American dreaming – MLS continues to progress


A 0-0 DRAW and a penalty shoot-out, the scourge of the modern game, demonstrated that Major League Soccer is no different than its more celebrated counterparts – in other words, it ended in anti-climax.

But a new name is on the MLS Cup – Seattle Sounders, the best supported club in the competition with an average of almost 43,000 people, an impressive figure by any standards. And the overall average for the regular season, 21,692 represents a record for MLS and compares very favourably against mature leagues like Serie A and Ligue 1.

MLS continues to fascinate, however, and investors are still willing to stump-up the cash for a new franchise. According to Football Benchmark’s latest report, Major League Soccer – a challenging rise, franchise fees, which were once modestly pitched, could rise to as much as USD 200m.

Typically, the US is aggressively marketing MLS and has conjured up several initiatives to encourage “fan habits”, including “Rivalry Week” where only local derbies are played. This highlights the difference between more established competitions and leagues that are intensely focused on pushing spectator interest as quickly as possible.

Football Benchmark emphasises the MLS’ ability to engage “a young and diverse fan base” although from a TV viewing perspective, MLS is way behind neighbouring Mexico and the English Premier League. The MLS earns USD 90m a year from its seven-year deal with a trio of broadcasters.

The MLS has been influenced by other leading North American sports competitions and a “closed league” structure that has no relegation and a salary cap aimed at maintaining stability and sensible financial management.

But like most football leagues, money does talk and there are always ways to work round the system. Toronto, runners-up in the final, had the biggest wallet and spent five times more on players’ salaries and bonuses than FC Dallas, who had the lowest outlay. The imbalance is less than the Premier League, where Chelsea spent more 7.4 time more than Burnley in 2014-15.

Where the MLS should be very concerned, however, is in the distribution of wealth among players. The top 20 highest-paid players – just 5% of total roster – earned over 43% of the combined payroll of all teams. Kaka (yes, he’s still playing) had a higher salary in 2016 than the total payroll of 14 of the 20 franchises.

But MLS is a different beast to past US attempts at establishing a credible league structure. In the past, many clubs played in stadiums not designed for football, but in 2016 13 of the 20 teams had soccer-specific grounds and this will rise to 14 when Orlando City move to a new home in 2017.

At present, big-name players are signing for MLS clubs at the back-end of their careers, usually for lucrative salaries. In order to compete on a global scale, MLS has to lure younger top talent, otherwise the US will remain a “pension pot” competition for globally-recognised players eager for one last pay day. When it can go into the market for players against major European leagues, the MLS will have “arrived” among the world’s top football competitions.

The signs are encouraging, though. With attendances rising, although possibly close to plateau, new grounds offering excellent facilities and greater international recognition, MLS represents a breakthrough for the US in cementing football into its sporting portfolio.

  Winners Runners-up Attendances Goals per game
2016 Seattle Sounders Toronto FC 21,692 2.81
2015 Portland Timbers Columbus Crew 21,574 2.76
2014 LA Galaxy New England Revolution 19,148 2.86
2013 Sporting Kansas City Salt Lake 18,594 2.62
2012 LA Galaxy Houston Dynamo 18,807 2.64


To see the KPMG paper, click here

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