10 Things the MLS Can Do to Get Bigger
Major League Soccer has grown a ridiculous amount in recent seasons, but that hasn't stopped its fans or critics in creating some sort of list about how to help MLS grow even larger.
So of course, I have my list of things I would like the league to change as well.
These aren't things that will make it grow to EPL status, because personally I don't care about hitting that level. Instead, I focused on things that I believe will resonate among the American populace and help MLS grow domestically. Which is what we need first and foremost.
I'm not saying this list is the answer, just suggestions.
So here are my 10 things I believe MLS can do to get bigger, and in turn, better.
Expand Merchandise Availability
Can you go into any athletic store and buy a Tim Tebow jersey? Yes.
Major League Soccer has to do a better job of making its brand appear everywhere and anywhere possible.
Marketing isn't successful solely because of the great products that exist. It is successful because it is able to ingrain its name in peoples' mind.
The more the public sees MLS everywhere they go, the more curiosity that arises and the more they'll want to know about it.
This idea is not revolutionary in any sense, but it's a small step the league can take to grow in its own country.
Don't Listen to the Euro-Snobs
League officials have done a very good job so far in not letting the critics who keep comparing MLS to European leagues become influential in the future decisions of the league. And I applaud their efforts.
Those folks who claim MLS isn't good simply because it doesn't conform to EPL, La Liga or the Bundesliga standard don't have a complete understanding of the obstacles MLS faces every season.
The biggest three complaints one hears are the calendar, the salary cap and the conference/playoff system.
The MLS calendar will never change. It will never shift because other countries don't have to deal with juggernaut leagues like the NFL and NCAA football. Having MLS face football head on for fans, ratings and even TV time, would just be an uphill battle.
Even the NCAA steps aside when its New Year's Day bowl games land on a Sunday to make way for the NFL, and instead they are played on the January 2nd.
In regards to the salary cap, removing it all together won't grow this league—it will destroy it.
History has told us this—and even though it is frustrating to have the best American players play abroad for more money, the league wouldn't have flourished without wise and limited spending. Tweaking the salary cap is one thing, but removing it all together is absurd.
Conference and Playoff systems? What's laughable about these critics who say it would be best for MLS to go to a single table and crown the champs based on points are the same fans that fill their brackets for March Madness.
Imagine getting rid of the NCAA basketball conference and national tournament and award the NCAA National Title based on a team's winning record. People would protest of such an idea.
And for the criticism that comes abroad regarding the same issue: Conferences and playoffs are the American way, get used to it.
Have Multiple Jersey Sponsors
Before the days where MLS teams lacked any front jersey sponsors, teams made do with sponsorships on the back of jerseys.
Slowly that disappeared as companies payed royalties to have its names in the front of MLS jerseys.
New York has the Red Bull sponsorship on their jersey backs, but the team is owned by Red Bull, so it doesn't really count.
I'm surprised, however, that the bigger clubs who carry front-jersey sponsorship don't utilize the back or the sleeves of the jerseys. It creates revenue and brand awareness for those companies as an incentive to spend in the league.
Even with teams without a front jersey sponsor, the back or any other part of the jerseys should still be available. Teams may receive less compensation, but small business is better than no business.
Seeing jerseys full of ads isn't something that most Americans are probably used to seeing—but in a game that isn't filled with constant game stoppages or timeouts, these methods of ad revenue are crucial.
No Double Dipping
A rumor roaming around is that New York will receive its second and the 20th MLS team. Well, I strongly agree it's not a good idea.
Having two teams in New York—like Los Angeles currently has—wouldn't be beneficial to MLS or the city.
The league needs to expand to untapped but hungry markets with rich soccer history. St. Louis is the first city that comes to mind.
Other cities to look at are Miami, Atlanta, San Diego and even Las Vegas.
The point is that the biggest obstacle of soccer in the U.S. is the size of the country. So why would MLS want to put a second team in New York or anywhere near where there is already a number of teams with heavy fanbases?
The league has to take advantage and expand to reach more people to close the holes that exist among soccer markets in this league.
Salary Cap Bonuses
Like I mentioned previously, getting rid of the salary cap isn't the wisest decision, but raising it should be discussed.
The purpose of the salary cap is so MLS doesn't have any "superclubs" that dominate the league, like the EPL or La Liga currently does.
However, what we are seeing is the case slowly occurring. With ownerships like Red Bulls and AEG throwing money into New York and Los Angeles, it appears "superclubs" are forming, albeit within the confines of the salary cap. All this happens while other teams can't keep up with the talent that LA or NY can buy.
So how should MLS keep it even?
One way is to raise the salary cap of teams that don't make the playoffs, since more teams do than don't. A small percent increase would help teams going through a rebuilding period attain better players to be contenders the following season.
The catch would be that no team can receive these raises in two consecutive seasons—a small method to prevent teams from tanking the rest of the season when its playoff hopes look dim.
