HOUSTON -- Houston Dynamo president Chris Canetti sat in the highest row of empty BBVA Compass Stadium, gazed west at the city skyline and made a bold prediction.
"Some people don’t agree with me," Canetti said, "but I think Major League Soccer, in time, and I don’t know when that is, will become the second-most popular league in this country. I think it can pass baseball, I think it can pass the NBA."
The league that was barely afloat at the turn of the century is in the midst of a transformative facelift, re-branding itself with state-of-the-art, soccer-specific stadiums that rival the best venues in the world.
BBVA Compass is the league’s newest gem, a 22,000-seat venue just east of downtown Houston that will host its first game on Saturday when the Dynamo play D.C. United. It will be the sixth stadium to open since 2010, despite a lackluster economy, and the new venues have helped the league finally secure a solid foothold in the American sports scene.
Houston is the 15th of the league’s 19 franchises with its own stadium. Montreal, which joined the league this year, will open its stadium later this summer and San Jose, the former home of the Dynamo, plans to unveil a new stadium next year.
The Dynamo, two-time MLS Cup champions, have languished in dilapidated Robertson Stadium since moving here from San Jose in 2006.
"We call ourselves a major league. We need to be major-league," Canetti said. "Having your own stadium is major league, and anyone who’s walked into this building has been blown away. This is here for the Dynamo and this place makes a very strong statement about the credibility of the brand and the relevance of the team."
And the MLS.
Commissioner Don Garber made building soccer-specific stadiums a top priority when he got the job in 1999. Lamar Hunt had financed a $34 million stadium for the Columbus Crew, but other plans met resistance from investors and civic leaders, leaving teams stuck as tenants in cramped college venues or vast NFL stadiums.
The $95 million Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif., opened in 2003 and by then, the league was starting to attract owners who saw the potential for both the sport and the venues. Garber said investors and corporate sponsors recognized the opportunities and civic leaders came aboard with the idea that the stadiums would create jobs and spur local growth.
Most of the new stadiums—including BBVA Compass—were built through a combination of public and private money. The Houston project cost about $95 million and the hope is for the stadium to trigger an extension of a downtown revitalization.
"These stadiums are economic drivers that can really enhance the lives of people in a community and make a city more attractive to potential businesses through not only development, but also through international exposure," Garber said.
Players who’ve been around since the early days see the stadiums as concrete symbols of the economic health of the league itself.
"In the beginning, you took what you could get," said Dynamo star Brian Ching, the franchise’s career scoring leader. "As the league has grown, you’ve seen teams creating these stadiums that create a true soccer experience. With that, everything else about the league has gotten better. It’s more exciting to play in these places."
It also makes financial sense. Instead of paying rent at insufficient venues, teams can now control all of the revenue streams, from concessions to naming rights to profits from other events such as concerts.
The Dynamo was receiving only a percentage of proceeds from concessions and merchandise at Robertson Stadium. Now, the team will keep it all. Robertson also lacked luxury suites; BBVA Compass has 36 luxury suites and outdoor patio decks built for big groups.
"You can control the field, you can control the amount of activity, and the revenue streams kind of go without saying," BBVA Compass Stadium general manager Doug Hall said. "It makes you feel like you’re in charge. It’s kind of the difference between renting and owning a property."
Houston’s stadium will also be the home for the Texas Southern University football team, and other events will be brought in to help pay the sizable mortgage. BBVA Compass will host an international soccer match (El Salvador-New Zealand) later this month, a rugby match between the U.S. and Italian national teams in June and a Sugarland concert in August.
"The stadium is a ‘game-changer’ for us," Canetti said. "It just provides brand new opportunities that weren’t there for us before."
Other MLS stadiums will become hubs in larger entertainment developments.
In New Jersey, the $200 million Red Bull Park is the centerpiece of a $1 billion project that will include office space, retail outlets, parking decks and housing across the Passaic River from Newark. PPL Park, the $120 million home of the Philadelphia Union, sits at the foot of the Commodore Barry Bridge, part of a planned $500 million entertainment, retail, residential and business complex covering more than 60 acres along the waterfront.
"It provides people a reason to stay in town after work and have a beer at a pub or dinner at a restaurant and then take in a 90-minute soccer match," Garber said. "That model seems to be working for us pretty well. We’ve had great success with our downtown stadiums."
Garber said BBVA Compass will be a gold standard of the new venues, and Livestrong Sporting Park in Kansas City is another. The $200 million venue mixes cutting-edge technology—there are more than 150 WiFi access points—with one of the league’s loudest atmospheres, thanks to a drum-shaped roof designed to deflect sound down to the field.
The Kansas City franchise was floundering five years ago, and the ownership group saw an eye-popping stadium as the vehicle to turn the team’s fortunes.
"If you’re ever going to re-brand the team—and we all thought we needed to after about the 2007 season—you had to rip off the Band-Aid off and come back with something big," chief operating officer Greg Cotton said. "It was great when we announced it, but it was also scary as hell."
At first, Cotton said, fans offered a lukewarm response to the team’s name change from the Wizards. But since the stadium opened last June, it’s become a go-to attraction in town. The team previously played in expansive Arrowhead Stadium, and average attendance spiked from 10,287 in 2010 to 17,678 in 2011.
Even with the new stadiums, weeknight games are still tough draws, especially on the East Coast. But the new stadiums have all produced better attendance numbers in all markets, some more dramatic than others.
At Red Bull Stadium, the average attendance went from 12,229 in 2009, when the team still played in Giants Stadium, to 18,441 in 2010. In Philadelphia, the Union drew an average crowd of 18,343 last year, nearly 99 percent of capacity.
The players love what they see, too. After years of dealing with inconveniences, like sharing inadequate locker rooms to playing on dangerous, weather-beaten turf, they finally see the league maturing.
"It’s been fun to see where it’s going," said Dynamo midfielder Brad Davis, in his 11th MLS season. "I signed my first contract in this league with New York and we played at the Meadowlands where they laid grass down before every single game, and it was a bit of a nightmare. In Dallas, we played in the Cotton Bowl for two years, which is a great stadium, but it’s another big football stadium and then we played at a high-school, AstroTurf field.
"I took every opportunity to go to our stadium and check it out as it was being built," Davis said. "To see where the league has come to, from where it was, it’s a positive outlook."
One of the league’s grandest ambitions has always been to rival the top leagues overseas and attract the top international stars in the world’s most popular sport.
Luring English star David Beckham in 2007 was a giant leap, but Cotton believes the new stadiums will generate another wave of imports in the future. The U.S. national team offered rave reviews after playing a Gold Cup match in Kansas City last year.
"Some guys have played here for a long time, and something like this was not even a gleam in their eyes when they left to go to Europe," Cotton said. "Now, they can play in stadiums like LiveStrong and the Red Bulls’ (stadium) and now in Houston’s stadium. It’s a completely new world. We’re opening a lot of eyes."
Ching, a former member of U.S. national team, says the MLS venues rival their counterparts in Europe, and top-tier players will take notice.
"They see some of the places where we were, like Robertson Stadium, and you could see why they’d say, ‘I’m OK over here,"’ Ching said. "But then you bring them here now, when they see BBVA Compass Stadium, it won’t be much of a change for them and overall, it probably won’t even be a step down.
"I think there was the perception of the league and none of those guys were really sure where it was at," Ching said. "Now, it’s started to gain its footing and I think you’re going to see a lot more guys coming over. That will be the league’s progression. It’s got tremendous room to grow."