One of the lessons learned in this “Summer of Soccer” is that there is a sizable group of Americans who enjoy high level soccer and are willing to pay top dollar for the opportunity to see clubs like Real Madrid, Chelsea, Inter Milan, and Barcelona play live, even if the matches are only friendlies or exhibitions. While I am not aware of any official surveys on this matter, I suspect that a sizable portion of these soccer fans do not watch or follow Major League Soccer, viewing it as a lesser league: less talented, less entertaining, etc. While MLS has gone out of its way to avoid the financial missteps that sunk NASL, has it been too cautious? Is there an alternative means for MLS to become a Super League without the financial crash and burn?
Now that the League and the Players Union are embarking on negotiations for a new Collective Bargaining Agreement, maybe now is the time to throw the old MLS business model out the door and adopt a new one that does away with salary caps and transfer fee concerns. If done right, the next MLS season could see an influx of well known players that will fill our giant stadiums with soccer hungry Americans.
Since the inception of MLS, it has had a complicated relationship with the ghost of the NASL. The old league that featured names such as Pele, Franz Beckenbauer, and Giorgio Chinaglia, was a star that burned brightly during the Carter Administration and the early days of the Reagan Administration, died in 1984 with the Chicago Sting as its champions.
Founded in 1968, NASL struggled for several years until the Cosmos, which was controlled by the Ertegun Brothers and Steve Ross, the president of Warner Bros., signed an aging Pele in 1975. The Cosmos went on to sign more aging, foreign superstars, while several other NASL teams spent top dollar to sign at least one foreign superstar. While the presence of players like Pele, Rodney Marsh, Alan Ball, George Best, and Johan Cruyff brought the NASL attention throughout the country, the revenue streams did not keep up with the spending and when a financially strapped Warner Communications sold the Cosmos to Chinaglia, NASL began to fall in upon itself.
The founders of MLS, as well as its current executives, have gone out of their way to avoid the fate of NASL, relying on its single entity structure and its strict salary cap. While MLS has managed to survive and create a league for American players to enhance their skills, MLS has not earned much attention or respect from a large segment of soccer fans who prefer the leagues in Mexico, South America, and Europe – the audience that has arguably filled the giant NFL arenas this summer to watch Chelsea, Inter Milan, Barcelona, Club America, etc.
In January 2007, MLS dipped its big toe into the NASL waters when it signed David Beckham, one of the biggest names in the world of international football. While this summer has seen an in depth examination of the Beckham Experiment and what it means for soccer in the US, what is clear is that Beckham’s presence brought MLS more attention then it had received in years and it resulted in rare sell outs at some MLS venues. It is not a stretch to argue that the signing of more big names from Europe would result in even more interest from media and soccer fans.
MLS can become a Super League without suffering the fate of the NASL, which spent money like a drunken sailor on shore leave after 6 months at sea. Instead of bringing in big name football players and then waiting for the money to roll in, MLS needs to partner with corporate America to help fund big salaries for these players. While the general sports fan in the US might not get soccer and its international appeal, the marketing departments in corporate America know the advertising power of the beautiful game, and shell out big money to have their name associated with clubs like Manchester United and events like the World Cup finals and the European Championship. Imagine how many companies would like to enter a deal where a player like Cristiano Ronaldo played in the US and was the face of their corporation or product around the world. In fact, by relying on corporate money to help finance these deals, MLS will not be limited to signing stars that are past their prime. If MLS wants to take this approach and take advantage of the global marketing powers of this sport, now is the time to do so before locking in to another long, restrictive CBA.
While converting MLS into a Super League would enhance the popularity of soccer in the US, it could negatively impact the development of the US National Team. To alleviate this impact, MLS will still need to have rules concerning the number of American players on squads, while it will fall upon the USL’s system to focus on developing America’s youth.
With some imagination and creativity, MLS can work with corporate America, USL, and USSF to develop a Super League in America, while continuing to ensure the growth of American soccer talent.