Fellow Major League Soccer partisans, I. Am. Frustrated. I feel your pain. I am your damn pain. We all know, and we all publicly say – from the Commissioner to ownership to players to pundits to whatever we’re calling Alexi Lalas these days – that MLS’ future success means clubs need to spend more money on player salaries. The short term results of that belated awareness is that more money is getting spent on player salaries – for the top few guys on the roster, while the meat of the minutes are still getting played for pennies on the dollar, and no one can seem to figure out how to get owners to line the field with the decently compensated.
The MLS Players’ Union’s release of salary numbers has become an annual ritual for those of us who love soccer in America, splitting headaches, and the occasional nosebleed. To recap some very frequently made observations, all the money goes to the few Designated Players at the top, which does little for the future growth of the league’s on-field product and exactly nothing for the development of future players. The league’s median salary – for the mathematically non-inclined, that means half the players make less – is now $117,000 per year, and while I’m too lazy to put that in per-week terms for my British readers, it’s a shockingly low point for half the guys not to reach, especially as Frank Lampard gets millions of dollars a year to model fancy suits.
Imagine you’re a young, budding American soccer star looking towards the future – MLS is not exactly a tantalizing model now, is it? One day, the dream goes, if you reach the heights of the game in America, you too can theoretically make a decent to good middle class income, well, at least until you’re 32! Because the foreign-trained superstar next to you makes three times more than the entire rest of the roster combined. If this sounds extremely familiar, check your passport, you may be English – Premier League clubs’ emphasis on pricey transfers over youth development has had devastating effects on the England senior team for years.
But unlike in England, there’s an additional reason that if MLS owners are still focused on the star-centric business model, it’s actually hard to fault them. The pay gap in MLS only reflects the business strategy of using big names to get fans through the door, and after crunching the numbers it’s hard to say that’s the wrong tack. Fan bases are increasingly drawn to the game more by a recognizable individual face than they are to a team that leads in the standings without big-name stars. One easy example: FC Dallas’ highest-profile players in the last five years has been… Fabian Castillo? Moises Hernandez? David Texeira? Maybe Brek Shea? Whatever; my point is it wasn’t Steven Gerrard or Didier Drogba. And their attendance has been anaemic despite most of those teams performing pretty well.
There’s also an argument to be made (that I intend to shoot down in a moment) that MLS teams can and should bring in new fans not necessarily via the top-heavy pay model, but by playing “an attractive brand of soccer.” Three points on that horrid cliché: one, anyone who uses it without quotation marks should be slapped in the cheek with a post-match shin guard. Two, crucially, the fans that MLS is trying to bring to the sport in general haven’t been watching the game for long enough to be particularly discerning about whether a team’s play is “attractive” or not – that comes after years of watching and studying, and at least 20 drunken arguments in bars. Three, it doesn’t work. See my FC Dallas list of non-stars up there? Yeah, that was, and is an “attractive brand of soccer.” It’s quietly been the hallmark of that club for years. I mean, have you ever seen Fabian Castillo play?
The fact is that someone like Castillo was always going to draw many, many fewer fans to FC Dallas games than someone who is 33 and massively famous, whether or not he was still at the top of his game. Top-heavy works in that superficial way the league might want to move away from but can’t with any speed – Lampard’s #8 jersey is everywhere in the stands at NYCFC games, even if everyone there wears it more often than he does. Meanwhile, as ESPN’s Jeff Carlisle points out, team-mate Tommy McNamara (and his mullet!) are the among the league’s more shocking bargains at $85,000, which in New York City will rent you a room in the back of a taxicab. An old taxicab.
So how do we make sure that the extra money the owners committed to spending actually goes to more than the top few guys on each roster? It’s an uphill fight to say the least. The Players’ Union is always in a difficult spot in Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations because granting pretty much any request they make will flat out lose money for the ownership, and everyone on either side of the table knows it. In fact, MLS owners are happy to remind the union that they continue to eat operating losses year after year (as they do in plenty of other sports), and all discussion of player compensation takes place against that backdrop. But the next time the CBA is up for renewal, there needs to be more of a conversation not just on how much gets spent on player salaries, but how it’s spread around.
A minimum median – not average, median – salary at each club is not unreasonable, since it wouldn’t technically raise the amount of money owners are expected to pay players, just redistribute it. More specific numbers can also be negotiated; for example, the fifth highest paid player on your club must earn $250,000, the eighth highest $175,000, etc., to throw out random numbers. This would be a painful transition for ownership, but it would turn General Managers into craftsmen because throwing money at a problem would become a hell of a lot harder – and again, it wouldn’t necessarily entail any more aggregate spending than the status quo.
Who would benefit most from this structure? My hope is that the future development of the game would, and with it the league, and with it the U.S. Men’s National Team, and with it my celebratory beer expenditures when we win. Right now, outside the top few players salaries remain perilously low, but even further down the roster is where things get truly awful. So-called “homegrown” players were envisioned as the future of the league, the means by which the backbone of every club was constructed (see: Major League Baseball), and instead they’re largely being used to fill out end-of-the-bench roster spots for as little money as possible to enable the signings of big name foreign players. Way, way too many home-grown signings are brought to the first team on the league minimum salary or close to it, are rarely if ever in the 18 on match day, then discarded for younger replacements when their contracts are up. How the hell do we expect to grow the game in the U.S. that way?
Winners, at the club level and in the international game, aren’t built in a day from the top down. They’re shepherded and nurtured and crafted and built from the bottom up. We need to get to work. Spending money in and on itself is not enough; we need to spend wisely, with an eye toward the future.