The Little League That Might. If You Make It Rain.

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They cut off Tweety Bird’s fucking HEAD and stuck it on a train.

I don’t mean to keep re-linking to stuff I posted earlier (no, quoting myself isn’t a thing for me), but people keep posting good stuff that stacks the great hypothetical debate over how to improve, or grow, Major League Soccer (MLS) a little higher. Though not necessarily in that order…or maybe it’ll grow and improve at the same time. I do not know…

Last week, I posted a response to the infamous-in-small-circles Deadspin article by Billy Haisley where, in a fine Horace Greeley vein, Haisley exhorted MLS to “get better.” In more words than necessary, I argued that it’s not that easy. As for specific impediments, I pointed to factors ranging from sports culture and history to practical limits on available entertainment dollars.

What happened today is that The Shin Guardian (indirectly/unknowingly) expanded on a counter-argument that I slipped in my response – e.g. the idea that the millionaires and billionaires who own MLS’s teams (and even the league itself) certainly have money, liquid or stuff that could be made liquid, that they can throw at the league……and, say, while we’re on that subject, can whomever needs to do it kindly throw a friggin’ bone to the MLS refs? It’s not a ton of cash (under $500K, last I read), so let’s just get on with, shall we? Please and thank you…

…back to it. I hinted at the losses sustained annually by owners already to raise the question of whether they’d have the stomach for or interest in losing a little more. There’s the cost/benefit thing, of course, but that’s where The Shin Guardian’s thing comes in.

MLS owners simply don’t spend much on players. There’s a great graph in The Shin Guardian’s piece that lays it all out (and that benefits from elaboration in both articles on the subject), but it’s helpful to present the case in blunt numeric terms: $7,500,000. If MLS spent that much money on players, they would match the revenue v. labor cost equation of the Bundesliga. That doesn’t seem like crazy money, at least not for MLS’s genuinely well-heeled investors. And there’s no question as to one part of the math: more money will buy better players. Tart it up with other factors (stable league for the Argentines, a chance to ride public transportation for a guy like Thierry Henry) and MLS dolls up pretty well.

The open question goes back to the one that started this post: will that influx of better players grow/improve MLS, in whatever order? The improvement side is a no-brainer – of course it will. Better players play the, uh, game better, so yeah, but how about the “growing” part of the equation – particularly the TV side of it, the focal point of the first piece? There, at least for me, this is a big maybe, but one with a Little Engine That Could kind of optimism. The reason why involves a little history lesson.

In its original incarnation, MLS featured a sprinkling of recognizable names (think Carlos Valderrama and Marco Etcheverry) over a comparatively vast lump of eager, athletic American journeymen. When the league’s teams went abroad to scare up talent, they generally couldn’t go farther afield than Central America or the Caribbean. Sure, you’d got the odd Lothar Mattheus popping up (and, effectively, pooping down), but that was as far as it got. The Beckham Rule came in to address this. Gimmicky and open to jokes as it seemed at the time, it evolved into a fairly useful mechanism. I would also suggest that it moved the needle in a somewhat unexpected way. Beckham’s sky-high profile drew the headlines, but players talking to other players is what made it work. To give an example, will the more sustained gain over time come from Guillermo Barros Schelotto talking to guys he knows in Argentina? I think so, because that’s where MLS will find good players it can actually afford.

Whatever is driving it, the last few years have seen more, and more diverse talent, arrive in MLS. As a life-long fan, I’m stoked, just loving the brave new world. Vancouver’s DP gave me a big hit of optimism all on its own (even as I thought the field really hurt the visuals – BOING!!). My overall thoughts on how the league will grow – e.g. slow and steady, perhaps without the Euro snobs, as implied by the conclusion of my response to Haisley – didn’t shift enormously, but I’m happy. The Shin Guardian piece, however, got me wondering if I we shouldn’t take the whole project off cruise-control.

Think of the players MLS could attract and retain with a $7.5 million cap. This wouldn’t put us in the same competitive bracket as Europe’s Big Boy Leagues – not even close – but it could make it more possible to pick off non-marquee players from those leagues. These will be names that Euro snobs recognize. It could be names they respect – especially any player they view as under-valued. That player’s arrival in MLS gives the Euro snob a reason to check out MLS, even if only to confirm his/her theory that they’ll lay waste to all around them. Those players will keep coming, though, and a critical mass eventually occurs where the whole “laying waste” thing doesn’t work. Suddenly, you have this league worth watching. Even to a Euro snob.

I believe the level of play has gone up visibly in the past five years or so. I’d argue almost objectively. Euro snobs don’t see this because they don’t watch. Give them a player or two they recognize – a hook, basically – and they might tune in. The only thing we know for sure is that they won’t tune in absent that hook. And, no, this isn’t just about appeasing the Euro snobs, because one, fuck those guys (kidding!). No, the point is, everyone watching MLS games benefits.

This is about putting a bonus-multiplier on top of the slow and steady growth that’s already happening. So, yeah, roll the dice MLS owner/investors. Let’s see what happens if you make it rain.

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