VANCOUVER, British Columbia (Reuters) - Vancouver won the nod on Wednesday to join Major League Soccer, a move officials said demonstrates that the league can continue to grow in North America despite the economic crisis.
The Whitecaps, the reigning first division champion of the United Soccer Leagues, will become the MLS's 17th team in 2011, and a league official said the league could announce an 18th team as soon as the end of the week.
Commissioner Don Garber said the 13-year-old MLS, which is North America's top soccer league, remains financially strong despite the "trying times" the economic slowdown has caused for professional sports around the globe.
"As long as we can get through this economy, as with every American and Canadian business, I think we will emerge stronger, particularly when you have new investors coming in with teams 17 and 18," Garber said.
"Our business model is very economically sound," he said.
Vancouver will pay $35 million to join the league, down from $40 million the league had reportedly been asking for, but $5 million above what Seattle paid when it won the fight to join the league this season.
"In this economy it was the right, respectful thing to do to show flexibility on the price, but I'll point out it was more than what Seattle paid at a time when our economy was more robust than in any time in our history," Garber said.
Miami and Atlanta were bidding to join the MLS, but pulled out over ownership and stadium issues. That leaves Ottawa, St Louis, Missouri, and Portland, Oregon, still in the running. Philadelphia joins the league in 2010.
Garber said Ottawa still had to resolve issues about where its team would play.
Michael Cramer, a veteran sports executive who now teaches at New York University, said that despite its expansion, he doubts the MLS can survive in North America, where soccer has struggled for a place in the big-time professional sports spotlight.
Only three of the league's teams are believed to be making money, and Cramer questions how long owners will be willing to take losses as they wait for the sport to gain the popularity.
"Vancouver may survive, but they still need a league to play in," Cramer said.
Vancouver's owners include Canadian NBA star Steve Nash, Vancouver millionaire Greg Kerfoot, and former Yahoo Inc. Chief Executive Jeff Mallet, who also owns a stake in baseball's San Francisco Giants.
The Vancouver club traces its roots to 1974 when the Whitecaps joined the now defunct North American Soccer League, which stumbled after spending millions on aging stars such as Franz Beckenbauer and Pele.
Whitecaps President Bob Lenarduzzi said the MLS will not share the former league's fate. "Those were heady days, but unfortunately there was no foundation (or) a base to build from," he said.
Reporting Allan Dowd, Editing by Peter Galloway