What MLS can learn from the NBA

As Major League Soccer celebrates its 25th season in 2020, it continues to chase the elusive goal of mainstream relevance. With a small but passionate fanbase, a sprinkling of stars on a handful of blue chip clubs, mediocre TV ratings, and an underwhelming New York City team, MLS is like where the NBA was before David Stern became commissioner in 1984. Stern, who passed away on New Years Day, reigned over an NBA that rose from tape-delayed anonymity to become America’s second most popular pro league. There’s a lot that a league like MLS can learn from Stern’s triumphant yet tempestuous tenure on how to survive and even thrive. 

1. Shoot for the Stars: Get Premier Players on Popular Teams

In 1984, when Stern became commissioner, the NBA was about as popular as Betamax tapes. CBS, which held the broadcast rights at the time, would routinely air the NBA Finals on tape delay. And its network affiliates would pre-empt regular season broadcasts in favor of old movies or reruns. The 1983 World Series attracted twice as many viewers as that year’s NBA Finals. And people preferred watching college basketball if they watched hoops at all. 

But by 1984, the stars were literally aligned for the NBA to soar. The Chicago Bulls snagged Michael Jordan in that spring’s draft. Magic Johnson, already orchestrating showtime in LA, and Larry Bird, already a Beantown legend, were both just hitting their primes. In 1984, 1985, and 1987, Magic’s Lakers and Bird’s Celtics would square off in three of the most sensational championship showdowns of all time. Atlanta’s human highlight film, Dominique Wilkins, was an even more dynamic dunker than Jordan. Isiah “Zeke” Thomas was motoring the Bad Boys in Motown. And the “Hoya Destroya,” Patrick Ewing, would soon revive the wretched New York Knicks into Chicago’s most reviled rival. In short, the NBA had big names balling in their biggest markets. 

These Hall of Famers, and the succession of stars that have followed, lifted the NBA to newfound heights. An average of 29 million people, the NBA’s highest average audience ever, watched Jordan win his last ring against the Utah Jazz in 1998. The NBA has now surpassed MLB to become the second-most watched pro league in the country. More people watched the NBA Finals over this past decade than the World Series, and ESPN’s regular season NBA audience is nearly double that of baseball’s. 

Constant star movement adds to the NBA’s allure. Stern’s salary cap rules still allowed titans like Shaquille O’Neal to leave Orlando for LA and for Kevin Garnett to force his move from Minnesota to Boston. New fans flocked to the NBA because its stars transcend regional rooting interests. A Philly fan, for example, will watch an LA Lakers – Dallas Mavs game just to see LeBron levitate past Luka Dončić. As former player Etan Thomas put it, in his Guardian essay discussing Stern’s complicated legacy, “the league as a whole became a worldwide juggernaut defined by megastars with international appeal.” And few exemplified that international appeal better than the late Kobe Bryant.  

MLS isn’t yet at a place where its stars are transcendent enough to make fans want to watch a match without their own club in it. So the league sells its strength, which is the passionate atmosphere at stadiums in Seattle, Atlanta, and Portland, just as much as it sells its stars. 

It’s hard to imagine the NBA basing an ad campaign on its arena crowds. If you’re actually a basketball fan then watching a game in person is an onerous experience because the NBA is the only major pro league that allows arenas to blast canned music while the ball is in play. Nothing breaks the spell quite like that awkward moment of silence after the home team steals the ball, forcing the PA system to switch from the robotic “dee-fense” beat to the instrumental of 50-Cent’s “In Da Club.” With the game drowned in deafening wall-to-wall arena noise, there’s no point in the fans making any noise themselves. 

While MLS may be better known for its fantastic fan experience than for its players, the league is currently blessed with some sensational stars playing for its most telegenic clubs – Carlos Vela for LAFC, Josef Martínez for Atlanta United, Nicolás Lodeiro for Seattle, and Alejandro Pozuelo for Toronto to name a few. And the LA Galaxy have continued their tradition of boasting the league’s biggest names by signing Javier “Chicarito” Hernandez. The Galaxy had only 500,000 Instagram followers before signing Zlatan Ibrahimović in 2018. Since then, and with Chicharito’s signing, LA’s original club is up to 1.2 million and counting

But Zlatan and Wayne Rooney, who finished second and fifth respectively in 2019’s Audi Player Index, are now back playing in Europe. Worse, 2019’s list of the 20 best MLS players features only one American, Portland goalkeeper Steve Clark. 2019’s 26-player MLS All-Star roster featured only seven Americans. And two of those seven Americans were keepers. As for the league’s international stars, Vela is the only player in 2019’s Top 20 to have played at 2018’s World Cup. Mexican national team mainstay Chicharito is sure to join Vela with that distinction. That will keep both LAFC and the LA Galaxy heavy in the national broadcast rotation, but what about the dozens of MLS clubs in smaller markets that are rarely seen on ESPN and FOX? Can they afford to sign, or develop, breakthrough stars? Can ESPN and FOX afford to show their games?

