I recently caught up with Paul Carr, senior researcher for ESPN Stats & Information department, at a New York City FC game.
We covered a lot of stuff — MLS’s international break problem, the new book from Stefan Szymanski of Soccernomics, and the future of MLS expansion.
Here’s the interview:
Sam Dunn (SD): I wanted to get your take on the impact of international breaks – official and unofficial – on the level of play in MLS. Toronto FC’s Michael Bradley said that he hopes MLS can figure out how to address the international dates and preserve competitive quality.
Paul Carr (PC): The international break takes away two or three of the best players off a lot of these teams, sometimes up to a third of their lineup. In MLS, not all of these teams have a full rotation [of players]. I don’t know what you do about it. You’re sacrificing the quality, and they’ve got to figure out a way to avoid that if at all possible. I think MLS knows that, but it’s really hard with all the factors in play.
SD: Especially with the Gold Cup coming this summer, that will be a story to follow. Speaking of following, I noticed on Twitter that you have an advance copy of the new book by Stefan Szymanski, who co-wrote Soccernomics.
PC: I’m about 100 pages in or so. So far, “teams with more money do better” on the whole. He’s got plenty of charts and numbers. It’s a strong correlation. The top teams spend far, far above MLS levels, but it’s hard to see any of that happening [within MLS] without spending more money on players.
SD: Do you think the organizational structure of MLS – which prevents the level of spending that Szymanski correlates with the greatest level of success over time – exists because it wasn’t always clear that the league would survive? MLS’s perpetuation isn’t in question anymore; should they re-think some of that structuring in a way that permits greater spending and investment?
PC: I would definitely like to think so. MLS has clearly grown. More revenue is coming in, whether it’s from TV, or advertising deals.
Big business people are wanting to get into the league. You could grow the league in a global sense if you just spend more money, but that goes against the very principles on which they founded the league [given the salary cap and single-entity structure]. I don’t know what the answer is. It would be pretty intense to just flip a switch and say, “OK, no salary cap!”
SD: If that happened, we could forget any pretense of competitive balance. No other soccer league tries to have competitive balance, but it appears to be a priority for MLS. We would say goodbye to all of that without a salary cap in place.
PC: Every league in Europe has this heavy imbalance, and [Szymanski] talks about how that can be good. The problem for MLS is that those other leagues have been around forever. Most of them have been around for at least fifty years. MLS has been around for twenty. And in a place like England, soccer is the number one sport, but here, you have so many other sports to compete with.
That’s the difference with MLS right now. They want the single-entity structure to maintain some sort of competitive balance and help grow the league from the local level. If half the teams in MLS weren’t good, you’d have a downward spiral that’s really hard to get out off. Chivas USA was kind of an example of that.
SD: Don Garber & company have been quite deliberate in expanding the league. There’s no promotion and relegation as such, but it is a bit like promotion when we see teams like Orlando City and Minnesota United brought up into MLS. It’s a very carefully-prescribed promotion accompanied by the infamous $100 million fee.
PC: Everyone assumes that Sacramento is going to get a team, and beyond that is when MLS gets really interesting. Sacramento, in theory, would be the league’s 24th team. We all know the Beckham and Miami saga that may or may not happen. This is when the question marks show up. San Antonio has been mentioned. St. Louis, I think, is a great place for a team, but I haven’t seen any ownership step and do something. It would be a really interesting market for a lot of people.
SD: Indy Eleven have emerged as one to follow as well.
PC: The next step beyond those 24 – 25 if you count Miami – that’s when you’re starting to stretch it a little bit. There aren’t as many glaring holes, from a media market standpoint. Over the last ten years, the markets for expansion were more obvious. The future, at this point, is less obvious. That’ll be fun to watch — where the league goes in the next 10 to 20 years.
SD: Do you anticipate more management structures like NYCFC’s City Football Group entering MLS? That’s not at all the kind of ownership group that MLS has generally tried to recruit. Are we going to see, for instance, a Chelsea-owned team in MLS? Would that be good for the league?
PC: I think the biggest decision the league headquarters has to make is about how they use local bases, locally-owned. NYCFC flies in the face of so many of those things. Having said that, there’s some value in it. I have to think that Manchester City owning NYCFC has something to do with MLS games being on Sky Sports every week [in the UK]. They just signed a deal with Middle Eastern television.
SD: And MLS has put together a Brazilian TV deal as well.
PC: The league’s always been on this “local” bandwagon, which makes a lot of sense, but from their perspective — as well as these outside ownership groups’ perspective — a “parent club,” for lack of a better term, whether a Man City or a Chelsea or Barcelona or whatever, they can look to the U.S., they can build a brand that way.
“Minor league” is not the right term, but it’s a way to get certain players some playing time. For some of those teams outside the U.S., that’s got to be pretty appealing. I know Barcelona was interested in, I think, the Miami team a while back. If NYCFC is successful and the City Group sticks with it, MLS is going to embrace it and figure it out.
Where they put those teams is another question. I don’t see Chelsea putting a team in Indiana.
SD: Probably not!
PC: And I say this as someone from the Midwest! It’s not a slight, just the view from the outside world. I don’t how all this would work, but assuming that the relationship between NYCFC and Man City continues to work, you’ve got to look at [their ownership model] as a win-win for a lot of people.
SD: CFG has brought about a weird dissonance among New York City supporters — despite the ties to Man City and the sky-blue ETIHAD shirt, the vice president of the official supporters’ club (Third Rail SC) is a Manchester United fan. The enfranchisement that came with having a team in the Five Boroughs supersedes everything else.
PC: That’s really interesting to me because that was one of my questions… would Chelsea fans, Arsenal fans, and Man United fans be willing to support a team that’s owned by another team they don’t like? Walking through the team store last weekend, I was definitely struck because it seemed like I was in a Man City store, in a lot of ways. It’s interesting to hear that it doesn’t seem to be an issue. If MLS wants more clubs that are doing similar things, that’s good to hear.
It will be interesting to see how they interact with other teams because they’ll be doing things a little bit differently, for better or for worse. Tons of good things can come from these associations if it’s done well.
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