MLS Has A 2022 Problem
MLS is in the odd position of having a publicly stated goal—be a "top league" by 2022—its entire business and development structure is designed to prevent.
Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
By 2022, Major League Soccer wants to be one of the best leagues in the world. Commissioner Don Garber said so in 2011, as did former MLS executive vice president Nelson Rodriquez. Garber echoed those sentiments in 2013 and again in 2015. Mark Abbott, the league's president and deputy commissioner, reiterated the goal to me in a phone call recently, saying "It's important for any organization to have ambitious goals to communicate to our fans our commitment and it also let's everyone associated with the league and its clubs know what they need to do every day."
This is, to be sure, an ambitious goal. In 2022, MLS will be less than 30 years old, and just two decades out from contracting two teams before the 2002 season (a move that probably saved the league). That's little time to grow into a world power, especially considering the history of the world's other major leagues. Italy's Serie A started in 1898. Spain's La Liga counts 1929 as its first season. The Bundesliga in Germany started in 1963, but the national association, Deutscher Fußball Bund, was founded in 1900—VfB Leipzig beat DFC Prague to claim the first national championship in 1903. While the English Premier League only dates to 1992, the English football league tradition goes back to 1888. Closer to home, Mexico's Liga MX began in 1943.
It's an understandable ambition, too. It's a nice talking point, a goal that sounds good while also being vague enough to seem like a realistic outcome. According to Abbott, the focus is on improving four factors: relevance, quality of play, passion of fans, and value of enterprise. There's no formal definition of what "one of the world's best" actually means. Read between the lines and it's something like being among the top five or six leagues in Europe and the Mexican league. Americans want to watch the best, to root for the best, to have the best, and Garber et al can tell them MLS will be one of the best with a straight face. Shoot for the moon and you'll land among the stars.
But there's a flip-side to that outsized ambition, one that directly detracts from the growth and success that the league is currently having—and will continue to have. By sticking to a deadline to be a top league, MLS undermines its own structure which is set up for slow, steady improvement.
By pretty much any metric you choose, MLS gets a little bit better every year. Per game attendance grows. The salary cap rises. Median salaries increase. The television experience improves (even if ratings don't). They've expanded smartly, into growing markets desperate for professional teams. More players figure on their national teams. Sebastian Giovinco does stuff like this:
This isn't to say that MLS is a great league. They still make up rules, pay middling players too little, and have a loose definition of "salary cap." Teams make bad Designated Player signings like Frank Lampard, helping fuel claims that MLS is a retirement league for high-profile Europeans. Italian manager Antonio Conte said Giovinco and Andrea Pirlo didn't make his team for the European Championship because they play in MLS. United States head coach Jurgen Klinsmann hasn't been entirely supportive, either. New York City FC, which could be one of the premier squads, plays on a postage stamp-size field at Yankee Stadium and they aren't moving any time soon. Their captain, David Villa, did this:
To be sure, MLS has issues, but it's an infinitely better league than it was 20 years ago or even 10 years ago. Abbott points out, correctly, that it's even a dramatically better league than it was six and a half years ago, the same time span between today and 2022. It's not, however, one of the best leagues in the world. Nor is it particularly close to being one. Rhetoric is one thing, action is quite another. "[There's a lack of] consistency between the stated goals and what they are actually doing," Stefan Szymanski, an economist at the University of Michigan and frequent soccer writer, says. "Clearly there's a difference."
MLS executives say they want to be a great league. The decision-making, however, indicates something different, especially when it comes to salary. To truly compete on the world stage, domestic teams would need to pump tremendous resources into buying players. The average salary for a player at Chelsea – the club with the seventh-highest average salary – is $7.46 million. That's nearly half a million more than Kaká, MLS's highest paid player.
MLS could become a top league. "You can buy popularity if you're willing to spend money," Szymanski says. "If you want to throw $10, $20 billion at U.S. soccer in the next 10 years, you would turn this into one of the major leagues in the world. I don't have any doubt about that. The buzz would be enormous. But you wouldn't get that money back."
In other words, MLS could burn brightly, briefly. It could be more like leagues in Australia and Russia (and perhaps China in the near future), which have struggled to keep up with dramatically rising wage bills. Take Russia: team owners spent billions of their own money – $100 million on Hulk and Axel Witsel; making Samuel Eto'o the highest-paid player in the world – making the average salary the sixth-highest in the world. What happened? The economy took a hit, the billionaire funders stopped funding, and the league collapsed.
Instead MLS goes the other way, keeping salaries artificially depressed in an effort to curb spending and limit losses. It's not the most exciting plan, but it is a sensible one, and is supported by the league's business model. The single-entity structure of MLS is a response to the North American Soccer League, which collapsed under the weight of precisely that spend-big-and-shine-bright approach: oversized contracts handed out to players who couldn't create ROI on or off the field. MLS is in the odd position of having a publicly stated goal that its entire business and development structure is designed to prevent.
And yet, everyone associated with the league says MLS wants to be a top league by 2022. "Without that type of ambition, MLS would not be where they are today," Abbott says. He's right. But MLS won't get there, and by filtering the modest gains MLS makes – on the field, off the field, in the broadcast booth, in sponsorship – through the lens of a seemingly impossible standard, the league sets itself up for failure. It loses before the conversation even begins. For a league fighting to grow its reputation, this is a difficult starting point.