MLS At 20 Isn’t Perfect, But It Is A True American Sports League

The league is here to stay, and has established itself on the North American scene
by Ray Marcham   |   Monday, April 18, 2016

Sometimes, the sure sign of success is how many hate that you exist, or that you’ve succeeded in not the manner other wanted you to succeed.

In this category just might lie Major League Soccer.

Twenty years ago this month, MLS started with 10 clubs and a dream. That first match in San Jose between the Clash and DC United, capped by Eric Wynalda’s winning goal, was the start of a journey that has had many twists and turns. At times, it seemed like MLS wouldn’t survive, and for a couple of days in 2001, it didn’t.

How things have changed. MLS now has 20 clubs, will have 24 by 2018 and likely will add on four more teams starting in 2020, eventually getting to 28 teams. The television contracts are the best in league history, matches are shown around the world and it is starting to shake the “retirement league” label.

Of course, there are issues. The continuing saga in Miami, the never-ending search for a New York City FC stadium site, the conflicts with supporters’ groups, inconsistent refereeing…there’s no shortage of items that one could complain about when it comes to MLS.

But some of the issues that critics point to as MLS mistakes are actually what is making the league stronger.

The March-October schedule? No, it’s not the European standard. But what it has done is allowed MLS to play at a time when there is less competition with other major sports leagues in North America. Where MLS likely wouldn’t have survived going up against the full seasons of the NFL, NBA, NHL, NCAA football and NCAA basketball in a Europe-like August-May schedule, playing a March-October schedule cuts the competition down to primarily baseball. While conflicts with football do happen later in the season (which also hurts TV viewership), for the bulk of the year, it’s just MLS and MLB in a lot of cities. That lack of competition has helped the league grow, prosper and become a traditional part of the North American summer sports scene. Plus, it does avoid the worst of the fall/winter weather in much of the continent (even with occasional snow games, like the recent Rapids-Red Bulls match in Colorado).

Besides, one of the reasons that MLS has been able to start getting contracts with broadcasters around the world is precisely because of the March-October schedule. What better way to fill in the soccer offseason in a country than with more soccer! Plus, what with NBC and Fox showing the Premier League and Bundesliga, respectively, in the MLS offseason, it’s really no different.

Promotion/relegation? That sounds so, so romantic to fans of the European game and those who somehow believe MLS is a lesser league (or just plain evil) without it. But in the real world of North American sports economics, it’s completely unfeasible. Could DC United have gotten approval of their new stadium at Buzzard Point if they had been relegated following their horrid 2013 season? No, they would be stuck at crumbling RFK Stadium likely for many more years. Would the owners of Orlando City and Atlanta United have paid the $70 million expansion fee, and NYCFC ownership $100 million, if they knew they might not stay in the league after one bad season? Doubtful.

MLS has been able to succeed, in large part, because there is no pro/rel, because it is a true North American sports league. The biggest mistake made by many is to compare MLS to leagues like the Bundesliga, Premier League and La Liga. To try and compare those European leagues to MLS is really comparing apples and oranges, even if is the same sport, because the economics are so different. The leagues that MLS should be compared, especially when it comes to economics, are the other major leagues in North America, like the NHL and NBA. Knowing that there will always be a piece of the overall financial pie is vital to the success of teams in all North American leagues, including MLS, and that they know they will never lose that piece of the economic pie helps contribute to the stability of teams in the NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL and MLS.

Even when MLS expands to 28 clubs, it’ll still be smaller than the NFL (32 teams), MLS (30), NBA (30) and NHL (30). In fact, by time MLS has expanded to 28, the NBA and NHL likely will have expanded to 32 teams each. Also, with the NFL still thinking about international expansion and MLB possibly looking at two more teams, MLS will be the smallest of the Big Five sports leagues in North America for a long time to come. So going to 28 clubs not only should be no big deal for MLS, it may be vital for future growth. Going to 32 down the road? That might be just as critical to the league when the time comes.