MLS is in a strange in-between place when it comes to its stars. The league can’t entice enough casual fans to tune in because its best and brightest are neither USMNT nor World Cup stars. Only a handful of clubs can afford to sign international stars from unheralded soccer nations like Venezuela’s Josef Martínez or rarely capped players for major nations like Argentina’s Maxi Moralez. USMNT stalwarts Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley are still playing decently in MLS, but the league still isn’t anywhere near good enough to make it worthwhile for a promising American kid, like a Christian Pulisic or a Gio Reyna or a Timothy Weah, to stay. 

The sight of a passionate crowd on TV singing and waving tifos simply isn’t enough to tempt a non-MLS fan or a fan of another MLS club to watch, say, a Minnesota United vs FC Cincinnati match. ESPN and FOX know this, which is why they ignore most of the league to mainly broadcast matches involving a handful of clubs – Atlanta, LAFC, LA Galaxy, Seattle, NYCFC, Red Bulls, and Portland. Similarly, the NBA’s early TV growth under Stern was built on heavy doses of the Lakers, Celtics, Knicks, and Bulls. 

It’s a tough balance for leagues to strike, as Stern’s expansion mistakes have left the NBA with its fair share of forlorn franchises who never feature on national TV. Would MLS’s growth be better served if it had fewer clubs? Then clubs could stack their rosters with multiple stars to provide ESPN and FOX with a deeper inventory of blockbuster regular season matches. 

2. Franchise Bloat: A Team in Every Town

America today is the residue of overexpansion. Thirteen states became 50, the humble hamburger became the Big Mac, the Model T became the F-350, and the country’s first pro sports team, the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings, begat 154 teams across the five major leagues and counting. 

By 1990, almost half of all US households had cable or satellite TV. That growth fueled a dramatic rise in local and national broadcast rights for sports. But the new TV money raining down from regional and national sports networks wasn’t enough. So every league’s commissioner, with Gordon Gekko’s “Greed is Good” mantra ringing in their ears, aggressively chased expansion fees.  

But most of the teams added since the late 1980s have proven to be utter duds both on and off the field. Of the seven teams the NBA has added since 1988, only the Toronto Raptors and Miami Heat can be considered successes. The other five are perennial lottery teams. Orlando is the only franchise among the other five expansion teams to even reach the NBA Finals, losing once to Hakeem Olajuwon’s Rockets and once to Kobe’s Lakers. Minnesota and Memphis have each only reached one conference final while the Charlotte Hornets and the New Orleans Pelicans have never flown as high as that modest perch.  

And when a promising player emerges on one of those NBA expansion teams, their exit feels as inevitable as when Leonardo DiCaprio was smirking on Growing Pains, or when Beyoncé was with Destiny’s Child, or when Virgil van Dijk was shutting it down for Southampton. The Charlotte Hornets have lost Larry Johnson, Alonzo Mourning, and Kemba Walker. Kevin Garnett, Stephon Marbury, and Kevin Love weren’t feeling Minnesota, and Karl-Anthony Towns is likely gone as well. Shaquille O’Neal and Dwight Howard abdicated their Magic Kingdom crowns. Baron Davis, Chris Paul, and Anthony Davis all begged out of the Big Easy. And the speculation on Zion Williamson’s exit started the day he was drafted. 

ESPN and TNT rarely pick any of these teams for TV broadcasts, and pictures of their empty arenas are fodder for Twitter accounts like @emptyseatspics. Orlando was the only one of the five to make the playoffs last season yet only around 8,000 people on average tuned in to their local regular season broadcasts

MLS will have 30 teams by 2022, as many as MLB and the NBA. No league has come this far this fast. But many feel that MLS is building a pyramid scheme, not a viable league. Writer Corey Leff, speaking on Glen Crooks’ On Frame podcast, explained that “…it is a little bit Ponzi scheme-ish in the sense that it’s waiting for the next guy to buy in so we can get a pay day, because most of the teams don’t make money on a year-to-year basis…If the TV media rights deal is only generating 3 million [per team] the question becomes is there anybody that’s willing to buy a $600 million asset that generates $30 million in revenue – that does not sound like a great investment.” Adds writer Chris Smith in Forbes, “[p]ut simply, Major League Soccer’s surging expansion fees and sales prices are not being driven by financial performance.”

