So I thought I would continue my list of things I think MLS needs to deal with by 2014 (end of some long term deals, and likely the next CBA). If you missed part 1, well here it is, it focused on roster sizes, the second division, and developing a national youth system.
I am sure as the ongoing CBA talks will deal with some of the pay issues, I still think a very basic plan could really move the league forward heading to 2014. What if the league minimum was raised to $40,000 for 2010 and each year it would raise $5,000? How about the top end salary, what if it jumped to $450,000 with a yearly bump of $50,000? Of course to keep Seattle, LA , and New York happy, I am willing to toss in a second exempt player slot for each team, where the team is charged the maximum against the cap but the team can pay the player any amount above that amount.
So that would mean that we would need a bump in the overall salary cap and my suggestion is to set it at 3 million for 2010 and bump it up between $250,000 and $500,000 a year for the next 4 years, that would mean a team that used both their exempt slots in 2010 would still have 2.1 million for the rest of their team (which in my would would mean 26 players) and that would allow them to build a quality team and keep their roster together over several years.
More after the jump:
So now that we have the players happy with how much they are getting paid, it is time we deal with quality of play on the pitch. MLS must find a way to improve the quality of their officials. There is no doubt that more than a handful of matches for every team were impacted in a negative way because of officials missing or making the wrong call. Offside calls made because an official who is greatly underpaid is out of position costs a team a goal, or a part time local guy who works as a 4th official at a match is unwilling to raise his voice about a foul seen from a different perspective. We have seen issues in every league and at every level of the game, one only needs to google "Henry Handball" to get over 2 million results and over 900 videos.
I know that US Soccer has stepped up their review of officials in MLS with their week in review and last year we saw officials removed from action in the middle of the season. I do think there is some non-invasive technology that FIFA has to adopt, like goal line sensors to verify or negate goals. I would love to see the adoption of two more officials (either on the opposite side of the 2nd and 3rd or behind each goal). The sport is too fast and the athletes are too talented to have things missed by officials. The sport and it's fans deserve better. I also suggest that fans take some time to look at the materials on the US Soccer website, check out both the laws of the game and the info under Instructional Materials section on the Referee Development page.
late edit (No US officials selected for the World Cup) So FIFA knows our officials suck, so what will US Soccer and MLS do about it?
That isn't the only thing impacting play on the pitch that needs to be addressed, MLS needs to reward performance more, the current bonuses for teams making the playoffs, even winning the MLS Cup are a bit of a joke. A team gets $15,000 for making the playoffs, with 24 players that is $625 per player before taxes, and for winning the Championship the bonus for players is $165,000 per team or just under $7,000 per player.
The Bonus issues continues when you consider the league's position on tournaments like SuperLiga (one that was created by the league via SUM) where the winning team gets 1 million dollars, which sounds good but you may remember the controversy when the tournament began a couple years ago. It seems that if a team wins a prize of $200,000 in a tournament the league gets half of that amount and the team gets half, but if the prize is more than $200,000, well then the team gets half of the first 200K and 30% of any other amount (the league gets 70%), but the payout for the team can be no more than $200,000 in total. So if a MLS team won SuperLiga's $1,000,000 prize the team would get 20% of the payout, while the league gets 80%. Is it just me or does that seem a bit strange and very unfair?
Reward your players for great performance and great performance will become the norm and not the exception, do you think the 4 MLS teams playing in SuperLiga would be more motivated if they knew they would get to split the entire $1,000,000? That would average over $40,000 per player, now that is money that can motivate even the higher paid players a whole lot more than only getting just over $8,000 for winning the tournament. I work for a company that specialize in helping companies appreciate their employees and I can show you tons of data about the impact that can be made not only with tangible rewards for performance but from creating an environment where workers(players, coaches, and staff) will improve performance, and overall employee satisfaction. That would indeed impact the play on the pitch and provide a better quality product for MLS to sell to their customers.
OK, Now it is time for me to "beat a dead horse", I understand that the steps made by MLS in promoting the league is much better than 5 years ago, but it simply isn't good enough and with so many things that impact the PR effort of MLS being set to change in the next few years, it is time for a visionary to take the realm. We know that soccer is a mainstream sport in the United States, you only have to look at the success of the "summer of soccer" and the attention paid to the sport during the World Cup. Yet MLS struggles to capture the imagination of even dedicated soccer fans unless Blanco or Beckham are playing, most mainstream sports fans pay virtually no attention to the league. The roots of that issue are many, from quality of play on the pitch, to the lack of coverage by national and local media, and an approach to the boom of social media that has been slow and lackluster.
OK, so let's look at what the league can do to change the mentality of soccer fans, because I honestly believe if you could win over the "euro soccer" snobs in the US that other fans would quickly follow. Win CCL, honestly that is the only thing MLS can do in order to convince people that the level of play in MLS has improved enough to make it worth their time to watch. Of course things like a great run in the World Cup would be real helpful, but that is out of the hands of MLS. I think continuing to bring European teams over for friendlies doesn't hurt but they need to be covered on TV more often, even friendlies with teams from other countries will help as our players continue to compete better against better quality teams. It is clear that fans who saw the RSL vs. Club America match or the RSL vs. Chivas de Guadalajara match either live or on TV had to be impressed with the quality of the MLS players.
I would love to see MLS find a way to arrange a tournament with some teams from Europe, they don't have to be the big 4 but to see a tournament with some money and pride on the line, could only help expose MLS teams to fans who simply believe the league isn't worth their time.
Now I am going to give some credit where I think it is due. I think MLS and the teams in the league do a great job of making their players available to the fans, autograph session, appearances at schools and soccer camps all build up the reputation and identity of the local teams and the league. I would love to see US Soccer adopt the approach that the MLS has done for their All Star match, where it has become a celebration of the sport and the opportunity for fans to meet and see the players they watch on TV is a dream come true for many kids. I do think MLS should move the All Star Match to a weekend match and do even more to build it into a bigger event, add some things like skill contests, rookies vs. retired match, and have these types of things be free for people to attend.
I still think MLS needs to find a way to convince their TV partners to embrace the sport, FSC is a great partner but because they aren't part of the normal cable or satellite package they will never get huge ratings. ESPN only shows the matches as a second thought and relegates them to midweek slots where they compete with programs like CSI and other top network programming. Having a channel that is willing to show more matches and do so in prime sports time slots is huge and will help gain exposure to more potential fans.
My final point for this post and dealing with promoting the beautiful game is simple, continue to embrace the media, both traditional and online, but do not forget that for every Steve Goff, or Ives, there are 100 fans talking about your league, your team, and the sport in chat rooms, on fan blogs, and those are the people who attend your matches, those are the people who are the evangelists of your teams and your league. They do it without regard for profit, they do it because they have a passion. Take a look at the quality and width of coverage offered on SB Nation to see what fan created content looks like, you may not always like what they say but they offer the most honest and straightforward coverage you will find anywhere.
OK that is it for part 2, I have covered 6 of my top 10 things. We have larger rosters, a solid relationship with a second division, need for a real youth system, raising the pay of players, improving the quality of play on the pitch, and the need for changes in how the sport is promoted.
OFF MY SOAPBOX