If I Ran the MLS

garber don courtesy 4001 If I Ran the MLS

A couple weeks ago I was a guest on Mad About Futbol and the hosts asked me what I would do if I were the commissioner of the MLS. I kept my answer short and only touched on a couple topics, but in the back of my head was a longer laundry list. So without out further adieu, if the MLS hires me to run the league, here are 8 issues/topics that would be the focus of my reign.

1. Raise the Salary Cap

Please notice that I said, “Raise the salary cap,” I did not say, “Abolish the salary cap.” One of the reasons that the MLS has managed to survive for over 12 years is the fact that it has adopted a salary cap that prevented teams from spending wildly and out of control. The stringent cap has done its job, but now, with the demise of the Reserves League and the inclusion of more MLS teams in other competitions, the current salary cap limits the potential of MLS sides. The L.A. Galaxy are the prime example of a team that has been hamstrung by the current salary cap. Last season, despite the 20 goals garnered by Landon Donovan and David Beckham’s 5 goals and 10 assists, not to mention Edson Buddle’s 15 goals, the Galaxy failed to make it into the 2008 MLS Playoffs because the salary cap resulted in the Galaxy fielding a porous back line that contributed to the team giving up 62 goals.

While a one plan fits all salary cap creates a nice bright line rule, I dislike “one plan fits all” and “bright line rule” solutions, not enough flexibility or creativity. What I have long proposed is that instead of setting the MLS salary cap at a certain dollar amount, the salary cap should be a set a percentage of gross income. Since I am not an accountant or MBA holder, I would let the number crunchers, using sound accounting practices, determine the proper percentage of gross income that should go towards player salaries. Additionally, I would set a salary floor like the NBA, which would prevent teams from skimping on salaries and fielding a poor product, and it would give some leeway for teams that have lagging gross incomes.

The main reason that I favor a salary cap based on gross income is that it would encourage teams to expand their marketing and revenue streams. The teams that take the time and the effort to market their brand and product would be duly rewarded because the income increase would increase the teams’ ability to increase salaries and attract high quality players.

2. Fix the Dysfunctional Schedule

There has been much debate about the fact that unlike the top leagues in Western Europe, the MLS runs on a Spring-Summer-Fall schedule. Living in Houston where the bulk of that period is marked by high temperatures and high humidity, not to mention the occasional disruption due to hurricanes and tropical storms, I have some sympathy for adopting the Western European season, but I have also lived in central Wisconsin and know what a hard winter is like. In light of the extreme weather conditions that affect our northern and southern climates, I think the Apertura/Clausura system should be seriously considered.

The real issue with MLS scheduling that annoys me to no end is the MLS’s unwillingness to abide by FIFA International Breaks, a shortcoming that glares brightly at the start of this 2009 season, which has been poorly planned by the league. After making the brilliant decision to hold opening weekend at the same time the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament is starting, the second weekend of fixtures falls on a FIFA International Break that includes the USMNT travelling to El Salvador for a World Cup Qualifier. Not exactly the best way to encourage the early season development of team chemistry and cohesiveness.

This summer MLS sides will have to deal with players being called up for the Confederations Cup, the Gold Cup, and other competitions around the world. Next summer is the World Cup finals. It seems an Apertura/Clausura schedule is sounding better and better.

3. Allow Teams to Own their Players’ Rights and Kit Deals

The MLS has been slowly moving away from the single entity structure and has been slowly attracting higher profile investors with deep pockets. The complications caused by the fact that the League owns the rights and contracts to the non-DP players is going to frustrate the wealthier team owners sooner rather then latter. Same thing goes for the fact that in 2004 the League locked in one company, Adidas, as the sole kit supplier for ten years. Of all the professional team sports, soccer probably has the biggest number of companies competing to supply kits to teams. Locking in an entire league to one supplier for ten years does not make much sense.

