Is Major League Soccer Helping the Growth of Soccer in America?
Major League Soccer and its players reached a five year deal to extend the league's collective bargaining agreement. It will take steps to improve working conditions, such as taking more chartered flights (flying coach was not uncommon for many MLS teams in 2019) and providing more benefits to players. But does it help increase MLS's standing in world soccer, and increase soccer's standing in American sports?
The primary gripe about Major League Soccer is that its players are not paid well enough. The new collective bargaining agreement will raise the minimum salary to $109,200 by 2024, and the league's salary cap will be raised by $3.1 million to $11.6 million, excluding three Designated Players per team, whose salaries do not count against the cap.
Still, this is not enough to raise MLS's profile around the world, or help the league achieve its stated goal of competing with top European leagues such as the Premier League or La Liga. In almost every league worldwide, there is no salary cap; teams are free to spend as much as they want to build a competitive team. Many players in Europe make more than the MLS minimum salary every week. The salaries of some of the world's best players, such as Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Neymar Jr. dwarf the salaries of entire MLS teams. With a salary cap, and such strict rules for spending on players, it will be difficult for MLS to compete with the best leagues in the world. A more realistic business proposition would be competing with leagues such as the Dutch Eredivisie and the Portugese Liga to develop young players to be sold to the European powers.
While Major League Soccer has recently become an attractive investment for owners in Miami, Nashville, St. Louis, Austin, and Charlotte, the league still does not have the status that other leagues do in American sports. For one, Major League Soccer is nowhere near the best league in the world, as Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, or the National Football League are. American fans are more likely to support the leagues where they know they are getting the best product. They will be more likely to watch the Premier League on NBC, or the Bundesliga on Fox, if they are looking for top-quality soccer.
Additionally, children in America see a chance to get rich through playing baseball, basketball, or football; they don’t see the same chance with soccer. Salaries in MLB, the NBA, and the NFL dwarf those of MLS, resulting in soccer's relative inability to penetrate the youth sports market in urban areas. There is also the lack of name recognition of American players in MLS; while most people in America know of LeBron James or Tom Brady, few have heard of Jordan Morris or Aaron Long. Furthermore, there is no easily discernible path for youth soccer players to get to the highest levels of European soccer. This is why the US only has a few recognizable names throughout the last two decades: Tim Howard, Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, and Christian Pulisic. That's about it. If you stretch you could include Brad Guzan and Jozy Altidore.
These are the problems Major League Soccer needs to tackle. These are the problems that, if solved, will make Major League Soccer a top league in the world. If MLS can solve these problems, we will be seeing a lot more kids playing soccer in the next generation.