The MLS is having a massive year.
Not just in terms of stunning goals or tense matches (which are literally everywhere), but in viewership. It doesn’t hurt that the league has been bolstered by adding two already big-market teams in NYCFC and Orlando City, and acquiring names like David Villa, Kaka and Giovinco into the league. But if the US is going to market it’s professional soccer league as Major League Soccer (as in Major League Baseball) shouldn’t it be able to proudly proclaim itself as a major league in soccer?
After all, MLS Commissioner, Don Garber did claim that the MLS will be one of the best leagues in the world by 2022.
So how do we do that? And how are we doing?
The beginnings of answers to these questions lie, as they do so frequently, in the past.
From the 1960s to the 80s, a league called the North American Soccer League (NASL) grew legs in America. The league was growing in popularity and it was the perfect hotspot for a sports investment.
This investment came in the form of cash, as it so usually does in life, which translated to players, as it so usually does in soccer. In 1975, the New York Cosmos used some of that cash and signed Pelé to a contract worth roughly $2.8 million.
That was followed by an influx of top European players (Best, Beckenbauer, Cruyff, Chinaglia). The league excelled in fan turnout and competition. However, from the league’s glorious zenith, it plummeted to a non-existent nadir.
Over-expansion into non-soccer market franchises along with teams purchasing big-name stars without financial security from the league to support their salaries lead to the (temporary) death of the NASL. Teams over-invested in these types of players’ salaries without franchises’ income or the league’s profit being able to support it.
As the league rapidly expanded franchises began to fold across the nation until the NASL played its last season in 1984 (I admit it’s an oversimplification of the complex collapse of the league, but this is a broadly-accepted core reason).
Now fast forward thirty years.
At the conclusion of the 2014 season teams in the MLS had competed for twenty seasons. The league expanded to its 20th team, Orlando City, who signed Brazilian legend Kaka to the MLS’s most lucrative salary, worth over $7 million a year.
This has been coupled with other big-name players coming into the MLS market, such as David Villa, Sebastian Giovinco, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, Giovani dos Santos and Andrea Pirlo. The league is also looking at expanding franchises in Atlanta, LA, Minnesota, and Miami within the next few years.
So with the outline of our league looking so much like the Ghost of Soccer Leagues Past, should we be worried?
Don Garber and I would say no.
One thing that our current American soccer league has done well at every turn is maneuver business carefully. Just look at the most recent MLS Union Agreement to see how careful the league was in mandating limited free agency and new salary caps to ensure the investment into players is regulated.
It may seem more logical to take away salary caps and let loads of money and the best players flood into your league, but it doesn’t always work out as well as you’re predicting, Johnny Cool.
If your league isn’t financially stable enough to support the poorer teams as the rich get richer, the league will eventually bottom-out. Don Garber and the rest of the MLS owners have done a good job in acting as gatekeepers for the league and moderating it from coast-to-coast to ensure that no spending has gotten out of hand as the league shows consistent growth.
However, many MLS players don’t have the luxury of time that league executives do. They need to be making a livable wage for their work, and last summer’s MLS Union Agreement took a step in the right direction.
The minimum salary almost doubled, jumping from $36,500 to $60,000. The MLS also granted some limited free agency and the door was left open to future changes. On top of that, the league set up incremental increases to the salary cap over the next 4 years. The cap, which was at $3.1 million last year, should be up to $4.2 million by 2019.
It may not seem like a ridiculous amount of money, especially with a player like Wayne Rooney earning $25.4 million annually, but the jump is promising. Maybe the league couldn’t support players earning Rooney’s wages yet, but with the growth of the salary cap paired with the ever-evolving role of the Designated Player, Don Garber’s guess of 2022 might not be so bad.
There’s no denying that the key to a strong league lies in the pocket books. The “top” leagues in the world are cash cows with leading clubs being absolute heffers. You can’t get a great team in modern football unless you’re spending money, and you definitely can’t get a great league unless your teams are making money.
So how do you make money as a soccer team? TV.
After the MLS’s massive eight-year TV deal in May of 2014 with ESPN, Fox, and Univision Deportes (worth a combined $90 million per year, triple what the MLS earned before), viewership has followed suit. Univision Deportes and UniMas have been averaging around 325,000 viewers a match (a 100,000 viewer increase from last year), and Fox is seeing a 54 percent viewership increase per match compared to what NBCSN drew in last year.
These are great signs and those numbers are huge increases. Maybe not compared to other professional sports crowding up the American market or bigger European leagues, but the progress is amazingly promising. Tripling the worth of broadcasting rights for eight years paired with the instant spike it brought to viewership is nothing to bat your eyes at.
But there’s still no way an MLS team could win the EPL title, right? They just don’t have the money, right?
Yes. League-wide, the MLS only drew in $494.4 million in revenue in 2012 compared to the $5 billion the Premier League. Yes, the top earning MLS team in 2015 is the Seattle Sounders (Forbes values them at $245 million) compared to Manchester United (Forbes values them at $43.1 billion) in the BPL.
But comparing these flat stats doesn’t tell the story of the real differences between the leagues. The leagues are completely alien to one another, and the rut that journalists have fallen into of comparing the MLS to other countries’ leagues is detrimental. People seem to forget that we are not the EPL or La Liga, we are the American professional soccer league: The MLS.
Instead, it’s time to recognize the MLS as something completely new to the soccer world and compare it mainly against itself. Is the league growing? Is it growing at a stable rate? Is the growth league-wide?
Therein lies a major difference. Unified growth. Don Garber knows the comparison is whack for that reason alone.
“We see some of the challenges of competing in the Premier League. We have wealthy owners but we are very committed to the idea that at the start of every season every fan can think their team can win a championship,” said Garber in a recent interview.
“We want someone in Kansas City, even though they are smaller than New York City, to think they can win the title.”
So my only conclusion from all this information is to give it time. Garber has done a good job at guiding our league through it’s teenage years, and just like for the rest of us millennials, it looks like the future is bright.
Making Major League Soccer major won’t take money or the Pirlo-Villa combo, it’ll take patience. And in the mean time, watch some damn MLS soccer.