“Profitability is a function of what you spend, not necessarily of what you make. Our revenues are growing, but we are investing massive amounts of money in building the league. We are in an investment mode; it’s the best way to describe it.”
That came out of Q & A the Houston Chronicle ran with Major League Soccer (MLS) Commissioner, Don Garber, in this morning’s paper. Count it among the several items out today that (I’m enormously flattering myself, but…) follow-up on my shrill rant about MLS players being treated like rented mules. In a curious coincidence, a slew of articles out of New England describe the pitfalls facing MLS as it moves into what Garber calls, in the same interview, “the sort of second year of the relaunching of the league.”
Let me pause to chuckle. I’m just getting to a spot in Simon Schama’s excellent history of the French Revolution, Citizens, where the regular calendar gave way to the revolutionary. Ahem…tee hee hee….”year two.”
Getting back to the task at hand, that same piece saw Garber provide a kind of explanation of the logic behind MLS’s investment strategy:
“It’s all about, can we compete financially? If we have a stadium in Houston, we have stadiums coming on line in Salt Lake City and New York, more revenue will come into the league and allow owners to purchase players from overseas, and that ultimately attract new audiences.”
The idea of the league building its own facilities in order to obtain greater access to, and therefore more, revenue is familiar to anyone who has followed MLS over the past five, stadium-booming years. A little further up, Garber mentions another piece of the revenue-boosting puzzle – e.g. increasing exposure of the MLS brand through tournaments of varying relevance, a process that somewhat necessarily begins with CONCACAF. And, without question, both concepts are perfectly defensible – especially barring alternatives.
I covered what isn’t so defensible in yesterday’s post – the practice of stiffing the talent. For whatever reason – maybe they all got the same assignment in school or something – the New England media exploded with stories about the mechanics of how MLS trades and, as it happens, fails to retain a certain kind of player. Goal.com’s Kyle McCarthy, in a barely-related article, dubs this group “mid-range players,” while I called them “good” players in an ode I wrote way back when, but these are basically the guys who make a team better without making the team…if you catch my meaning. Now, a couple stories are useful curiosities – here I’m thinking of an almost abstract piece in the Cape Cod Times on the steps a team takes to acquire a player – but a couple strike fairly directly at the roots of the dilemma.
First among them is Frank Dell’Appa’s Boston Globe article that offered new (new-to-me, anyway) details on the off-season departures of Andy Dorman and Pat Noonan. Behold, the horror stories:
“Dorman’s contract had expired, and the Revolution offered him slightly more than double his $30,000 annual salary; instead, Dorman took an offer of more than $350,000 (including signing bonus) with St. Mirren in Scotland.”
“Noonan, 27, had three years left on a $225,000 annual deal, the Revolution declining to pick up the option, instead offering a new contract at $115,000 annually. Noonan, who signed a three-year deal with Norway’s Aalesund FK worth more than $400,000 annually, appears to have recovered from the injuries that stymied him in 2006.”
The “Noonan situation,” in particular, amounts to telling employees that this year’s Christmas bonus will be a punch to the kidneys. I mean, the guy finished fairly strong, he was pivotal in earning the Revolution their first-ever trophy (U.S. Open Cup) and, for this, he gets a $100K pay-cut? Norway would look like Shangri-fucking-La after that…even above the Arctic Circle. The details on what happened with Chris Albright – available here – demonstrate this isn’t a Revs-only phenomenon.
None of this is to say that MLS can compete with Europe on a purely financial level, not even for “middling” players like Noonan, Joseph Ngwenya, or Nate Jaqua. The earlier portions of RevsNet’s interview with New England assistant coach, Paul Mariner (hat-tip for that piece: Du Nord) gets at the kinds of money that even modest European teams can throw at MLS players with itchy feet…or crappy contracts. But as much as that excuses some of MLS’s issues, it doesn’t add up where the Revs are concerned. $225 isn’t crazy money, even on an MLS roster – and that goes double at the forward position. And who’s to say Andy Dorman didn’t just play on the maxim of “Minimum wage, minimum effort”? The man had a career year in 2006, so he’s certainly justified in thinking he paid his dues.
By way of pulling all this together, I am sympathetic to the logic of MLS’s investment strategy, as well as its weakness vis-a-vis the European leagues. But surely the league must invest in talent at some point – especially those “good” players. As Martek (of Nutmegged fame) commented to yesterday’s bitter rant, cutting out these players moves MLS toward being “an under-23 and over-32 league.” Great players passing to rookies equals broken play in any league; we all owe those occasions when MLS games look good and flow reasonably well to those good players.
The real tragedy is MLS doesn’t have to break the bank to go after and retain these players. Because we have stability, playing time, proximity to home, familiar culture, etc. – MLS doesn’t need to match Europe’s offers dollar-for-dollar. That’s what I found a little irksome in the Mariner interview. Pony up offers that look both serious and appreciative of a given player’s services and he might stick around; with Dell’Appa’s article suggesting both Dorman and Noonan wanted to stay in New England, you have to assume it wouldn’t have taken much. As it happened, however, the offers extended to both players seemed inspired by front office wagers on how little pay a soccer player will take.