Commentary

Can MLS ever be a global league?

In 1964, Walter Neale wrote his famous article"The Peculiar Economics of Professional Sports." For those of you who do not wish to read a longish academic article, the following is what the article says in essence.

In the capitalist world, a capitalist’s dream is to have his/her product or service to be a monopoly. Once you have a monopoly, you can manage your market in any way you want. Naturally, there are laws against monopoly in this country and elsewhere that is not the issue. In professional sports, if you have a monopoly -- that is a team with no competitors -- then you are doomed for failure. Professional sports must rely on a very competitive marketplace.

This article prompted the inclusion of “salary cap” and the “draft” systems into the U.S. professional leagues. Through those and similar systems, the leagues tried to make sure that no team ever becomes a monopoly and dominate the league.

U.S. League
Champions
(last 30 years)
Teams
%
NFL 14 32 44
NBA 10 30 33
MLB 18 30 60
NHL 15 30 50

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If you look at the last 30 years of professional sports (NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL) in the USA, you will see that no team dominates the leagues more than a couple of years.  The highest percentage of number of champion teams over the number of teams in the league is in MLB with 60 percent. That is 60 percent of the teams in MLB won at least one World Series in the last 30 years. The worst is NBA. Only 33% percentage of the teams won the NBA Championship at least once.

It is a fact that the best athletes in those sports on the planet are in those four leagues; hence nobody questions the world championship title when you talk about football, basketball, baseball and ice hockey. Yes, the Cubs are world champions in baseball this year. The country either develops the best athletes or imports them from elsewhere.  None of teams dominate the four leagues, but the leagues dominate all the other leagues in football, basketball, baseball and ice hockey in the world. In a way, they are monopolies with very little or no competition elsewhere. Unfortunately, that is not case with soccer or MLS.

Let us look at Europe where the best club soccer is played and when a team wins the Champions League you can easily call that team “world soccer champions” although nobody does it in Europe. If you look at the five top leagues (ranked according to the revenue they generate) in Europe you will see a different scene compared to the USA.

Soccer League
Champions
(last 20 years)
Teams
%
EPL 5 20 25
Bundesliga 6 18 33
Ligue 1 9 20 45
La Liga 5 20 25
Serie A 5 20 25
MLS(*) 10 22 45
Soccer League
Champions
(last 10 years)
Teams
&
EPL 4 20 20
Bundesliga 4 18 22
Ligue 1 6 20 30
La Liga 3 20 15
Serie A 3 20 15
MLS(*) 7 22 32
*Supporters' Shield


For comparison I added the MLS to the table, though I have only included Supporter’s Shield winners so that we can compare oranges with oranges since none of the top five leagues employ a playoff system. The highest percentage is with the Ligue 1 (The French league) in terms of percentage of teams that won the championship. The percentages drop down in the last 10 years.  Although there are a couple of Cinderella stories like the Leicester City and Atletico Madrid, still the top 5 leagues in Europe (excluding Ligue 1) are dominated by a handful of clubs. MLS has a higher percentage than even Ligue 1, but that does not in any way indicate superiority in the quality of the game that you witness in the other four major professional leagues in our country.

If you now look at the crème de la crème of the soccer club competition in Europe, namely the Champions League, you witness a similar scene.

UCL Champions
Last 20 years
Last 10 years
Real Madrid 5 2
Barcelona 4 3
Man. Utd. 2 1
Bayern Munich 2 2
AC Milan 2 1
Inter Milan 1 1
Liverpool 1 0
Chelsea 1 0
Porto 1 0
Bor. Dortmund 1 0


The first observation is that the teams which won the UCL final in the last 20 years are from the top 4 leagues (EPL, Liga, Serie A and Bundesliga) except for Porto. There are only 10 teams from Europe which won this prestigious cup in the last 20 years. In the last 10 years, we see a dominance of Spanish teams. The EPL teams are dropping off as well as the Serie A teams. The 2016 UCL final was played between two Spanish teams. The last 16 teams in the 2017 UCL consist of top 5 teams (four from La Liga, three from the EPL and Bundesliga and two from Serie A and Ligue 1) and two from the Portuguese league. It appears nothing will change this year either. So the Top 5 leagues are dominated by a total of 20 teams in the last 20 years and the UCL by the top 5 leagues and the Portuguese league clubs.

Let us look into the second tier of soccer in Europe: The cup tournaments. For UEFA, the second tier is Europa League.

Europa League Champions (country)
Last 20 years
Last 10 years
Spain 8 6
England 2 1
Russia 2 1
Portugal 2 1
Italy 2 0
Ukraine 1 1
Germany 1 0
Netherlands 1 0
Turkey 1 0



In the last 20 years, the list of the champions of the Europa League is still dominated by the top 5 league teams -- especially Spain -- but there are clubs from other countries also. Let us not forget there is nearly threefold prize money difference between the winners of the UCL and the Europa League. Many top 5 league teams try to take a position in their own leagues to qualify for the next year’s UCL instead of trying to win the Europa League. But in the Europa League, there is still dominance by the top teams in Europe.

How about the FA Cup in England?

FA Cup champions
Last 20 years
Last 10 years
All-time (ranking)
Arsenal 6 2 12 (2)
Chelsea 5 4 7 (4)
Man. Utd. 3 1 12 (1)
Liverpool 3 0 7 (4)
Man. City 1 1 5 (10)
Portsmouth 1 1 2 (20)
Wigan Athletic 1 1 1 (33)



Seven different teams won the FA Cup in the last 20 years.  FA Cup is contested by hundreds of teams from amateur leagues to Premier League. Except for Portsmouth and Wigan Athletic the winners were all top 5 EPL clubs.

