With the arrival of Spring comes a multitude of exciting beginnings in the world of sports. The start of baseball is right around the corner, the NHL playoffs begin to take shape and there’s the inevitable realization of March Madness fans around the country that they have always hated Duke.
Off to the side, Major League Soccer, the US’s professional soccer league, begins its season relatively quietly. There is no billion-dollar wager for a perfect prediction of the season nor is there constant ESPN coverage of individual players signing new contracts. This is a major problem for the MLS.
Since its inception, the MLS has always seemed to be in the shadow of other American sports industries: the National Football League, National Hockey League and Major League Baseball are all globally recognized brands that represent prestige and excellence in their respective sport.
The MLS, however, is not even considered close to the top leagues of soccer in Europe or Central/South America. It has recently earned the description of being a “retirement league” for aging stars from European leagues. While this description is certainly harsh, there is a very strong truth behind it.
In 2006, the MLS was by no means a growing and popular league. To change this, the executives of the league resolved to create the role of the Designated Player (DP). This rule is also referred to as the “Beckham Rule” due to its creation leading to the signing of superstar David Beckham by the LA Galaxy. What this rule did was that it allowed separate MLS clubs to sign players whose wages would be above the team’s salary cap set by the MLS.
Essentially, it allowed clubs to engage in high stake bidding wars to attract top–and expensive–talent from the rest of the world. Since its creation, the Designated Player role has had ever-increasing success for the MLS, bringing in talent like Robbie Keane, Landon Donovan, Steven Gerrard, Sebastian Giovinco, Andrea Pirlo, David Villa and many more.
With all the talent that has migrated to the MLS, the quality of soccer has risen, and so has the popularity of the league with fans across the United States. The creation of the DP has undoubtedly been a boon for the MLS brand. However, at the same time, it has also seemed to damage the image of the league abroad.
Almost all of the Designated Players that have been signed are in the twilight of their careers and are past their prime. While playing perfectly into European snobbery and confirmation bias about the inferiority of American soccer, the fact that these players come to the MLS after their glory days speaks loudly about the quality of soccer here in the USA.
This represents the main problem that the MLS now faces. It has improved its image drastically and increased its fan base tremendously. Now, however, the MLS must seek out a means to improve the quality of soccer among each individual team.
Achieving this goal will require a much different approach than just buying players from overseas. There must also be an improvement in the development of homegrown players back in the United States. Significant progress has been made in this area so far, with the creation of the U.S. Youth Academy system with MLS-sponsored academy teams.
In the next few years, the products of these academy teams will hopefully begin to filter their way onto MLS teams from their respective college careers. These players, having received intense training and attention throughout their youth careers, will ideally be higher quality players that raise the level of the MLS.
As of now, it appears that the model that the MLS is following is on track to significantly raise both the quality of play as well as the popularity of the league.
As more American talent proliferates throughout, and potentially moves abroad, there will simply be more awareness of the sport of soccer in the general populace. The MLS and its executive commissioner Don Garber have shown that they have the impetus and resources to provide whatever is needed to ensure the constant growth of the league. In the next 20, maybe even 10, years it is very conceivable to see the MLS reaching the same marketing size as other sports franchises in the United States, like the NHL, MLB or NBA.
The average attendance at a regular MLS match is already higher than that of a hockey or basketball gameso it is easy to conceive that the market power behind those leagues will soon shift to the MLS as sports companies themselves shift to meet the increasing demand.
In the long term, say 20 or more years, the quality of play in the MLS will drastically improve. The league will continue to bring in foreign stars, but eventually the quality of homegrown players will hopefully reach the point where these stars can’t halfheartedly step into a starting spot on most of these MLS clubs. It will be competitive. With its smart business model, the MLS has set itself on a path to success in both its market share of American sports and on the international soccer stage.