Born of necessity - it’s very creation a condition of the awarding of the FIFA 1994 World Cup to the USA – MLS has come a long way in less than 20 years.
As the league moves toward the close of it’s second decade of play, it is very easy to forget how humble were it’s beginnings. Initially, there were concerns there wouldn’t be enough “pro calibre” players to fill it’s rosters. There was, of course, an existing system of leagues in place when MLS was brought into existence. And at least some clubs in those leagues would pay players more money than MLS could.
Nonetheless, the fledgling league and it’s 8 teams did take the field in 1996. Included were many domestic players, a few CONCACAF internationals and the obligatory sprinkling of fading European and South American stars – needed as much for their names as remaining ability.
The principles that allowed the league to survive it’s formative years are well known: extraordinarily wealthy and patient benefactors (Hunt, Anschutz et al), central ownership of contracts and, as a result, an artificially low salary cap. MLS itself might enter into a bidding war for a player, but the owner-operators could never engage in the traditional “checkbooks at dawn” duel amongst themselves.
These factors kept expenditure relatively low (even for teams employing a prized DP or two, the annual wage bill tends to be less than 25% of the value of the club – for the bigger clubs, much less). With distributions from SUM (Soccer United Marketing) also providing significant income for member teams, owning an MLS club isn’t a bad business these days.
That hard salary cap may solve one obvious problem for ownership and administration, but it is far from a cure all. In fact, it has created for MLS a significant problem in the form of staggering parity. While leagues typically consider parity to be generally desirable, the fact is that in any sport it is great teams and dynasties that drive interest amongst the general public – particularly if those dynasties are based in major economic centres.
This playoff season has been unusual for MLS in that three of the top four seeds have moved on to the conference finals (though not the league’s top three markets, nor it’s two most star studded teams). Generally, the league has not been this lucky. Indeed, the viewer is often left to wonder after an MLS cup, “do we actually know that the champions are better than the sixth place club in either conference?”. When the cup is contested between two midpack sides who either became healthy or came into form during the last few weeks of a long season, this is not an unreasonable question.
In a league in which the salary cap seems akin to the holiest of sacred scrolls, can this parity problem be fixed?
If we accept that a hard and relatively low salary cap is not going away; and that MLS will retain relative parity among teams (even those spending heavily on DPs), there are still ways that the playoff system can become more relevant to broadcasters and fans alike.
First, there is no legitimate need for playoff matchups based on a two leg total goal format. There should be a reward for finishing above your rivals in the league table, and that reward should be hosting a one game elimination playoff. Total goal playoff series are an anathema to North American broadcasters – they don’t know how to handle them and they’d really rather not be stuck broadcasting both games when only the last one “matters”. These ties lack the finality required for drama obsessed sports fans & networks.
Second, if MLS insists on having five teams from each conference in the playoffs, at least give the conference winners a bye. The others will playoff over the course of a week to determine who meets the league champions in the conference finals. Again, there should be a reward for finishing first. A bye into the conference final is not too great a prize, nor is a 7-10 day break after a long season.
Finally, stop using wins or goal difference as a playoff qualifier. If two teams are tied on points at the end of the season, schedule play in games as needed.
Losing the two leg playoff would impact the the two lower ranked team’s gate revenue, of course. However, the full week saved in this new playoff format could easily be incorporated into the regular season, meaning that all teams get one more home date to sell, rather than just the two 3rd & 4th place finishers. Alternately, those two free dates could allow for more international dates to be honoured or a break during the sweltering summer heat.
Networks would be much more drawn to a sport in which there is a clear winner after each playoff match (as well as a loser packing for the off season). A compacted playoff schedule in which two teams are eliminated every three or four days would drive greater fan interest and general media coverage (as it does in several other sports). MLS already has the core soccer fan. What it lacks is broader appeal to a general audience.
If you are going to have a playoff system, “Win or go home” must be the mantra, not “Let’s see what happens tonight and then we’ll know what the teams have to do in the second leg”.
Like it or not, North America is not Europe. We’ll never accept meaningless playoff games in our own leagues, just as we’ll never accept a league in which there isn’t a playoff tournament at the end of the season.
Many believed it would never actually happen; that the apparent rebirth of the once mighty New York Cosmos was little more than a marketing exercise.
At times, it seemed as though the only real purpose behind the 2009 acquisition of the Cosmos name & logo from erstwhile owner Guiseppe Pinton (who was once personal assistant to the club’s star striker Giorgio Chinaglia) was to try and cash in on any brand value the 70′s era logo and history still held. Pinton, for his part, claimed ownership of the Cosmos by virtue of being the last person standing when all others (including then co-owner Chinaglia) had deserted the crumbling franchise in 1985.
And yet, after more changes in ownership, several announcements (some curious) and a little media hype (if mostly local), one couldn’t help but notice that the New York Cosmos actually played a game last weekend. Naturally, they won.
On August 3rd 2013 at 7pm at Shuart stadium (Hofstra University), the new Cosmos took the field for the first time in a competitive league match. They defeated the Fort Lauderdale Strikers 2-1. The late season start was the result of the Cosmos election to play competitive matches only in the second part of the NASL’s new-for-2013 split season.
In truth, the Cosmos that took to the pitch last week bore more resemblance to the Randy Horton led squads that played (at both Yankee stadium and Hofstra University) in the early 1970s than they did to the all star teams that drew tens of thousands of fans to the Meadowlands. There was no modern day Beckenbauer, Pele, or Alberto in uniform, nor a Cabanas, Bogicevic, Romero or Neeskens. If Studio 54 were still around, one gets the feeling the new Cosmos would have had to wait in line just like everyone else.
Happily, though, Pele, Shep Messing and Carlos Alberto were on hand to celebrate the rebirth of the club. A crowd announced at just under 12,000 (capacity at Shuart) took up their seats and cheered the new team. It’s just one game, but the attendance was 3-4 times what is considered good by modern NASL standards, and more than double what the original Cosmos averaged in their first four years.
So what of these new Cosmos, then? Could they ever recapture the kind of following that the original club once (briefly) had?
While playing in the NASL – inescapably now a second tier league – might seem a significant disadvantage, it may actually help their cause. Unlike MLS, the NASL does not impose a rigid salary cap on teams, nor a formal allocation system to decide which team gets which player. Acquisitions are therefore much easier to manage – assuming the money is available. Certainly the Cosmos could never be recreated as part of MLS’ single entity structure.
Many factors are working against the new owners. Primarily, the kind of money that would be needed today to assemble a squad with four or five (arguably more) of the world’s best players would be staggering. It was possible to lure a 35yr old Pele from Santos with $1.4m in 1975 – several times what he could have made anywhere else (including Europe). Given not only the pay scales today in Europe but the marketing opportunities outside the game for major stars, it seems impossible that any sum (now or ten years from now) could pry a player like Messi, Ronaldo or Vidic in their prime from their present employers. Add to that the fact that MLS has been bringing over highly paid past-prime stars for years.
Still, it is also true that no-one believed the Cosmos could sign Pele from Santos in 1975.
Even if the proposed $400m stadium is never built and the new Cosmos never manage to attract the caliber of stars the old club did, though, isn’t the football world better off with a franchise actually in New York? And carrying that name?
Perhaps, but only if they have the wherewithal to carry it in style. Over the next five or six years, the club will have to find a better home and at very least sign enough quality players to outshine their New Jersey rivals, Red Bull NY. MLS is unlikely to make this easy for them (Cosmos requests for friendlies will likely fall on deaf ears, and it’s hard not to see Garber’s recent “we’ll expand to 24 teams” claim as anything other than an effort to keep the NASL permanently hemmed in to smaller markets)
The Cosmos of today will likely never be what the 1970s club was, but they cannot survive buried in the shadow of their own neighbors. The ownership group is wealthy, but few owners in sport can outspend Red Bull principal Dietrich Mateschitz (the wealthy sometimes aspire to owning a Formula One racing team. Mr. Mateschitz, of course, owns two).
Despite the difficulties ahead, fans should enjoy the nostalgia that seeing the Cosmos jersey and name will bring. Try to remember that in 30 years away, the legend has grown quite a bit greater than the actual club was.
Just don’t expect the new club to have the kind of meteoric rise and fall that their namesakes once had. The influence of “outside” media company money that permitted the level of spending the Cosmos employed is no longer unique – every club of substance exploits those revenue streams and most do it better than North American soccer clubs.
You really can’t go home again, particularly in the modern sporting landscape.
For more on the history of the original Cosmos, readers are advised to watch “Once in a Lifetime”, a 2006 Documentary on the history of the New York Cosmos.
By now, Rangers and their fans have come to terms with the fact that they must climb through the ranks to regain the station in the pyramid they consider to be their rightful home, the Scottish Premier League.
