USA – The problem of expansion

Despite the national side’s impressive displays at last year’s World Cup, America’s domestic league desperately needs to expand, says Mike Woitalla

US manager Bruce Arena allowed cameras into his 2002 World Cup dressing room to film the doc­umentary Our Way. Before sending his men out, he reminded them that they were representing “the greatest country in the world”. Perhaps the phrase provided the extra inspiration needed for his team to reach the quarter-finals. Or maybe Arena was trying to prevent post-tournament defections to Norway, No 1 according to the UN Human Development Index of “most livable” nations. As for the veracity of the “greatest” claim – one heard commonly in a nation where just ten per cent of the population holds a passport – let’s just consider it too subjective to squabble over. But clearly the USA isn’t the greatest place for a professional soc­cer player.

Major League Soccer, now in its eighth season, fields only ten teams, making this a land of limited op­portunity for those who wish to earn a living with their feet. The baseball, gridiron, hockey and basketball leagues each have at least 30 teams. MLS players are guaranteed an annual minimum wage of £15,000.

Each club is allowed to spend just over £1 million per season on salaries for its 18-man squad – which puts average annual pay for an MLS player at about £60,000 per year. That’s not including the six “developmental” players each team is permitted. They earn £580 per month. The average baseball play­er earns £1.5 million annually. You can see why the sluggers and pitchers would hail the Stars and Stripes.

In MLS, the severe competition for jobs has helped eliminate the negotiating leverage of all but a handful of stars, who aim for the maximum salary of £180,000. Moreover, MLS’s single-entity structure – upheld in an anti-trust legal battle that cost MLS about £7 million in lawyers’ fees – means the league’s administrators negotiate all contracts. That prevents clubs from bidding against each other for a player. Two teams, Tampa Bay and Miami, folded after the 2001 season, ending a four-year spell in which MLS had a 12-team league. That, and the fact that investors have lost about £250 million since the league’s inauguration in 1996, reminds the players that their livelihoods depend on a dwindling group of benefactors.

MLS teams play 30 games a year and their supporters are subjected to what can become a tiresome amount of rematches. Eight teams reach the play-offs. This absurd ratio is seen as necessary because without a relegation battle, fans of struggling teams could be­come uninterested by mid-season. (In 1997, Colorado reached the championship game after finishing the regular season in seventh place.)

Moreover, with ten teams in a country 70 times lar­ger than England, MLS fails to create a “national foot­print”, to use the words of Lamar Hunt, who operates three of the teams (Kansas City, Columbus and Dallas). Media coverage is satisfactory in areas surrounding a club, but countrywide attention is too meagre to pro­duce the TV ratings, and rights income, high enough to keep the league afloat in the long run.

The quality of play has thrived, as the last World Cup demonstrated. Six key players – DaMarcus Beasley, Pab­lo Mastroeni, Landon Donovan, Eddie Pope, Josh Wolff and Clint Mathis – spent almost their entire pro­fessional lives in MLS. Still, league survival depends on expansion.

To that end MLS is looking for more rich men such as Philip Anschutz, who owns six of the teams. Ans­chutz, as Hunt did Columbus, is building the Los Ang­eles Galaxy its own stadium. The league is seeking more investors with an interest in stadium-building. It’s also courting gridiron owners like Hunt (Kansas City Chiefs) and the Kraft family (owners of the New England Patriots as well as MLS’s New England Rev­olution) who control their stadiums. As mere tenants, clubs see too much of their gate income – the league’s average attendance was 15,822 last season – going to the landlords, who also claim large shares of parking and concession revenues.

MLS promises to expand by two more teams in 2005. Candidates are Rochester, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Minnesota, Oklahoma City, Tulsa, Houston and Seattle. “Then we want to expand from 12 teams to 14 or 16 in the next four to six years,” says commissioner Don Garber. “Then we want to be a 16- to 18-team league by 2010.” Then, a good league could become a great league, regardless of how the nation ends up.

From WSC 195 May 2003. What was happening this month