Both these steps will have to be taken in order for teams to take some of the marketing steps necessary to increase their gross income. By owning the rights to their players, especially developing players, teams could increase their revenue with transfer fees. Additionally, one of the biggest problems with obtaining young talent from other leagues is MLS’s dislike of having to pay transfer fees. By bringing in the money from transfers, individual teams could turn around and use that money to pay for the transfer fees that the League would have balked at paying. Meanwhile, MLS clubs could take advantage of their individual circumstances when signing kit deals and getting the best deals possible. In light of the fanfare of Thursday night’s opener in Seattle, one can only image how much money the new Portland side will lose since they cannot sign a deal with Portland based Nike. Heck, even Umbro might be interested in leaping into the MLS market, reviving the nostalgia for the Umbro shorts craze of the late 1980s and early 1990s . . . on second thought that might not be the best example.

4. Officiating Development

Soccer officiating and referees are bemoaned the world over, and I am not in the mood to get into a discussion of which country has the worst officiating and where the MLS ranks in the table of bad officiating. Instead of casting stones, if I was MLS Commissioner I would push for the creation of one of the best officiating crews in the world, a push that might result in full-time salaried referees. Continuing education courses would be put under the microscope and revamped to ensure the best quality teaching possible, including psychology instruction. Referee exchange programs would be utilized to their fullest potential so as to create the most educational experiences possible. Finally, I would be willing to experiment with some changes designed to ensure that the right call is made without delaying matches. This could include the use of the Hawkeye technology, extra assistant referees on the pitch, and/or an assistant referee in the press box area who the referee can rely on for a second opinion.

5. No Artificial Turf

While I am that rare breed of soccer fan who can watch a match on a field with gridiron lines chalked on it, I cannot abide by artificial turf. My only complaint about Thursday night’s match was having to see it played out on that turf. As Commish, I would require the use of natural grass by all clubs.

6. Make it Easier for Clubs to Sign Academy Players

Earlier this year when the Houston Dynamo signed Taylor Deric as the club’s third goalkeeper, the signing made such a splash because it was only the second time that an MLS side had signed one of its academy players. The Byzantine rules used by the MLS regarding the signing of academy players needs to be thrown out the window. Instead of making it difficult to sign academy players, the MLS should encourage its clubs in developing local youth talent and reward the teams that do the best job by allowing those players to migrate from the academy to the senior squad.

7. Hold ESPN and FSC Accountable

The relationship between ESPN and FSC has been much analyzed and discussed since last summer, and one thing is clear – both networks need to do a better job of promoting the MLS and the MLS matches aired on their respective networks. Instead of being meek and mild, just happy to have the contracts at all, the MLS needs to put pressure on both networks to promote and market the MLS. While ESPN and FSC might pout at first, if the end result is increased viewership, then they have no reason for complaint.

8. Focus Outreach on Inner City and Low Income Areas

The youth soccer boom in America has been primarily, though not solely, felt in the more affluent neighborhoods and regions of this country. While MLS clubs should continue to work with the local AYSO programs, the teams need to focus extra attention on performing outreach on their local inner city and low income areas, especially neighborhoods where many of the children are first generation Americans.

My first appreciation of the beautiful game came courtesy of the “Boat People” from Southeast Asia. In the days following Hurricane Ike, the lack of working stop lights had me taking off the beaten path routes through certain neighborhoods, and every day I saw numerous kids out kicking the ball around. How many of these kids get the chance to play in organized leagues or go to an MLS match? I suspect there is a mother lode of untapped soccer talent in this country, and increased outreach by the MLS just might uncover that talent.

Those are the top eight issues I would tackle if given the opportunity to run the MLS, but I am not holding my breath waiting for their call.

28 Responses to If I Ran the MLS

  1. James says:

    You should also add a better business relationship between MLS and USL-1 would help bridge the gap and united soccer fans across the US & Canada. The organizations between the two are dysfunctional, feudalistic & divisive.

  2. Great piece Brian. I’m going to hold off on a new post the rest of the day so this stays atop the front page for all to read. Excellent, thoughtful stuff.

    Three quick points: Umbro actually owns USL, so short a merger I don’t think they are interested in MLS. The ownership groups I have spoken to in USL have mentioned owning player rights as a key reason why they prefer USL. It’s very possible, if MLS allows clubs to own players after the CBA this year, USL will fade into oblivion. Right now USL is riding high among some of the european/latin pundits I know because of CONCACAF, but the fundamental issue is player ownership. That’s the reason some mid salary guys sign in USL to begin with: sometimes USL offers more and sometimes some players have told me they just feel like they control their own destiny in USL and not in MLS, if the offers are comparable.

