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Where Clint Dempsey, MLS and the defunct NASL all gather uncomfortably

Aug 5, 2013, 7:19 PM EDT

American Soccer - Pele's Final Match - New York Cosmos v Santos

In having a conversation about how some of today’s Major League Soccer choices are keeping uncomfortable company with the old North American Soccer League’s fatal mistakes, let’s start it here, in a very clear-headed and logical place:

The old North American Soccer League and today’s Major League Soccer exist in completely different worlds. Whereas soccer stars are now aligned for potential success, you couldn’t even see the stars in the previous darkness of a far-less accommodating night in the domestic sports culture.

And we should probably also begin with a super-fast primer on what, exactly, the NASL was in its original incarnation. Where’s today’s “NASL” is the second tier of domestic soccer, in the 1970s it was domestic soccer, a wildly premature effort at establishing the professional game here. It “took” for a while with a starburst of brilliant success … but turned out to be the great and powerful Oz, a mirage of smoke and mirrors without a financial backbone, eventually collapsing beneath the weight of its own ambition.

So Major League Soccer wants to get up into 24-team territory, even at the risk of getting there too quickly? Hmmm. Interesting, because the old NASL reached 24 teams, which was pretty much its zenith and its nadir all at once.

(MORE: The changing identity of Major League Soccer)

So, Major League Soccer is at the point where it may take $9 million transfer fees and $8 million salaries to compete? Clint Dempsey’s arrival seems to push things in that direction.

No … of course that’s not true. It will not take Sounders-level mad money to collect the Ws. The chance to grab someone like Dempsey, a performance and a marketing tour du force, all wrapped patriotically in a U.S. flag, is an outlier.

But stare at this thing a little longer and we will notice some uncomfortable similarities in last week’s highest-of-profile signings. When the old Cosmos spent (over-spent, in retrospect) lavishly on Pele and Franz Beckenbauer and others, the swells of NASL had to spend to keep up. Not to over-simplify it all, but the arms race drove everyone over the financial cliff. Keeping up with the Cosmos, the one team with enough revenue to cover such princely costs, was simply impossible for everyone else.

Again, Major League Soccer is not careening head-long for imminent demise. That’s not the point here.

It’s just a little history lesson. And a bit of a warning. These things do deserve to be monitored going forward – especially as we digest what all of this means.

Ambition is wonderful. In many ways, this is what Major League Soccer is all about. But let’s not pretend that ambition unchecked cannot be a dangerous thing.

Let’s just all be careful out there, eh?

  1. bishopofblunder - Aug 5, 2013 at 7:30 PM

    Careful, indeed. But the league has been too smart for too long now to be caught up in the glitzy snowball of such hype. Right? [worry face]

  2. Scott Ludwig - Aug 5, 2013 at 7:32 PM

    Reblogged this on Minnesota KICKS Soccer News.

  3. dfstell - Aug 5, 2013 at 7:36 PM

    This is precisely why I think our current set-up in American soccer is so interesting right now. You’ve got MLS acting as the steady rock. It’ll do some cool things (like signing Dempsey), but the league is set-up to prevent Colorado and San Jose from spending “Dempsey money” on someone in an attempt to keep up with Seattle. One, the league probably wouldn’t let a team spend WAY beyond it’s means. Two, the salary cap still makes DPs tricky because they eat so much of your cap.

    So, you have MLS being steady Eddie and ensuring that there will always be American soccer.

    They you have all the madness that is going on in NASL and USL. Hell….they’re announcing new teams on a monthly basis, announcing stadium plans (or at least artist’s concepts). That stuff will be crazy. I don’t think it’s really fair to call them “lower leagues” because there is no pro/rel. They’re just different models. What I HOPE happens is that a few of those NASL/USL teams catch fire and start to grow beyond MLS to the point where they aren’t even interested in being an MLS expansion team. They we can try to merge the whole thing and have a thriving American soccer culture with pro/rel where teams can find their level. Sure, we’ll have some teams go bankrupt, but I think you have to have that sort of system if you want to also have great teams like Barcelona, Real Madrid, Man United, Bayern, Juve, etc. The point of American soccer shouldn’t be to have a league of Evertons. I want a few world-class teams that push everyone to keep up.

    Ultimately, pro sports ownership shouldn’t be about “profit”. This is a rich man’s playtoy. Some dudes by big boats, some buy cars, some buy sports teams. The “profit” is only important in that it allows the clubs to buy better players.

    • thesportsbizblog - Aug 6, 2013 at 9:55 AM

      To some extent you are there already. Obviously, there is still no pro/rel, nor is there likely to be any time in the foreseeable future but you do have clubs in NASL/USL that form the nucleus of past expansion (Sounders, Timbers, Whitecaps, Impact) and likely future expansion (Orlando City for one). It’s not ideal but it’s certainly a lot further along that it has been for quite a while. Now, if MLS, USSF, NASL and USL could all sit down and agree on the course of the lower two leagues and create arrangements between them and MLS that are formalized, so if not pro/rel, then the more traditional American arrangement of working deals between MLS clubs and lower level clubs for player movement.

    • charliej11 - Aug 6, 2013 at 4:53 PM

      I am reading thinking I have to stop, the guy is dumb enough to go there….and then you went there.
      There will NEVER be pro/rel…..EVER.

    • charliej11 - Aug 6, 2013 at 5:02 PM

      It is also funny you don’t think the teams at the top soccer leagues don’t make money, you can’t be serious. They make WAY more money, getting people to root for losers, year after year after year. WAY more.

