Foreign stars, $325m fees and an eye on Mexico: MLS approaches Season 25

Tom Dart in Houston
The Guardian

This is a story about MLS that begins not at the stadium where the Houston Dynamo will host the Los Angeles Galaxy as the league’s 25th season kicks off on Saturday, but in a converted warehouse across the street.

Here, in a low-slung brick building, former USA and Dynamo striker Brian Ching opened a bar in 2018 that features industrial-chic exposed ductwork, and, more surprisingly, an indoor football pitch.

It’s doubtful this soccer-centric venture would have made economic or cultural sense without the impact of BBVA Stadium. The Dynamo opened their purpose-built home in 2012: a 22,000-capacity arena with a tessellated metal mesh exterior, orange seating bowl and a location, in the shadow of downtown’s shiny skyscrapers, that set MLS at the core of the country’s fourth-biggest city.

Scroll to continue with content

The venue underlined that a sport once derided as the province of suburban families also appealed to young urbanites – the kind of crowds who flock to Ching’s bar, Pitch 25.

Ching made his MLS debut for the Galaxy in 2001, the year before the league killed off clubs in Tampa and Miami, leaving 10 franchises – the same number it had in 1996, its inaugural season. And nine of those were owned by two men, Philip Anschutz (the boss of AEG) and Lamar Hunt (the son of a Texas oil tycoon).

Related: Zlatan Ibrahimovic's legacy hard to define as he bids Hollywood farewell

Despite ongoing stadium agonies, MLS has returned to south Florida in the Beckham-esque shape of Inter Miami. Nashville SC also make their debut in 2020, with another four teams arriving by 2022 to lift the total to 30. Toronto FC paid $10m to join in 2007. The latest entrant, Charlotte, is splashing out $325m.

Quite a contrast with 20 years ago, when many wondered if the league would survive, let alone thrive. “It’s been amazing,” Ching says. “It’s pretty awesome to see … There’s just an excitement around soccer now and I think that’s going to exponentially grow over the next few World Cups.”

But most of his customers are not watching MLS. The biggest draws are the English, Spanish, German and Mexican leagues. “Bayern Munich versus Dortmund, we had probably five or six hundred people in for that game; La Liga, Barcelona versus Real Madrid, we probably get a thousand, twelve hundred people for those games,” he says. While MLS is growing in popularity, Ching says, “it’s not nearly on the level of the other leagues just yet”.

After two and a half decades, MLS can boast an array of soccer-specific stadiums – but there are other choices.

MLS attendance

“There’s a very large market of professional soccer fans in the United States, it’s over 70 million people who watch some sort of league, whether it’s us, Premier League, Spanish league, Mexican league,” says Mark Abbott, the president and deputy commissioner of MLS. “And so clearly we compete with those leagues for interest among soccer fans – but we have a lot of advantages.”

Abbott points to the opportunity to watch games in person in stadiums that are, for the most part, modern, and offer affordable tickets. “I think in 25 years we’ve become a true major league sport in the US and Canada,” he says, citing investments in infrastructure, growing fanbases, a diverse group of wealthy and committed owners and improvement in the on-field product.

<span class="element-image__caption">Teams such as Atlanta United have attracted big crowds in MLS.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Adam Hagy/USA Today Sports</span>
Teams such as Atlanta United have attracted big crowds in MLS. Photograph: Adam Hagy/USA Today Sports

Still, the local landscape is uneven. While Atlanta United attracted a regular-season average of 52,510 fans last year, FC Dallas averaged fewer than 15,000 in a metropolitan area of nearly 8 million people.

As Los Angeles FC’s supporters and celebrity co-owners relished packed houses and a thrilling attack spearheaded by Carlos Vela, the Chicago Fire, with a league-worst 12,324 average, decided to ditch a 14-year-old suburban soccer-specific stadium in order to return to Soldier Field, a centrally located NFL arena. Meanwhile in Houston, the new stadium boost had a five-year shelf life: crowds were smaller last year than they were when the Dynamo played in a decaying American football venue on a university campus.