    Second point: Did you mean Hurricane Alicia? I know you appreciated the game and covered it very well many years BEFORE Ike!

    Third point: While MLS’ lack of outreach in urban and inner city areas is striking, It’s actually something I know they have discussed at length in the league office but still haven’t acted upon. So they know for sure that it is an issue, they just perhaps don’t have the resources yet or the right spokespeople to act on it.

  3. James- good point. MLS and USL used to be partners. For example the Miami Fusion and the Atlanta Silverbacks were affiliates. At some point the relationship broke down. I think it was Garber, because it was in the Logan/Gulati days at MLS that the relationship existed.

  4. Lars says:

    Putting our teams on European scheduling will kill the MLS. The MLS cannot be forced to compete with NFL, NHL and NBA all in one season. It is far more damaging than playing over the summer against the MLB.

  5. Yeah I agree with Lars. MLS and USL will disappear almost overnight if the leagues in the US/Canada are mandated to move to the “traditional” calender. All around the globe the movement is towards Summer football. Simply because England’s climate is the same all year and Italy plays through the winter isn’t reason for other leagues to do so. But logic doesn’t affect Sepp Blatter’s mouth.

  6. codyy says:

    I think the MLS has pretty good referees at the top. Marrufo (who’s probably going to the World Cup), Geiger, Toledo and a few others I’m forgetting are pretty good. Maybe the second tier (non-FIFA refs) could use some improvement.

    One thing about the USSF is they release weekly memos on some of the referee mistakes, usually focusing on one or two subjects. I don’t think any other FA does that.

  7. Lars says:

    As for artificial turf, while I prefer the teams to play on grass, some teams don’t even own their own stadiums, like TFC. They have no control over grass vs. turf, as the stadium belongs to the City of Toronto.

    While there have been indications that grass turf might be installed in the future, there has still been no action taken.

    I agree with raising the cap, but not with putting in a floor. The NHL currently has a floor, which is seriously hurting small market teams like Florida, Tampa Bay, Phoenix and Nashville right now.

    Owning player rights, sponsership rights and having the rights to your own academy are no brainers.

    As for the other issues, I have no comment one way or the other.

  8. Florida and Tampa Bay actually aren’t small markets. Miami is one of the biggest metro areas in North America. They are small Hockey markets.

    The floor idea I like. It ensures some degree of competitiveness.

  9. Lars says:

    That’s what I meant Kartik. They are small markets for the sport. Calgary is a much smaller market than both in terms of size, but because the game is worth so much more to the fans there, it is considered a “large” hockey market.

  10. I love this post, MLS should take notice and heed these words!

  11. Uncle Ed says:

    I like this post!
    USL is actually considering moving to the traditional calendar.
    Umbro (Nike) are also in talks with Traffic Sports, organizers of Copa America, Libertadores, among other tournaments and owners of Miami FC. Look for Traffic to take a bigger role in USL.
    The feud talked about earlier between USL and MLS has just begun, MLS is making their rosters smaller, I think the reserves are all but kaput as well so you can see most of these players will flock to USL. I see USL positioning themselves as owners of most of the players out there. I also see USL getting stronger if MLS doesn’t change it’s way soon.

  12. Lars says:

    The USL will not get stronger at all. They lack the financial and marketing resources which MLS has. If the USL had competent management at the highest level, they would be the premier league in North America. Now they’ve lost Vancouver, Portland and Seattle. Joey Saputo is lamenting not having an MLS team now, and will likely be putting the Montreal Impact in for the 2012 expansion. With those four markets gone, USL will have no hope of surpassing the MLS. Montreal being in the league will stabilize the USL for a short period of time while it seeks out new markets to add, but any hope of them surpassing MLS is gone.

  13. Traffic has an active interest in growing MLS. I know that for a fact and Traffic is a lot bigger in the football world than MLS. BUT

    Traffic is sour on the South Florida market and unless we support the team this year Traffic’s involvement with USL will not involve owning a franchise in South Florida. I’ve been told by more than one source Traffic along with Nike/Umbro have big plans for USL as a league but are more than willing to pull the plug on Miami FC.