MLS clubs are free to ignore DJ Quik’s golden rule – “if it don’t make dollars then it don’t make sense,” because of its deal with Soccer United Marketing. No matter how much or how little MLS clubs make on their own they still get a healthy cut from SUM, which owns the lucrative broadcast rights to the USMNT, the USWNT, and the many Mexican national team matches played on U.S. soil.

This creates a weird situation where it’s not necessarily a big deal if MLS broadcast rights don’t bring in big money. And if the big money is coming from expansion fees and SUM’s national team deals, then why should MLS even care about earning better TV ratings for a more lucrative broadcast deal? 

The American audience for soccer is growing, but the audience for MLS soccer isn’t. MLS’ average national audience last year was around 270,000 viewers, and that was with a schedule heavy on powerhouses like Atlanta and LAFC. The more teams MLS adds, the less it can offer marquee matchups.

Most of MLS’ newest teams are in smaller markets that may not inspire the average Joe 12-Pack to tune in.  According to Nielsen’s list of America’s largest TV markets, Sacramento ranks 20th (goosed mightily by its San Francisco Bay Area), Charlotte 21st, St. Louis 23rd, Nashville 28th, Cincinnati 37th, and Austin 40th. Only the St. Louis Cardinals have a broad national following of all the existing pro teams in those cities. Teams like the Sacramento Kings, Charlotte Hornets, Carolina Panthers, Nashville Predators, Cincinnati Reds, Cincinnati Bengals, and the St. Louis Blues, despite their recent Stanley Cup win, rarely attract star free agents and are often ignored by national broadcasts.

MLS’s latest expansion clubs may end up doing very well at the box office and on local TV in their respective home markets. But these clubs will struggle to land household name players. And if they develop any promising American prospects then those kids will leave for Europe before they’re old enough to vape. Most of the NBA’s expansion teams haven’t helped raise the league’s profile. The same will likely hold true in MLS.

3. Support for Women’s Sports

The WNBA, which tipped off in 1997, stands as one of David Stern’s singular achievements. As former WNBA player and 2011 MVP Tamika Catchings put it to ESPN in 2014, “[f]rom an opportunity standpoint, for all of us who’ve been able to live our dreams with a league here in the United States, and for young girls to be able to dream about it — that’s [Stern’s] legacy.”

The NBA remains the first and only North American league to truly put its might, money, and power in support of a women’s league. NBA teams own five of the WNBA’s twelve clubs while league vanguards like the LA Sparks and NY Liberty play in NBA arenas. American stars such as Elena Delle Donne, Tina Charles, Breanna Stewart, and A’ja Wilson can now play at home rather than exclusively play in Europe or China. That star power, and the NBA’s support, has put the WNBA at a place where its average regular season audience is about the same as MLS’

Meanwhile, an alphabet soup of women’s soccer leagues, including the W-League, the WPSL, the WUSA, and WPS have come and gone since MLS began. While the blame lies mostly with the US soccer hierarchy, MLS still hasn’t supported women’s soccer in the same way that the NBA has supported the WNBA. 

The NWSL now looks like it has staying power, but it still could use the kind of support that the NBA has given to the WNBA. Players feel the lack of investment. As USWNT and NWSL star Crystal Dunn told the Denver Post, “[o]n the men’s side in MLS, they have owners with extremely deep pockets. If the women’s game is going to grow, it’s going to come down to us not kind of penny-pinching on things and really putting a lot of resources in.” USMNT immortal Megan Rapinoe chimed in for the New York Times with, “[p]robably 75 percent of the people going to Major League Soccer games—are they going because they’re hard-core soccer fans or because it’s a cool experience? The MLS marketing is great, the branding is great, and it’s a fun atmosphere to be a part of. I feel like women could have the exact same thing, but for some reason people aren’t investing in it.”

