Major League Soccer, Major Potential
Back in 2011, the commissioner of Major League Soccer (MLS), Don Garber, claimed that the US football league would be one of the best in the world by 2022. He repeated his claims in 2013 and 2015 and his views were echoed by other significant figures in the league including the Inter Miami co-owner who believed its status would surpass European leagues such as Serie A.
As 2022 approaches, this blog will explore how the MLS has fared against these bold predictions made a decade ago. I will first explain the current status and development of the MLS and the signs of hope for the future as well as the obstacles it faces as a fledgling league.
In the Beginning
The USA prepared to host the 1994 FIFA world cup without an established elite national soccer league. This forced the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) to create the MLS in 1993, although the first season of the league did not occur until 1996. The first season consisted of just 10 teams and was won by DC United.
Rather than traditional teams as per the European football leagues, the MLS consists of franchises. The most successful franchise to date is LA Galaxy, based in Los Angeles, California, claiming five MLS titles since its formation.
The MLS has come to be seen as something of a ‘retirement home’ for some big names in football towards the back end of their career. Superstars such as Wayne Rooney, David Beckham, David Villa, Frank Lampard and Zlatan Ibrahimovic have graced the league with their presence. I will analyse the implications of this reputation in the next sections of the blog.
Can It Really Compete as a Top Football League?
Now in 2021, the number of franchises in the MLS has risen to 27. Charlotte FC are the most recent addition to the league and paid an admission fee of $325million. This shows the increasing monetary value of being a part of the MLS as back in 2013, New York City FC broke the record for a franchise admission cost when they paid just $100million to be a part of the league.
There are several other areas where the MLS has experienced significant financial growth. The league is in its final year of a five-year media and broadcasting rights contract with ESPN, Fox and Univision to televise matches. The deal has been worth $90million annually since 2015 but the hope is the next year the new deal with be considerably higher and perhaps might add to the argument that the MLS will soon be competing with the best leagues in the world. They have also signed a major sponsorship partnership with Procter and Gamble worth somewhere between $80m and $100m for the next five years. Major investments such as this will assist in propelling the MLS towards fulfilling its potential and make positive movements towards Don Garber’s mission to be one of the best global football leagues. The value of individual franchises is also on the rise. The rapper, Yo Gotti, recently invested into DC United after their valuation projection was reported as $730million, demonstrating the potential for the MLS’ franchises to become football powerhouses.
The fanbase of the MLS continues to rise. Although there has only been a small rise in average game attendance since the inaugural MLS season, from 17,400 in 1996, to 21,900 in 2021, this is partly due to an increase in the number of franchises funnelling soccer fans to different games. The overall number of those attending MLS games is undoubtedly rising. A major factor in the growth of soccer in the United States is the growth in the Hispanic population which is expected to make up 28% of the national demographic by 2060 and consequently will cause a significant further growth in the popularity of the MLS. The expansion of the MLS fanbase, media coverage, social media presence and investment opportunities all provide an excited foundation to help a league grow and fulfil its potential.
One of the most important opportunities for the MLS to utilize if it is ever to reach the claims that it will become one of the world’s best leagues, is the 2026 FIFA World Cup which returns to the states for the first time since 1994. When the world cup last came to the US, the MLS didn’t exist so there was no league to promote and place into the global spotlight. This time, it is imperative that the World Cup is used as a vital opportunity to promote and demonstrate the potential of the MLS by boasting its impressive stadiums and devoted fanbase. If the rest of the world is able to see the MLS as the global competing league that it is hoped to be, it stands a better chance of reaching these heights.
The US is not known for the MLS and ‘soccer’ as the primary national sport. Basketball, American Football, Baseball and Ice Hockey all compete alongside soccer for the sporting spotlight in the States. This could be part of the reason for lower attendances as sports fans divide their time between other sports. In the UK for example, football is by far the most popular sport ahead of cricket and rugby. This has allowed the Premier League to become such a successful competition with huge financial and commercial value.
One of the biggest constraints that the MLS faces is its enforcement of a salary cap. This means that franchises are unable to pay the wages demanded of the best footballing talent. The average player in the Premier League is paid over £3million per year, the MLS is far behind with players earning an average of just $312,000 annually. The league is therefore less likely to attract the biggest names in the game at the peak of their career and instead offers them a final couple of years at the end of their career, as was the case for the names I previously mentioned. However, whilst it is a benefit that ‘legends’ of the game eventually end up in the MLS, there is an argument to be made that this actually provides another difficulty for its growth. 57% of players in the MLS are foreign, perhaps this high statistic prevents home grown players breaking into the league and competing at the highest level. For those that are good enough, such as Chelsea’s Christian Pulisic, they are more likely to move to a better league rather than helping to raise the standard of the MLS.
One way in which the MLS would be a more attractive option for home grown talent is for it to have a greater financial and commercial value. The league currently lacks significant investments. This is demonstrated by the fact that the television and broadcasting rights of $90million annually is under half of what NBC pay to show the English Premier League games in the US. It is also problematic that shirt sponsor deals are only worth around $4million in the MLS compared to over $20million for most of the top European clubs. Finally, the overall market value of the league shows there is a long way to go to compete as a world-leading league. TransferMarkt values the MLS at £905million whereas the Premier League is £8.17billion.
In the final section I have demonstrated that there is a large gulf between the MLS and the best current global football leagues. There are obstacles that are restricting the ability of the league to fulfil its potential. However, I have also shown that the MLS is not without hope. The claims that it will one day be one of the best leagues in the world are ambitious but not completely unrealistic.
If the league is able to attract greater financial investment and grow its fanbase, the MLS will go some way in fulfilling the potential that it has. The World Cup in 2026 is a fantastic opportunity for the US to show the world that football has a strong foothold as a leading sport in the country. It is vital that the league capitalizes on this opportunity and reap the rewards of having the eyes if the football world on them.
In my opinion, I project that the MLS will indeed compete as one of the best three leagues in the world by 2026, after the Premier League and possibly on a par with La Liga.
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