Bradley’s Move Shows Issues For MLS to Tackle

League needs to confront fundamental issues as it matures
by Peter Muller   |   Friday, January 10, 2014

Major League Soccer (MLS) 2012 Season Preview

Michael Bradley’s decision to return from Europe to continue his professional soccer career closer to home with Toronto FC is easy to understand from his personal perspective.

Like Clint Dempsey, Bradley has spent nearly a decade moving from club to club in search of greater opportunity and greater competition. During that time he built one of the most successful careers of any American field player in Europe and became perhaps the United States’ most indispensable player.

He leaves Europe without having reached the pinnacle – he was never part of a championship-winning team and he never played in the Champions League – but he arguably made himself the best player he could be. 

By moving to Major League Soccer, Bradley instantly becomes the leader of his team and ensures he will see regular playing time in the lead-up to this year’s World Cup.  The fact that he will earn millions of dollars and live closer to family and friends must have made the decision a no-brainer for him.

What Bradley’s return means for MLS is more complicated.

Without question, the league’s commitment to sign players like Bradley, Dempsey and Landon Donovan to substantial contracts enhances the quality of the league, its reputation internationally and its profile in the U.S. sporting landscape.

Major League Soccer has grown tremendously in recent years and it can now provide top American players with a sufficient level of competition to prepare them for international competitions like the World Cup.

But the Bradley signing highlights ongoing issues that MLS will need to confront as it continues to mature and grow:

Transparency

MLS has a well-deserved reputation for opaqueness and this offseason has provided many examples of the lack of timely information the league provides to the public.

While we can assume that the bulk of Bradley’s salary will be paid by Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, which operates Toronto FC, what is unclear is who is paying the transfer fee.  Did MLS, as in the case of Dempsey’s move to Seattle, shell out millions of dollars on behalf of one of its 19 clubs?  If so, did each team have an opportunity to bid for Bradley’s rights?  Why must we wait weeks or months for this information to be revealed?

The lack of transparency can be seen in other examples as well.  For the last couple of weeks we have witnessed the saga of Oscar Pareja, the former Colorado manager who may or may not be moving to FC Dallas.  Numerous published reports say that Pareja has resigned from the Rapids and reached a deal to be the head coach of FC Dallas, but MLS has remained mum.

And perhaps the most glaring recent example is the spectacle in December when 3 players under contract with MLS were presented to the media as new signees for Mexican club Cruz Azul.  While photos circulated of MLS players wearing Cruz Azul jerseys, and the Mexican team insisted that it had acquired the players, it took days before MLS commented.

Every professional sports league attempts to control the flow of information that goes out to the public but MLS often goes too far. For the sake of its own credibility MLS needs to be more transparent.

Competitiveness

The moves to sign Bradley and English striker Jermain Defoe certifies Toronto’s place in the “high spender” category among MLS clubs, along with the New York Red Bulls, Los Angeles Galaxy and Seattle Sounders.

But for all the benefits high-spending teams bring to the league, the fact remains that MLS is a single-entity structure and has some responsibility to make sure that less wealthy teams can compete on a relatively level playing field.

Simply having expensive, high profile players on a team does not guarantee success – we just saw 2 teams with mid-priced rosters compete for the 2013 MLS Cup – but MLS is in danger of becoming a league with teams that have vastly different levels of resources. 

Somehow the league needs to make sure that its actions – such as paying transfer fees so certain clubs can bring in star players – don’t provide those clubs with an unfair advantage.

Collective bargaining agreement

Juan Agudelo sparked a controversy on Twitter this week when he pointed out that while MLS is willing to pay millions of dollars to star performers there are still players on every roster making $39,000 per year and living on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. 

While his comments did not generate much sympathy from former MLS players who remember when times were really rough, they are a reminder that the MLS collective bargaining agreement is due for renegotiation soon and the players association will be looking to increase salaries across the board.

The players association will be sure to point to the money that is being spent on the top players – and the millions that are being paid in transfer fees to acquire them – as evidence that the league can afford to boost the lower salaries significantly. 

For a league that is growing fast but is still young, negotiation of the next labor agreement could prove to be a significant challenge.

Television deals

The signing of top players – and the dollars that have been committed to them- increase the pressure on MLS to negotiate new television deals that will greatly increase the league’s revenue.

Commission Don Garber reiterated recently that while individual teams may be revenue-positive MLS as a business continues to lose money.  The most obvious way for the league to turn that tide is to significantly increase the fees it collects from broadcast partners like ESPN and NBC Sports. 

This is a complicated challenge because MLS games simply don’t draw strong television ratings.  By bringing well-known players like Dempsey and Bradley back to MLS the league is doing its part to make the television product more enticing.  But if they can’t generate greater television revenue soon they may find it untenable to continue to pay these large salaries in the future.

Peter MULLER

Nationality:
USA
College:
Saint Mary's
Club Domestic:
DC United
Club Foreign:
Arsenal
Peter is a government relations professional in Washington, DC, and Los Angeles, CA. He has been a DC United season ticket holder since 1997 and has attended every MLS Cup except one – in 1998 when he was busy helping his boss get re-elected to Congress.
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