lots of promising signs. The league has better TV contracts than it did a few years ago, attendance is up in numerous markets, and some soccer-specific stadiums (which were few and far between in the first few years of the league) are starting to become normal.

And now that the league has found its footing, it wants to get bigger. By the spring of the following season, two new teams would be added into the league, giving the league 12 teams. One of those teams would be the second team to play professional soccer in their market, and would be owned by a team in another league.

BY COLLIN GIULIANI – LEAD NFL WRITER – @COLLINGIULIANI

Does this sound awfully familiar? If so, I’m describing Major League Soccer back in 2004. Two new teams were added for the 2005 season – Real Salt Lake and Chivas USA. For those of you unfamiliar with MLS, Chivas USA was the black eye on the league. While everyone else was drawing great crowds, Chivas USA was drawing about 8,000 fans per game in their final season. Don Garber has made Major League Soccer massively popular in the United States when compared to what he took over as commissioner of the league in 1999. Attendance is at an all-time high of close to 22,000 fans per game, the league has TV contracts worth close to nine figures, and the league is thriving. Every expansion team that Garber has introduced has had a positive impact on the soccer community. It’s tough to imagine MLS without the Seattle Sounders or Portland Timbers, and it’s tough to imagine MLS still playing in football stadiums where the yard lines from NFL games are all over the pitch.

Still, not even the biggest Don Garber supporter can say that the addition of Chivas USA was a good move. If the league wasn’t financially stable and this was an expansion decision made in 1997 or 1998 (when the league was struggling to survive on a year-by-year basis), then it could’ve destroyed the league for good in the way that the addition of magicJack destroyed the WPS. The team was plagued by racism accusations, was second fiddle in Los Angeles, didn’t have their own stadium, was plagued by not having an identity, and was clearly the second priority to Chivas Guadalajara. Say what you want about the New York Red Bulls, but Red Bull actually seems to somewhat care about their team, unlike Chivas.

The experiment was a disaster, leading Garber to finally pull the plug on the Goats at the end of the 2014 season (only after the league actually took ownership of the club). Los Angeles will be getting a second team by the start of the 2018 season that will have their own identity, will play in their own stadium, and will likely be based downtown (although considering how tough it is to build venues in California, good luck with that; the San Francisco 49ers were slated to host Super Bowl XXXII in their brand new stadium, and eventually, they got their brand new stadium… 20 years later). Los Angeles is more than capable of hosting two teams, so long as it’s done correctly. Los Angeles FC (the likely name for this new team) has a real chance of working, much like New York City FC, though receiving skepticism at first, has been a great addition for the league in terms of raising its popularity and creating another rivalry between themselves and the Red Bulls. Chivas USA never had a chance.

Now, flash forward to 2015. A major soccer league in North America wants to expand further into the country. After hitting a few bumpy points, they’ve established themselves in recent years as a good soccer league in the country. While the quality definitely has a way to go, there are lots of promising signs. The league has better TV contracts than it did a few years ago, attendance is up in numerous markets, and some soccer-specific stadiums (which were few and far between in the first few years of the league) are starting to become normal.

And now that the league has found their footing, it wants to get bigger. By the spring of the following season, two new teams would be added into the league, giving the league 13 teams. One of those teams would be the second team to play professional soccer in their market, and would be owned by a team in another league.

Didn’t I already say this earlier? This is, word for word, exactly what I said at the start of the article. It’s a copy-and-paste job that helps reaching the 3,000-word requirement (or approximately that) much easier. However, a decade later, the same thing is happening. The major soccer league in North America that wants to expand is the North American Soccer League, which is the second tier of soccer in the United States. The bumpy points include the Montreal Impact leaving at the end of 2011 to join MLS the following season, the Puerto Rico Islanders folding after 2012, and numerous teams playing in baseball stadiums and arenas clearly not designed for soccer. The quality of play definitely has a way to go, but the league does have better TV contracts; the league has a TV deal with ESPN3, and the New York Cosmos have their own deal with ONE World Sports (which is that channel’s main attraction, because in a 12-hour period, that channel showed a Cosmos’ game, a test cricket match, darts, and then re-runs of those events).

Attendance is up in numerous markets in the NASL. Attendance in Minnesota rose from under 2,000 to over 8,000 in 2014, and attendance got so good that Minnesota United FC got invited to join Major League Soccer in either 2017 or 2018. Indianapolis, Jacksonville, and even Ottawa are doing great things in terms of attendance as well. There are some soccer-specific stadiums in the league now, such as Toyota Field for the San Antonio Scorpions, and Al Lang Stadium for the Tampa Bay Rowdies, which got renovated into a soccer-specific stadium.

