By J Hutcherson - WASHINGTON, DC (Mar 9, 2012) US Soccer Players -- Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber took a not entirely new stance during his conference call with media on Thursday. Entering it's 17th season and 12th under Garber's leadership, his version of the League is simple. We know what we're doing, and when we make a misstep it was done with the best of intentions. There are worse ways to downplay critics, something MLS has had since day one. But there are better ways to offer transparency as a North American sports league that struggles to be more than a business model.
The League's insistence on protecting financial information isn't a step forward for North American pro sports. It's a side step of the basic expectation that what, where, and how a league spends is the business of its fans. We don't need to turn 'fan' into 'customer' to add anything to that point. It's an expectation, one that's normally met by the other major North American leagues as a standard practice.
What it does is make salary caps and team spending meaningful, along with providing public reasons for local municipalities to support stadiums and training sites. Without that public information, it's hard to make a compelling case for much of anything financial. Salary caps are a floating target. When we're told that an MLS club has managed to turn a profit, it's a statement not backed up by hard numbers. For fans of North American sports, it's a situation where they're left to guess at what the reality might be.
MLS has argued for 17 years that this is a non-issue. Fans should focus on the game on the field, not the behind the scenes finances. That might work if the League itself resisted the urge to throw a spotlight on business practices just short of, you know, actually revealing meaningful information.
For MLS fans, it's like seeing a business presentation with just the headers. Limited supporting information, no numbers on any charts or graphs, and no real data to see if what's being presented is reasonable. That's the point, after all, in limiting information. It speaks directly to an unwillingness to provide even basic transparency in how this league operates.
Over these last 17 years, single-entity itself has become a slippery concept. When the League decides it's needed, single-entity is sacrosanct. When the League needs to maneuver around it, they have little resistance. Some might say that's the perfect system, one that allows the League to stretch while maintaining that basic tenet of clubs not competing with each other financially. The League has come so far in making single-entity a comfortable fit, no one substitutes 'investor-operator' for 'owner' when referring to the people paying for teams. Early on, that 'investor-operator' tag was put in place by the League itself to show that owning in MLS wasn't the same thing as owning in other North American pro sports.
Now? On the surface, it's the same as other sports with the added financial protection the contemporary version of single-entity offers. No one even asks anymore about clubs dividing losses under single-entity, a topic that got significant press attention n the bad old days in the early 2000's. It's a different league now, one comfortable enough to openly discuss only the numbers they want. Public pressure to increase the expansion fee for a potential New York City team? Garber wasn't shy about floating $100 million. What exactly an equity firm invested in Soccer United Marketing and how much of a stake that bought? None of your business.
So we start season 17 like every other MLS season. Information is limited. Financial data is released only in the broadest and vaguest terms, if at all. The pundits and fan base are left to parse statements, trying to figure out what's actually in play. In the scope of North American sports, what MLS is doing is denying its fans part of the game. Hey, if it's sort of worked with 16 seasons in the book, why stop now?
I got a nice email from Jeff asking about what Rangers' financial issues might mean for a breakaway European Super League. Since the Super League is without a doubt in my top ten of soccer topics, let's have at it.
"I read with interest your latest story on Rangers. I would think this provides a template of sorts for a European league. They almost have to follow a financial control model much closer to the National Football League, something I believe is unlikely to happen without a new league structure. The domestic leagues spend too much time thinking of small clubs while allowing the bigger clubs to create a massive divide. I'm curious as to your thoughts on this."
Oh I have thoughts, Jeff. In my opinion, you're right that a breakaway league has to reconsider how European club soccer finances work. However, it's not the NFL that's the example. The NFL model operates without guaranteed contracts. The number of players and the lack of guarantees leads to players on the field earning much less than their contemporaries in other sports. There's also the relatively short schedule of games. All of these aren't in play now or in any predictable future for the highest level of European soccer.
The closer example would be a melding of the National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball. I do think at the very least a soft cap model would likely get considered by a breakaway Super League, along with at least some talk of what to do with the transfer fee system for deals between Super League clubs.
This one is from Brian, who asked me straight up who I thought would win Major League Soccer's Eastern Conference.
"Since we all know LA is going to sweep the West and the Supporters' Shield, what about the best team in the East? No hedging."
Fine. Houston. Happy?
Comments, questions, solutions to problems that have yet to present themselves. Please, tell me all about it.
More from J Hutcherson: