Why European Ways Won't Work In MLS

If you constantly read everything you can about MLS like I do you'll see them in the comments section.  Go on to a forum and read for a while and you'll see posts by them.  What many people refer to as "Eurosnobs."

Eurosnobs basically argue that MLS would be infinitely better if we "did it like Europe."  If only every MLS club acted like Manchester United and Barcelona, we would be a shining beacon of soccer to the world.  The United States would dominate the world of soccer as it does in virtually every other sport and everything would be awesome.

But would it?

Here is the thing, I'm not adverse to MLS changing, but I believe the change should make sense.  Don't fix what ain't broke, if you know what I'm saying. 

However, complaints are still routinely addressed to not only Don Garber and MLS but to the fans of various clubs in MLS as well.  I will post a few arguments that I've heard about what MLS should do by these people and then systematically destroy them. I'm not doing this out of malice towards the so called "Eurosnobs" but merely to point out the obvious flaws in what it is that they're asking for.

1. Abolish the Salary Cap

A few days ago I posted a blog that said I felt the cap should expand in order to allow MLS teams to bring in more and better talent.  I still believe that strongly, I don't advocate destroying the cap altogether.

I don't even need to really pose hypothetical scenarios here, this sort of thing was done once before.  In the North American Soccer League. 

Back then the New York Cosmos flexed a ton of financial power due to owner Steve Ross. The excellent documentary Once in a Lifetime - The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos details how the New York Cosmos made soccer an amazing thing to watch but also destroyed the NASL in the process.

Basically what happens is that you end up with the haves, and have nots.   The haves buy the best talent whether they can afford it or not (we'll get to that) and the have nots try to scrape what they can together before their best talent is bought by the bigger clubs, more cash heavy clubs.

When the Cosmos were bringing names like Beckenbauer and Pele to the table.  What exactly were teams like the Houston Hurricanes supposed to do to counteract that?

The simple answer? They couldn't. 

The long answer? They couldn't but they tried.

You see, a lack of a salary cap means a lack of parity and out of control spending on the part of the clubs in the league.  Let's say that after this season MLS abolished the salary cap, what teams do you think would spend the big bucks? Seattle, Los Angeles, and New York probably.  Seattle due to their income from their massive crowds, Los Angeles and New York because both have deep pockets due to their owners.  The other teams might make a valiant attempt, but simply don't have the operating income of those franchises. 

Franchises like Columbus, San Jose, & Dallas who don't have a massive amount of support wouldn't be able to keep up, but they'd try and they would go so far into the red they'd practically drown in the ink from it. 

For example, Barcelona, which is widely considered to be the best club on Earth right now took out a loan of $195 million in order to pay it's salaries.  It's debt as reported by ESPN Columnist Leander Schaerlaeckens was $578 million.

$578 Million

And they're not even the highest in the world in terms of debt.


But the problem is, is that Barcelona is stuck, they can't NOT spend because they wouldn't be able to beat Real Madrid then (Madrid's own debt is $414 million by the way).  The problem isn't that both clubs spend, its that they can't stop.  They can't stop because they're afraid of not being competitive, the cycle drives them to spend money to do well, if they don't do as well as they or their fans think they should, they spend more money to do better which makes the other clubs spend more to keep up, which of course means more expensive players, which means you need to get more loans but in order to pay those loans you have to have a good team on the field to keep the fans coming and the merchandise flowing and thus it starts again.

MLS has made no secret of the fact that their plan is long term growth.  MLS is a minnow compared to the behemoths in Europe, however the fact remains that from it's inception, MLS was basically made out to be an organization that tries to keep it's clubs working.

Going back to Europe, when a club spends money it doesn't have, it's basically staving off the inevitable.  Eventually the debt must either be paid off or defaulted upon.  Clubs like Manchester United can make more money due to merchandising sales or what have you but smaller clubs can not.

One issue being is that rather than try to be more responsible with their finances, clubs look for owners with deep pockets.  Clubs like Chelsea owned by russian billionaire Roman Abramovich who basically gives the club money in order to cover it's debt, or Manchester City which no one seemed to really care about until it was purchased by a Abu Dhabi based group headed by Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan and began to spend, spend, spend to both pay off debt and to bring in  better players which of course, only sets up the cycle again.

The cycle of haves and have nots has pretty much ensured that only the clubs with the most money in the European Leagues will actually be competitive.  Seriously, how many of you actually believe that Norwich City has a shot of winning the Premier League this season? 

The salary cap ensures competitiveness between teams in MLS.  Teams sometimes have to make tough choices between keeping this player or that one, it actually makes the offseason rather compelling to follow.   It means that this year, might be the year your team makes the playoffs and makes the run through to MLS Cup.  It means that every season is actually competitive and not just picking which of the same teams might win it (Hello there Europe).