And, now that the league has found their footing, they have gotten bigger by expanding. By next season, two new teams will be added for the spring, with one of them being Miami FC and the other one being a team in Oklahoma City. This Oklahoma City team is the second team in the market playing professional soccer, with the other one being Oklahoma City Energy FC of USL Pro, the third tier of soccer in the United States (although they’re trying to become the second tier, which is unlikely to happen considering the fact that some of the teams in that league play at high school stadiums). This Oklahoma City team in the NASL was announced this week. The name of this team? Rayo OKC.

Isn’t this déjà vu all over again? Did the North American Soccer League not learn anything from the debacle that was Chivas USA in MLS? The background stories are identical, with the only difference being that instead of having 12 teams in the league, there are going to be 13 teams (it should be noted that in the fall of that season, since the NASL does a split-season format, that a new team called Puerto Rico FC will join, giving the league 14 teams).

There’s so much wrong with this that it’s going to be tough to explain it all in one article. However, this is a general rundown of why this plan is doomed to fail, and it’s a reason why I can’t see Rayo OKC lasting for more than two seasons. Number one, I at least somewhat understand what Chivas USA was trying to do, even though they failed miserably. There is a huge Latino and Mexican population in Los Angeles and Southern California, so trying to build their fan-base and connect to those fans isn’t the worst idea in the world. Sure, the execution could’ve been a million times better, but the idea itself made sense, because there is a market there, and because the distance between Los Angeles and Mexico is a relatively short bus ride, all things considered (although the distance between Los Angeles and Guadalajara is 26 hours by car/bus… so count that as reason #1 why the plan was doomed).

Here? Was there a market for Rayo Vallecano? According to the recent census, there are 400,000 Hispanics in Oklahoma (not the city, but the state), which is an 85% increase from the 2000 census. Additionally, there are more than 170,000 Hispanics in the Oklahoma City metro area, which is a very big number according to that same census. That being said, the definition of ‘Hispanic’ is, “of or relating to Spain or to Spanish-speaking countries,” or, “a Spanish-speaking person living in the US.”. Odds are, most of the people living in Oklahoma City that are Hispanic are not from Spain; when you look up “Spaniards living in Oklahoma City” on Google, nothing pops up. The first link that appears is an article about the Spanish Exploration of Oklahoma from 1599-1792. Based off of that, I’m going to assume that the population of people that actually moved from Spain to Oklahoma City is relatively small. Considering the fact that Oklahoma is right next to Texas, which is right next to Mexico, I’m fairly confident that the majority of people living in Oklahoma City that are Hispanic are from Central America and Mexico.

However, let’s just say that there are 170,000 Hispanics living in the OKC metro area, and all of them are from Spain. How many of them are fans of Rayo Vallecano? Is there a market for Rayo Vallecano? From what I could find, there are no articles anywhere about Rayo Vallecano’s increased presence in the United States, or Oklahoma City in particular. There are no articles about the team playing games in the United States, and there’s nothing whatsoever about television rights for this team, since the only games shown on basic cable involving La Liga involve either FC Barcelona, Real Madrid or Atletico Madrid (and beIN Sport, which has the rights to La Liga in the USA, rarely shows games from teams outside the top 8, which includes Rayo Vallecano). To be honest, the only reason I know that Rayo Vallecano exists is from playing FIFA, but if you surveyed 100 Americans on the street and asked them about Rayo Vallecano, I’d be shocked if even two acknowledge the fact that they exist. Survey 1,000 Americans and ask them if they know one player on the team. If two of them give a correct answer, it’s a minor miracle. I’d be one of the 998 that couldn’t do that without Google.

Remember that other team I mentioned that plays in Oklahoma City? Oklahoma City Energy FC is doing just fine. Their average attendance this past season was 4,635, which was seventh best in a league comprised of 24 teams, where four of them averaged less than 1,000 fans per game, and one team (Toronto FC II) got a grand total of fifty people at one of their games (I know U7 soccer teams that get more fans than that per game). Oklahoma City Energy FC was first; because of this, naturally, they have the advantage in the market. There are ways to get around that. For example, New York City FC decided to play games in The Bronx and play games in New York City (compared to the Red Bulls, who play games in New Jersey). That strategy worked, as by playing at Yankee Stadium, even though it was criticized, the team averaged over 28,000 fans per game. Chivas USA decided to play games at The Home Depot Center (now the Stubhub Center), which was the same stadium that the LA Galaxy played their games at. Clearly, that didn’t work.

