MLS: Why Not Some Forward Thinking?

Why not in this country?

I am a football convert. Being in my mid-30’s, I actually remember being exposed to the second season of the English Premier League. That’s not because I cared, but because in my sophomore year at University of Rochester (NY), I roomed with a fellow who reffed for travelling youth leagues during the summers in Western New York. He loved the EPL, but as was the case even up until recently, you could only watch a game a week if you were lucky. Nowadays, if you have Fox Soccer Channel, you get upwards of 4 matches to watch here in the states per round. That’s not even counting La Liga, Serie A, or the Bundesliga if you’re so interested.

Anyway, back to my story. I balked at the sport back in those days. It wasn’t until the 2010 FIFA World Cup that I realized the splendor that is football. As I watched with work friends during our lunch hour as Landon Donovan stroked home a rebound in the waning moments to defeat Algeria, I was hooked. I’ve been an ardent follower of the EPL ever since. While I also enjoyed watching the rest of the Philadelphia Union’s campaign in 2010, this offseason I decided that I needed to lend my support both to my local team, as well as the domestic league.

I include this prelude because today, MLS President Mark Abbott clearly stated that the league has no inclination to make any moves in having MLS convert into a European-style league. By Euro-style, I mean the institution of promotion and relegation, as well as the consolidation of all teams into a single table, with the top finisher being the MLS Champion.

Below the fold, I’ll discuss my views on this subject.

Promotion and relegation are tricky subjects, especially in the current model. In a way, Montreal will “promote” to MLS from NASL in 2012. That is not a merit-based promotion, but rather a financially-based promotion. The Impact will be paying an exorbitant price to receive the rights to run an MLS franchise. This is much like your local entrepreneur paying a price for the right to open a Subway. There’s nothing wrong with this model, because American sports typically run by this model.

The problem is that in the big sports of this country we are kings. We don’t have to worry about Japan coming over and luring away Ryan Howard or Albert Pujols with ludicrous amounts of money. Our baseball market is tops. Same goes for the other Big 4 sports in this country. In those sports, our economic system dictates the world’s prices, because we have the market to support this system.

In association football, that is not the case. I follow many different views on Twitter, but one that is fascinating is a fellow who goes by the account @SoccerReform. Many MLS followers consider this guy nuts, and while his unbridled criticism of MLS and its practices borders on obsessive, he does have a point.

English Premier League viewership in this country is on the rise. The biggest difference between the leagues is, obviously, the talent level. People tune in to see the best league in the world. The issues Mr. Abbott essentially blew off today are secondary; I don’t believe Americans watch the EPL because they like promotion/relegation, but rather because the football is better.

The problem for MLS is that our system is set up not to fail. And at this point in the life of the league, that’s not such a bad thing. We don’t have a D2 or D3 with the money-making potential of the lower English leagues. To have a team like the 2010 DC United drop to the NASL would certainly cause financial problems for the club, although it’s not as simple as that. Let’s say that Fort Lauderdale were to be promoted on merit. They would basically purchase DC United’s franchise rights. So while there would certainly be a loss in annual revenue from tickets, merchandise, and television monies, they would have impetus to build the best team in order to return as quickly as possible…while receiving a buyout from Fort Lauderdale.

At this point, relegation makes little sense anyway. Counting Montreal in 2012, we’re still at least one team short of 20 which is a reasonable single table. With our geography and population, we could actually expand a lot. The problem is getting that population to buy into the sport.

And that’s where the labor situation comes in. MLS has a stranglehold on salaries. Again, this is a safeguard to protect against a collapse similar to that of the NASL of the 1980’s. But let’s be frank about this: soccer is in a much different place in this country that it was in the 80’s. The national team was terrible from the 50’s through the 90’s, and without world-class players being produced domestically came the need to purchase big names such as Pele. Gate receipts and poor television viewership couldn’t recoup the funds spent. The communications platform was miniscule compared to what we have available at our fingertips today. This growth in communications has facilitated the explosion of European soccer in America, which now resides as the dominating force in club soccer interest in our country.

So MLS is in preservation mode, but this same philosophy prevents investment that would bring the domestic league further in this country. What if a guy like Roman Abramovich, who owns Chelsea FC, was interested in purchasing an MLS franchise? He never would. Why? Because he can’t use his resources to make it the best in the world. He has a huge market potential in many different cities and states. Apart from the restricting regulations enforced by MLS, Abramovich could purchase players and plant a team that could blow away Real Salt Lake. Forget relics like Juan Pablo Angel or David Beckham. Let’s say players like Cristiano Ronaldo or Nani or Andy Carroll saw the potential of American television exposure (it’s not unprecedented, remember professional golf before some fellow named Eldrick Woods laced up the spikes?). For a hefty price, I’d bet they could be lured to try to become the Dallas Cowboys or New York Yankees of America. Do you think fans would come out to see a team like this? You may say no, but I’ll bet Ken Venturi thought the same thing in the late 80’s when Fred Couples and Mark O’Meara were the PGA’s calling cards.

To close, I am fairly disappointed (but not at all surprised) by Mr. Abbott’s proclamation. MLS has seen success thus far, but to rule out an open pyramid and single table pays homage to the closedmindedness of the downward-ticking clock and 35-yard offside rule that “dumbed down” the game for us fickle Americans. That attitude stunted growth in the 80’s, back when the NASL didn’t need to worry about teams like Manchester United and Liverpool sending teams on North American tours to showcase a better product. I still love the domestic game, but there are some in this country who aren’t as quick to ignore these issues. It may become a question of priority. If Joe Cleveland or Patty Phoenix has time to watch one soccer match on a Saturday, will they put off their errands until the afternoon to watch a European ubershowdown? Or will their patriotic love for the domestic product be enough to have them open their schedule in the evening to watch a lower quality product? That’s where I feel that Abbott and MLS need to reexamine their not-so-progressive attitudes.

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