Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber admitted that North American soccer's evolving fan base has forced a fresh approach in identifying potential expansion locations.
That's why Garber and his colleagues have been delighted with the response of the supporters of Toronto FC. Last weekend, more than 3,000 fans crossed the border for the club's 2008 season opener in Columbus, Ohio.
With the next two franchises, Seattle and Philadelphia, also showing signs of tapping into a passionate and dedicated following, Garber hopes the MLS fan landscape will gradually mutate closer to something more akin to European and South American examples.
"The concept of the traveling fan is not something that has happened a great deal in MLS until now," Garber said. "There are so many things that are different about this league, but if that is the thing that can differentiate it, that would be very positive."
Fans of all ages and from all socio-economic groups in Europe travel hundreds of miles each weekend in order to cheer on their team of choice.
That ideal is not something that has caught on in the United States, possibly due to the huge distances involved. The closest example of such commitment can be found in the NFL and college football, with dedicated fans making long journeys to watch their teams.
Toronto FC sold out every available season ticket well in advance of the new campaign, even though the team was the worst in MLS in its first season last year.
"It is absolutely incredible up there," Garber said. "It says something to us that we didn't think would happen in the time period we are living in.
"We knew it would happen eventually, but we never expected a situation like Toronto. That is not something we thought would happen in this (league).
"We are seeing something like that going on in Seattle, with 14,000 season tickets and over 4,000 in Philadelphia which is already two years away."
Seattle will enter the league in 2009 and Philadelphia in 2010. It is the team from the City of Brotherly Love that is the most likely to have a sizable traveling group due in large part to its location.
The "Sons of Ben" fans group has been in place for several years despite having no team to support. A sizable and noisy Philly contingent even made the journey to Baltimore for the MLS draft in January.
The new phenomenon is causing the league to look closer than ever at not just the potential size of a new franchise's fan base but also the type of fan it is likely to attract.
"There is a new energy in some of these new franchises and hopefully that can take some of these teams who have been struggling for a while and show them new ways of doing things," Garber said. "It is not just because the market is a soccer market. They are doing things differently, and it is something we are really looking into."
- Toronto FC
- Major League Soccer