While they may have grudgingly accepted this fate, they remain very unhappy and very vocal about it. This past week Rangers announced they would refuse to take up their allotment of Scottish Cup tickets away to Dundee Utd at Tannadice in February. Ostensibly, this decision has been taken over the club’s anger at Dundee Utd for their vocal stance against Rangers petition to rejoin the SPL after dissolution last summer.
Rangers fans have characterized the decision of their former league contemporaries as “mean spirited” and “cruel”. While each member club will have its own reasons for rejecting the application, there can be no doubt that money played some part in it: Rangers owed about half of the SPL significant sums, many of which remain unpaid (including funds related to last season’s DUFC-RFC Scottish cup tie). It must also be noted that the vote was 10-0 against (Kilmarnock abstained) so the decision can hardly be seen to be equivocal.
The opposing view to that of Rangers fans has tended toward the indifferent. A rough approximation of this view being: “If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime”.
There can be little argument that under Craig Whyte, Rangers had been living above their means. Many are of the view that it is the new owners and the fans that are being punished for the actions of the old guard. The fact is that the new owners acquired the club under very favorable terms given its encumbrance and thus cannot reasonably claim to have been unduly harmed by the decision. Had Rangers been guaranteed a place in the SPL prior to the formation of a “new” Rangers company, the cost of acquisition would have been much higher.
Neutral critics have tended to point to what they see as the obvious drawbacks of the decision: That an SPL with only one of Celtic or Rangers becomes a walkover, and that by the time Rangers are able to get back to the SPL, Celtic’s revenue growth will have pushed them far beyond where rivals can hope to reach within a decade, possibly longer. Several have suggested that this decision could effectively kill Scottish Football, given that it was largely a race between the two Glasgow clubs year in and year out.
Certainly Celtic will have a very successful period while Rangers remain out of the SPL. However, at present they are just three clear of their nearest challenger (Inverness Caley Thistle) and Motherwell and Hibs just one point further back.
The tight race may be in part due to Celtic’s Champions League commitments, but nevertheless the top end of the SPL is far tighter than most would have predicted 16 games in.
The long term financial difficulties of the SPL in general have not abated, of course. A recent report by PwC indicated that the average loss in the SPL in 2010/11 was about £1m per club. While this is a trifling amount by the standards of the EPL and other elite leagues, it represents significant loss as a percentage of total turnover for some of the SPL’s member clubs.
As with all other nations, the Scottish footballing pyramid generates the vast majority of its income from the top league. And of that PL revenue, the majority has historically been generated by the two elite Glasgow clubs.
Is there no possible outcome, then, other than that this revenue will shrink dramatically as a result of Rangers ‘demotion’ with drastic impact to all clubs?
The revenue will certainly shrink at the SPL level. But what might be the result of this? Is it certain to cause damage to member clubs, or will they adjust to the new revenue level quickly enough to avoid the consequences some believe are inevitable? Hearts is already struggling with finances, but how much of that is down to straight mismanagement versus the loss of anticipated “Rangers related” income? The loss of Old Firm matches is expected to cost Celtic as much as £2m annually, however that is a pittance compared to what they will earn from CL competition.
Expecting rational economic behavior from football clubs is perhaps asking too much. However, freed of the compulsion to outdo each other, perhaps Rangers (by necessity) and Celtic (by choice) can and will reduce their spending to supportable levels. The decreased competition for players should lead to downward pressure (or at least nominal increase) on domestic player salaries and spending in general (though the top echelon players are in demand elsewhere as well as Scotland).
Celtic may choose to spend what seems likely to be annual Champions League income on improving the squad, but the reality is they do not need to do so to beat their league brethren (and more importantly, their major rival) any longer, nor to remain annual participants in lucrative UEFA competitions.
For lower league clubs, the presence of even a diminished Rangers in their leagues will inevitably lead to greater revenue and exposure. While some SPL clubs will feel a short term financial pinch, Div 3 clubs this year should see a significant boost in fortunes. As Rangers progress through Scottish football, they should bring a modest financial windfall to each club they share a league with. For some of the minnows, a reasonable gate share from Ibrox could raise their annual turnover by 40-50% – enough money (if used properly) to create stability for these businesses for years to come, as well as raise the level of play across the board.
There will be some pain – not only for Rangers but their former SPL colleagues as well – as a result of their expulsion. But far from killing Scottish football, Rangers admittance at the third tier could actually help save it.
Rangers Football Creditors List: (prior to Sevco)
Inverness CT £40,000
Dundee United £65,000*
Man City £330,000
Rapid Vienna £ 1.1m (Jelavic transfer)
St. Etienne £260,000
* amount disputed by Rangers, who reported £30,000