Thursday, October 26, 2017

“Should MLS merge with Liga MX?”

I have not watched an entire American MLS (Major League Soccer) game live or on TV in a few years-- the last one I attended was in Tucson, Arizona, circa February 2013 as Thierry Henry and the New York Red Bulls were playing a pre-season friendly.  However, rarely will I miss the English Premier League (EPL) or Barcelona, especially now with DirecTV's numerous European football viewing options (BeIn Sports, Fox Sports Network, etc.).  The reason:  the quality of the players. There is no doubt that American soccer players have never been better. Growing up, however, the only time I saw the world's best players was every four years on televised World Cup matches.  Even then, World Cup football was not nearly the same quality as European football, with too many teams packing it in after too little time training as a unit-- it simply cannot compete with the fluid football played by professional teams over 10 months every year on beautiful, immaculately tended pitches.  When MLS started in 1996, I was hooked.  When Chicago was granted a franchise in 1998, I became a Fire fanatic.  Then, in the early 2000s, American television viewers were given the opportunity to see the likes of Messi and Ronaldo, Barcelona and Real Madrid, oftentimes twice a week!  Now that I know who the best players and teams are, I demand the best with my limited resources.  MLS is like frozen pizza to Spain's La Liga being deep dish from Lou Malnati's in Chicago-- if they both cost the same, which would you buy?  That said, could a merger of MLS with Mexico's Liga MX improve the quality of domestic soccer and possibly draw better players to the United States?


Pros
  • Average attendance is roughly the same:  The Mexican League's 18 teams averaged 21,232 spectators per game during the 2013-14 season, with Club America (43,370), Tigres (40,784), Monterrey (30,548), and Tijuana (22,715) leading individually at the gates (www.worldfootball.net, 2014).  The 20 teams in MLS averaged 21,259 through early August 2015, led by Seattle's 41,324, Orlando's 33,324, New York FC's 28,959, Toronto's 25,254, San Jose's 23,627, and Los Angeles's 21,889 (www.statbunker.co, 2015).  Thirteen of the MLS teams were below the league's average attendance, as were 13 teams in Liga MX.  If the top 10 attended teams from both leagues constituted a new Superleague, average attendance worldwide would trail only the German Bundesliga-- 43,502 in 2013-14 (www.worldfootball.net, 2014)-- and the English Premier League-- 36,657 in 2013-14 (www.espnfc.us, 2014).  The top ten from Mexico had a mean attendance of over 27,000, while the top ten from MLS averaged over 25,000.  These twenty teams would have average attendance numbers rivaling those of Spain's La Liga, which averaged almost 27,000 fans in 2013-14 (www.european-football-statistics.co.uk, 2014). With more fans, either more sponsors will be attracted or current sponsors can be charged more by club owners, as those sponsors' brands will be seen more.  Having one of the highest attended leagues in the world should attract better players.
  • Over 40 million Mexicans and Mexican-Americans in the U.S.:  According to the 2013, U.S. Census Bureau, Mexican-Americans constituted 10.9% of America's population, numbering 34.6 million, and the United States is home to 24% of all the Mexicans in the world.  There are also over 7 million undocumented Mexicans in the country, according to the Pew Hispanic Center (2009).  As cited by www.ussoccer.com (2015), 7 of the 20 highest attended games in America's soccer history involved either the Mexican national team or a Liga MX club.  Univision Deportes's early February 2015 broadcast of the Chivas-Club America match outdrew 4 nationally televised NBA games that week, along with 6 NHL games and 4 EPL games on the NBC Sports Network (Alicia Rodriguez, www.thegoatparade.com, 2015).  The same 2 teams' rematch on Univision in late April attracted 3 million American viewers and outdrew 6 nationally televised NBA playoff games and 35 NHL Stanley Cup games that week (Andy Furillo, The Sacramento Bee, 2015). Ideally, bringing highly recognized Mexican clubs and players will attract more Mexicans and Mexican-Americans to domestic games.
  • Spreading the Brand Name:  Manchester United, Barcelona, Real Madrid, and the richest football clubs all partake in pre-season tours around the world to spread brand recognition, drawing huge crowds, increasing jersey sales, and adding millions of dollars in revenue via future worldwide television rights.  Every business wants exposure to more potential customers.


Cons
  • Discrimination:  In 2013, two former Chivas USA coaches filed a discrimination lawsuit against the club, claiming they had been fired "because they were not Latino".  Shortly after buying out his partners in 2012, new sole owner Jorge Vergara was accused of informing his Chivas USA staff that anyone who did not speak Spanish would be let go. (Kevin Baxter, Los Angeles Times, 2013).  Vergara also owned Liga MX's Chivas de Guadalajara, who were seen as Chivas USA's 'big brother'.  The lawsuit was settled out of court.  In its last year of existence in 2014, Chivas USA averaged about 7,000 fans per game-- easily lowest in the league (www.espnfc.us, 2014).  To be fair, other MLS owners have been sued.  In addition, other clubs throughout the world have discriminated against one culture in favor of another.  Athletic Bilbao of La Liga only rosters players of Basque ethnicity.  However, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would certainly prevent Real Salt Lake from fielding only Mormons, as an example.
  • Racism.  In early 2014, Liga MX had to put FIFA's anti-racism protocol into effect after incidents of racist chanting, noises, and signs involving four foreign players at two separate matches.  The first stage involves stopping the game and making an announcement over the stadium's PA system.  The second stage involves suspending the game for up to 10 minutes, with teams being sent back to their locker rooms.  The final stage involves emptying the arena before play is continued (www.soccertranslated.com, 2014).  This protocol applies to MLS as well, but a situation for its application in the league has never arisen.  Games have been forfeited and played in empty stadiums all over the world because of fan racism and xenophobia, but American crowds have been above this.
  • Citizenship rules and foreign players:  At one point in early 2015, 40% of the players in starting lineups in Liga MX were born outside of Mexico.  This was accelerating towards the 46% of starters playing in Europe's largest five leagues not being born in their countries of employment.  Club America was starting nine players born outside of Mexico.  Only one of the league's top ten scorers was born within Mexico.  Why the upward trend of foreign-born players in Mexico?  Any Central or South American player who has resided in Mexico for at least two years can become a naturalized citizen and be counted as a domestic player.  This 'naturalization' then frees up a foreigner slot, as each team is only allowed 5 non-Mexican players (Tom Marshall, espnfc.us, 2015).  In America, the naturalization process necessitates 5 years of residence if the foreigner is not married to an American (www.uscis.gov, 2015).  The Canadian naturalization process involves 6 years of residence (www.cic.gc.ca, 2015).  MLS teams are each allocated 8 international player slots (non-Americans or non-Canadians), which can be traded (www.pressbox.mlssoccer.com, 2015).  Would Mexico's more 'lenient' naturalization process create too unfair an advantage for Mexican teams, or does the fact that more international players are allowed on MLS teams negate this?  Would Chicago or Los Angeles, for example, be able to roster as many Mexican players as they wanted to, as these players would now count as ‘domestics’?
  • Fiscal discipline differences:  There is no salary cap in Liga MX.  The MLS salary cap for 2015 was set at just under $3.5 million for each team's first 20 players-- an average of $175,000 for each man on the club's 'senior roster'.  In addition, 8 players constitute each team's 'supplemental roster', earning between $50,000 and $60,000.  The maximum salary on the senior roster is $436,250.  Each team is allowed 3 'Designated Players' whose compensation can exceed the aforementioned maximum salary but only counts as a salary cap hit of the maximum salary (www.pressbox.mlssoccer.com, 2015).  The average player salary in the EPL was about $3.5 million in 2014.  That same year saw average salaries in the Bundesliga at about $2.26 million and about $1.87 million in La Liga.  The average salary in Liga MX in 2014:  $411,000.  The average salary in MLS that year:  $210,000-- ranked #22 in the world's leagues (www.dailymail.co.uk, 2014).  The biggest spending team in MLS during the 2013 season, the LA Galaxy, had an average salary of over $550,000--ranking 219th in the world.  Barcelona's average salary that year was over $10 million (Jon Arnold, www.americansoccernow.com, 2013).  