By J Hutcherson - WASHINGTON, DC (Dec 7, 2012) US Soccer Players – There was a time in Major League Soccer when any and all comparisons to the original North American Soccer League soccer brought looks of shock and horror from league officials. Blaming player salaries as the primary problem with its predecessor, MLS adopted a plan to control spending known as single-entity. At its basic level, single-entity’s primary function is to control salaries by limiting the market for the services of professional soccer players at the highest level in North America.
There’s a way to look at what MLS’s founders envisioned as trying to keep clubs from working against their mutual best interest. Owners in traditional sports aren’t to be trusted, after all. Every time a league with a luxury tax assesses it, a club gets in financial trouble, or a team relocates it’s used as proof that single-entity has to be the better answer. That’s true even when MLS shares ownership with teams in traditionally run leagues.
In the MLS mindset, the primary problem is a league allowing teams to compete for players both initially and when players become available for free agency. More than any other pro circuit, MLS limits how players enter their league. They have no mechanism at all for free agency, setting the clock back to the early 1970’s in terms of player freedom of movement in North American pro sports.
Again, the focus is on controlling costs creating an almost fantasy league where no one really knows the worth of players. That allows the League to keep a low salary cap and a version of parity, even in a league where roster exemptions allow one MLS Cup finalist to spend over five times more on their players than the other team.
MLS made this the primary distinction between what happened with the original NASL and what would take soccer into the future. To get there, they downplayed or ignored other issues that had just as much to do with the NASL’s eventual failure as player salaries. But we’re not supposed to talk about it. The NASL to MLS comparison is not only unpopular in Major League Soccer circles, it’s simply not entertained. Single-entity is the separation point, and that prohibits meaningful cost comparison. In the MLS mindset, that’s true even as MLS makes the same choices that helped bring the NASL’s run to an unfortunate end.
Obviously, I’m going to over-generalize a bit. The North American Soccer League was part of a revolutionary moment in North American pro sports. The Major League Baseball Players Association under the leadership of Marvin Miller was dismantling the control clubs had over players and other sports would follow. In an entrepreneur moment for pro sports, groups launched competing leagues in basketball and hockey that eventually merged with the bigger brand. That happened a few years earlier in the National Football League.
This created an environment of competition for players and brands that the original NASL didn’t try to avoid. In fact, they embraced the idea of more teams, a bigger footprint, and an approach to professional soccer they believed would give them the best chance at success. There was no hedging with the NASL by the mid-70’s. They were a league playing to win against the bigger brands in pro sports.
What did that mean in practice? Expansion, paying for some of the best players in the world, and turning some of their clubs into global brands that would carry the league. We all know what happened by the early 1980’s. It’s worth remembering that the original NASL failed during an economic downturn, something overlooked when looking at how the number of teams and attendance fell off so quickly.
Does this compare to MLS? Of course it does. Let’s keep things polite and refer to the MLS Cup ratings as ‘disappointing’. This for a Cup featuring more major story lines than any in the League’s history. Mainstream sports fans decided to spend their time watching college football, among other options on Saturday afternoon the first day of December. A season that’s been marred by complaints over the officiating and the schedule ended up with playoffs that showed the strength of those complaints.
Season inflation is nothing new. The NASL did it in the early 80’s. In the glory years, the NASL played a neutral site Soccer Bowl in late August. That was by design, avoiding baseball’s playoffs entirely and allowing players to return to European clubs. By the end, they’d dropped the neutral site and played the final in October.
All these years later, MLS has no better grasp on an appropriate soccer season in North America. They start early and stay late, expecting more from a fan base than any other sport in the United States and Canada. They move from celebration of a Cup winner to one of several drafts literally the next day by opening the MLS version of the transfer window. There’s no room for reflection because something MLS related is always in process. The messages are many and not always complimentary.
Over the last seven days, we’ve crowned a new MLS champion, said goodbye to the highest profile player in League history, seen teams reshuffle their rosters, and had the League pitch a new stadium and a second New York area club in a public meeting. If you don’t want to talk about the ratings for the 2013 MLS Cup, there are plenty of other items to occupy your time.
This is only a positive if the intent is to avoid the real issues facing Major League Soccer in December 2013. The television ratings move to the top of the table, displacing scheduling, officiating, and even that old NASL-era concept that expansion is always positive. TV comes first because it’s the glaring metric that determines success or failure for any league in the North American market. People have to care enough to watch your games, especially the final. Everything else – the quality of play, the schedule, even expansion – is in service of making sure this league has an appropriate audience.
J Hutcherson has been writing about soccer since 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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