Major League Soccer is kicking off its 25 season, returning to Miami after 18 years, expanding to Nashville, and introducing a new anthem by Hans Zimmer. The early part of the next quarter-century of the league will feature still more expansion, with the league reaching the 30-team mark in 2022. What else might still be ahead?
Well, according to Los Angeles FC owner Larry Berg, very big things!
“We definitely have the demographics in our favor, both in terms of youth and diversity,” Berg told the Associated Press. “So I think we’ll pass baseball and hockey and be the No. 3 sport in the U.S. behind football and basketball.”
As committed as baseball seems to be to… how to put this delicately… shooting itself in the dick, this is laughable. The annual Forbes team valuations are hardly gospel, but last year’s least valuable MLB team was the Miami Marlins at $1 billion, twice the amount of the most valuable MLS team, Atlanta United. There’s at least some overlap between MLS and the NHL – Atlanta would be tied for 20 in hockey with Atlanta’s long-ago icemen, the Calgary Flames, while the Arizona Coyotes, at the bottom of the NHL with a $300 million valuation, would be tied with Minnesota United for 11 in MLS.
Atlanta United is worth less than a third of the valuation of the NHL’s highest-ranked team, the $1.65 billion New York Rangers, while the New York Yankees, atop MLB at $4.6 million, are at a level more than nine times higher than MLS’ top team. At the bottom of the leagues, the Colorado Rapids at $190 million are valued at less than two-thirds of where Forbes had the Coyotes, and less than one-fifth of the Marlins.
While there are other ways to measure how “big” a sports league is, this is important because it’s also part of Berg’s own calculation.
“Whether we can be a top-five league or a top-three league will really come down at the end of the day to money, our ability to compete for players,” Berg said.
And there’s the stumbling block. The NHL and Major League Baseball attract the very best players in the world at their respective sports, in no small part because the vast majority of those players come from North America. When it comes to soccer – men’s soccer, anyway – the United States currently ranks 22 in the world, right between Peru and Wales. While it’s true that producing great talent doesn’t mean having a great domestic league – Belgium is currently No. 1 in the FIFA rankings, Uruguay No. 5, Croatia No. 6 – there do happen to be well-established leagues in other countries who pay a lot more for talent than MLS ever has.
Last summer, Arsenal paid £72 million on the transfer market to sign Nicolas Pepe away from French side Lille, and there’s talk that he should be on the bench. That would be about $93 million, or about half the value of the entire Colorado Rapids franchise… which is owned by Stan Kroenke… who owns Arsenal.
The Rapids hardly are alone in being the lesser soccer holding of their owner. The New York Red Bulls are owned, of course, by Red Bull, which also owns RB Leipzig, currently the second-place team in Germany, as well as FC Red Bull Salzburg in Austria, Red Bull Brasil, and even Red Bull Ghana. New York’s other MLS team, New York City FC, is part of the City Football Group, and even with Manchester City’s currently-under-appeal two-year ban from European competition, it’s still crystal clear who the more important team in that organization is.
“Do I think in the next 10 years it will challenge the European leagues?” said David Beckham, who got his ownership stake in Inter Miami as part of the deal he signed to play in MLS from 2007-12. “It’s what we all hope for. It’s what we all strive to commit to. This should never be a league where players from Europe come to retire. That’s not where you want to be. It’s not where we want to be as owners.”
That’s astounding coming from someone whose last professional goal came for an MLS team eight years ago, not to mention from an owner in a league where multiple teams are so clearly the lesser soccer holding of their own ownership groups.
MLS has come a long way in 25 years. It’s positioned well to go even farther in the next 25. But the league has to remember that getting ahead of itself was what nearly killed it in the first place, and MLS always had been best, and grown its popularity most, when it’s just been itself.