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Why MLS can be a globalized success story like the EPL


This week’s news that the Premier League has sold its three-year domestic television package for a record-shattering $7.7 billion dollars highlighted once again the dominant position the EPL has gained in the global game, which makes Major League Soccer’s most recent record deal look like spare change.

But while the vast economic gulf between the two leagues is stark, MLS is in a position to, in time, become the second truly globalized soccer league in the world.

Commissioner Don Garber has set the date of 2022 as the year when MLS should be among the elite leagues in the world. At first hearing, that date, just seven years away sounds hopelessly optimistic. The choice of year though wasn’t just plucked out of the air. 2022 will be the year when MLS signs its next multi-year television deal and it was also the year that the USA hoped to host the World Cup finals before Qatar won the controversial vote.

I don’t think Garber is far off though with his target – and if we move it back four years, a  strong case can be made for MLS being a truly elite league by 2026. 

Over the next eight years, MLS will be pushed and marketed to viewers by the two giants of English-language sports television in the US – ESPN and FOX Sports. On top of that, the dominant Spanish language broadcaster, Univision, will be directing its audience actively towards MLS. Eight years of major broadcast network promotion will surely result in an upturn in television ratings. Then, barring a surprise turn in the market, the next MLS television deal in 2022 should see a seriously significant rise in revenue. That will take time to manifest itself in increased competitiveness in the transfer market as MLS clubs look to spend that cash on international talent, but it should have filtered through by 2026.

By 2026 we should also be seeing the fruits of the investments currently being made to turn MLS into a bigger and better league.

In terms of size, MLS by will have grown to 24 and perhaps 28 teams with most of the major cities and regions of the country included.

MLS should also have become a significantly better product on the field. The money being spent on academies and player development at the moment will take several years to deliver tangible results but surely by 2026, MLS will be showcasing the best young American talent to have emerged from a system which is far better designed to find and nurture talent than anything that has existed previously.

That talent will be more likely to stay in MLS and be joined by quality imports because, after two more five-year CBA deals, the salary cap will have been pushed up significantly and (regardless of what happens in this set of negotiations), players will enjoy greater benefits and contractual rights making MLS a much more attractive league for top players.

All the trends point towards further, intensified growth in interest in MLS. Average attendance of over 19,000 is already the envy of most of the established leagues in Europe. With big city clubs like NYCFC, LAFC, Miami and Atlanta, coming on board, all with owners with deep pockets, crowds can reasonably expect to continue to rise. More TV and stadium eyeballs will mean bigger sponsorship deals and increased merchandise revenue.

When it comes to investment in ownership of clubs, we are already seeing two key trends that should intensify growth. Firstly, owners from existing major league American sports franchises are looking to enter MLS. Already there are links with the New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks while the arrival of the Atlanta Falcons and the Minnesota Vikings could be the start of a wave of NFL teams looking to fill up their stadiums during the spring and summer months. Secondly, the global wealthy who have been so attracted to the EPL are starting to show similar interest in MLS. New York City FC are owned by Sheikh Mansour of the UAE, Orlando City’s majority owner is Brazilian. It would not be a surprise if David Beckham’s Miami ownership group ends up with a strongly international element. 

An increasingly globalized, wealthier ownership, with an international selection of players and coaches, doesn’t just give MLS more resources and better soccer – it also, crucially, puts the league in a great position to globalize itself and take advantage of the kind of foreign television rights and merchandising deals that the Premier League has excelled at.

This is the crucial factor. While the EPL is out of reach, it is not fanciful to see MLS in 2026 as the second truly globalized league. A key element is that MLS (like the EPL) is an English-language product, allowing fans around the world to follow the storylines, the arguments, the controversies, the characters and personalities, as well as the action on the field. This is an area where the Bundesliga, Serie A and to a lesser degree La Liga (with its dominant position in Latin America) struggle to compete with the EPL.

That doesn’t mean that MLS would be the second best league in the world in terms of quality or competitiveness. But rather, commercially it has the potential to be truly globalized in a way that few other leagues can be.

Global sports consumers are already used to following American sport from afar thanks to the NBA, MLB and increasingly the NFL. If MLS in 2026 is a serious product on the field, with recognizable names and well established clubs, it would be in a great position to sell itself around the world. It is not by accident that MLS recently announced a new deal with marketing giants IMG to improve the league’s foreign television rights deals.

