Over the past few summers, American soccer fans have flocked to stadiums, watching Major League Soccer teams play out the middle of their 10-month-long seasons. This year, though, for two weeks these stadiums will be empty as the league takes a self-imposed break to accommodate the biggest soccer event in the world. All eyes, both here and across the globe, will temporarily shift to Brazil. After all, it’s the World Cup. And for MLS players, it just might be the most important one ever.
While it seems like every major athletic competition gets draped in the hyperbole of “Most Important Event in History (Since the Last One),” for MLS, that language may be accurate this time around. Of course, MLS is not fielding a team in Brazil, but the symbiotic relationship between the still-developing domestic league and the still-developing U.S. National Team means the results of each are inevitably linked. They’re the two most visible parts of the larger, vague idea of “American soccer.” Ten out of 23 players (one short of a full line-up) on the American roster ply their trade in MLS, which just further cements the relationship.
The build-up to these most important of matches has focused on the absence of the The Greatest American Player Ever, Landon Donovan, and the States’ opponents in The Group of Death. (For a game filled with so many gray areas, the headlines tend to be more absolute.) Lost in the pre-tournament frenzy, though, has been what these matches mean to MLS.
If you want to beat the income-inequality drum, look no further than MLS, where the top earner makes 190 times more than the lowest earner.
At the end of January 2015, the five-year collective bargaining agreement between Major League Soccer and its Player’s Union expires. During the last five years, MLS has exploded. Select players have been awarded multi-million dollar contracts that mirror what many earn in Europe. Attendance at stadiums has increased by about 2,000 over that span, now sitting comfortably above 18,000 fans per game. Team values have climbed to the nine-figure mark, and expansion fees have approached the same levels. (MLS has sold seven expansion franchises in the last five years. New York City FC, the most expensive franchise, paid $100 million.) And most recently, a landmark television deal signed last month has ESPN, Fox, and Univision reportedly paying a combined $90 million a year to televise MLS matches. In addition, two years ago MLS received an investment of between $125 million and $150 million, reportedly, through its Soccer United Marketing arm from Providence Equity Partners. All told, the figures look healthy for a league that had to contract two of its franchises just 13 years ago.
However, these gains have not made it back to the players. (Full disclosure: I am a Player’s Union member and player rep for my club, the Colorado Rapids.) The minimum salary, which I and 62 other players earned last year, still remains at $35,120, and many of those contracts are only semi-guaranteed, meaning teams can cut players before the July 1 roster freeze date. The average salary is a respectable $207,831, but this is largely due to outliers like Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley, who make over $6.5 million per year. If you want to beat the income-inequality drum, look no further than MLS, where the top earner makes 190 times more than the lowest earner. (For reference, in the NBA, the highest earner, Kobe Bryant, earns 64 times that of the lowest earner.) Even more telling: The top seven highest salaries in MLS combine to make up 31 percent of all player salaries, while the top five percent of earners make up 45 percent of all player salaries. (Salary figures via Empire of Soccer and NBA Draft Express.)
Significant increases in salaries will surely be at stake during the next negotations, as well as expanded freedom of player movement. MLS’ economic model was successful for MLS as a whole when the league was struggling for survival. However, now that the league is thriving and desires to reach its stated goal of being one of the top leagues in the world, changes are needed to ensure MLS can compete internationally, both in the player market and with the product on the field.
This is where the World Cup comes back in view. As a showcase for 10 MLS players, the National Team’s performance in Brazil will double as a way to show the world how far MLS has come, and how far it has to go. Whatever happens with the U.S. this summer, one thing is certain: MLS and soccer will continue to explode in popularity in North America. And on the heels of a good, excitement-inducing American performance, any sort of hitch in the 2015 MLS season would be difficult to stomach. Starting on June 16, we’ll all be watching.