By Joe Anthony Curtis, writing from Miami
“If you ain’t first, you’re last.” These wise words from Will Farrell’s character Ricky Bobby in the 2006 film ‘Talladega Knights’ sums up the Americans mentality towards sports. In the United States we are obsessed with the domination of one team over another and the statistics that prove it. This is a country where American Football is King, and slower paced sports such as baseball are slowly becoming a thing of the past. Yes baseball, the sport that is supposed to be “America’s Pastime”. Americans expect to be entertained 24-hours a day and if the activity doesn’t fulfill this constant need then it is not considered worth our time. As a result Television programs, Sports, and even Schools have evolved to become more entertaining to keep their audience attentive. So how does Major League Soccer survive and grow in this type of environment? I believe there are two main changes that need to take place in order to build on the post-World Cup soccer frenzy in the United States: The Designated Player rule and how the league crowns it’s Champion.
Major League Soccer is structured so that the league has total control of every team. Operating as a single entity is a survival strategy that keeps the struggling league running by distributing revenue evenly. This also means that the leagues, and not the individual team, own a player’s contract. This brings us to our first obstacle on our journey to success: the Designated Player rule. The 2010 version of the rule allows teams to sign two players that would be considered outside the Salary Cap and give the option to pay a “luxury tax” of $250,000 to sign a third. 2007 was supposed to be the turning point of American Soccer when David Beckham signed with the LA Galaxy.
This was not the first time a superstar signed to play in the States, Pele signed with the New York Cosmos of the North American Soccer League in 1975. Regarded as “The Greatest Player of All Time”, not even he succeeded in making soccer a major sport in the United States.
This summer saw the signings of international superstars Thierry Henry and Rafael Marquez by the New York Red Bulls. It is going to take multiple big names to draw big crowds, which is something that we are more then capable of accomplishing. MLS needs to eventually restructure itself in order to allow teams to have greater control over operations, and give teams the ability to pursue talent. Luxury Taxes can stay in place in order to keep teams unable to acquire the top players on a somewhat even playing field. If the MLS makes this changes not only will revenue increase, but also increase the level of competition in the league giving American players the opportunity to gain valuable experience at home. As competition increases so does the likelihood that American players will be greater prepared for the International Level, as well as keep soccer prodigies like Giuseppe Rossi from deciding that he would rather represent another country.
The level of competition leads us the last obstacle Major League Soccer should address: How the League Champion is crowned. If this is restructured to mimic that of European leagues, soccer could arguably appeal to Americans more than any other major sport. As I stated earlier winning is everything in the US, at the end of the season people want an undisputed champion holding the trophy. This is not always the case because in play off format leagues “upsets” take place.
Adopting the European league structure results in an undisputed champion. In addition this league structure also relegates the bottom three teams to the second tier and promotes the top three of the second tier to the first. Promotion and relegation once again increases the competition level, forcing teams to fight for their place in MLS. Promotions also add a special factor that appeals to all sports fans: The Cinderella Story. Cinderella teams appeal to Americans because they symbolize the American dream of achieving success through hard work and determination.
Making these major changes to the structure of the league could catapult Major League Soccer into the hearts of US sports fans. Analyzing what the majority of Americans expect from a sport would imply that this is exactly what needs to be done in order to have success. Americans caught a glimpse of why the world calls soccer “The Beautiful Game” and are giving the sport a second look. The time to grow is now, and like any other business looking to expand the first step is adapting to the needs of audience or customer. The funny thing is, every other league in the world is already doing it.
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