Major League Soccer, March 2010

MLS Owners Won’t Make Concessions

One reason Parker Brothers never made a “celebrity deaths” version of Trivial Pursuit is because all the answers are plane crash or drug overdose. A “soccer league deaths” version would have just as many answers: overspending or inadequate revenues.

MLS players deserve guaranteed contracts and more pay, but I don’t see the owners giving in. They have history on their side.

The death of professional soccer leagues in the U.S. have nothing to do with guaranteed contracts, quality of play, nationalities of players or free agency. None of the items important to players matter to the owners. And they didn’t matter to the success of past leagues either.

The owners have invested money into MLS. They came into the league by writing checks and promising to cover financial losses while paying players and other staff.

Now, I’m not happy with the player’s situation. But I’m realistic. I don’t root for owners. I just want Major League Soccer to avoid the financial consequence of the other previous professional soccer leagues in the U.S.

The first professional soccer league in the U.S. that was more than a city league was the American Soccer League, living from 1921 to 1933. The teams, concentrated in the manufacturing areas of the Northwest, fell apart during the Great Depression. Attendance slumped too far for investors to continue.

The second version of the American Soccer League sprang from three teams of the previous ASL. It started in 1933 and survived 50 years. No kidding. Teams relied on local talent with low payrolls while focusing on revenue generated by hosting foreign teams on American tours.

Operating during the lowest depths of U.S. interest in the game, the ASL truly was the savior of the game in the U.S., paying players part-time salaries based on games played and attendance. The league lasted for so long by being so conservative. When it tried to grow, it died.

The ASL’s demise started when the United States Soccer Federation granted top-level professional status to the United Soccer Association in 1967. The newer league merged into the NASL a year later, dropping the ASL down a notch or two.

That prompted touring clubs to turn their backs on the ASL. With the ASL’s primary revenue source gone, its owners folded after the 1983 season.

As for the NASL, 1982 was its 15th season, where MLS is today. At that time every team was still looking for a star player to draw attendance and win titles. When the teams failed to generate revenues high enough to pay the high-priced players, the house of cards tumbled and the league closed just prior to the 1985 season.

In the wake of the NASL, another version of the American Soccer League started in 1988. As an East Coast League it later merged with the Western Soccer Alliance to form the American Professional Soccer League in 1990.

Several members of the U.S. Men’s National Team that went to the 1990 World Cup played for APSL teams, but the league’s unstable attendance and low corporate support brought financial vulnerability.

The league was criticized by FIFA as unsatisfactory, prompting USSF to outline plans for Major League Soccer. Renamed the A-League, the APSL dropped to second class status.

In reality the APSL already was second class to the Major Indoor Soccer League. The MISL owners felt so good about their product that they removed “Indoor” from their name and became the Major Soccer League.

After the 1991-92 season, the league fell apart, though, suffering at the hands of other indoor leagues by competing for attendance, exposure, and talent. In turn, those indoor leagues suffered when Major League Soccer started up in 1996. They couldn’t generate enough revenue to stay in business.

It’s important to understand that there was no national professional outdoor soccer league in the U.S. between 1985 and 1996. Those were dark days. Only a handful of people were making a living playing soccer in the U.S. in regional or indoor leagues.

Those years seem so recent, but only a handful of today’s MLS players remember what they were like. There’s a saying about not understanding history and being doomed to repeat it.

If the players strike, be prepared to hear the average radio show listener say, “Who cares?” Be prepared to hear MLS owners say, “Thank you for ending our losses.” And be prepared to hear agents say, “You don’t have many other opportunities.”

Now, I love you guys. But I love the game more. I have no love for the owners, but I know that they have leverage and history on their side.

That will change when the teams are profitable, when the players get more media exposure, and when the teams are more vital to the sports landscape. These items are not under the control of the players, but they will give the players leverage.

One factor that doesn’t matter is the quality of play. By bringing it up, writers are trying to support the players even though very, very few fans could give two turds about the way their teams win. When was the last time you heard any fan praise their team’s quality of play? Victories are what they crave.

My list of lost leagues from yesteryear does not show one case of the players’ interest causing the demise of a soccer league. In every case (including the Women’s United Soccer Association), it came down to overspending or inadequate revenues. Issues important to the players—sorry to say—didn’t matter to the health of those leagues.

Until that changes, my advice for players is for them to move to other leagues or accept the best contract they can get under the current MLS agreement. If they kill MLS, their opportunities will be fewer and soccer’s future will be dimmer.

Jamie Clary is the author of The First American Soccer Trivia Book which can be purchased here. He can be reached via Twitter at @soccerprofessor.

Jamie Clary