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Major League Soccer and the Rest of the World in 2022

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J Hutcherson -

WASHINGTON, DC (Jan 18, 2013) US Soccer Players – Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber’s introductory speech at Thursday’s MLS SuperDraft in Indianapolis was what we’ve come to expect from the League. It was heavy on the self-congratulatory moments, short on specifics, and way too long. The offshoot from Garber’s words is what we’ve been hearing for years with a more recent twist. The League might be in growth mode, but it’s aiming to be elite within a decade. 2022 looms, the target date for MLS to be able to say that this League is among the world’s best. We’re assuming that’s without a long list of caveats.

What that requires in practice starts with figuring out player recruitment and compensation. It would require a transformation from MLS’s version of single-entity into something closer to what we see from other leagues in and out of soccer. Short of an equally transformative moment across Europe and South America, no league is likely to push into that elite level with single-entity in place along with a one-sided approach to the transfer system. You have to pay to play in other club-centered leagues, something MLS normally tries to avoid by encouraging transfer targets to get out of their existing contracts. Those selling teams would undoubtedly prefer dealing with individual clubs in competition with each other rather than a monolithic league representing multiple clubs.

MLS might have a hedge here. Financial Fair Play could be such a disruptive moment in European soccer that it changes everything. That’s not empty hyperbole. Should financial reform reset the European game, it also affects South America, Africa, North America, and everywhere else European clubs go in search of talent. It’s the price of being the global leader in professional club soccer, potentially destabilizing the game in a way that would allow a plucky North American league to improve its standard. Then again, that’s a fairly significant hedge.

What’s far more reasonable is MLS attempting to push its way up the world professional table under modified, but practically the same, circumstances we have now. It would be quite the achievement for MLS to accomplish this through nothing more than inertia. More reasonably, it’s going to take a different league than the one we know to push into the big time. Defining what that means is easy. It’s attendance, television ratings and the broadcast deals high ratings bring, along with sponsorship. At the same time, it’s spending at a commiserate level with the revenue the league and its clubs generate.

That’s the problem for MLS right now. As a single-entity league, the numbers whether good or bad are naturally skewed. We’ve seen individual clubs wonder aloud as to why they have to be constrained by the unwillingness of other MLS clubs to spend. We’ve seen clubs attempt to redefine themselves within single-entity as more than MLS business as usual. We’ve seen one lower division club directly challenge the MLS model during SuperDraft week. We’ve also seen MLS stick to the same plot that whatever they’re doing in the moment has to be the right move.

An example of that insistence is the SuperDraft coverage itself. Instead of an increasingly uneventful annual event that shouldn’t rank all that high even in the lonely month of January, dropped from national cable coverage, it’s an attempt to reinvent how major events are distributed. In other words, the League streamed its draft on the internet. I’ll admit that doesn’t sound as impressive.

Meanwhile, the New York Cosmos are once again pointing in a different direction for American pro soccer. It’s one that places the clubs before the league they play in, doing what’s best for an individual market and assuming that success helps the league. It also involves building a major soccer stadium in the New York area.

“We plan to develop an iconic project for the region and build a state-of-the-art stadium that will make Nassau County and the entire region proud,” Cosmos CEO Seamus O’Brien said in a press release. “Belmont is an ideal location and a win-win for everyone involved. Nassau County and Elmont will realize much needed economic growth, and local residents will have a year-round premier destination they can call their own.”

There’s the potential for competition in New York, a different version of selling soccer in New York than the one MLS is attempting to construct in Queens. In the bigger picture, it’s not just a competitive way forward to grow the professional sport in the country’s biggest market. It’s how things can change, and change quickly for any pro sports promotion.

Part of the challenge for MLS and it’s 2022 plans are the feeling that it’s based on nothing getting better for those leagues already at or near the top of the table. We’ve heard very little about how MLS sees Europe or other parts of the world in 2022. Is the expectation that things stay pretty much the same? What’s the MLS position on European soccer’s attempt at financial reform?

Does MLS see a radical reshuffling of traditional power structures? How about Mexico’s revamp and the rise of Liga MX? Do emerging countries take the same kind of small steps we’ve seen from MLS rather than the major push MLS promises? What about the North American pro sports marketplace? Does the League expect things to change here, allowing it the room to grow without fighting for ratings? What about the old footprint problem, with MLS absent in the Southeast?

In terms big and small, MLS put itself on the clock. Now, we’re all watching as it counts down to 2022.

J Hutcherson has been writing about soccer since 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at jhutcherson@usnstpa.com.

 

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