Eleven Issues MLS Gets
WASHINGTON, DC (Sept 25, 2008) USSoccerPlayers -- In a follow-up to our Eleven Issues Facing MLS, we lineup what the League is doing that works for them. Fourteen years in, Major League Soccer has pushed past some of the items that would have topped earlier lists.
1. Shifting Ownership: Major League Soccer went from a League dominated by Anschutz Entertainment Group to multiple investor/operators. Some have already shown they won't go along by default, creating a Board of Governors that doesn't just sign off. MLS gets internal criticism. That's necessary in any organization and something that looked unlikely even a few years ago.
2. Major Sponsors: MLS has them spending real money for viable properties, as opposed to placing strategic bets on the future value of the League. That's the second important transition since contraction - multiple ownership was the first.
Together, ownership and sponsors create the business platform on which everything else is built. Though MLS can be forgiven if they choose to appeal to history, their version of professional soccer has none. This was always a new league structure built on reinterpretations of existing models.
The creation myth for MLS might eventually suggest otherwise, but this was a League built on ordered business first. It took over a decade to get there, but credit the leadership for sticking to the script.
3. Transfers: Major League Soccer is a selling league on the international stage, and they've made a considerable amount of money off of players that cost them very little. That's the purpose of selling clubs, and MLS has shifted that to League level. Is it fair to the players? No, but that isn't the intent. It's a revenue generator, plain and simple. In that regard, it's worked on a level no one should have been predicting.
4. The Beckham Exception: Without delving into the broader problems with the designated player rule, bringing in David Beckham could be considered the equivalent of spending considerably on public relations and advertising. It worked, getting MLS attention they otherwise wouldn't have.
Wildly hypothetical contract numbers aside, Beckham generates more attention than any league could reasonably buy. That MLS is even partially paying for it is an indication that the League as a whole can see a bigger picture.
5. Television: A few years from now, pushing MLS into a prime-time slot might be seen as an over-eager move by true believers who didn't pay enough attention to actual demand. Fair enough, but getting MLS into a position that the other North American sports college and pro take for granted was an important step. That includes Fox Soccer Channel's Saturday night slot.
MLS broadcast rights actually costing money was the next step. Justifying increased fees and coverage comes next. It's to the League's credit that it's even in the conversation.
6. Real Estate: Though most have come to realize soccer-specificity is a slippery term in practice, there are multiple MLS teams not paying rent and scheduling against a primary tenant.
7. Spending On Content: Major League Soccer communications realized that the fallout from decreased ad revenue on the internet and in print was creating a situation where there simply wouldn't be jobs for professional soccer writers. They responded by hiring freelancers all across the country and multiple levels of experience.
Yes, other leagues have done that by bringing in established writers to cover their league full-time. MLS helped salvage a coverage area where full-time is a rarity. Writing for MLSnet is the difference for a lot of people trying to put together enough freelance work to make covering soccer viable.
8. Transparency: It's low on the list for a reason, but MLS is lessening their hold on any and all information coming out off the League. Maybe they realize that traditional pro sports coverage will go around them, and the only reason they get away with hiding as much as they do is the lack of that mainstream focus. Maybe they're equally sick of having to treat everything as a state secret as the people covering them. Either way, there's a difference.
9. Playing Through: Against what most coaches, players, and hardcore supporters would want, enough fans seem willing to pay and watch MLS teams minus their stars. MLS might even prefer otherwise, getting the outside push needed to justify reshuffling the schedule. As it stands, business as usual going back through three previous World Cup cycles remains in place.
10. MLSLive.tv And Direct Kick: If you're really into the League, you can see almost every game. That creates out of market fans along with what every other major pro sports league in North America already knows, the in-market fans that despise the local team. Being able to care without living in the same city as a team is a basic cornerstone of pro sports in North America. If nothing else, MLS lessened an old excuse. To follow the League well, you don't need to be anywhere near an MLS market.
11. adidas: In American soccer, it's a bold move to push past the likeliest suitor and take a group licensing deal with their biggest competitor. MLS did that, ending the yearly supplier retrench and the multiple looks that came with it. How many different companies outfitted Colorado over the years?
Template designs aside, what MLS achieved with adidas was the same thing the other major sports already had. A big move, and possibly a bigger statement to the wider world of sports business.