Related: El Tráfico: how LAFC and Galaxy built a rivalry from scratch

Television remains a challenge. In the US, MLS national broadcast rights are bundled with US national team home games, which will assume more importance as the North America-hosted 2026 World Cup looms. The present deal ends in 2022 and brings in $90m annually – a pittance compared with the billions the top European leagues collect from their domestic channels. This perpetuates the gulf in finances, and therefore in quality, between them and MLS.

Though ratings are unimpressive – the 2019 regular season had an average English-language audience of 246,000 viewers on ESPN, far below the Premier League on NBC, and most local deals are negligible – MLS is a valuable commodity, says Patrick Crakes, a media consultant and former Fox Sports executive.

He expects the next contract to be more lucrative, but cautioned that networks will prioritise bigger leagues, especially the NFL, which could leave MLS fighting for scraps. “We know the media rights pool’s going to grow,” Crakes says. “The question is: will the share to the very top three or four properties expand and chew up all the incremental growth in that pie, plus more, and what is that going to leave for everybody else?”

Despite the transformative effect of David Beckham’s arrival in LA in 2007, star power is not a panacea. Joey Saputo, owner of the perennially middling Montreal Impact, told CBC in 2018 that the club was losing more than C$11m (about US$8m) annually, with its biggest loss coming in 2015, the year they signed Didier Drogba.

And while attendances are stagnant or shrinking in some markets, transfer fees and player salaries are generally rising quickly, despite MLS’s notorious financial caution, a legacy of the trauma from the boom-and-bust days of the NASL. The league and players’ union struck a new deal this month that will see the minimum annual salary for senior players increase to $109,200 by 2024. The average base salary (excluding highly paid Designated Players) rose from $138,140 in 2014 to $345,867 in 2019, according to the union.

In 2019, Toronto had the league’s highest wage bill: more than $24m. The best-paid player, the Galaxy’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic, picked up $7.2m – only $1m less than the Vancouver Whitecaps’ entire outlay. Yet Vancouver’s league-low figure would have represented the sixth-highest payroll in MLS as recently as 2015.

So it would be understandable if MLS continued its money-spinning expansion drive. However, Abbott says: “We don’t have plans to expand beyond 30 teams, we think that that’s the right size for us in terms of the footprint that we want to have.” With the perception of scarcity key to driving up prices, he would be unwise to say anything else.

MLS teams

As MLS swells, the clamour for some form of promotion and relegation gets louder. It would add drama to the regular season and put pressure on owners to improve their teams. But it is hard to believe that investors would countenance spending hundreds of millions of dollars to acquire an asset that could be heavily devalued by one poor campaign. Added turbulence would also make it tougher to persuade local politicians to lavish taxpayer dollars on stadium projects.

More likely is a closer relationship with Mexico. Last year saw the inaugural edition of the Leagues Cup – a small-scale competition between MLS and Mexican clubs. Mexico internationals Javier Hernández, Alan Pulido and Rodolfo Pizarro signed for MLS clubs over the winter, while this July’s MLS All-Star Game will see the league’s top players face off against counterparts from Liga MX for the first time.

“Maybe five or six years from now we’re not going to be talking so much about how close or not close MLS is to Liga MX, but we’re going to be talking about how these leagues are working together to maybe create a much bigger competition that benefits both,” Tab Ramos, the first player to sign with MLS, says.

The 53-year-old left his roles as US Soccer’s men’s youth technical director and under-20 coach last October to become head coach of the Dynamo. “I think when you grow up in the generation that I grew up in, you never want to take anything for granted. You always appreciate the fact that the league is here,” he says.

“The reason I came to the league was because I really believe in it, I think it’s on an upwards trend. The EPL at this point is a different world – but it is a different world not just for MLS but for many leagues.”

What to Read Next