Sunday, January 31, 2010

A conversation on the state of MLS/US and a look forward

Recently, Playtherapy (in between his rounds of Football Manager 2010) and I have been having a conversation on the state of the league and the future. Here is that conversation, which hopefully can bring some more comments and additions from everyone else. The conversation began with Playtherapy talking about the fantasy financial restrictions in Football Manager and bringing up the larger topic.

PLAYTHERAPY: One knock many across the pond have with playing MLS teams is the league structure. One guy sold Beckham for 4.5 mil and only got 500k for LAG, the league getting the rest.

I'm sure I'm playing stupidly as well, as I'm used to investing in youth, then sell for big profits later. This worked for Stavanger in a big way in the Norwegian league and helped us to achieve Champion's League success.

MLS may have achieved security- avoiding the NASL debacle, but @ what price? Holden went from being worth 675k (got lots of bids from England) to 1.5 mil. If I sold, I wonder what I'd actually get???

It may keep us sustainable, but it cheats club's abilities to better themselves financially.

MARTEK: You are absolutely correct. It's almost impossible to get an independent economic analysis of the situation. Without a doubt, the single entity structure is responsible for MLS surviving for the first 10 years. But right know, I would say that it hurts as much as it helps, the Holden situation underlining that perfectly.

The fact of the matter is that neither I nor anyone else who hasn't seen the books know if MLS or Houston Dynamo could get into that kind of bidding and still be able to make a go of it if single entity, and more importantly the salary cap, were abolished. The obvious lessons from other American sports (free agency = good; salary floors = good; salary caps = meh; revenue sharing = good; positive relationships based on mutual respect between labor (millionaires) and management (billionaires) = very, very good) don't always apply because none of them have to compete in an international player market that covers so many economic situations prevailing in so many markets. The complexity boggles the mind, and since we don't know exactly what the finances of MLS, SUM and USSF truly are, there is no way to make a rational judgment.

What we do know is that Association football in America is strong and growing stronger. From ESPN's commitment (sometimes questionable, but the dollars don't lie) to the sport, to the hundreds of thousands that turn out for international country and club friendlies, Americans are responding and the sport is clearly ready to burst onto the consciousness, or at least more ready right now than it ever has been since the Cosmos/NASL glory days. It is a fact that MLS attendances outdraw Serie A, as well as Ligue Un and almost every other league in Europe with the exception of the Bundesliga (NO ONE outdraws the Bundesliga. Bundesliga uber alles!!). If there's a successful World Cup this year (Two measures of success for American markets: 1. Great tournament with no shenanigans, terrorist, crime or otherwise; and 2. USA does well. Having just No. 1 might MIGHT be more than enough to make it a success in US markets.), then money could flow, and pressure might be exerted by ESPN and others to get MLS to loosen up and let teams spend more and grow more and compete in the international player market more.

If. Could. Might. We'll been down versions of this path before. Is this one different? You have more of a historical perspective than I. What thinketh thou?

PLAYTHERAPY: I agree- it's time for MLS to go beyond rules created for sustainability @ infancy. Soccer will surpass second tier sports in the next few decades. All it has to do is survive as the minority demographic change, making those WASP surburbanites so eagerly sought in the late 90's the minority.

When this translates into Nielsen ratings- we've arrived. This is the argument to just hold on and keep expanding- creating more TV markets.

Yet MLS has to evolve with what's going on in the outside. Clearly, the US marketed to the wrong crowd, to the soccer moms with the shootout and the game clock stopping during the stoppage of play. The thought was that us fans weren't sophisticated enuff to accept ties or the mystery of stoppage time.

This alienated us fans seeking soccer, not some PR fast food version. Soccer lovers have always been here, hence the enormous crowds @ friendlies- both club and international, or WC 1994. it's not the love of soccer that's missing- it's interest in the MLS.

That's key= especially with Fox Soccer, GOL TV, Mexican football, ESPN deporto (or whatever it's called), and other cable soccer offerings. Soccer lovers want to love soccer, not wince @ a poor quality facsimile.

The 2nd generation of those immigrants- legal or not (don't think Nielsen or advertisers care) are the key. SkyTV made the EPL what it is, and until MLS can deliver the TV and advertising numbers, having good attendances that beat other noteworthy ligas matter little.

Yet current league rules discourage quality home grown talent staying in the MLS once they've got a name. This is muy importante. For ongoing growth, we need to find a way to:

1. Keep americano talent here. This means some middle ground towards the labor union.
2. We need Mexican players!

The first problem may take a while but incremental steps need to be taken toward creating the foundation for keeping the Clarks, the Holdens, and the Dempseys here a few years longer. Keeping Donovan here as long as we have has been a major accomplishment.

As for Mexican players, we need to be very careful signing Mexican national team players far past their prime. For every Blanco or Suarez, we get several more Hermosillos, Campos' or Hernandez'. Mexican flops decrease interest. Who wants to wince as they see their favorite idol fail in a league thought to be weaker???

Houston hads the right idea with Landin (though I greatly disagree with the DP designation and think that's why he's still here). MLS teams need to sign quality Mexican youth. I would even add a provision for signing Mexican youth which is similar to the Gen Adidas players. Canada needs to be added to this as well and, in the spirit of NAFTA, Mexican and Canadien players should not be counted as internationals. While this might decrease the quality of our national team in the short run, it would greatly enhance the quality of the MLS, especially with expansion. Furthermore, it would improve interest, especially TV ratings.