2. Get rid of the playoffs/Institute a single table

European fans don't like the playoffs, they hate the playoffs.  "If only MLS had a single table!" they cry, "If only they were more like the rest of the world the league would be better!"

Unfortunately, we have to think realistically here.  No other sport in the United States has a single table.  Every other major sport, NFL, MLB, NBA, & NHL.  Have regional divisions as well as conferences.  MLS only has conferences, but if it manages to crest the 20+ club mark, I could easily see MLS start dividing the the conferences up into divisions. 

Such things are nessecary evils.  You can't sell a completely foreign concept to the masses of the United States right away.  Getting rid of the playoffs also ensures that many, MANY games become essentially worthless.  For example, on October 8th of this season, the Philadelphia Union defeated the the Seattle Sounders 2-0.  This result clinched the Supporter's Shield (the best overall record in MLS) for the Los Angeles Galaxy

The last season game was of course played around October 31st. 

Imagine if you crown a champion of your league and then proceed to have an entire month of games that are essentially nothing more than your team being able to say, "Well at least we finished 5th!"

How exciting.

People might argue that clubs in the EPL or La Liga fight to the very last day of the season and yes they do...for European competition spots. 

Seriously, the clubs duke it out to finish higher so that they can play in the UEFA Champions League or Europa League spots.  This isn't a matter of pride but of money, they try and do better because they get money in order to finish in certain places in Euro competitions.  However, the amusing thing is, is that this is a form of playoffs that many seem to refuse to acknowledge.  MLS just expanded the concept and made the playoffs matter for who wins the league.

Seriously, how many of you MLS fans weren't on the edge of your seats on the last day of the season? Hoping, just hoping that your team might get a better playoff seed or even make the playoffs at all? You do away with the playoff structure, you lose all of that tension and drama at the end of the season. 

3. Move to a Winter to Spring Schedule

Currently MLS uses a unique schedule system where the season is played from Spring to Fall.  This is a complete difference from a majority of the world that plays their season Fall to Spring.  There are exceptions (like the Mexican Season which is broken up in to two "halfs") but generally, MLS is one of the few soccer leagues that play through the summer rather than the winter.

FIFA doesn't care for this, they've made noises that MLS should move to a schedule more "in line" with the rest of the world's leagues.  However, here is something that is not considered by many people.

If MLS switches to a winter schedule it creates a few problems.

The first being is that the weather in many parts of the country where there are teams (Seattle, Vancouver, New England for example) tends to get very, very cold during the winter.  To the point where a league trying to nab as many fans as it can is going to have a difficult time selling itself to people who are on the fence about the league.  Yes, people will gladly show up huge numbers in 10 below zero weather for Eagles or Packers games, but not for the Union, not yet at least. 

Furthermore, if your league plays during the summer, its major competitor is the MLB for the most part.  Now yes, MLS season does run partially through some leagues, NFL, NHL, NBA, and NCAA Football.  However, MLS doesn't try to compete with those leagues for fans or tv viewership, they can't and possibly may never be able to.  It would be suicide for the league to switch to a winter schedule and try to draw huge crowds during NFL or NCAA gamedays.  You're not going to get the same attendance.

At least during the summer the major competitor, the MLB, has so many games that really,  how many of you actually watched every single one of your team's 162 games last season? Its not a big deal to miss the Phillies playing on TV to go see the Union.  There are some fans that would have to choose between the Eagles or the Union and I'm not totally convinced that the Union would win with quite a few people.

Many European leagues don't really have the same kind of heavy hitting competition for fans or money that MLS does.  It's foolish to pretend that MLS could compete with the major leagues for viewership at the moment.

4. Move to Promotion/Relegation

You knew it was coming.  I was saving it.  Seriously, how many times have you heard "MLS needs to institute pro/rel!" from people? If I had a nickle for every time I've heard it, I would be able to plunk down cash for the 20th MLS franchise and still have enough to build my own stadium.

For those of you who don't know, Promotion/Relegation is the system where you have the worst three clubs sent down to the next tier of play while the top team three teams of said lower league are promoted up. 

The idea theoretically enables the "best" level of talent to stay in the top leagues, the best teams will stay in the top tier of play while the ones who slack off will drop down and be bumped out.  In theory its a decent system.

However, lets realize something here, there are a few fundamental differences between the United States and the rest of Europe. 

First of all, you can drop Great Britain into the United States and never see it again.  When a team is relegated in Britain it doesn't really have to concern itself with travel costs.  From New York to Los Angeles it is roughly 3,000 miles.  From Newcastle to London, it is a mere 280 Miles.  Teams in Britain routinely use buses in order to travel to each stadium.  You aren't going to be able to swing that in the United States, unless you're talking distances between Philadelphia, DC and New York. 