Eventually as more teams enters the league, maybe those salary cap bonuses could apply to the bottom team in each conference.
There would be details to work out, but it's an idea.
Bring in Young Latin American Talent
Some of the most entertaining players to come and play in MLS haven't been the seasoned European players, but the young Latin Americans who come here hungry to succeed.
These kids bring passion and flair to the game, and they show their gratitude to the fans.
Recently, the biggest news to hit MLS was the resigning of Juninho to the LA Galaxy on a loan. Among the LA faithful, the departure of Juninho was mourned more than the news of the possible departure of David Beckham. Likewise, Juninho's return was celebrated more than Bekcham's two-year extension.
In 2009, Fredy Montero stepped foot in Seattle and is now a fan favorite. The young Colombian took the opportunity and made a name for himself in the states.
The same story goes for his teammate Osvaldo Alonso, who defected from Cuba and became a valuable asset for Sigi Schmidt.
Even in the league's early years, it was the Latina American players who made the league interesting and fun to watch: Marco Etcheverry, Jorge Campos, Mauricio Cienfuegos, Raul Diaz Arce, Carlos Valderrama, etc., all thrilled fans with their style of play.
In 1997, D.C. United signed a young forward, a Bolivian international, who after 15 seasons became the best player to ever play in MLS: Jaime Moreno.
Improve the DP Rule
The league has two big problems—not enough household name players, and losing American talent abroad.
MLS officials can try to solve both of those problems by tweaking the Designated Rule that was implemented five years ago and which helped bring David Beckham into the league.
Currently each team has the ability of carrying three DPs. However, the league could amend the rule to state that one of those slots should only reserved for an American player. In the cases of Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal it would be a Canadian player. The other two DP slots can be used to the discretion of each team.
The point of this idea is to keep American players playing in the U.S. and to have them become stars and recognizable names to which people can attach themselves to and help MLS grow.
At the same time, the talent of the league will also increase as we keep more American talent together in the same league, which can also help develop the U.S. National Team.
Maybe in due time, MLS can change that rule again to mandate that two DP spots be reserved for U.S. or Canadian players, so the international dependency on foreign players would slowly wane away.
Think about it, people don't like the Lakers because it's the Lakers, they like the Lakers because they like Kobe Bryant.
Stick with 2-Week Gap Before MLS Cup
During the 2011 season when MLS announced that there was going to be a two-week break between the conference finals and the MLS Cup due to a FIFA international date, I thought it was ridiculous.
I blamed the numerous and unnecessary international friendlies over the summer causing the schedule to stretch longer and creating this two-week gap on the calendar.
The biggest fear was the loss of interest during those two weeks. Unlike the NFL's Super Bowl, MLS wouldn't have been able to run constant previews, reviews, and breakdowns on ESPN to keep the attention up.
However, now in hindsight, it worked very well for the league. The final was wisely promoted more than ever seen on both television and radio.
On the day of the final—even in the pouring rain—people flocked to the Home Depot Center to watch LA beat Houston.
Now with the host of MLS Cup unknown until after the conference finals, the highest remaining seed hosts the final, and a two-week gap will be crucial to have everything ready for the game and the tourists.
Educate Those Promoting MLS
This is a result of the exponential amount of press the MLS Cup had during the two-week break.
It was great to see MLS finally be the focus on national radio and television programs.
Yet there lacked some education when it came to speaking about the event and the league. It was clear the hosts didn't follow the league and were just regurgitating whatever the teleprompter or script read. So when they would speak incorrect information, it made me cringe. I assume it was the same with other fans.
There is nothing wrong in having MLS promoted on talk shows and entertainment shows—it's actually a great thing. But the league's PR department has to make sure it sounds right.
Nothing is more off-putting than fake and disinterested conversation about the MLS to those who don't follow it.
Stop Relying on Foreign Teams for Growth
The set of international friendlies that MLS hosts every summer is successful in terms of revenue. But in terms of growth, I would argue that's not completely beneficial to the growth of the league, probably more detrimental or at least negligible.
Truth be told, playing the likes of Manchester United, Chelsea or Everton won't help the league grow. It's not going to capture the fans that have ignored or looked down at the league for 10-plus years.
Most of the time these friendlies aren't even played in the team's stadium, but a much bigger one—which eliminates the intimacy and environment that usually exists in the league's soccer-specific stadiums.
What makes the league grow are the fans themselves. They are the expanding force for the growth of the league these last seasons. Fans bring friends, who more often than not become fans. That same trend carries on with the next friend, and so on.
Personally, when I take friends to their first LA Galaxy match, it's never LA vs Manchester City, or LA versus whatever European team decides to do a preseason tour in the states.
They can enjoy and admire the environment of MLS that is unknown to most unless one actually steps foot in a stadium.
And have they been disappointed?
Never. I always get the same reaction.
"Damn, is it always this crazy?"
"Uh....yes. Welcome to MLS."