When it comes to the future of MLS, Sounders FC general manager and owner Adrian Hanauer is decidedly optimistic.
“I’m a huge bull on MLS,” he says. “Our league punches above its weight. The quality continues to improve and the thing I keep telling people is, ‘The winds are shifting.’”
Hanauer has been a keen observer of soccer winds since 2001 when he plunged into professional sports as a minority owner of the then-minor league Seattle Sounders.
That team played in front of small crowds and had almost zero media scrutiny. Now Hanauer runs an operation that is the envy of many in MLS in terms of fan interest, media coverage and revenue generation. But he reins in his enthusiasm somewhat when discussing the potential impact of the league’s new TV deal and whether it could lead to more players joining MLS from the more robust and prestigious Liga MX in Mexico, a scenario discussed here Wednesday.
“I think we’re early days in this, because the reality in soccer is players follow the almighty dollar,” he said. “They’re athletes and they have a limited shelf life and they’re going to go where they can get paid. As simple as that. They can get paid more in Mexico now than they can get paid in the United States. If a 20-year-old playing for Cruz Azul can make $400,000 per year, and the alternative is coming to MLS for $100,000, they’re just not going to do it. ”
While money is a driving factor in soccer, as in all pro sports, other factors are at work that might deter a young Mexican league star from jumping into MLS. Liga MX is extremely well off financially in terms of TV and commercial deals. The competition is fierce and, unlike some leagues, not confined to the usual top teams — eight sides have won the Liga MX regular season title in the last 10 years.
“The money is good, cost of living is low, and Mexicans have a tremendous pride and patriotism in their country,” he said before adding a geographic point. “To a player from Mexico, the U.S. isn’t some distant remote destination — it’s just across the border. If you’re a top Mexican player you’ve probably vacationed here. You know the U.S. well. The U.S. is also your arch enemy in terms of the national team.”
But to borrow a line from Hanauer, the winds are shifting. The league’s new TV deal — $720 million over eight years — that kicks in next year will pump a lot of new money into MLS. Part of that deal includes Spanish-language giant Univision, which will cross-promote MLS coverage (among other things, a Friday night game of the week) with Liga MX coverage. Univision’s coverage of Liga MX has done remarkably well in the U.S.
According to a story from goal.com, when Leon traveled to Pachuca for the second leg of the Liga MX Clausura final on May 18, 4.7 million U.S. viewers tuned in, making the game the highest viewed soccer match in America this year from any league in the world. The story said that a regular-season game on Univision between Mexican sides America and Veracruz in March had a higher rating than any of the nine NCAA men’s basketball tournament games on TNT and Tru TV in the same week.
Hanauer gets bullish again when he talks about the TV deal’s Univision component. Ratings for soccer coverage are eye-opening, and should, in theory, lead to more viewers and more money for MLS. According to the 2010 census, 31.8 million Americans of Mexican descent live in the U.S. Analysts say that number is now more than 34 million. Hanauer said that influenced Univision joining MLS as a partner.
“First and foremost, Univision’s play is to appeal to all of those people in the U.S.,” he said. “Part of that is Mexican first-division soccer, part of that is the Mexican national team. But more and more so, as second- and third-generation Mexicans settle in America, it’s the U.S. national team and the top U.S. domestic league, too.”
While he doesn’t think the new TV deal will immediately lead to top Mexican stars looking to jump to MLS, the possibility is on the league’s radar.
“One thing we’ve discussed strategically at the league and club level: If we get top Mexican players in our league, it possibly helps us convert Mexican Americans to become MLS fans faster than we are converting them,” he said. “There are certain markets where a big-name Mexican player would definitely increase local TV ratings, which increases revenue, which gets teams to go out and spend more on players.”
Despite a restrictive salary cap, it seems inevitable that MLS teams will continue to increase spending on players. The TV deal isn’t the only harbinger of growth in MLS.
The New York Yankees and Manchester City have paired up to start a team in New York City next year (NYC FC). Atlanta Falcons owner and Home Depot co-owner Arthur Blank has purchased a team that will join the league in 2017 and play in Atlanta’s NFL stadium under construction. David Beckham is close to a deal for a stadium and team in Miami. A lot of money and power is entering the league in the next five years.
As the league grows it seems inevitable that the potential of mutually beneficial business deals between MLS and Liga MX will arise. Perhaps Hanauer is right that it won’t necessarily involve Mexican stars looking to play in the U.S. But it could involve a unique competition.
Here’s an idea worth considering: Borrow from the NCAA and stage an MLS/Liga MX challenge series where each MLS team would play one match a season against a Liga MX club, with the match counting in each league’s standings. Such a series would definitely have interest and would be tailor-made for TV. The execs at Univision would be doing cartwheels at the thought.
Liga MX fans might question why the league would do such a thing. The answer is obvious: A chance to increase their footprint among American fans. Big, successful leagues stay big and successful by always looking at ways to grow. As for MLS, the benefit of a challenge series against their neighbors would be immediate and obvious.
It would give the league a chance to keep punching above its weight.