By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Jan 20, 2016) US Soccer Players – Excuse the simpleness, but here’s a question: What is Major League Soccer?
Before you spit out what you might think is an obvious answer, stop and think about it for a moment. Yes, MLS is a soccer league, a mechanism for competition that crowns a champion at the end of every season. It’s also an entertainment company, in business to separate fans from their money via the product it puts on the field. As “product”, the games and the players are there to help the business grow. Or so those running the league hope.
To that end, MLS has stepped up its marketing game in recent years. Not just in the amount of money it spends on promoting the league, but in the players its teams have signed. The Designated Player Rule was a conscious attempt to grab the attention of new fans. Bringing David Beckham and every player who followed him who possessed a famous resume to the league had its basis in selling MLS.
Not every team has bought into the big spending plan. MLS might be single-entity, but each club has the freedom to go about the team-building process as it sees fit. With MLS as entertainment product, there’s a question as to whether the teams that have chosen the low-budget, grind-it-out approach are holding back the overall growth.
There’s a tried-and-true, almost traditional approach to success in MLS that starts with a defensive philosophy. The approach is as much a function of economics as it is of its effectiveness. Attacking players cost more money. Significantly more money in most cases. Players capable of sitting back and protecting their own net with numbers are cheaper. The MLS salary budget dictates some of that. However, in many cases it’s just a matter of owners choosing to keep their cash in their pockets. The margins on professional soccer are either miniscule or nonexistent.
During the offseason, MLS teams do what they can to ramp up excitement among their own fan bases. At the same time, they’re also trying to make a mark on the wide soccer world. Signing a world famous player or two is the easiest way to do to that. It’s not always a fit with the budget-conscious ethos that still holds sway in many clubs around the league. “Winning the offseason” has many layers in the MLS context. What is good enough for the committed fans is not always enough to get attention from others. MLS still must grapple with what it means to grow as a soccer product in a world that can offer the average soccer fan the best of the game with the change of a channel or web address.
There’s a line, and not an inconsiderable one, between the soccer competition and the entertainment aspects of what MLS does. There’s no way around the soccer people employed at each club wanting to value the integrity of the game. Their desire to win by any means might not be best for the business of selling MLS.
Winning does necessarily mean success. Not when the measures of success are things like attendance numbers, television ratings, and merchandise sales. Those last two metrics in particular speak to the league’s ongoing struggle to break through into the American sports mainstream. As long as the league is drawing tiny TV numbers when compared to its pro sports league peers, and the idea of MLS jerseys seen all over the country is still odd, the League won’t have reached its own goals.
Quite often it seems as though MLS is growing for the sake of growth. There are original investors who undoubtedly hope to see their 1996 (and 2002) dollars show a return. Expansion isn’t necessarily about making the competition better. A “soccer first” approach only demands expansion team after expansion team if the belief is that more MLS teams equals more soccer interest in the country as a whole. Even that belief prompts a pondering about why more fans is a good thing. As long as the league isn’t in danger of collapsing (and perhaps reaching more fans is an insurance policy of sorts against that happening), then there’s little left to do from a soccer standpoint.
Unless, of course, the competitive nature of the sport itself isn’t as important as the operation of the League. In that case, MLS is a player in global game that demands pushing the boundaries at every turn in order to “win.” Whether that be through becoming one of America’s leading pro sports leagues or earning enough prestige to be counting among the world’s best soccer competition, the inherent need to get bigger and better every year is an underpinning of what MLS is.
What is MLS? A resolute and respectable soccer competition? An entertainment product? The answer is “both”. A simple answer to a simple question that belies a complex existence.
More From Jason Davis: