Major League Soccer

America’s Un-American Sports League

Since the North American Soccer League disintegrated in 1984, America has been plagued by its soccer bores. These folks, who are the same people who can’t understand why Paul Tsongas wasn’t elected president, are perpetually lathered at American indifference to the king of sports. But it’s the most popular sport in the world! But 18 million Americans play it! But kids love it! But there ought to be a pro league! But … but … but … (Full disclosure: I, too, am a soccer bore.)

Finally, the bores have shut up. Professional soccer, a sport whose American history is an unbroken record of, has, at long last, found a happy home here. Major League Soccer opened its third season last week with 12 teams. MLS is drawing nearly 20,000 fans per game–NASL averaged only 15,000 in its best season. Last October’s championship game sold out Washington, D.C.’s 57,000-seat RFK stadium.

MLS has TV contracts: ABC will broadcast a dozen games this season, and ESPN will air 25 more. It has endorsement deals: Corporations including Pepsi, AT&T, and Nike will spend $80 million on MLS over the next five years. It has expansion teams: MLS just added franchises in Miami and Chicago. MLS, in short, looks very much like a real American sport.

MLS is a weird experiment, a test of America’s sports character. Soccer has always been perceived as vaguely un-American: It’s too low-scoring, there’s too much cooperation, the players are too small and too Euro, it looks bad on television. MLS, in fact, is un-American, but not for those (wrong) reasons. MLS is un-American because it marks the first time that an American pro sports league hasn’t tried to be the best in the world. MLS is perhaps the 10th best soccer league in the world, a shout and a mile from the premier divisions in Germany, Spain, Italy, and England. (According to soccer experts, the best MLS teams could compete with teams from Austria or Paraguay. Paraguay?)

America’s fans are a spoiled lot. It is the philosophy of American sports that if you can’t be the best, buy the best. North Americans invented basketball, baseball, and football and dominate them by divine right. The United States has used dollar power to make itself the world capital of other, non-American sports. The NHL buys the best hockey players from eastern Europe. The PGA tour buys the best golfers from Europe and Asia. Huge purses bring the best European and Asian figure skaters here. Foreign boxers travel to Vegas for title fights. In every sport in which the United States stages pro competitions, those competitions are the world’s finest (except, perhaps, for track and field).

And that was NASL’s strategy in its glory days. During the mid- and late-’70s, NASL lured some of the very best players in the world to America–Pele, Franz Beckenbauer, George Best, Johan Cruyff–and flirted with being one of the world’s top leagues.

But that’s not the way MLS was designed. In an age of nearly universal free agency and vicious competition among teams, MLS is a command economy, the North Korea of pro sports. After the United States hosted the 1994 World Cup, U.S. soccer impresario Alan Rothenberg recruited a bunch of tycoons to invest in a new pro league. MLS, Rothenberg believed, should avoid the mistakes that killed NASL: too much expansion, too much spending, too many foreigners.

Rothenberg devised a crafty mechanism to lower MLS’s costs. He constituted the league as a “single entity.” Each team has an “owner-operator,” but the league itself owns the players. It negotiates all contracts and assigns stars to teams. (In other pro leagues, players sign contracts with teams.) MLS players can’t auction themselves to the highest bidder.

Though soccer salaries are soaring worldwide, MLS has gone cut-rate. NASL paid stars more than $1 million a year in the ‘70s. MLS’s maximum salary is only $236,750–less than the NBA’s minimum salary. MLS’s minimum is only $24,000. The payroll for an entire MLS team is capped at $1.6 million–less than half of what a top European player earns. MLS allows only five foreigners on its 20-man rosters, a move that cuts costs while guaranteeing playing time for home-grown players. MLS also recruits most of its foreign players in Latin America, largely because Latin players are cheaper than Europeans. Latin players also appeal to MLS’s best fans. Latinos are a quarter of MLS’s spectators, and certainly the most fervent of them. MLS relies heavily on, assigning foreign players to cities where they’ll be most popular.

M LS’s calculated efforts have created a lovely league, one that preserves the intimacy that the NBA, et al., have lost. MLS is major-league sport with minor-league charm. The average MLS ticket costs a mere $13, one-third the price of an NHL or NBA ticket. The relatively small crowds mean that fans sit close to the action. MLS encourages fan clubs. At every D.C. United game, a section called the “Barra Brava” is jammed with Salvadorans and Bolivians wielding noisemakers. MLS may not feature world-class soccer, but its “toque toque” style of play, which requires lots of short, accurate passes, is more elegant and entertaining than the kick-and-run game many Americans are accustomed to. The best teams–D.C. United, Kansas City Wizards–pass beautifully and score lots of goals. And players like Marco Etcheverry, Carlos Valderrama, Jaime Moreno, Preki, and Eric Wynalda would be thrilling in any league.

But this may not be enough. MLS is losing tons of money–more than $30 million in its first two seasons. This summer’s World Cup will distract fans and remove the league’s best players for two months in the middle of the season. And MLS players have filed a lawsuit to end the single-entity league. When MLS launched, U.S. players were so grateful to get work that they accepted MLS’s terms of employment. Now they argue that the single entity suppresses salaries and violates antitrust laws. The lawsuit goes to trial this fall.

M LS’s major obstacles, however, are its ambivalence about itself and America’s ambivalence about soccer. For MLS to grow, it needs to fill stadiums with Joe Sports Fans, the kind of folks who aren’t soccer bores but will attend a few games a season. And for MLS to make itself a top-class league, it needs to spend tens of millions of dollars to steal European players and protect its own stars. (Europe is already grabbing MLS’s best: Goalkeeper Brad Friedel went to Liverpool last season, and more top MLS players may follow him.)

MLS’s dilemma is this: If it doesn’t pay for talent, it will certainly remain a minor league. But even if it does pay for talent, no one knows whether thousands of new fans will come. MLS doesn’t know whether it wants to be a very expensive world-class soccer league or a very charming second-class one. And America doesn’t know if it cares.

If you missed the link to MLS’s ethnic marketing strategy, click.