Drive by any city field on a Saturday morning, from Bay Village to Euclid, and you are bound to see youngsters battling it out on the soccer field. And there are certainly many sleep-deprived moms pulling up to ice arenas in Lakewood and Mentor in the early morning hours, dropping off kids with hockey sticks poking out of their giant bags. But with so much interest around the city in youth soccer and hockey, why doesn’t Cleveland have a Major League Soccer (MLS) team and a National Hockey League (NHL) team to boast about? Sure, the city has been dubbed the mistake on the lake and will never quite get over the river catching fire, but is that enough to keep pro sports away? And just because the “factory of sadness” is one of our major sports venues, many fans still think that with the Browns, Guardians, and Cavs there is plenty of room for more professional sports. The city of Cleveland sure loves its sports, and the mantra of “maybe next year” rings true not only for tough losses at season’s end, but also for the idea that the MLS or NHL will eventually call Cleveland home.
So Much Soccer
With the popularity of soccer throughout the world, the MLS is taking the country by storm, still adding teams to its roster. With the St. Louis City SC added in 2023 to the Western Conference, this makes a total of 29 teams in the league. The MLS is dedicated to adding the 30th team by 2025, with San Diego expected to win the bid over Las Vegas.
Ohio has not been completely forgotten in its bid for professional soccer, with FC Cincinnati added to the MLS in 2019. But that doesn’t help Cleveland out. Cincinnati is the smallest market to boast three professional teams, so what is wrong with Cleveland?
It’s time for Cleveland to join the party. MLS Commissioner Don Garber asserts that the Midwest has become one of the epicenters of soccer support in the U.S. “There isn’t a city that we could go that wouldn’t have a lot of support for their club,” he said. “There could conceivably be a team in Cleveland. I have no doubt it would be incredibly successful. We’re running out of expansion markets.” Interestingly, when asked if plans were in the works for Cleveland, he said they were not.
All is not lost for soccer fans in Cleveland, however. Cleveland will join the MLS NEXT Pro men’s soccer league in 2025, with a team whose name, colors, and crest have not yet been chosen. This league consists of teams affiliated with MLS programs as well as independent programs. Cleveland’s team will be independent.
When the announcement was made, MLS NEXT Pro President Charles Altchek predicted that Cleveland would be “a team built to win championships.” He said the league began meeting with Cleveland Soccer Group officials last year, adding he sees an eventual “40 to 50 teams” across the country in what he describes as an “ambitious” plan.
The MLS NEXT Pro league, launched in June 2021, is deeply committed to player development and growth in local communities. Perhaps this is a good step in the right direction for Cleveland’s ability to get an MLS team down the line. Cuyahoga County Executive-elect Chris Ronayne was on the scene when the team was announced, grew up playing soccer, and fondly remembers going to games of the Cleveland Cobras, Cleveland Force, and Cleveland Crunch throughout the years. With 12 nationalities represented in the county, he knows the “ethnic mosaic” is a good backdrop for soccer, the world’s most popular sport.
Most of the MLS NEXT Pro league matches in 2023 will be live and on-demand on MLS Season Pass via the Apple TV app as Apple begins a new partnership with MLS.
High Marks for High Sticks
Hockey is another sport that is popular in the Cleveland area, but it seems like a long shot to get an NHL team back. Cleveland was home to the Cleveland Barons from 1976 to 1978, a team relocated from the California Golden Seals franchise that went on to join the Minnesota North Stars after only two seasons. This short-lived team left almost as soon as they arrived.
When it comes to having a professional hockey team again, Cleveland sports commentator Terry Pluto says it’s all about the money. And it doesn’t just mean filling the arena with fans. “People say, ‘Well there’s still a lot of people here who like hockey.’ But what pays a lot of the salaries besides people buying tickets? Corporate sponsorship. If you now have four teams trying to get a rather limited pool of big-time corporate sponsors, it’s just not enough,” he said.
To keep a major league team afloat, you need to have corporate sponsors, and many argue that there are not enough corporate sponsors to support four major league teams.
“That’s why Dan Gilbert, who also owns the NBA Cavaliers, doesn’t have an interest in an NHL team because he could run that minor league team [for] a lot less. And he also just knows that there’s a limited amount of corporate sponsorship available. That’s why some people have said to me, ‘it’s amazing Cleveland has three Major League teams.’”
Currently, Cleveland is home to the Cleveland Monsters, an ice hockey team in the American Hockey League. They began as the Lake Erie Monsters in 2007 and have been the top affiliate of the Columbus Blue Jackets of the NHL since 2015.
Even though they aren’t winning any championships, they are a popular team. There are two major reasons for this. Marketing tactics like “College ID” nights and “Dollar Dog” nights keep happy fans coming back. Also, there is a fan base of people who love hockey here.
“In the first few years, we did a lot of educating people as to who we are and what the Monsters hockey experience is all about,” said Chief Operating Officer Mike Ostrowski. “Now they know. And we feel like, once we get people here, they want to come back and tell others to come back with them.”
Obviously, there is a leap from an affiliate team to a full-fledged NHL team, but there is still a large fan base in Cleveland. You need to love hockey because the marketing gimmicks alone would not fill the seats.
Time will tell if Cleveland will get the call up for the MLS and NHL to add to the professional sports base in Cleveland. With all the growth and change in the city over the past few years, it certainly seems like a great way to push the city forward even more. Until then, Cleveland fans will need to content themselves with affiliate teams and youngsters playing the games they love throughout the city.
I like to spend my time giving back with organizations that focus on mentoring aspiring entrepreneurs. I have supported after school programs that focus on entrepreneurial and global initiatives in local primary schools. I recently extended my mentoring to include students at Case Western Reserve University.