Travel costs in MLS are going to be higher for it's domestic games, not everyone can afford that, which brings me to my next point about it.

MLS would hemorrhage money with Pro/Rel. 

Currently, MLS uses a franchise system like every other major sporting league in the United States.  What this means is that as an owner, you pay a fee for a franchise to be awarded to you and your city and you are in the top tier of American Soccer until your club either dissolves or you sell it.  There is no risk to be relegated to a lower league so you stand to gain maximum profit in MLS system. 

However, let's say that tomorrow MLS instituted Pro/Rel, they immediately say that the teams with the fewest 3 points will be relegated to a secondary league that we shall call MLS 2 for MLS 2nd Division.

The three teams (not including Montreal in this) relegated would be, New England Revolution, Toronto FC, and Vancouver Whitecaps

Now you tell me, what exactly do you think would happen to the attendance and profits of the first two clubs? It's not exactly a secret that New England have had attendance issues (due to quality on the field and owner apathy) and Toronto FC fans have been getting rather upset with the fact that their team hasn't made the post season since they came into existence. 

Relegating both clubs would essentially kill them, I can't see New England or Toronto FC fans showing up in droves to watch them take on the Carolina Railhawks or FC Edmonton. 

Vancouver you could argue would get a pass, but really, how fired up do you think their new fan base would be if they suddenly were knocked into the second tier of competition after their first season?

Furthermore, let's suppose your an owner, you paid upwards of $50 Million dollars in order to get your franchise established, suddenly the league says, "Guess what? Your team isn't good enough to play with ours so have fun against the lesser tier clubs." 

You would be pissed. The loss of fans, revenue, etc would hit you right in the wallet.  For those of you who say, "Owners should own soccer clubs because they want to, not to make money," I will say to you that maybe you should get a glass of milk and go back to bed and dream of what Santa Claus will be bringing you this Christmas because everything in sports is about money. No amount of idealism will change that. Money drives the sporting world and to think otherwise is plain foolish.

Furthermore, going back to my mentioning of travel costs, do you think some of those smaller clubs could afford to travel all over the United States and Canada every week? Do you honestly think that the Rochester Rhinos have the cash to spend on flights to LA & Seattle rountinely?

Furthermore, there is a the very big elephant in the room as to what do you do if say the New York Red Bulls or Los Angeles Galaxy were ever relegated? 

Both are considered "marquee" franchises, because of the fact that both sit in the first and second largest media markets in the United States.  You bump either down to a lower level of play, you honestly think that media coverage, sparse as it is now, is going to to do a big story when the Carolina Railhawks come to town?

Such a move would cause irreperable harm to both the clubs and the league.  There isn't a ton of support here for clubs like say, Newcastle United which could weather a relegation and come back a season later (which it did).

5. Adopting Any of the Above in the Future

Here is where I wrap this whole thing up.  People have said, "Well, we can't have _______ now, but maybe in a few years."

Okay, fair enough. 

But the question I have for that is why would they at that point?

Think about it like this, if MLS is around by, oh... say 2026 which would be the 30th Anniversary year of it's first kick off.  Why would they?  By that point MLS would be considered a more "established" league, it's survival would have come not because of European methods, but because of it's own.  Why would the commissioner and the owners suddenly switch gears? 

Think about it, let's say MLS keeps growing in popularity, and the United States gets the World Cup host in 2026 (why they should bid for it, I'll detail in another blog).  Attention on the sport would be at an all time high and MLS could easily grab more casual fans that give the sport a chance due to the World Cup.  MLS has shown that it's gaining ground and the hardcore fans are slowly converting the on the fence people.  By 2026 the league going under won't be a concern anymore, it will be a part of the culture.  The young kids that first saw Sebastien Le Toux's hat trick at Lincoln Financial Field or witnessed the plucky Philadelphia Union take on mighty Real Madrid would now be adults and in love with the franchise that they grew up with. 

What some people don't realize is that you build up support through years, even decades of fans that get their children into the team and so on.  The first generation of MLS fans that saw the teams through the "dark" years of the late 90s and early 2000s are giving way to the new generation of fan that loves their team as much as they love their other major sports teams.  MLS is forging it's own identity and trying to emulate the rest of the world will only serve to alienate the fans that MLS has built up through the years. 

There are numerous kids at the college I currently attend that recognize the Philadelphia Union and support the team.  Those are future season ticket holders, those are the future family members that will head down to PPL and their kids will come with them and scream just as loudly as mom or dad because they grew up loving the team with their parents. 

MLS has an amazing future ahead of it and should continue forging it's own identity, not looking towards the past and trying to emulate leagues that in many ways are broken is not an example that should be followed.

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