It is evident whether at the national scale or the international scale even second tier tournaments are won by a few teams from a few leagues with a few exceptions which we call “Cinderella” stories. As George Orwell says, “Some animals are equal, some are more equal than others.”

One can see the exception of Ligue 1 and the Portuguese League. Not a single Ligue 1 team ever won the CL or the Europa League in the last 20 years. But still Ligue 1 is one of the Top 5 leagues in Europe in terms of revenue. On the other hand, teams from Portugal have been successful in both the CL and the Europa League. The Portuguese national team won Euro 2016. On the other hand, the Portuguese league is not in the top 5 leagues in Europe. Both countries have something in common. They have excellent player development systems.  They rank in the list of countries exporting players to the European leagues as 2nd and 9th respectively.
UEFA tried to implement the “salary cap” but instead devised the financial fair play system. The financial fair play system in no way is a replacement for the “salary cap” and “draft” systems of our country. It just tries to minimize the losses of European soccer clubs. The system does not try to restrict the dominance of clubs in leagues on the contrary many leagues in Europe are being dominated by a few clubs and the UEFA competitions by clubs from a few countries.

Where does our soccer and MLS stand in this battle for dominance? MLS can avoid the dominance of a few clubs in the MLS championship via a number of tools that is currently and successfully being implemented. Unfortunately, unlike for NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL there is very serious competition for MLS elsewhere, whether it be on the business side or on the sporting side.  MLS cannot import the best players like NBA, MLB and NHL can, until it becomes a true global league. If MLS wants to be competitive globally, there is no other alternative other than developing the best soccer players in the globe. This can be done and has to be done.

Ahmet Guvener (ahmet@ahmetguvener.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.

7 comments about "Can MLS ever be a global league?".
  1. Victor Mathseon, March 9, 2017 at 5:56 p.m.

    As an economist, I am delighted to see Walter Neale mentioned. His 1964 article is one of the seminal articles in sports economics. As you can tell from the article, competitive balance has been a main topic of study for sports economists from the very beginning.

    One of the (many) great quotes from the article, "Oh Lord, make us good, but not that good."

  2. Fire Paul Gardner Now, March 9, 2017 at 6:47 p.m.

    Thanks Mr. Guvener. Consistently the best and most interesting articles on this site.

  3. R2 Dad, March 10, 2017 at 12:33 a.m.

    "If MLS wants to be competitive globally, there is no other alternative other than developing the best soccer players in the globe. This can be done and has to be done." Perfect lead-in to your next article, describing how this can be accomplished. Looking forward to your next article, Guv'ner!

  4. Wooden Ships, March 10, 2017 at 8:43 a.m.

    I enjoy the work this author puts in. A couple points. Personally, I sort of enjoy the "Little Engine That Could" struggle of soccer in our country. As I've gotten older out other pro sports leagues have become stale and for most of their seasons, boring. Too many games, over saturation in coverage and no real penalty in poor performance. This has influenced, negatively IMO, our unabated adulation for the pro athlete. Secondly, as an old school devotee of the game, until we come to understand the sacrilege that is synthetic turf and what it represents symbolically, we probably don't deserve to be many united in the same sentence as the premier soccer playing countries on the planet. Lets remember, there is a reason soccer is the worlds game, it sells itself, be patient. Finally, as I mentioned earlier, our other pro sports leagues are mostly boring (and I played all those sports) so, if we want to really distinguish ourselves domestically and to cement the beautiful game surpassing all other sports in the good ole USA, the Promotion-Relegation must be The End of the Rainbow.

  5. Kent James, March 10, 2017 at 10:32 a.m.

    Excellent article. The dilemma facing any soccer league is do you want to have a balanced league (as the other major US sports do) which is better for league play (with more competitive games), or do you want to have a few teams that get all your league's best players (the way the Spanish and German leagues do), which increase your chances in inter-league play (like the Champions league). Not sure of the answer, but until inter-league play is more important than it is today, I guess I prefer the current model that encourages internal competition within the MLS.

  6. karel kubak, March 10, 2017 at 12:39 p.m.

    How politics are mixed with sport. Liberal media people are crying now and blaming president Trump for his policy Anerica First. They say it blemish our country in the world. Seem like nobody is paying attention, but I see sport media as being treated with their own medicine. It was them who for years were telling us how american sports are superior to soccer. They said that playing with hands is more graceful. Victors of domestic competitions were proclaimed champions of the world. One specially patriotic TV anchor on FOX News became famous for saying that second generation of emigrants will play only am. sports. One of them, certain Jack Ford, wrote in 2001 that just like socialism could not succeed in England, soccer will never take roots in US. It was them who endorsed this inward looking. It's them who think that american sports are second coming of Jesus. It's them who wallow in this provincialism they try to blame Trump for.

  7. John Gordon, March 12, 2017 at 4:14 p.m.

    Making sure that all teams have a reasonable chance of winning over a period of time accomplishes multiple tasks:

    It points out weak ownership like Randy Lerner who literally destroyed both the NFL Cleveland Browns and EPL Aston Villa. Both teams and their fans will eventually recover under new ownership.

    Fans turn out when they think their teams have a chance "this year".

    Interest is increased on a widespread basis when new factors "rising teams" are interjected in the mix.

    Yes, contestants and coaches have to work harder when they don't have overwhelming advantage.

    A couple of surprise players can change the competitive mix.

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