By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Jun 11, 2020) US Soccer Players - A history-rich topflight club with loyal fans and trophies in its cabinet is suddenly uprooted and relocated some 500 miles northwest to a coastal tourist enclave amid dubious financial circumstances. That threatens to set off a game of musical chairs among clubs and cities. Meanwhile, the practice of corporations owning and operating multiple clubs in the league system, targeted for eradication several years ago, has ramped up during that time.
The infuriating backdoor tactic of buying a franchise slot and switching it to a completely different club somewhere else to sneak into or stay in the first division remains a recurring issue. So does the outsized influence of the league's incumbent aristocrats and the wealthy, powerful corporations that own them. All this unfolds alongside a contentious multi-year suspension of the promotion and relegation mechanism that should bring meritocratic order to these things.
Add in FIFA, soccer's global governing body with skeletons in the closet of its own. They're now ready to throw considerable weight around in defense of their own interests. It all sounds like a sporting soap opera, playing out with no games due to the coronavirus.
The single element that's earned the most coverage and controversy so far is Monarcas Morelia's move to Mazatlan, long considered baseball country, to become Mazatlan FC. The Sinaloa state government has spent somewhere around $30 million to build a pretty new stadium in the Pacific port city with a "build it and they will come" mindset.
Grupo Salinas, the Morelia ownership group, headed by media giant TV Azteca, has taken the opportunity. It will cost a relative pittance of around $20 million to complete the relocation. The details of who will operate the club remain hazy.
"It's just a very strange arrangement," said ESPN's Eric Gomez, a veteran Liga MX journalist based in Mexico City who I spoke with this week to learn more about what's happening south of the border. "It's going to be a very interesting experiment. When you look at the other side of this, it's pretty heartbreaking to see a team like Morelia just pack it up and leave.... It's kind of a Baltimore Colts, San Diego Chargers, Houston Oilers type thing."
Obviously a disaster for Monarcas supporters this is also a travesty to traditionalists. It might be the first domino in a phase of upheaval that could lead Mexican soccer into uncharted territory. For example, Cancun-based Atlante FC is eager to climb back into Liga MX from the Ascenso, Mexico's second tier. They would prefer to return to the bigger market of Mexico City in the process. To do so they may try to leverage the Mexican federation's supposed desire to reduce multi-club ownership. That might be by pressuring Grupo Caliente, the entity that owns Club Tijuana, Club Queretaro, and second-tier side Dorados de Sinaloa, to divest itself of Queretaro's Liga MX slot and sell it to Atlante.
A similar tactic could work against Grupo Orlegi, which operates Santos Laguna, Atlas, and Ascenso side Tampico Madero, or one of the system's other large ownership groups. Other clubs like Puebla are also regularly rumored to be in the crosshairs of this geopolitical game. Just last year, Lobos BUAP was purchased and shut down so that FC Juarez could take their Liga MX slot and return topflight soccer to that border city. A similar scenario happened seven years ago with resulting reforms. Yet here we are again.
In the bigger picture, the executives who run Mexican soccer seem to want it all. Even in such a soccer-mad country there's a need for new investors and fresh ideas. However, the incumbents don't want to share a slice, even if it could lead to a bigger pie overall.
"It's a closed club," said Gomez, noting that even Carlos Slim, estimated by some to be the fifth-richest person in the world, has struggled to gain a significant foothold in Liga MX. "It's not that there aren't enough people in Mexico with the capacity or the finances to buy a franchise or to bring it up. It's more or less the fact that when you have a very small group of people controlling the most popular sports league in Mexico, and probably among soccer fans in the United States as well, there's a lot of money to be made there. And they just don't want other people buying into that club, having a say, and taking away potentially from their profits."
That's surely a factor in the move to shut down promotion and relegation between Liga MX and the Ascenso until 2026. It's purportedly to stabilize the system overall. In reality, it's probably a sop to the entrenched elite. Most of the second division's members currently don't meet the stated standards for facilities and wealth. The fatter cats one rung above them fear the disruption of relegation.
However, there's both a sporting and economic case to be made for leaving open the path to build up a smaller or less-established club and vault into the big time like Tijuana did. Places like Juarez, Cancun, and Mazatlan are large and growing cities with a hunger for high-level soccer. They deserve a chance to prove it, regardless of what Chivas Guadalajara or Club America might think. Removing a beloved team from a place like Morelia, though, is a highly imperfect workaround.
Now there are doubts about whether FIFA will allow the lengthy suspension of promotion and relegation to happen. Gomez and his ESPN colleagues recently reported that FMF has been warned not to kill the concept altogether. That might mean bringing it back as soon as next year. The governing body holds significant leverage in the form of Mexico's co-hosting of World Cup 2026. FIFA could yet take a similar tack on the much-discussed prospect of Liga MX and MLS someday merging.
"They don't want pro/rel to be abolished throughout North America, because they feel like it's setting a pattern elsewhere. You might remember that when Mexico announced that plan to abolish pro/rel for the next six years, it was the Argentine players union that complained," said Gomez. "We sort of underestimate how important or how influential North American soccer is to the rest of the world, even as far as how the league is presented, how the league is organized… this is actually something that other people in the world are aware of and are worried about."
It's harder than ever to separate Major League Soccer from Liga MX discussions. It's worth noting that Mazatlan's new stadium has a distinctly MLS look to it, with intimate dimensions and a planned capacity of 25,000, big enough to cash in when giants like Chivas visit but not look deserted for less desirable matchups. From the size and features of the venues to the social-media footprints to club branding, many see an increasingly MLS-like blueprint being applied across Mexican soccer.
"The Mazatlan FC logo was roasted, people saying it was a knockoff of the Inter Miami crest," said Gomez with a chuckle. "Other people said you basically took NYCFC's font and Inter Miami's design aspects and just kind of smashed that together."
For all its tradition and quality on the field, Liga MX's leaders remain infatuated with the business practices of their northern neighbors' sports leagues. The problem is that the landscape is different, and thus so are the levers available to them. MLS, for example, has used constant expansion to address situations like Mazatlan. It's not quite the same in Mexico.
"Even before we had this sort of mirror imaging between MLS and Liga MX, Liga MX always tried to do that with American sports in general. There's a reason why the summer signing period in Mexico is called the draft," said Gomez. "The playoff system, the liguilla. It's always been in the back of these owners' minds and these administrators' minds to emulate the way that they do things in the United States. And now that's just coming to the forefront."
Balancing the desire to become a bigger and better business with the century's worth of authenticity that it's inherited looks like a tricky task for Mexican soccer's current honchos. Along the way, they'll be watched closely by demanding eyes both at home and abroad.
"It's going to be very interesting to see what Liga MX continues to do, or what they can get away with in front of their fan base as well, which I think is very important, the way that things are received by people in Mexico," said Gomez, "as far as what they're doing to try to emulate MLS or try to link up with MLS as much as they can."
Charles Boehm is a Washington, DC-based writer and the editor of The Soccer Wire. Contact him at:firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at:http://twitter.com/cboehm.
More from Charles Boehm:
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- Eyeing the tightrope: MLS looks for a way to play
Graphic courtesy of Liga MX