The final reason why 2026 is, I believe, set to be the year when MLS is transformed is that year the United States stands a very good chance of hosting the World Cup. CONCACAF has a strong case that, with no hosting since 1994, it is long overdue the chance to hold the showcase event. For a host of reasons, the U.S. should beat off any rival bids within the region from Mexico and Canada. 

Having the biggest soccer tournament in the world on American soil will obviously give a huge push to an MLS that by then will already have over-taken the NHL as the fourth major league in North America and will be breathing down the neck of MLB.

Thirty two years after FIFA brought the World Cup to the United States in a bid to ‘conquer’ a country that had yet to fully embrace the global game, the task will have been completed. And appropriately America’s full establishment as a major soccer nation would be celebrated on the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.

Whether this analysis proves to be overly optimistic or surprisingly cautious, the next decade of soccer in America should be fascinating.

Editor’s note: Every Thursday, World Soccer Talk featured columnist Simon Evans shares his thoughts and opinions on world soccer topics. You can follow Simon on Twitter at @sgevans. Plus, read Simon’s other columns for World Soccer Talk.


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  1. NaBUru38

    February 16, 2015 at 5:46 pm

    The issue with American sports is time zones. Asians get American matches in terrible windows.

  2. Marcus Lindroos

    February 14, 2015 at 9:38 am

    Very interesting article!

    You can see where MLS currently stands by examining the total market value of its players.

    I think a realistic goal would be to become the region´s best and wealthiest league, which means hiring the kinds of foreign players currently employed by the top division Brazilian and Mexican clubs. The current $3.1 million salary cap (excluding designated players such as Kaka, Frank Lampard etc.) is totally unrealistic for this purpose… The National Hockey League cap is about $70M. I have seen detailed salary information for Italy´s Serie A (the fourth strongest in Europe) in 2012, when AC Milan (160 million Euro [= approx. 160M USD] in player wages), Inter (145M), Juventus (100M), Roma (76.5M), Lazio (50.2M), Napoli (41.2M) were the wealthiest clubs. So, if MLS could afford to operate at the same financial level as the NHL currently does, its clubs would rank just below the top four in Serie A but abouve the sixteen remaining clubs. I.e. the starting XI players would all earn more than 1 million dollars per year with a few marquee names on each team making up to 5-10´million.

    Trying to compete with AC Milan, Inter, Juventus, Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester United/City, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool would be a futile exercise. The remaining clubs are a different matter, though: the MLS clubs are located in wealthy major media markets across the US and Canada. They should eventually be able to compete with the likes of Ajax Amsterdam for players.

  3. Josh

    February 13, 2015 at 5:33 pm

    I’d love to see it happen, but this seems a little optimistic. For one, it assumes that the growth of the sport and the league in this country will continue at a similar rate as it has experienced. That’s not a given. There’s nothing to say it won’t taper off a bit. I also believe that we’re looking at generations passed before the tide completely turns. There still exist a lot of soccer naysayers, and until they are well in the minority, it will limit the ceiling. It may take another decade beyond 2036 for that to happen.
    I do agree that the World Cup on American soil in 2026 would be a giant boost — it was in 1994 and turned many in my generation on to the sport — but expecting FIFA to do what makes sense might not be recommended.
    It also assumes that the improved youth infrastructure will offer a certain amount of dividends. It seems foolish to believe that youth development here will not improve, but again, to what level? We have no proof yet that the current system will work, and what if that plateaus as well and we’re not producing more Americans that approach the world class level?

    As a hypothetical, this argument is very interesting and promising. I think it takes a leap of faith however, to take it as anything more than one possible future. It is not inevitable.

  4. Taylor

    February 12, 2015 at 7:24 pm

    Don’t see it happening. Bundesliga has its own English website and a lot of clubs now are providing English websites.
    You don’t need English-league products to be global brand because there are always english language media and websites to provide the information, stories, etc.

  5. CBF 1914-2014

    February 12, 2015 at 3:41 pm

    Unless and until I start seeing MLS teams compete in the Copa Libertadores like Mexican teams have done since 2000, and CONCACAF merges with CONMEBOL. The optimism of this article will never meet reality.

    Although I agree the MLS does have an upside, they are long overdue for the single table and scheduling format. With the MLS going to 24 teams, it does have a opportunity to level itself with at least the English Championship, but the number two league in the world? I’ll wait until at least the MLS Cup and Supporters shield champion could hold a candle against the premier South American teams in the Libertadores.

    And lest we forget that the UEFA Champions League is the premier club football competition.

    • CTBlues

      February 13, 2015 at 10:25 am

      CONCACAF and CONMEBOL combining would be amazing. It would give UEFA a run for its money. The only problem with it would be the crazy travel for Copa Libertadores and WC qualifying in the Andes.

  6. StellaWasAlwaysDown

    February 12, 2015 at 2:53 pm

    “That doesn’t mean that MLS would be the second best league in the world in terms of quality or competitiveness. But rather, commercially it has the potential to be truly globalized in a way that few other leagues can be.”

    You lost me after that. As a fan of soccer first, I could care less if the owners make money or can brag that they are second commercially. I think this statement right here is everything that is wrong with MLS. Why cares about the quality when we can see Beckham play and get shots of his wife/kids in the stands looking fashionable…

    • oakcityfc

      February 13, 2015 at 10:21 am

      Do you think the quality of the EPL, outside of the top few teams, is anything to write home about? Stoke, et al play that lump it forward style that is not exactly artistic. The EPL thrives commercialy, but up until recently, Spain could be argued played the better soccer. The author is merely arguing that with continued development, MLS will capitalize on its enviable position in the US market place, and turn its ’22 TV deal into more money for the league. In turn, $$$ = better players = even better quality = more eyeballs. The argument is not far fetched, especially when you see the progress that has made in 20 years.

  7. Kei

    February 12, 2015 at 11:37 am

    “[By 2026,] MLS by will have grown to 24 and perhaps 28 teams.”

    “[By 2026,] MLS should also have become a significantly better product on the field.”

    This isn’t computing with me. How does expanding the league by up to eight teams over the next decade do anything other than drain the talent pool even further, leave a number of markets in an oversaturated state, and lead to a stagnation (if not a decline) in the overall quality of play?

    Any claims of a long-term outlook would appear to be bunk in this case, since it would simply lead to the NBA-ification of the league. Over half the teams in the league, at any given time, will simply be making up the numbers under that scenario — which, it must be noted, just happens to be one of the main arguments against instituting pro/rel in North America.

    • Marcus Lindroos

      February 14, 2015 at 8:46 am

      > How does expanding the league by up
      > to eight teams over the next decade do
      > anything other than drain the talent
      > pool even further?

      This won´t be a problem as long as the total number of US/Canadian starting XI players stays the same, despite the increased number of teams.
      In other words: teams would be allowed to sign more foreign players…

  8. yespage

    February 12, 2015 at 11:08 am

    I’m curious where the money is going to come from to make the MLS equals with the Top European leagues.

    • Sgc

      February 18, 2015 at 12:10 pm

      Not for nothing, the average market size of an MLS team is probably about ten times as large as that for the average team in the Big 4 in Europe.

      One layer of revenue for US sports teams, the local TV contract, doesn’t even exist in Europe. But all the others have to be enhanced by the fact that a small market for MLS is 2 million people instead of 200,000.

  9. Jim

    February 12, 2015 at 10:36 am

    A lot of interesting points made here, but the NFL involvement is a little off the mark. The Seahawks and the Sounders have severed operations. The recent “New Atlanta Stadium” video released by the Falcons was 3 minutes long, with (I counted) less than 10 seconds showing what it will look like an MLS facility. It’s usage as a concert venue got the same amount of time. An early indication of what priority the soccer team will have.

    The Kraft family’s long, long neglect of the Revolution (with a single notable exception in 20 years) is hardly a positive for the league. They do a lot of talking about a stadium, and being committed, but besides the Jones signing-what is there to show for it?

    The Vikings’ owners balked at saving soccer in Minnesota, and only became interested after the their taxpayer-funded multi-billion dollar stadium started to become controversial for the amount of time it would stand empty.

    NFL owners looking for side revenue and summer filler for their stadiums is far from a positive. MLS history shows that (Wizards, Revs, etc). It’s a shame the league seems to have learned nothing and is going back in time.

    • Kei

      February 12, 2015 at 11:42 am

      This is the dirty little secret of NFL involvement in MLS: At best, the Krafts and the Blanks of the league see their soccer teams as an asset to their main investment (NFL franchises). At worst, they see their soccer teams as either a side business or a hedge fund.

      Expansion fees, NFL/Big Four owners, publicly funded stadiums, and an outrageously unequal wage structure. That’s the entire MLS business model.

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