On the eve of its 20th final, MLS’s progress has been remarkable

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I remember exactly where I was for the very first kick of Major League Soccer: at an oddly configured but otherwise terrific Irish pub with a bunch of soccer nerds just like myself, excited for the match but absolutely giddy with anxious delight about what was unfolding more broadly.

I doubt that anybody associated with Major League Soccer back then – I was “associated,” I suppose, as a beat writer at a newspaper, pretty stoked to have a weighty soccer league to cover – could stop themselves from dreaming a little bit. We all had some inkling that MLS could possibly … maybe … hopefully … turn into something substantial. Something with some resonance and relevance, some cultural heft at home and enough on-field quality to make the world take notice.

But nobody could say exactly what that would look like. Some dreams soared high; some just floated gently aloft. But safe to say, nobody quite knew what the league might evolve into 5, 10 … 20 years down the road. Frankly, everyone wondered in their quiet moments if the league wouldn’t be another marker in the graveyard of failed soccer leagues.

Now, we know this:

Major League Soccer, as the top professional soccer league in the United States and Canada, is in a great place. Could it be bigger? Yes. Could it do some things better? Of course. Would we chest bump a little more if TV ratings improved at a faster clip or if underperforming markets would catch up? You bet.

But make no mistake, league progress has been remarkable, a success story that leans toward “stunning.” And as this country’s most visible soccer property (along with the United States men’s national team), success of MLS is essential to the perception of soccer’s ongoing progress and success.

On the occasion of the league’s landmark 20th MLS Cup final this Sunday, it’s a good time to take stock in it, an ideal time to look back and look around.

The growth curve certainly isn’t what we thought as Eric Wynalda curled in that initial MLS goal back in 1996. (A few beers in, I still remember the moment well.) We might have anticipated an initial burst, a big early curve of success and then a leveling off. But things hardly went that way. Growth was frustratingly slow in the early years. In fact, things went backward as contraction happened in 2001, dropping MLS from 12 to 10 teams (and coming perilously close to shutting doors altogether). By then, three owners were carrying the league. More than carrying, in fact, they had to double down on the investment. Phil Anschutz, Lamar Hunt and the Kraft family all had to pony up about $70 million to fund the league and the bigger leap of faith: investment in SUM, the marketing arm that subsequently secured some vital international TV rights.

After the first 100 matches or so in Major League Soccer, crowds fell into a fairly predictable pattern for more than 10 years, generally around 14,500. So, that growth curve wasn’t really much of one until 2007 or so, when Toronto FC helped usher in the “2.0” years.

If you have followed the league, you know most of that. Plenty has been written about how David Beckham and the targeting shift in marketing to urban 20- and 30-somethings changed the game. Now, the youth academies are changing the way clubs manage personnel. Again, that’s all out there for you to find.

Getting back to 20 years ago, how we all hoped it would turn into something grand, something that would merge steadily into mainstream, setting up shop as the fourth or fifth major US team sport. But there were a few things none of us probably foresaw.

SEE MORE: 10 things we learned from the second legs of MLS’s conference finals.

Start with Stadiums: MLS opened as bunch of renters, generally in grounds poorly suited in substantial ways. The fields were too small, the seats too many and the surface too artificial turfy in too many places.

Everyone recognized the financial need for stadiums, but perhaps none among us could fully grasp the overarching importance. Controlling dates (impossible while playing inside college or pro football facilities) means so much, vastly altering the dynamics of TV contract negotiations.

Of course, the economic boon was the king daddy of game changers. The “known” revenue streams were opened thanks to Crew Stadium in Columbus first, then the Home Depot Center outside LA, and on and on. (Now, 15 MLS grounds were built exclusively for, or renovated for MLS.) But it all went beyond just added parking and concession revenues: naming rights, concerts, other events, an increasing number of suites and clubs in the modern facilities, enhanced sponsorship packages, more merchandising opportunities – these all unfolded for clubs, and thankfully so.

Beyond all that, few in 1996 could truly understand the value boost to perception once teams gained their own grounds, the brick-and-mortar metaphors for community permanence. I always go back to what Dwayne De Rosario said so perfectly a few years ago: “Nobody takes you seriously until you get your own stadium.”

You were nothing short of clairvoyant if, back in 1996, you saw 15 dedicated stadiums operating for MLS. It is impossible to overstate the importance of the progress here. Even if you don’t realize it, these stadiums change every MLS conversation, and the progress in getting to this place (again, 15 and counting) is the single most essential element in an MLS that looks pretty good at 20.

Standard of play: Measuring the quality of soccer happening inside the grounds is painfully subjective. Easier to quantify is the quality of athlete doing all this vertical passing and skilled trapping. The real progress here isn’t really at the tip-top end of the global player echelon; rather, it’s in the number of “very goods.” Even 5-10 years ago, it would be difficult to see so many US national team regulars migrating back from Europe. Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore etc., plus the non-US likes of Robbie Keane, David Villa, Kaka, Sebastian Giovinco and so on. Would anybody have really predicted salaries north of $5 million becoming fairly common?

The MLS workadays are better, too, thanks to an evolving salary structure that allows for the Villas, Keanes and Dempseys, while also allowing the median MLS salary to hit just north of $90,000 annually. That may not be ideal, but for 28-man rosters, that’s not terrible, either.

SEE MORE: Old rules about foreign coaches may not apply to our new MLS.

Expansion: Here’s where all this starts coming together, as the league has doubled over 20 years. (Mostly, it has doubled prudently – Chivas USA as the black eye, the glaring exception.) Stadiums and gradually improved marketing strategies drove revenue, which boosted perception, which helped drive TV contract value (locally and nationally). All of that helps put more money into player contracts and encourage more stadium projects and, well, you start to see the sustaining circles, how everything builds on everything else.

And then more people want in the game. Put another way, more cities want in the game … because they see all of this happening.

The initial 1996 “buy in” for Major League Soccer was $5 million per team. Today, that gets you a section of a stadium. Maybe. (Heck, a roof on one side costs about $8 million on these things.) Because the latest Forbes valuation of MLS franchises lands at an average of $147 million. It ain’t NFL money, but it’s not $5 million, either.

The league will soon be 24 teams once Atlanta, Minnesota and L.A.’s second club get off the ground. (Well, also Miami … or the city that shuffles excitedly into Miami’s seat if MLS finally “punts” on Beckham’s floundering efforts in South Florida.)

Back in 1996, as 10 teams crawled out of the starting blocks, you might squint really hard and see a 16-team league. Past that, it was all too hazy, like seeing past the nearest building on a foggy London day. You knew more, maybe much, much more was out there. Somewhere. In some undefined shape and scale.

Did you see a 24-team league, with some absolutely stunning stadiums, with grounds teeming of passion in Seattle and Portland and Kansas City and elsewhere? Did you see US national team players who stayed home for the truly big money? Did you see a time when soccer was the cool sport for the hipsters, when Stephen Colbert’s Late Show had soccer (not baseball or basketball or American football) as a regular feature in its nightly intro?

Doubtful on all accounts.

If you’re a Major League Soccer backer, it’s OK to want bigger and better. Just don’t sell short how far this thing has come in 20 years.

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3 Comments

  1. ribman December 5, 2015
  2. USCSIG December 5, 2015

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