Where is Rayo OKC playing their games? They’re playing their games at Miller Stadium in Yukon, Oklahoma. The driving distance between Yukon and Oklahoma City is 16 miles, so this team isn’t even playing their games in Oklahoma City. What else is a 16-mile drive? That would be the drive from Bridgeview to Chicago. The Chicago Fire play their games at Toyota Park in Bridgeview, Illinois, which is a suburb of Chicago. Attendance has suffered as a result of this; the last time the team averaged over 17,000 fans per game was in 2008, and this was the only time that the team averaged over 17,000 fans per game, despite averaging this total three times pre-Toyota Park (and that was in the dark days of MLS). You see the same situation in Frisco with FC Dallas versus playing in the heart of Dallas. A big reason as to why Seattle’s attendance is so good is because CenturyLink Field could not be closer to downtown than it already is. Even in the NASL, the Jacksonville Armada play at the Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville, which is about a mile’s walk from downtown and is part of the sporting complex. Want to know why they’re averaging around 8,000 fans per game, even though they finished with the worst point total in the league? Location. And, quite frankly, Rayo OKC’s location by playing games at a high school stadium in a suburb relatively far away from downtown Oklahoma City is a garbage location.

And then, there’s no identity with this club. I’m fine with a team owning multiple teams, and I’m fine with an owner owning multiple teams. However, give each team its own identity. I can’t get behind a team that I know for a fact isn’t mine. Naming this team Rayo OKC is a horrible move for numerous reasons. Firstly, the name doesn’t even make sense. In English, the word “Rayo” translates into “ray.” That means that, when translated, this team’s name is Ray OKC. Not only is that name unoriginal because of the Rayo Vallecano ownership, but it’s unoriginal in its own city. The biggest attraction in the city is the Oklahoma City Thunder of the NBA, and the other soccer team, which came first, is named Oklahoma City Energy FC. Now there’s a third team that makes reference to something weather or energy related? It’d be like creating a Major League Baseball team in Jacksonville and calling them the Leopards, then creating a National Basketball Association team in Jacksonville and calling them the Cheetahs, while still having the Jacksonville Jaguars in the NFL. Secondly, the name gives a clear indication of who the parent club is, and makes it feel like I’m supporting them and not the actual team in Oklahoma City. That’s not a good vibe to give off.

Some might say that I’m being a bit hypocritical, since I am a fan of the Jacksonville Jaguars and am seeing firsthand what they’re doing with London (and I’ve referenced Jacksonville a lot, simply because it’s the city that, aside from New York City (which is tough to do examples of because of how many teams occupy that city and how big that city is), I know the best). However, that’s two completely different stories. For one, the NFL is playing games in London anyways, so why not take the initiative (if it’s not stopping anytime soon) to be that team that plays there every year and grow your fan-base? Secondly, there is no professional football league in the United Kingdom. If someone wants to become a fan of a football team, their options are restricted to the United States. Thirdly, and this is the big one, they’re not setting up a team there which is owned by Shad Khan and calling it the London Jaguars while, at the same time, having the Jacksonville Jaguars exist, where any good player on the London Jaguars then gets traded to Jacksonville and there’s a conflict of interest where the London team, in essence, becomes a minor league farm system for the parent club.

There’s no chance that this can work. On paper, this may actually be marketed and managed worse than Chivas USA was. The team has no identity whatsoever, there’s no market or reason for this team to exist, there’s already a soccer team in Oklahoma City that’s doing a pretty good job as it already is, the name makes no sense, and the team is playing in a suburban market, which has never worked out in the history of Major League Soccer. I can’t see Rayo OKC lasting more than two seasons in the NASL. The league clearly wants to get to twenty teams in the next few years, and I can’t blame them, especially because they have exactly zero teams in the western portion of the United States. It’s the same thing that MLS tried to do- add quantity over quality with expansion. The league took money from whoever was willing to pay an expansion fee, and fortunately for them, only Chivas USA backfired. This strategy killed off the old NASL, and while I don’t think it’s going to kill off the second incarnation of the NASL, it’s going to do much more harm than good.

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