  4. soccerjohn - Aug 5, 2013 at 7:42 PM

    Good article, Steve. With full recognition that nobody had a crystal ball on this stuff, I’d love to know how likely you think it is that the league is setting up to go in that negative direction. Did you just notice interesting parallels, or are you feeling like MLS needs to tap the brakes?

  5. talgrath - Aug 5, 2013 at 7:59 PM

    In raw salary, Dempsey is definitely the most expensive acquisition of all time, but there’s that little niggling bit with Beckham’s deal (the first DP); jersey and ticket sales. Beckham received a portion of jersey and ticket sales during his time as the Galaxy’s leading man, the details of how much he made on that were completely undisclosed, as far as we know Dempsey does not have such a deal. Of course, as we all know, Beckham also gets the option to buy a franchise for $25 million, a deal that if he exercised it now would probably save him some $15 million as well. Beyond that, the Sounders are now the spendiest team in the league, but that wasn’t always the case; when Beckham, Donovan and Keane were all playing for LA they were spending nearly $20 million a year. Last year’s LA Galaxy didn’t break MLS, I doubt this year’s Sounders will.

  6. konmtu - Aug 5, 2013 at 8:26 PM

    @dfstell Tue MLS will never go to a pro/rel set up due to the teams buying in as franchises. The pro/rel system only works in a system like the European leagues are set up where anyone can establish a team and works its way up the ladder.

    • dfstell - Aug 5, 2013 at 9:19 PM

      I hear what you’re saying. We actually do kinda have promotion right now. It’s just based on having a stadium and fans and a good ownership group. What we don’t have is relegation. I agree with you that it’s hard to see how MLS will be able to relegate a team when the owner paid $50MM to join the country club. But, right now we don’t really need relegation because MLS isn’t full.

      I’d just like to see a future where MLS can’t just keep expanding and absorbing the good lower division clubs. Maybe there is too much growth and MLS can’t grow forever. Maybe with salary caps, a team in another league is demonstrably better than the worst MLS clubs, yet MLS doesn’t have room to expand anymore? It won’t be in MLS’s interest to let lower division clubs be better than the bottom of MLS, and then they’ll have to explore pro/rel or else risk the perception that they are “the best”.

      You kinda see that now with the NASL and USL clubs knocking off the MLS clubs anytime the MLS clubs play a B-roster in the Open Cup. The gap really isn’t THAT large.

  7. randomhookup - Aug 5, 2013 at 10:00 PM

    One thing that doesn’t get mentioned in the pro/rel discussions about the future is that the cost of acquiring a franchise is a sunk cost. There are rewards to being part of a collective, but teams have to come up with capital to cover costs that go beyond their revenues. Especially if the team is passed down in the family, there is a point when the owners don’t want to (or aren’t able to) come up with the capital. It doesn’t matter at that point how much they pair or what the team is worth; it may make more business sense to slide to a 2nd division than to continue to play in division one.

  8. midtec2005 - Aug 5, 2013 at 10:01 PM

    I think things are moving in a really positive direction. Things probably could spiral out of control IF there wasn’t a salary cap. But there is so I think things will be alright. I’m near Columbus and their recent sale excites me. Hopefully we can have the same kind of turnaround that was seen in KC. The league is going in a great direction. With the way attendance is increasing I think we could see the salary cap increased a bit too.

    However I do think it’s always important to make sure things don’t get out of control… that little saying about history repeating itself comes to mind.

  9. reformed2012 - Aug 6, 2013 at 1:13 AM

    I don’t think history will repeat here.

    In 1970s Fed funds rate are double digits. Now it is near zero. Cheap money everywhere. There are a lot of banks willing to lend you money if you have a semi-sound plan to win all the cups.

    Our Gross domestic product is 20x now of what it was during the 70s. People are a lot more affluent.

    Baseball is taking a hit from steroids. American football is taking a hit from safety issues.

    All sign points to it is time for a massive spending and expansion campaign for MLS. Worst come worst, you have the back from the most bail-out friendly government in the history of the United States.

  10. adiaz9201 - Aug 6, 2013 at 9:30 AM

    People soccer is here to stay, MLS has an advantage that NASL didnt have, and that is T.V. deals and promotion with European clubs, just look at the Guiness competetion it has been a succes with all the major clubs from Italy, Spain, and England playing here. More money is coming for this league, all they need now is a huge T.V. deal from a major network like the EPL did with NBC $250 million. And the fact that we are even blogging about this helps MLS.

    And there is more, the salary cap is just a bonus to help maintain the league compettive, something the NASL did not have and thats why it failed. Its not a curse to have a cap all the sports in the USA have caps MLB, NBA, NFL, and NHL, the best one is the NFL.

  11. charliej11 - Aug 6, 2013 at 4:59 PM

    I disagree with the big salaries killing NASL, it didn’t help of course, but the biggest reason NASL folded was that so many teams were not competitive. Cosmos were the best and it wasn’t close most of the time and with most of the league all the time. Seattle wasn’t even drawing at the end. Me and thousands of my best friends.

    MLS, so far, does NOT have that problem….at all. Top 15 teams are within 10 points of each other.

    Now if Seattle follows LA’s two in a row with two of their own and then the two NY teams win back to back…you might see guys in some areas stop caring. We are still a long ways away, but walking a fine line.

    Keep MLS competitive, you and I both lived through the mid 80s Steve, it was brutal.

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