However, there were at least 11 players in MLS that had higher salaries than any player in Liga MX in 2015, with the likes of Giovinco, Villa, Kaka, Lampard, Gerrard, and Pirlo joining the league as Designated Players with salaries over $4 million.  Liga MX's highest salaried player was Roque Santa Cruz at $2.6 million (www.mlsgb.com, 2015).  Average team income in 2014 was $33 million in Mexico and $25 million in the U.S., with total player salaries costing Liga MX teams over $10 million on average and MLS teams over $5.5 million on average.  As a comparison, the average team in the EPL saw an income of $240 million and player salaries costing over $85 million (www.dailymail.co.uk, 2014).   In sum, the MLS is hugely cost conscious, but its players' salaries are on the rise.  Would the league's owners be amenable to drastic increases in expenses that a merger with Liga MX might require?  Would Liga MX agree to an MLS-style salary cap?  Would MLS be open to dropping its salary cap?
  • How do you split the 38 teams currently in MLS and Liga MX?  As mentioned earlier, there are currently 20 teams in MLS and 18 teams in Liga MX.   In addition, there are 16 teams fighting for promotion into Liga MX in the Mexican 2nd Division (Ascenso MX).  Would you field a 38-team top flight league, or would a 2nd Division be created?  Which teams would be relegated to this 2nd Division?  Would there be a rule that half of the teams in a 20-team top flight had to be from the MLS every year?
  • Would American and Canadian teams draw in Mexico?  Top English and Italian players may draw well in New York, but what about in Mexico City?  Sure, the America-Mexico soccer rivalry cannot be discounted, and the importance of regional rivalries to MLS attendance cannot be understated.  But, would the appearance of Vancouver in Monterrey necessarily bump up attendance there?  
  • Weather:  Liga MX follows the European football calendar, which runs August thru May.  MLS commences March thru November, as several teams in the league simply cannot play during the cold, snowy winter months.  Could the teams in Mexico play during June and July?  Mexico City's average temperatures are in the 70s during these months.  It's actually cooler in Guadalajara in June than in May.  Certainly, there are no concerns of snow in Mexico.  The largest contention here comes with Mexico lining up with the European calendar, giving total attention each June and July to national teams and blocking off entire weekends of domestic play during the season to free up players for national team duty.  With its condensed time frame, the MLS simply cannot afford to take off any weekend, let alone all of June and July (which happen to be the league's best months of attendance.)
  • Travel:  Seattle Sounders G.M. Adrian Hanauer (Seattle Times, 2015) commented that a chartered flight to Latin America for a midweek CONCACAF (the North and Central American version of a champions' league) game costs between $100,000 and $200,000.  A commercial trip, which is all that cost-conscious MLS teams are allowed to take for league games, costs $20,000 on average for a group of 30.  (Champions' league games can be chartered.)  Would top players from around the world be drawn to a league with the promise of business-class seats for an eight-hour flight to Mexico City?
  • Canada and Mexico?:  The Mexican-Canadian population is only 96,000 (www.statcan.gc.ca, 2014).  Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver are three of MLS's top teams in terms of attendance, but would hosting Mexican teams necessarily help their gates?  What about the additional miles of airfare from Canada to Mexico?


Conclusion

This proposed move would have some huge hurdles.  However, MLS has reached a point where it realizes that top-level talent in some of its cities predicates larger attendance and more sponsor revenue.  The league’s soccer-specific stadia seat between 18,000 and 31,000.  This suggests that MLS is being practical, but is it also guilty of not ‘thinking big enough’?  Dropping parts of the fiscal discipline business model that the league prides itself on would be necessary for its soccer to come anywhere close to the level of play found in Europe, but these concessions would also be incredibly risky for an association that has seen North American soccer leagues-- indoors and outdoors-- come and go.  If both sides agreed to an expanded salary cap, if Mexico agreed to the summer-heavy schedule, and if all Mexicans, Americans, and Canadians became ‘domestic’ players throughout the new league’s rosters, I would argue that this NAFTA experiment could be quite interesting, exciting, and full of higher quality soccer.