Before you can compare MLS to other pro soccer leagues, you have to comprehend the local dynamics and the history of MLS. MLS was born in December 1993 as a result of one of prerequisites by FIFA for awarding the 1994 World Cup to the USA. In a country without a proper amateur/semipro/pro league structure and with memories of the financial disaster of the NASL still intact, U.S. Soccer had no option but to choose the top-down approach -- let us create the tier 1 league and then worry about the rest -- and a very sound financial model.
Since they had no other models to follow,
they were inspired or guided by the principles of big four: NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL. Hence the MLS was born with a lot of similarities to the other professional leagues in the USA. Couldn’t
they have been inspired by the EPL or La Liga model? It is difficult to say even with hindsight.
Let us look at MLS today after 24 years. It has now 22 clubs from two countries and
is planning on expanding. It had started with 10 clubs in 1996. MLS’s total revenue ($461 million) ranks it 18th among the
professional leagues of the world. The average attendance in 2015 of MLS was over 21,000, ranking it at the sixth spot among its peers. Although we cannot tell the
financial status of each individual club since they are privately owned, MLS from the business perspective looks like a success story.
One should realize that the total revenue of the
four big Northern American Leagues surpass the total revenue of the 15 leading soccer leagues of the world. Hence they are extremely successful business models. But these four leagues have no
competition globally on the field. Some people detest the fact that winners of these leagues are proclaimed as world champions; unfortunately that is a reality even though the four leagues only have North American teams.
On the other hand from a “soccer” point of view, MLS
is far away from a success story. Still an MLS team has to win a Concacaf Champions League trophy; all the past glories belong to Liga MX teams. MLS is still looked as a retirement league by the
Let us compare MLS with the rest of the soccer leagues from different vintage points. Since 2003, MLS quit the process of “Americanizing” the Laws of
the Game. Unlike the other four sports, the rules of the game are not decided by the owners. MLS decided in 2003 to go global in this area although the PRO initiative is a bit unorthodox governance
approach to officiating compared to other soccer leagues.
All professional teams in the USA are governed by the “ownership” model with a few exceptions like the Packers. One
might thing that elsewhere the same is true. The ownership model is also true in England and Italy. This model is referenced as the Anglo-Saxon model of governance. Elsewhere in Europe, the
“member association” model is still predominant. The soccer giants like Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid are governed by presidents elected by the membership. Although there is a
tendency in recent years in Europe to adopt the “Anglo-Saxon” ownership model.
MLS is one of the few leagues in the world that doesn’t utilize promotion-relegation. The
only other major league that doesn’t have promotion-relegation is the Australian A-League. There are other similarities between the USA and Australia with respect to soccer. First of all, in
both countries the game is called “soccer.” In both countries, in terms of revenue, there are at least four other major sports that come before soccer. So you might see a common
justification for saying no to promotion-relegation.
I will not talk too much about promotion-relegation in this country. It is something every lover of the game wants but knows that it
is nearly impossible to implement in the near future. The argument that the owners would not want their teams to be relegated for which they spent millions of dollars is a valid one. On the other hand
an investor buying a team in Europe and spending millions of dollars face the same dilemma, but he/she still makes the investment even though the team might be relegated.
Wilt wrote an excellent article about the future possibilities of promotion-relegation; the interested reader
can benefit a lot from that article. Recently USL announced that it is planning in developing a
Division 3 league. This gives us hope that eventually there might be promotion/relegation in the lower leagues. Anyway a country the size of Europe and with a population of 324 million should have
more than 70 professional clubs.
A food for thought: One can understand the reasons for MLS not being favor of promotion-relegation because of the relegation part. How about the promotion
part? Couldn’t the winner of NASL and USL (if it is not a MLS affiliate) be offered the next expansion slot with a reduced franchising fee? Naturally, this could be executed if the club met the
stadium criteria or promised to do so. Sorry, I forgot that MLS is a business entity. Why should they reduce the expansion fee for a club that was successful on the field? There are other clubs or
owners waiting in line to pay the full expansion fee with no history of soccer operations or successes on the field.
MLS also uses the playoff model to decide the champion like the big
four leagues. They give a Supporters' Shield to the winner of the regular season. Unlike in the rest of the world, the MLS Cup winner is considered the “real” winner and not the
regular-season winner. The only major league in Europe that utilizes the playoff system is the Belgium League. The playoff system is Belgium is not a knockout competition. The top six teams at
the end of the season play a min- league with points borrowed from the final standings. If the playoff system has to be utilized, the Belgium model seems to be a fairer and more enjoyable method of
determining the overall champion. Look at the soccer quality of the last MLS Cup final and decide for yourself. Is that the game I am in love with? MLS can do a similar playoff. The first eight in the
regular season can play a mini league. The first-place finisher can start the mini-league with eight points and the 8th with one point. There will be more games in this format but less teams compared
to the current play-off format. Through this playoff model, your success in the regular season can be carried into the playoffs more than having the home-field advantage. At least through this system
MLS will be more in line with the rest of the world giving the deserved credit to the regular season.
Another non-standard approach is to have games during the international
window. The MLS season is shorter than the average European League. The March through October season causes serious problems during World Cup and Copa America years. Although the number of
games played during the international window has decreased in the recent years, still we have MLS games in which some of the best players cannot play due to commitments to the national teams. MLS can
either consider extending the duration of the league or switch it to fall through summer season with an extended winter break to accommodate the harsh winters of North America.
these deviations from the international practices are to make the MLS which is a business entity prosperous and profitable. For the owners, that is what is important. Through this system, the player
development and the quality of the game is a secondary issue. The big four leagues do not have a player development or quality of the game issue. They have the best players in the world in their
leagues, the USA develops some of the best athletes in football, baseball, basketball and ice hockey and the leagues have the highest quality attainable. Unfortunately, that is not true for MLS. The
best players of the world will not and do not come to MLS until MLS is a global soccer powerhouse. The best soccer players are not developed in the USA.
The only way to increase the
quality of soccer in MLS is through local player development. Parallel to an increase in soccer quality, the revenues of MLS will increase. Then MLS might become a soccer powerhouse. Then you can see
Lionel Messis, Cristiano Ronaldos playing in MLS during their prime times.
Although the primary goal of the owners of MLS might not be player development, it is the primary
goal and mission of U.S. Soccer. That is the only reason for their existence.
Ahmet Guvener (email@example.com)
is the former Secretary General and the Technical Director of the Turkish FA. He was also the Head of Refereeing for the Turkish FA. He served as Panel member for the FIFA Panel of Referee Instructors
and UEFA Referee Convention. He now lives and works as a soccer consultant in Austin, Texas.