Where MLS has to be careful when it comes to growth is getting addicted to expansion fees. The NHL fell into that trap in the 1990s, growing from 21 teams in 1990 to 30 teams in 2000. Other than the San Jose situation in the early 90s (which involved the existing Minnesota North Stars and a complicated deal involving player distribution and finances), the NHL grew in batches of four in 1992-93 and 1999-2000, two teams a year. Sound familiar? MLS will be growing by four teams to 24, two in 2017, two in 2018.

Player salaries? Yes, those still can improve, especially for those near the current minimum salary of $62,500. But free agency has finally come to MLS, and it’s actually similar to free agency in the NHL. While the top players do make millions of dollars per year, they still aren’t close to the top salaries in the other four major professional leagues. The minimum salary is much less than those leagues, as well. But as TV money increases, and if expansion fees are spent smartly, significant salary increases should be possible by time the MLS CBA expires in 2019.

Refereeing issues? Hey, welcome to professional sports. No, MLS refs aren’t perfect. But if one goes with the line of “MLS isn’t legit without consistent/good refs”, then no league in the world is “legit”. Want to hear grumbling about officiating? Listen to an NFL or NHL fan. Baseball fans have complained about umpires for over 150 years. Look at a Twitter feed following a Premier League match, and you’ll wonder if they have any good referees. The one thing one can’t argue about is that MLS referees are trying to get better. Besides, it’s the US Soccer Federation, Canadian Soccer Association and the Professional Referee Organization that oversee the refs, not MLS (though the league does contribute significant money towards their pay).

Problems with the league office? It’s not like fans of pro sports in North America don’t have discontent toward leaders of the respective leagues (ask an NHL fan their opinion of league commissioner Gary Bettman). That’s not to say that there aren’t issues. If Don Garber has stayed on too long as commissioner could be debated. Whether Ray Whitworth, the controversial vice president for operations and security, has undercut Garber’s power with his heavy-handed treatment of supporters’ groups could be an issue. The strangeness, and mystery, that is MLS player acquisition rules can always be changed. The leeway MLS has given to NYCFC and Miami that hasn’t been given to other expansion teams, especially on stadium issues, isn’t the best. The Chivas USA/LAFC situation wasn’t the smoothest of transitions.

Overall, MLS is not much different than the NHL or NBA as far as structure. But where MLS is different from the other four major leagues is supporters’ culture, which MLS had to embrace to grow and expand. Once MLS figured out that trying to appeal to “soccer moms” was a failure, and they started trying to embrace the hardcore soccer fan, then the league started to hit its stride. One of the big reasons the Sounders-Timbers rivalry has become known worldwide is because of the tifos, chants and hard work done by groups like the Emerald City Supporters and the Timbers Army. It’s the supporters groups that make MLS stand out from the other leagues, and it needs to embrace it more and reduce situations like Whitworth’s run-ins with Los Angeles’ Angel City Brigade in 2015 and DC United’s District Ultras in 2016.

The connection to the US Soccer Federation is also different from the other major leagues in North America, but might be closer to the college structure, with the USSF playing the role of the NCAA and MLS playing the role of the Power Five (SEC, Big Ten, Pac-12, ACC, Big 12). Of course, the NCAA doesn’t organize national teams, but the closeness and occasional conflict between the USSF and MLS isn’t much different than the NCAA-Power Five relationship.

Is MLS perfect? Not even close. Can it get better? Of course it can. Shall it try to emulate the major leagues of Europe? No way. Should decisions be more transparent? They must. Is growth important? It’s crucial to the future success of the league. Should supporters’ groups be more respected? It’s vital that they are. Will the MLS haters, the pro/rel zealots, ever be satisfied with what MLS does, and even ignore its successes? Always.

But, overall…has MLS become a significant part of the North American sports scene, establishing itself as a professional sports league that succeeds and grows because it follows the North American ways of success, establishing its own path in the process? Can MLS claim to be the fifth major North American sports league, and have the attendance figures and longevity to back it up?



Washington State
Club Domestic:
Portland Timbers
Club Foreign:
Cascadia native and a fan for as long as he can remember, Ray was brought up on the old NASL. Learned to love MLS. Wanted to play like Clive Charles. Then like Tony Adams. Only dreams, of course.