Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Commish - If I ran the MLS

A couple weeks ago I was a guest on Mad About Futbol and the hosts asked me what I would do if I were the commissioner of the MLS. I kept my answer short and only touched on a couple topics, but in the back of my head was a longer laundry list. So without out further adieu, if the MLS hires me to run the league, here are 8 issues/topics that would be the focus of my reign.

1. Raise the Salary Cap

Please notice that I said, “Raise the salary cap,” I did not say, “Abolish the salary cap.” One of the reasons that the MLS has managed to survive for over 12 years is the fact that it has adopted a salary cap that prevented teams from spending wildly and out of control. The stringent cap has done its job, but now, with the demise of the Reserves League and the inclusion of more MLS teams in other competitions, the current salary cap limits the potential of MLS sides. The L.A. Galaxy are the prime example of a team that has been hamstrung by the current salary cap. Last season, despite the 20 goals garnered by Landon Donovan and David Beckham’s 5 goals and 10 assists, not to mention Edson Buddle’s 15 goals, the Galaxy failed to make it into the 2008 MLS Playoffs because the salary cap resulted in the Galaxy fielding a porous back line that contributed to the team giving up 62 goals.

While a one plan fits all salary cap creates a nice bright line rule, I dislike “one plan fits all” and “bright line rule” solutions, not enough flexibility or creativity. What I have long proposed is that instead of setting the MLS salary cap at a certain dollar amount, the salary cap should be a set a percentage of gross income. Since I am not an accountant or MBA holder, I would let the number crunchers, using sound accounting practices, determine the proper percentage of gross income that should go towards player salaries. Additionally, I would set a salary floor like the NBA, which would prevent teams from skimping on salaries and fielding a poor product, and it would give some leeway for teams that have lagging gross incomes.

The main reason that I favor a salary cap based on gross income is that it would encourage teams to expand their marketing and revenue streams. The teams that take the time and the effort to market their brand and product would be duly rewarded because the income increase would increase the teams’ ability to increase salaries and attract high quality players.

2. Fix the Dysfunctional Schedule

There has been much debate about the fact that unlike the top leagues in Western Europe, the MLS runs on a Spring-Summer-Fall schedule. Living in Houston where the bulk of that period is marked by high temperatures and high humidity, not to mention the occasional disruption due to hurricanes and tropical storms, I have some sympathy for adopting the Western European season, but I have also lived in central Wisconsin and know what a hard winter is like. In light of the extreme weather conditions that affect our northern and southern climates, I think the Apertura/Clausura system should be seriously considered.

The real issue with MLS scheduling that annoys me to no end is the MLS’s unwillingness to abide by FIFA International Breaks, a shortcoming that glares brightly at the start of this 2009 season, which has been poorly planned by the league. After making the brilliant decision to hold opening weekend at the same time the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament is starting, the second weekend of fixtures falls on a FIFA International Break that includes the USMNT travelling to El Salvador for a World Cup Qualifier. Not exactly the best way to encourage the early season development of team chemistry and cohesiveness.

This summer MLS sides will have to deal with players being called up for the Confederations Cup, the Gold Cup, and other competitions around the world. Next summer is the World Cup finals. It seems an Apertura/Clausura schedule is sounding better and better.

3. Allow Teams to Own their Players’ Rights and Kit Deals

The MLS has been slowly moving away from the single entity structure and has been slowly attracting higher profile investors with deep pockets. The complications caused by the fact that the League owns the rights and contracts to the non-DP players is going to frustrate the wealthier team owners sooner rather then latter. Same thing goes for the fact that in 2004 the League locked in one company, Adidas, as the sole kit supplier for ten years. Of all the professional team sports, soccer probably has the biggest number of companies competing to supply kits to teams. Locking in an entire league to one supplier for ten years does not make much sense.

Both these steps will have to be taken in order for teams to take some of the marketing steps necessary to increase their gross income. By owning the rights to their players, especially developing players, teams could increase their revenue with transfer fees. Additionally, one of the biggest problems with obtaining young talent from other leagues is MLS’s dislike of having to pay transfer fees. By bringing in the money from transfers, individual teams could turn around and use that money to pay for the transfer fees that the League would have balked at paying. Meanwhile, MLS clubs could take advantage of their individual circumstances when signing kit deals and getting the best deals possible. In light of the fanfare of Thursday night’s opener in Seattle, one can only image how much money the new Portland side will lose since they cannot sign a deal with Portland based Nike. Heck, even Umbro might be interested in leaping into the MLS market, reviving the nostalgia for the Umbro shorts craze of the late 1980s and early 1990s . . . on second thought that might not be the best example.

4. Officiating Development

Soccer officiating and referees are bemoaned the world over, and I am not in the mood to get into a discussion of which country has the worst officiating and where the MLS ranks in the table of bad officiating. Instead of casting stones, if I was MLS Commissioner I would push for the creation of one of the best officiating crews in the world, a push that might result in full-time salaried referees. Continuing education courses would be put under the microscope and revamped to ensure the best quality teaching possible, including psychology instruction. Referee exchange programs would be utilized to their fullest potential so as to create the most educational experiences possible. Finally, I would be willing to experiment with some changes designed to ensure that the right call is made without delaying matches. This could include the use of the Hawkeye technology, extra assistant referees on the pitch, and/or an assistant referee in the press box area who the referee can rely on for a second opinion.

5. No Artificial Turf

While I am that rare breed of soccer fan who can watch a match on a field with gridiron lines chalked on it, I cannot abide by artificial turf. My only complaint about Thursday night’s match was having to see it played out on that turf. As Commish, I would require the use of natural grass by all clubs.

6. Make it Easier for Clubs to Sign Academy Players

Earlier this year when the Houston Dynamo signed Taylor Deric as the club’s third goalkeeper, the signing made such a splash because it was only the second time that an MLS side had signed one of its academy players. The Byzantine rules used by the MLS regarding the signing of academy players needs to be thrown out the window. Instead of making it difficult to sign academy players, the MLS should encourage its clubs in developing local youth talent and reward the teams that do the best job by allowing those players to migrate from the academy to the senior squad.

7. Hold ESPN and FSC Accountable

The relationship between ESPN and FSC has been much analyzed and discussed since last summer, and one thing is clear – both networks need to do a better job of promoting the MLS and the MLS matches aired on their respective networks. Instead of being meek and mild, just happy to have the contracts at all, the MLS needs to put pressure on both networks to promote and market the MLS. While ESPN and FSC might pout at first, if the end result is increased viewership, then they have no reason for complaint.

8. Focus Outreach on Inner City and Low Income Areas

The youth soccer boom in America has been primarily, though not solely, felt in the more affluent neighborhoods and regions of this country. While MLS clubs should continue to work with the local AYSO programs, the teams need to focus extra attention on performing outreach on their local inner city and low income areas, especially neighborhoods where many of the children are first generation Americans.

My first appreciation of the beautiful game came courtesy of the “Boat People” from Southeast Asia. In the days following Hurricane Ike, the lack of working stop lights had me taking off the beaten path routes through certain neighborhoods, and every day I saw numerous kids out kicking the ball around. How many of these kids get the chance to play in organized leagues or go to an MLS match? I suspect there is a mother lode of untapped soccer talent in this country, and increased outreach by the MLS just might uncover that talent.

Those are the top eight issues I would tackle if given the opportunity to run the MLS, but I am not holding my breath waiting for their call.

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