5 Keys for MLS to Attract More Stars
Major League Soccer is in its 19th season, and the beautiful game has never been in stronger position in the USA. Last season, the average attendance was higher than the English Championship, and internationally renowned players such as Thierry Henry and Robbie Keane flourished.
The American top flight aspires to be among the world's biggest leagues by 2022, but in its current state, this seems like a very ambitious target. MLS still has a reputation of being a "retirement league" for pros in their autumn years, and the standard is unquestionably lower than Europe's elite divisions.
Here are five ways in which Major League Soccer might attract more big stars—and therefore get closer to reaching its 2022 target.
Eliminate the Salary Cap
Under current MLS rules, each of the 19 teams has a total salary cap of $3.1 million, and the minimum wage for a player under 25 is just $36,500 as per Soccer By Ives.
When David Beckham arrived in 2007, a new "designated player" rule was introduced to help bring in bigger international stars. Now, a team may have up to three designated players whose wages exceed the salary cap, with only the first $387,500 of their pay counting against the cap.
So, if a team uses three designated players, that leaves just $1.9 million to pay the rest of the squad. In that instance, "box office" players are on the same team as teenagers earning only $36,500, which might be an unattractive prospect for players used to being surrounded by their highly paid ilk.
If MLS wants to compete with the big leagues, it needs to play by the same rules. A salary cap puts the teams at an immediate disadvantage, as it means less megastar players are able to join the league.
This week, future franchise owner David Beckham told beIN Sports (via Yahoo Sports) that he would be working toward eliminating the salary cap, as he also sees it as a handicap to expansion.
The salary-cap concept falls in line with other American sports—and it prevents the kind of financial meltdown that killed the original NASL—but it needs to go if MLS wants to achieve parity with the world's biggest leagues.
Sort out TV Scheduling
Thanks to MLS' current broadcasting deal, which is due to end in 2015, games are often shifted all around the TV schedule. Fans can sometimes struggle to find them, and therefore, ratings can be lower.
I feel MLS can attract more stars by cracking the code of larger TV ratings. I certainly don’t have the answer to improve the ratings, but with increased attention, both national and worldwide, stars from around the world will be lured by the larger profile of the league here.
Focus on Quality over Quantity
As a closed-membership league without promotion or relegation, MLS gets to decide who it invites to play. The league is currently in a rapid state of expansion: New York City FC were announced as the 20th MLS team in 2013, and they will start playing next year. Joining them in 2015 will be Orlando City SC, while David Beckham's as-yet-unnamed Miami team is scheduled to start playing in 2017.
An expanded league will certainly be beneficial for short-term revenue creation and for potential fan reach, but perhaps it would be advantageous for the league to focus on the quality of teams rather than the quantity.
By encouraging current teams to invest more in European-style youth structures and by increasing the opportunities for young foreign players to nurture their talent in the league (by raising or eliminating the salary cap), the league will have performed the groundwork for a higher quality of play. This in turn will encourage more star names to go over in their prime.
Switch to European Season Timings
As previously noted, MLS is a closed membership league with no promotion or relegation. This isn't the only key difference with European leagues: It also runs from March until October.
This summer scheduling is useful for US-based players who wish to play in Europe during their offseason—like Landon Donovan has done—but it is another way in which MLS may look unappealing for star players, simply because it is "different."
The MLS season runs through major summer tournaments like the European Championships and is interrupted by the World Cup, which may not be desirable for big players used to the winter-based league system.
This suggestion—and some others made in this article—may be criticised, as it is asking MLS to give up a certain aspect of its identity: quirks that make it what it is. However, if the league wishes to appeal on an international level and pick up the kind of players who naturally gravitate toward Europe in their prime, it needs to get on the same schedule and play by the same rules.
Get European Players on Loan in MLS
Due to the impracticalities of geography and the incongruent season scheduling, it is rare for European players to go out on isolated loan spells in MLS.
With the inception of New York City FC, perhaps we will see parent club Manchester City send some of its players over to gain some first-team experience.
Not only would this help improve the quality of the league, but it would inevitably lead to more bigger names coming over—and staying over.
Imagine, for example, if Romelu Lukaku had been sent to MLS instead of Everton. Granted, he might not get the same calibre of opponent to play against, but Chelsea would not be strengthening a domestic or European competitor.
The young players sent on loan to MLS might also get permanent contracts, shifting the "retirement league" perception to one of thriving youth.
Once again, a dearth of young European talent would help raise the quality of the league, which would arouse interest from big-name players.
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