Because I am an honest man, let me begin this piece with a mea culpa. Michael Bradley is quite clearly signing with Toronto FC. I didn’t believe it. I tweeted as such. I was wrong. Such is life.
Okay, on to my opinion on the move. Quite simply, I think it’s yet another indication that MLS has completely lost its way strategically and is desperately floundering around for any straw it can grasp to try to increase ratings and national marketing impact.
This move, and the fact that MLS may have likely helped Toronto FC (owned by a $2B sports enterprise) pay transfer fees for both Jermaine Defoe and Michael Bradley shows a league with a misguided long-term vision for increasing its impact amongst American soccer fans. To me, it shows that MLS leadership fundamentally misunderstands both why American soccer fans aren’t tuning into the league and, just as worryingly, how it can get those fans to start doing so.
Here’s the biggest reason I believe American soccer fans aren’t tuning to watch MLS matches on national television. It’s because Major League Soccer fans, like those of the NHL or MLB want to watch their own team primarily and watch their own team succeed. Through some recent statements, Don Garber appears to desperately want fans of other MLS teams to start to tune in to watch games featuring other clubs (especially the oft-televised “glamour clubs” like Los Angeles, Seattle, Red Bulls, and eventually NYCFC). He thinks fans are going to start tuning in to those games the way football fans tune into the Sunday games of the week on NBC, Fox and CBS. To me, that displays an absolutely fundamental misreading of the MLS fan.
If you’re looking for comparable TV viewing habits, you should look to the league and fan base that most resembles that of MLS – the NHL. In that league, fans consistently tune out once their respective team is eliminated in the playoffs or aren’t contenders for a playoff spot. National TV ratings are driven not by casual fans tuning in across the country, but by fans in the largest, strongest markets tuning into watch their own local team. The reason the NHL is on an upswing now is that many of its most successful teams are in its strongest and largest markets. Since 2008, Stanley Cup finalists have included Los Angeles (#2 ranked TV market), Chicago (#3), Philadelphia (#4), Boston (#6), Detroit (#11) and Pittsburgh (whose #23 ranking belies the team’s national fan base). The NHL succeeds nationally because its largest, and most hockey-centric local markets are strong.
That’s Chicago, Philadelphia, Dallas, Boston, Washington, and Denver, if you’re keeping score at home.
Meanwhile, in MLS, the no. 3, 4, 5, 7, 9 and 18 markets range from near deadweight (Chicago, Colorado) to utterly decrepit and useless (pretty much the rest of that list) in terms of putting out a product that fans in the respective markets (or anywhere else, for that matter) would want to watch. Since 2008, MLS Cups have featured the no. 2, 5, 10, 18, 31, 32, and 33 markets. (An average of 18.7 compared to the NHL’s average of 8.1.) That’s, quite simply, a huge problem. It’s not that it’s bad for small markets to be good. That’s great. It’s that it’s bad, and going to continue to be bad for the big markets to be as awful and as irrelevant as they are currently.
My main assertion here is that MLS, as a league, is not going to get any more popular until its teams in its biggest markets start pulling their weight, building competent organizations, signing some talented players, and making some hay in the playoffs. Until that happen, no amount of famous US or England national team players in Seattle or Toronto (a very large market, yes, but one that is utterly irrelevant to US TV networks) is going to help.
And yet, here is MLS helping the teams that are the most financially successful (and this in a position to more than help themselves) such as Seattle and now (probably) Toronto go out and sign players for massive transfer fees and massive salaries. To the vast millions of current and potential fans of teams sitting in large markets with floundering clubs or ones with disinterested owners, these big money moves do nothing but reinforce the belief that their respective teams will never be able to sign exciting well-known players and participate in the transfer market like their favorite European clubs or the new elite in MLS. This discouragement is only going to push fans in markets like Dallas, Boston and Philadelphia away from MLS and into the warm embrace of European clubs.
But this isn’t all on MLS’ back. It’s also on the unambitious/incompetent teams to take advantage of some of the tools MLS has laid out for them. From all indications, the “league DP” fund that provides support to teams to buy players that aren’t at the Dempsey/Bradley level is being chronically underused by clubs. Why? Probably because that fund only covers transfer fees and doesn’t cover wages, which means that if you’re in a market with owners unprepared or uninterested in paying any quantity of their own money on salaries, that fund means nothing to you or your team. In theory this fund should incentivize clubs to go out and spend smaller fees on talented players from Latin America and Africa that can serve to lift the league’s level of play and popularity up by the bottom rather than by having the big clubs soar, while the rest of the league hangs on to Seattle, Los Angeles, and Toronto’s (barely existent) coattails by a thread. But if owners like Clark Hunt and Bob Kraft can’t even be bothered to use those tools at their disposal, than really they just shouldn’t be owning teams in this league in those markets. That issue of derelict owners (hello, Jorge Vergara) is one that Garber and the league has proven incapable of dealing with to this point.
That said, what MLS is peddling these days through its current set of roster “rules” and “restrictions” isn’t parity. It’s corporate welfare in the desperate attempt to tempt higher TV rights fees with “shiny objects” like Bradley and Dempsey rather than through quantitative improvement of the league as a whole.
I guess it all boils down to this. MLS is not going anywhere popularity-wise unless it stops focusing on the top of its league and starts focusing on the bottom. Its TV ratings aren’t going to move significantly if you have large chunks of the country’s soccer fans (at least those amenable to MLS) believing that their own club has little more to play for than an early-round playoff loss to a team like Seattle with individual players being paid more than the entirety of their own squad.
Look at three of the worst-run, least ambitious teams in the league – Dallas, Philadelphia and New England. They represent over 8.5 million TV homes given absolutely no reason by their respective clubs to watch them on television.
Of course one of the biggest mechanisms the league could tinker with is the salary cap and the CBA. A significant raise not just in the cap but the minimum and middle-class salaries, would help considerably, but I don’t see that emerging as long as unambitious owners like Clark Hunt, Stan Kroenke, and Bob Kraft continue to have the commissioner’s ear on issues like salaries.
Until the league creates mechanisms that owners like those three (and others) actually use to improve their teams (or find owners who will), TV numbers aren’t going anywhere. NYCFC has the potential to help a little, but no more than that.
Until then, this situation where MLS is composed a small group of teams prepared to pay millions in fees and wages for star players (and have some of those costs foolishly subsidised by the league) while the rest of the league operates under (or comparatively close to the salary cap w/less expensive DPs) the salary cap while paying next to nothing in transfer fees, this league will remain a niche television product with barely any ability to improve its popularity or general reach across North America.