The MLS/NWSL relationship is changing for the better. Four of the nine NWSL clubs – the Houston Dash, the Orlando Pride, the Portland Thorns and Utah Royals, share ownership and stadiums with MLS sides. The Washington Spirit will play some 2020 home matches at DC United’s still sparkling new stadium while Sky Blue FC is moving all its matches to New Jersey’s Red Bull Arena. And the Chicago Red Stars will continue to play in the suburban soccer specific stadium that the Fire just fled for Soldier Field. 

This is welcome news because while America still produces the lion’s share of elite talent, Europe is rapidly catching up. As writer Joshua Robinson put it in the Wall Street Journal, “the U.S. dominance of women’s soccer was built on higher investment, superior infrastructure and greater professionalism than its European rivals. Or, put another way, the U.S. dominance was built on many countries across the Atlantic simply not caring as much.”

Almost every major men’s club in England, France, Spain, Italy, Germany and the Netherlands now sponsors a women’s side. France hosts the highest-paying women’s league in the world. And the UEFA Women’s Champions League is quickly emerging as the premier women’s club competition in the world. 

Andy Carroll, Chief Business Officer for MLS’ Real Salt Lake and the NWSL’s Utah Royals, recently told MLSoccer.com that “[t]here has to be a commitment from the overall soccer community that [supporting the NWSL] is the right thing to do.” 

MLS needs to go beyond the NBA in its support for the women’s game. It’s absurd that a club like LAFC, partly owned by USWNT legend Mia Hamm and with its own sensational soccer specific stadium, doesn’t field a women’s side. International stars like Sam Kerr, Lucy Bronze, and Ada Hegerberg should be playing in an American league that’s the best in the world rather than playing in Europe. France’s Olympique Lyon just bought Tacoma’s Reign FC, but it should be the other way around. The NWSL should be to the women’s game what the Premier League or La Liga are to the men’s game. French girls should dream of playing for a club like the Portland Thorns just as American boys dream of playing for a club like Barcelona. 

4. A Home of One’s Own

David Stern was, well, stern in getting new arenas built for NBA teams. He showed just how ruthless he could be when he made an example out of the city of Seattle. When the city wouldn’t use taxpayer money to build a new arena for the Sonics, he brokered the deal that saw the beloved franchise move from America’s 13th largest TV market to Oklahoma City, its 43rd.  

The net result of all that home court hardball is that Madison Square Garden, which opened in 1968, stands alone as an “ancient” NBA arena. The NBA’s second-oldest arena behind MSG is Minnesota’s, which opened in 1990. Six new NBA stadiums have opened in the last decade alone. And most of the arenas built in the 1990s and 2000s have received hundreds of millions of dollars in renovations

Like Stern, MLS Commissioner Don Garber is far beyond driven when it comes to getting stadiums built. The construction boom that’s seen soccer specific stadiums built in Saint Paul, DC, San Jose, Houston, Los Angeles, Carson in LA’s South Bay, Kansas City, suburban Denver, Orlando, Fort Lauderdale, Columbus, Portland, New Jersey, suburban Salt Lake, Montreal, suburban Philadelphia, suburban Dallas, suburban Chicago, and Toronto gives a sense of stability and permanence for a sport that lacked both before MLS was founded. And new ones are coming in Austin, Nashville, Sacramento, St. Louis, and Cincinnati.  

The markets without soccer specific stadiums have unique circumstances. Seattle and Atlanta attract enough fans to fill cavernous NFL stadiums. The Chicago Fire are giving another go at playing in the heart of the city where they achieved their greatest success. The Vancouver Whitecaps explored building their own waterfront stadium but hit strong local opposition. But they at least they play in a retractable downtown dome with beautiful sails to gracefully cover the upper deck rather than cheap tarps like in American ballparks. Robert Kraft owns the New England Revolution, the New England Patriots, and all the shopping malls and parking lots  that surround their shared stadium. So there’s no incentive for him to move the team from it’s cavernous, plastic-turfed home. And NYCFC are stuck playing pinball in Yankee Stadium’s cozy confines because their fantastically flush owners are too cheap to pay to play the real estate game in the country’s most expensive city. 

When the old NY Cosmos-led NASL folded in 1985 it left nothing behind save memories. If MLS has one legacy, then it’s the string of soccer specific stadiums spread all over Canada and the US. So even if MLS were to suffer the NASL’s fate, all the soccer specific stadiums built around the US and Canada ensure that pro soccer is here to stay. 

Every defense of MLS begins and ends by citing its healthy attendance numbers. Hearty home support is great. But MLS is trending more toward Major Baseball’s regional appeal rather than the NBA’s national, and international, appeal. 

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