Cosmos Deal Could Change US Soccer

How the NY Cosmos and Emirates Airlines could alter US pro soccer structure
by Doug Starnes   |   Friday, June 07, 2013

NY Cosmos

MLS has a relevance problem.

Right now, courtesy of Emirates Airlines, it’s the shape and size of the New York Cosmos, bit it could get bigger – much, much bigger – and the very structure of professional soccer in the United States could be primed for an eventual revision.

The Cosmos announced earlier this week that Emirates, the Dubai-based airline giant, had inked a deal to be the NASL team’s official kit sponsor. In so doing, the Cosmos joined the likes of Hamburg SV, AC Milan, Arsenal, Paris Saint-Germain and Real Madrid in the stable of clubs the airline sponsors.

Typically, the sponsorship side of soccer isn’t something the casual fan or even the grizzled pundit pays that much attention to. Men in suits who may never have donned any kit, much less a kit with a sponsor on it, sign some contracts; mountains of cash are shoveled from one bank to another; and some letters and logos on the front of a jersey are replaced by some other letters and logos on the front of that very same jersey. It’s the business side of the game and the losses and gains derived from it, and more importantly how they affect performances on the field, are difficult to quantify.

What makes the Cosmos deal so interesting and potentially so very easy to quantify has less to do with the amount of money changing hands, that figure remains more than a little hazy, and more to do with the entities involved in the deal. Or, more specifically, the entities not involved in the deal.

Namely, MLS or even a MLS club.

Emirates is a major player in the world of soccer sponsorship. Look at the names of those other Emirates sponsored clubs. Adding “Cosmos” to that list seems a little like a game of One of These Things is Not Like The Others. But although the quality of play the Cosmos will put on display when it takes the field in 2012 will undoubtedly fall short of the standard established by those other sides, Emirates clearly rates the Cosmos brand as worthy of the investment.

Regardless of how MLS or NASL officials spin this, let’s call it what it is. A second tier, as-yet-unformed side in a market soon to be crowded by a second MLS franchise was deemed the most promising soccer brand in the United States by a company already associated with some of the biggest clubs in the world. Point Cosmos. Point NASL.

It may very well be that in 20 years’ time, this announcement is looked back upon as the moment the competitive landscape in US professional soccer changed.

The last thing the MLS wants is a rival league driven by a high-profile brand with international legitimacy and deep pockets. The quality of play in the NASL is already such that ever year a number of NASL teams defeat MLS sides in the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup and no one thinks of it as much of a surprise. Granted, it’s a tournament that often doesn’t see the best MLS lineups until the final rounds, but these leagues are already competing against one another on the field. It doesn’t take an overactive imagination to see them competing against one another in the macro field of American soccer primacy.

The NASL is a growing league with Indy Eleven, Ottawa and Virginia Calvary FC set to field teams in 2014 along with the Cosmos, bringing the total number of franchises to 12. MLS is set to add its 20th team, the Manchester City-owned New York City FC in 2015.

Both leagues seem unlikely to stop there and with 32 metropolitan areas already spoken for, sometimes 2 and even 3 times over, one has to wonder how long the 2 leagues’ thus far friendly coexistence can continue to progress before they become openly competitive with one another for fans TV deals, and sponsorship, to the detriment of professional soccer in the United States.

I know that sounds dramatic, but it’s a thesis with precedent. Upstart leagues are nothing new and the more popular sports leagues in the United States, specifically the NBA and the NFL, have all had to deal with challenges to the supremacy of their leagues. In some cases, as with Vince McMahon’s XFL, the newer league is done in by a combination of inferior administrative quality, poor play and the simple novelty of something new wearing off.

In other instances, as with the AFL and ABA, the competition is too much to ignore and officials from both upstart and established league - realizing two separate, quality leagues muddles the sports landscape; creates fan confusion and frustration; and actually inhibits growth - have done the sensible thing and merged into one healthier, more competitive and exciting league.

The NASL is producing a quality product and growing at a sustainable rate, and with the Cosmos’ international profile and the brand legitimacy bestowed upon the club with the Emirates deal, I don’t see the NASL going the way of the XFL. MLS wouldn’t want that anyhow. The leagues are already implicitly integrated vertically and a strong 2nd division makes for a healthy and robust 1st division.

There are those who have already suggested that without even having played a single NASL match, by announcing the Emirates deal, the Cosmos are sending a message to MLS officials and positioning themselves for a future move to the league. This could very well happen at some point, but the league has already hitched its wagon to the NYCFC horse and 3 MLS sides, even in New York, seems a bit much for 1 US city.

