After 21 years, Major League Soccer is finally beginning to shed its “league on the rise” moniker and take its rightful place in America’s pantheon of professional sports leagues. With match attendance at an all time high and new expansions to Minnesota, Atlanta, Los Angeles and Miami in the works, the future of MLS has never looked brighter.
Yet, the pursuit of relevance in America is exactly what has stopped MLS from becoming relevant in the global business of soccer.
Major League Soccer is structured as a single-entity league in the mold of its American peers like the NBA and NFL. The owner of an MLS team must essentially buy into the league as a whole, with profits shared across the board. The logic behind this model is sound; promise parity and profit, and sustainability will follow. However, the market for soccer talent is global, while the NFL and NBA hold what amounts to a monopoly over their sports’ pool of players.
Every other league across the world, from the Premier League to La Liga and the Chinese Super League are each built around individual ownership, with teams spending and balancing their checkbooks independently. Manchester City and New York City FC are both owned by the “Donald Trump of Abu Dhabi,” Sheikh Mansour, whose net worth of $31.5 Billion makes Trump’s hands seem very small indeed. Manchester City is one of world soccer’s biggest spenders, while NYCFC must bend to the various economic hoops set up by MLS. As opposed to the financial free-for-all seen abroad, the MLS’s league-wide salary cap ensures that no team, regardless of wealth, can improve by pumping the market full of (oil) money.
The argument for this system revolves around the idea that parity will ensure popularity among fans, and consistent competition from all teams will keep crowds across the country engaged and growing. Attendance backs this up. MLS averaged 21,574 fans per game in the 2015 season, while the highest attended NBA team this season, the Bulls, averages just slightly more at 21,816. This impressive attendance is part of an overall trend of growth for MLS that has been consistent since its inception.
However the point isn’t that MLS lacks growth or that its model isn’t sustainable. In a vacuum, the league is engaging and entertaining, but most soccer fans don’t watch MLS in a vacuum. The league and its teams are inevitably (and rightly) compared to the Real Madrids, Barcelonas, Bayern Munichs, and PSGs of the world. These comparisons seem unfair, mainly because the quality of play in MLS and most other major leagues is incomparable. The league’s financial restrictions make it impossible for MLS to field a team of similar quality.
The Chinese Super League (a non-factor five years ago) spent mightily this past January to bring in a group of players that already surpass anyone on the MLS roster. Ramires, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Gervinho, Jackson Martinez, and Alex Teixeira are all players whose combined transfer fees—just shy of $280 Million—make up more than half of MLS’s yearly revenue. Even more important is the fact that these players (Martinez and Teixeira especially) were sought after by the likes of global powers Liverpool, Chelsea, and PSG. Jiangsu Suning splashed €50 million for Teixeira, while the largest transfer in MLS history stands at €7.5 million for Michael Bradley.
Some progress on this front has been made however, with the MLS adopting the “Designated Player Rule,” also nicknamed the “David Beckham Rule” in 2007. Made in hope of more star players like Beckham joining MLS, the rule allows every team to sign up to three players outside their salary cap. Because of this rule, we have seen aging stars like David Villa, Andrea Pirlo and Steven Gerrard join the league, but this is not enough. The MLS may be competitive, but in the global scheme of soccer it remains held back by its own structure. Even Liga MX of Mexico (U.S. soccer’s benchmark opponent) still dominates MLS competition, made clear by their yearly Piñata-esque smashing of their American counterparts in the CONCACAF Champions league. Parity may be exciting, but for America’s place in the “world’s game,” relevancy remains elusive.
Images Via USA Today, sheikhmansour.co.uk and The Los Angeles Times