Considering the Canadiens, it's only fair. I'm unsure if this rule has already been changed or not since Mo Johnston's lobbying.

It's TV where we have to compete. A good 2010 US world cup showing PLUS the WC retrurning here in the next few years would greatly increase interest temporarily, yet quality is what will make fans stay tuned in.

I like Jimmy Conrad's off season musing about promotion/relegation. The naysayers, forever worshipping @ the US sports model, forget:
1. Soccer is unlike other sports
2. We are starting from scratch in that we have a young league.
3. Unlike other sports, soccer here competes with the rest of the world. All I have to do is buy cable and switch channels to watch soccer abroad.
4. The same naysayers said we had to have shootouts, no ties\, and no stoppage time. We have actually done better without this.
5. Creating a relegation/promotion system actually creates a more solid domestic professional infrastructure top to bottom.
It also cements healthy ties between amateur and professional, something missing in the US purely becuase it does not need to exist.
6. Difference offers something new. The big three US megasports have lost touch with their audiences.
7. Maybe we should be open to other perspectives and possibilities. Remember, the critics said we'd never make it past the 5 yr mark. It wasn't the Americanization of the sport that caused this. It was the fans' love of soccer, which should always be kept in mind.

MARTEK: Hmmm. I still think the WASP suburbanites must be part of MLS' diverse audience. Don't cater to them, but they need to be made welcome. Lots of money in them burbs!

Good news from Mike Chabala's Twitter feed: ""I can't wait for training tomorrow, I'm gonna kick 6 people....It's gonna be awesome." -Eddie Robinson (my teammate)"

Now that's some Johnny Rocco action for you (Edward G. Robinson from Key Largo)!

All tweaks to the rules are stupid, which the NCAA must learn if the colleges are to be a true training ground of US talent. That's a whole other can of worms, and I hate that structure, but I honestly do not see any other thing happening right now.

Unless, unless, unless, unless, unless....

The new NASL/USL structure makes a truly viable second, developmental, tier.

But that being said, I still do not see promotion/relegation happening here. I think the truth of the matter is that if leagues around the world were being created from scratch, there's no way, NO WAY, that any owners would agree to that structure. In the US, relegation would not be a demotion for a year or so, with hopes to play well and return, ala Newcastle in 2009-10. It would be a death sentence. Do you think FC Dallas, were it to get relegated, would be able to survive that financially? Columbus? Kansas City? Or for that matter, Dynamo? (Maybe the latter. Maybe.) In order to have p/r, the league would have to guarantee that teams facing the drop would not lose more than a token amount of cash from league-wide rights fees and broadcast rights. In short, the second tier would have to be as financially solvent as the top. Can you see that happening? No way.

Don't get me wrong. I would love it, and I think American fans, both casual and not, would love it as well. But no one would love watching those teams go out of business, which I think is what would happen unless financial guarantees are made. And if those guarantees are made, what would be the incentive for teams to spend and win? So it gets circular. I think that it's a false equivalency to conclude that saying no to p/r is the same thing as saying yes to no ties/shootouts and clock stoppages. P/R speaks to the very solvency of clubs, unlike those other items. It is organizational, not game-related. If you can guarantee teams will not go out of existence due to p/r, then yes, make it happen. If not, then no.

You are correcto in that all NAFTA players should be counted the same. That to me is so obviously in MLS' interests, I am very surprised it has not happened. That should happen hand-in-hand with higher, or at least somewhat competitive, wage scales, the resumption of the reserve league and expansion of rosters. Also, teams should have right of first refusal to players developed in their academies (though perhaps losing this if those players instead go to college and play there?). If refused, then those players get to go in the draft along with collegians. Said academies should exist as an alternative to colleges and teams from academies should all play in the PDL at least, maybe higher in the pyramid. Have another draft that is high school only to give all teams equal access to the same players and prevent hiding, swooping in and hoarding. If the drafted high schoolers don't want to go to the academies/teams, then they can always go to college and reenter the SuperDraft a few years later.

Unlike many, I like the idea of drafting and think it is a cost effective and fair way to get unproven players in need of development into the system. I like the idea of socialistically leveling playing fields when it comes to development and revenues. Establish a salary floor to ensure that all teams have to pay out a certain amount in player salaries/compensation/development and make the only difference be who is better at using their equal resources. Make the differences be ones of coaching, playing, etc., not T-shirt sales, local TV revenues, gates, etc. Then the best organization wins, or at least comes close.

But all of this is money, money, money. Does it exist? I think it does, though I have no proof of same. What do you think?


Johnson Clan said...

I can only quote Niels Bohr about promotion/relegation in US pro soccer:

"We are all agreed that your theory ( about relegation/promotion- implied, of course!) is crazy. The question which divides us is whether it (relegation/promotion in USA) is crazy enough to have a chance of being correct. My own feeling is that it is not crazy enough."

Which, of course, leaves me scratching my head. Does Bohr mean demoted MLS team should be playing Cactus League Baseball???

Martek said...

Demoted MLS teams should be playing in the hell that is CAF. If they survive being machine-gunned by extremist Angolans, and then if they can survive being banned by the CAF for two years for not playing after that, THEN they can come back to the US.

And only then.

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