    I do agree with Lars. I thought in the 2003-05 period if Marcos had been more willing to be creative they’d have blown MLS out of the water and eventually out of business. USL did have its window and blew it. It can still be a complimentary league or maybe even slightly bigger, but they had their chance to eclipse MLS and did not. Quite honestly they could have put MLS out of business with a little creativity. That the subject for a post at another point in time, perhaps when USL folds down the road.

  14. eplnfl says:

    A real good post. Even if you have some problems with some of the suggestions, ie: playing during the winter in the Northern US and Canada is not possible and kit deals are best shared for the time being, you make many excellent points that MLS should take up as soon as possible. Especially youth development and academy issues. I think at this point we would all like to see more room under the salary cap to sign an additional top flight player or two.

    Good work Brian

  15. NYCFC 2010 says:

    USL should just recognize that their new job is to expand to non-MLS markets and accept that they are the 2nd division. There are many markets that want MLS but that MLS does not accept. I’m sure many of the early expansion candidates like Las Vegas and Ottawa can must at least 3-4000 a game, making it close to USL average (heck Des moines’s PDL team gets 3500). Eventually, MLS will have to stop expanding whenever that is and USL should just be happy to survive this phase.

  16. Lars says:

    I agree entirely that the USL-1 should seek 2nd division status by moving into non-traditional markets that MLS won’t go to. Canadian cities could easily have small teams, and even more American cities could use teams. From the sound of it, there was interest in putting a team in Hamilton for USL, a market close to Toronto and Buffalo.

  17. Brian Zygo says:

    On the whole, I try to avoid commenting on my posts, but just to clarify:

    - Did know that Umbro is involved with USL, just couldn’t resist the cultural reference.

    - Did mean Hurricane Ike, back in September, seeing all these kids outside playing soccer was a bit of a joy in a trying period of time.

    Well, I’m all set up at Estadio Robertson for Dynamo v. Crew hoping for a good, entertaining match.

  18. Jason says:

    Definitely agree on the academies. I think the rule now is a player has to spend 2 years in the academy to be signed to the senior squad. Should be no more than one year, maybe with some provision that teams can’t raid other MLS academies (maybe that’s already in place).

    Also agree on modifying the salary as a floating percentage of “soccer-related” revenue. The NHL model also has a portion of the player salaries held in escrow, just in case the “hockey-related” revenue doesn’t meet projections. I’d not as convinced about a salary floor, but I do agree the minimum salary should be increased (according to Soccer America, developmental players have been increased to a shade over $20,000, but by my calculation that still works out to $9.66/hour for a 40-hour week. My local McDonald’s is paying $9/hr. SA also says the minimum for a senior squad player was $33,000/yr last season. Better, but even I made that much money at my 9-to-5 job)

    The schedule has always been a problem, but there’s issues regarding stadium control, weather and poor attendance at mid-week matches. I think that’s going to be a case of deciding what the “least bad” option is. I do like adopting the apertura/clausura format though.

    I don’t have an objection to artificial surfaces, as long as they meet FIFA standards. Yeah, I’d rather see them on grass, but that’s not a hill I’m willing to die on.

  19. Battery Fan says:

    Some of you can totally diss USL but the fact that three USL-2, not USL-1 but USL-2 players came to MLS late last year, Janicki, Khulamo and Mbuta and all were above average MLS players tells me that the elitism of many MLS fans to pretend USL does not exist or does not have a decent product is insulting.

    I could care less about MLS. It’s management and fans haven’t embraced growing the game in the US. They are businessmen. That is fine but I wish posts like this were dropped because MLS HQ has no pretense or interest in improving soccer in this country. USL is the grassroots league throughout much of the country and any plan for MLS that does not include USL or USL’s functions isn’t going to improve soccer. Maybe it’ll improve business and profit margins. Then again that’s all MLS cares about.

  20. Lars says:

    Nobody was dissing the quality or talent of the USL. We’re dissing the management. As I said, if USL had better management, it would easily be the Premier division in North America. Sadly, they had idiots managing it, and its going to be doomed to 2nd division status.

  21. Footballer says:

    The UL has nothing to complain about, all their teams are eligible for the ConcaChampions. Everything is fine as-is.

    But the main US league needs to change its name. How about…

    The American Premier League

    North American Football Association

    Association Football North America

    Or just label the matches as CONCACAF CL qualifiers (which they are)

  22. Uncle Ed says:

    How can USL not become stronger if they own most of the players in the U.S.?
    There is plenty of money in USL, anyone mention NIke? Traffic is huge, Bigger then most people think, they will take up management of the league. I know for a fact that Traffic isn’t interested in MLS unless they can sell a player to them.
    Traffic is willing to commit to South Florida for the next 2 years and is putting together a strong team that they think will be fighting for the championship! Miami fans need to step up and support the team.
    I hope to run into Kartik and Chris at the games.

  23. NYCFC 2010 says:

    Yes USL does have money but to survive they will have to get moving to non MLS markets or there will be almost no teams left. The money the league has should be used to keep the current clubs financially stable. The league has no care that Atlanta and Miami may be on the way out and have not even released statements on the matter. If the league made an effort to keep these teams alive through some sort of loan or administration situation, the league would have much more stability.

    • Yeah, agreed.

      And while Miami is a failure thus far in USL, Atlanta has actually suspended operations per my sources not because of finances (heck they built their own stadium) but because they felt that Marcos, et al were inept at running the league. That’s why they “suspended” operations and did not fold. They will be back if the leadership in Tampa changes.

  24. Shell says:

    MLS is a dysfunctional product in itself.

    I’ll stick to the national team and the Premiership personally.

  25. DC Cavalier says:

    I like the piece. Very thought provoking, though I differ with some of the suggestions.

    On the salary cap, I whole heartedly agree. This needs to be raised if for no other reason that a so called Major League that has players on the books getting under $20K a year salary is a joke.

    I’d set the cap around $4M, with a $52K a year minimum and also mandate that its spread over 30 players. I’d leave room to keep in place two contracts outside the salary cap.

    As for schedule, not only would I NOT go to the so called international calendar, I would actually play 30 games over a tighter window. Beginning of Spring to Labor Day calendar, which yes…..means each club would have 3 or 4 midweek home games in the summer. I think MLS post season gets swallowed up in the US sporting public with NFL and college football, and the beginning of NBA and NHL season. If I were commissioner, I would have a season that has September as its playoff season.

    One last thing I would do is for the playoffs, put meaning on the regular season by have two conferences continue, but only three teams in the playoffs….The regular season points winner would automatically advance to the MLS Cup final, and the other conference winner would square off against the second best record in a one off match at the home of the conference winner, with the winner of that game advancing to the MLS Cup final. Two weeks of playoffs and season over. This would also give some added meaning to the US Open Cup, as that would be the competition that non playoff teams would have a second chance at winning something.

    I think because MLS puts so little value into a regular season, it cheapens the MLS Cup when you can have a team like NY Red Bulls get to final of MLS Cup Unfortunately, in MLS, if a team could go 30-0-0, they don’t really get recognized as champions if a 10-10-10 team wins the cup

  26. Lars says:

    Actually DC, if the league wasn’t going to expand, I would agree with your playoff points. However, as the league expands, it will mean that less mediocre teams make it into the top four as there will be more competition for those top spots.

  27. Vnice says:

    Schedule: MLS will be depleted by a switch to the so-called “conventional” calendar. The reality is, NFL, NHL, and NBA are too much for MLS to compete against.

    Turf: Sorry, but turf is the reality of the future. That’s just the way it is. If the pitch looks and behaves the way it did in the Sounders/RBNY game, I won’t mind. I can put up with turf as long as its maintained. But, NFL-style hash marks are intolerable on a pitch. THAT is the bane of my existence.

    Teams definitely should own rights to players. Salary cap should definitely be raised. A floor is a bad idea, though. I think perhaps, each city should come up with a living wage and make that the unofficial “floor”.

    Unfortunately, attendence is a big issue, and MLS needs to follow through on moving a team to Rochester if it can’t produce numbers in the seats. Otherwise, teams need to start ripping off Seattle, Toronto, etc., when it comes to getting people through the gates. It needs to happen NOW!

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