In an ideal world, the MLS would make a copious amount of cash and disperse the earnings equally to each team. The pooled resources would then culminate in the most intriguing soccer league in the world and everyone would tune in to see the US’s version of the world’s game. Unfortunately, much like unicorns and functional communism, this is a complete fantasy. Yes the profit sharing network the NFL pioneered worked for the NFL, but here’s a little secret, THE MLS IS NOT THE NFL. Some of the components forced on MLS teams are actually hindering its growth, not helping it. It does no one any good with 30 mediocre teams.
What do names like Barcelona, Manchester United, and Bayern Munich conjure up? For hundreds of millions of fans these are the colors they bleed and crests they wear over their heart. For the rest of the population, these names inspire the exact opposite reaction. Regardless of your feelings towards these clubs, the brand these clubs represent grow well past the current players on the team. They are Goliaths that have historically dominated their domestic leagues and have battled it out on the continent for soccer dominance.
Now many of you are probably saying that the MLS doesn’t need this dominate force but consider this. When Stoke plays West Brom the game draws fans from both sides to watch the game at the grounds or in their homes. The diehard soccer fan will tune in just to be able to watch a soccer game. However, when Norwich plays Manchester United the game draws not only the teams fans, but also draws what Soccernomics author Simon Kuper calls the floating fan. This group tunes in because either they are pulling for the upset or because the Manchester United brand is more recognizable to them than two middle of the table teams. Additionally, a team like Manchester United draws more fans to their stadium because they are more likely to win home games then a smaller side. As much as we all like to think we enjoy watching a good game, a fan is more likely to go to a home game if there is an expectation to win. The other side of that coin is that Norwich fans aren’t particularly upset about the loss because they expected it. However, the hope of the jubilation that possible victory and the potential to be a David draws these Norwich fans to still watch the game.
These floating fans exist here as well. The Dodgers, Giants and Yankees all top the list of the highest attendance for away games while the Twins, Royals and Astros struggle in this stat. Fans in these cities, who may not really ever go to games, will be more inclined to go see the giants of the game. Even when their home team loses, these fans aren’t particularly upset because they got to see a large team with some big name players.
Barcelona, Juventus, Manchester United and Bayern Munich are seen by some as soul suckers of soccer, crushing the spirit of the little guy. However, these teams promote the game by investing billions of dollars on their brand and youth development programs. Names like Beckham, Messi, Lahm and Giggs have all made their way out of these youth development systems. The money they invest doesn’t just help the big clubs but by raising the competition at the youth level, their national teams improve.
The MLS has a lot of things they need to change before a club like Manchester United or even an Ajax can exist this side of the pond. First of all the MLS needs to remove the salary cap. In a time of Economic Fair Play that statement may seem like blasphemy but calm down. Soccer is not like football, because there are dozens of leagues and hundreds of teams competing for the same limited resources. Teams that are subject to limits imposed by leagues are therefor put at a disadvantage compared to everyone else. Combine that with the fact that the USA has the access to more resources than any other nation, a salary cap makes zero sense.
If the salary cap was removed there would be a sudden influx of better, foreign players, forcing American born players to the bench, which doesn’t seem fair. However, raising the bar is a good thing. Competition breeds success and while there would be a temporary valley American born players will find themselves in, it would eventually make us better. The players and managers coming in would bring their own ideas and styles that would impart themselves on our players. Whether it was Rome, Arabia or the early USA the culture that accepts ideas, grows at a faster rate.
I’m not advocating that the MLS becomes a European league. Relegation would scare too many potential owners and investors away to make that a feasible addition to the MLS at this time. Additionally the current play off system means the addition of a Goliath would be negated by the unpredictability of 180 minutes of aggregate soccer. The David and Goliath playoff match ups for titles would make our league interesting both home and abroad, especially since fans of European clubs don’t have any soccer to watch during the summer. There are things we can learn from already successful European soccer leagues though, and incorporating those ideas into our foundation would lead to a truly unique, organic, successful league.
but I have a plan for MLS expansion as well