Additionally, MLS would have just arrived at a nice even number of clubs and adding the Cosmos as a one off promotion would make for another lopsided scheduling mess, to say nothing of clubs both leagues may have added in the interim or the competitive ramifications at the time of said hypothetical promotion.

I believe and hope the leagues will eventually opt for a merger. MLS Commissioner Don Garber isn’t a stupid man and he knows a high quality, financially strong direct competitor isn’t good for the MLS or soccer as a consolidated force in the American professional sports landscape.

Nor, however, is having a house without a foundation, which is what the MLS would be if the NASL were poached of its most high-profile assets and prevented from growing under a heavy-handed MLS. The rise of soccer in the United States, and with the NASL specifically, is such that the days of cherry picking a lower league’s most valuable franchises and allowing more modest clubs to fill the void left behind is rapidly vanishing. Besides, there are a finite number of times this can be done before there’s simply no more room at the top.   

A complete consolidation of the NASL and the MLS, however, would essentially accomplish this second eventuality by doing away with the entire US 2nd division in one fell swoop, not to mention the administrative and financial nightmare the MLS and its clubs would suddenly find themselves in if the league swelled overnight to 32 teams. Garber has preached sustainable growth more than a Whole Foods produce guy so I don’t think this sort of merger is likely or even desirable.

But what if the NASL was allowed to continue expanding in a merger that also achieved complete vertical integration of the 2 leagues? Soccer purists in the United States have been calling for a promotion/relegation system for years, but the financial risks were too great as the MLS was committed to a conservative, sustainable financial model and relegation, in the absence of a robust and viable 2nd division, would spell doom not only for the unfortunate clubs at the bottom of the table, but likely for the entire league as well. Add to that the complication of the draft system and a vertically integrated league structure was just undoable.

I believe the Cosmos’ announcement has signaled a sea of change in American soccer and that such a system is now nearly inevitable. If things continue to trend along their present course, an eventual MLS/NASL merger would reap substantial benefits to both leagues.

A well-supported, well-funded and recognizable brand is only going to be content in a 2nd tier league for so long. Without the possibility of upward mobility, any team in the NASL, Cosmos or otherwise, will eventually contribute to creating the destructive competing rivals league model I’ve already discussed. Rather than combining their efforts, each league would strive to outdo the other and likely spend multiple franchises out of business. US soccer cannot afford another top tier league failure.

However, with the possibility of promotion on the table for any team, not just the cherry picked ones, interest in the 2nd tier would only be boosted. For the NASL, this would mean more fans, more exposure and more revenue from advertising. By integrating in this way, the 2nd tier would continue to grow and attract fans while at the same time supporting the efforts of the 1st tier and providing both leagues more legitimacy and relevance.

A financially robust 2nd tier, albeit not as lucrative as the MLS, would soften the blow for relegated sides and make the prospect of a promotion/relegation system more palatable to franchise owners. With the emergence and continued growth of academy sides, it’s likely that the draft model of acquiring new talent is nearing the end of its usefulness, at least as it’s presently structured, and with the knowledge that a poor league campaign would lead to relegation rather than high draft picks, clubs would almost certainly be more proactive in establishing fully funded academy teams at all levels, thus benefiting the quality of the game in the United States at a grassroots level.    

For the MLS, the current excitement that surrounds the playoff push would essentially be extended to all teams in the league. The clubs at the top of the table would compete in a playoff for the league title, and the ones at the bottom would compete in a playoff for their MLS lives. All of this would mean more fan interest, more matches, more exposure and more revenue for the league.

Rather than the trap door to oblivion that exists in many European associations, a 2 tier MLS/NASL partnership in the United States would create a more vibrant, dynamic and meaningful soccer experience for the fans and benefit the profile of the US game both domestically and abroad. Teams could only fall so far, but it would be far enough to make every game for every team mean something.  

I’m not saying this will happen immediately, or even soon. But soccer in this country, and the officials in charge of shaping its future viability, are rapidly reaching a point where the old model has served its purpose and needs to be amended in order to accommodate what the sport and its fans will eventually demand.

And that’s a comprehensive, well run professional soccer association that uniformly manages all tiers of the professional game in the United States and actively works to make all clubs at all levels, and by extension, their fans, relevant.

Doug STARNES

Nationality:
USA
College:
Baylor Univ.
Club Domestic:
Indy Eleven
Club Foreign:
Fulham
A reformed goalkeeper, cheese enthusiast, beer aficionado, and all around unrequited lover of The Beautiful Game, Doug currently resides in Indianapolis and is chomping at the bit to cover Indy Pro Soccer in all of its soon to be glory.
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