In the beginning, there was doubt.
That was 1996 when Major League Soccer kicked off it inaugural season with 10 teams.
Now, as teams and fans impatiently wait for MLS to issue its schedule (Feb. 10) for the 2011 season, it’s safe to say the conversation has switched from doubt to confidence. Yes, Viriginia, there is a future for professional soccer in America.
The evidence is quite encouraging. Two new teams entering the league this season: Vancouver and Portland. Montreal will make 19 next year, and a second New York franchise will bring the league to a magical 20 teams soon after that.
Average attendance for 2010 jumped modestly to 16,675, from 16,037 the previous year. Seattle led the way for the second straight year, averaging 36,173, up 17% over 2009. League newcomer Philadelphia Union had the fourth highest average at 19,254.
Other positive indicators: Sporting Kansas will open its new soccer-specific, high-tech stadium in June. Portland Timbers will unveil a similar state-of-the-art overhaul of PGE Park as will Vancouver Whitecaps with BC Place. San Jose Earthquakes and the Houston Dynamo have announced plans to reshape and/or build new soccer-specific stadia in the coming year.
But not all is perfect. While TV ratings have improved modestly, it seems pro bowling and curling still overshadow pro soccer, at least in perception if not fact. Capturing a wider television audience has to be one of the league’s highest priorities.
Simply, the MLS needs to continue to raise the salary cap to attract more talent abroad as well as attract the best American athletes to the sport. With MLS demanding at least $40 million for new teams — up from $30 million for Seattle and Philadelphia — league execs need to loosen the purse strings even more and dangle some real dollars in front of real talent. Better talent, better TV ratings.
This is not about abolishing the salary cap. This is not about demanding guaranteed contracts, either. This is really about protecting the long-term assets of the league. And while the latest bargaining agreement bumped up the cap to $2.55 million per team, it doesn’t change the fundamental reality for the vast majority of MLS players — they are woefully underpaid.
The average MLS salary for the 406 MLS players in 2010: $138,169, down 6.6% over the previous year. The new five-year collective bargaining agreement signed at the beginning of the 2010 season no doubt will improve those numbers — but only slightly. For the reality is that 99 of the 406 players made the minimum salary of $40,000 last year, according to the MLS Player’s Union.
The average salary is skewed by a handful of mega-stars who do draw fat paychecks. Examine the salaries of the teams in Los Angeles and New York, and we can find an enormous disparity between haves and have nots, or designated players and the rest of the players.
Last year, David Beckham, Landon Donovan, Rafael Marquez, Juan Pablo Angel and Thierry Henry, earned a combined $21.7 million in guaranteed salaries from their clubs. This represents about 30% of the entire league payroll of $71.3 million, according to the player’s union.
What’s more interesting: those five players combine to make nearly four times as much as the entire team with the next-highest payroll, the Chicago Fire. Henry and Beckham individually make more than every team except their own. Beckham, with a $6.5 million salary, makes more than the combined payrolls of the New England Revolution and 2009 defending champs Real Salt Lake.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s crucial that the MLS attracts big-name talent and the DP-mechanism is a good start. But now the league needs to seriously bring up the bottom end of the salary structure. Such a disparity will breed discontent among players and create an imbalance among the teams that shell out for a designated players and those that don’t.
More importantly, though, offering more attractive entry-level salaries to the journeymen players will improve the talent pool. That, in turns, puts pressure on the highly skilled players and the big stars, and ultimately, the level of play and the attractiveness of the game gets better.
A rigorous salary cap along with the league’s single-entity structure has helped the MLS survive and steadily make pro soccer relevant in a crowded American sports market. But its longterm future depends on boosting its TV ratings and pushing its way into the big-four pantheon of American sports.
The MLS will never reach that milestone, or vast social relevance with mainstream audiences, if it continues to pay such modest wages to the very people responsible for making soccer competitive and entertaining. Its future depends on the league and owners being a little more generous.