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John Bladen


MLS Playoffs And The Parity Problem

Written by on November 20, 2013 | 3 Comments »
Posted in MLS

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.

3 responses to “MLS Playoffs And The Parity Problem”

  1. Ed Gomes says:

    My thoughts;
    Leagues tend to overstate the value of parity. The NFL routinely points to how a club can come back from a losing season to Super Bowl contender. Parity is supposed to make everyone competitive and drive up revenue. Nothing could be further from the truth. Even in the almighty powerful NFL, the ratings/revenue has always been higher when there’s dominant teams. The Cowboys the Steelers built up dynasties through dominance. The Niners the Patriots did the same. At this point the Super Bowl would get ratings if Jaguars faced the Cardinals, but revenue would go down.

    It happens in Europe as well. People love the Cinderella story, especially in the FA Cup. I agree that it’s great theatre rooting for the small clubs and watching them advance. But would the ratings/revenue be best if Leyton Orient faced Burnley in the final or Man United?

    Having dominant teams provides front runner fans and a club to despise. In all leagues, the most loved club tends to be the most hated as well.
    Parity is an overstated necessity.

    As a huge soccer fan, I would be called a soccer snob, since I don’t follow the MLS. The Red Bulls are an easy ride for me, yet I’ve never attended a match. I have watched some matches, but not particularly interested in following. It’s not that I put down the product, I just have only so much time to give. I do follow European futebol, and other sports.
    That being said the MLS does have a nice following, and I believe that attendance has increased. I’ve mentioned how I have friends that have gone to Red Bull matches, because their kids are playing soccer. And guess what, they’re into it.

    MLS still needs better marketing and better exposure. Maybe through transfers abroad, some of that exposure will come.
    Maybe they’re exactly where they are supposed to be in the growth of the league. And that’s not a bad thing.

  2. Smiley says:

    I hear MLS wants 24 teams, thereafter franchise doors close.

    I agree with Steve Nichol who thinks the league has and will become even more diluted with sub-par players and ugly long ball soccer. Yet again, it’s all about the dolla dolla bill for MLS and the profits from selling as many franchises as possible.

    The PR and Marketing is top notch but the play on the pitch is ugly and unimaginative.

    Jaded and egotistical ex stars such as Henry, Hair Model Beckham, Marquez et al will always look at MLS as a vacation with one final big payoff, it’s no surprise when teams such as RSL comprised of mediocre yet dedicated “team players” giving 110% constantly reach the final.

    *Substitute the dedicated Donovan for an Henry or Martins and LA would be in the same boat as NYRB and Seattle in terms of MLS final success.

  3. John Bladen says:

    Thanks for the feedback gentlemen.

    Ed: you hit the nail on the head. The most loved are the most hated also. Whether you like the Yankees or hate them, I think most fans would admit that the playoffs aren’t the same when they aren’t somewhere in the mix (even if you just want to see them fail, you want to see them fail painfully at the last minute, not lose every game and be out of it by the end of May).

    Smiley: I’ve heard that MLS is capping at 24 (and also that that is the max FIFA will allow… though that is presumably an avoidable hurdle if the league splits along geographic or economic lines at some point).

    But is such a statement anything but an attempt to create artificial scarcity? After all, some years ago the max number trotted out was 20… and MLS will blow by that arbitrary limit relatively soon.

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