Friday, March 20, 2009

(Rapid) expansion is bad

Okay, so I feel an explanation is in order. For the past month or so, I’ve hinted at my displeasure for MLS expansion. I’ve briefly submitted that the league should “cool its heels” in expanding. But that’s really it. So, here goes nothing.

No, I am not in favor of this current wave of rapid MLS expansion. I mean, does MLS actually watch the news? Does it know that we’re in a global recession, one in which many forecasters have warned hasn’t hit its nadir? Investing in expansion side is like playing the stock market; you’re betting on the future, not the present. And right now, that future is hardly anything but a sure thing.

Another point hasn't been widely discussed. That issue is the potentially damaging effects expansion has on the current talent pool. This league has a few very good players, but its caliber of play still needs improvement if it wishes to become a first-tier league in the global community. Would it be better to have 12 really sound teams than 18 mediocre teams? I certainly think so.

Is it wise to develop potential National Team members in a talent-thinned league? And do we continue to simply allow the exportation of our best collegiate players abroad while MLS still can’t offer them reasonable contracts because they’re too busy paying out contracts to less talented players just to meet each club’s roster quota? I think these are questions that need to be considered before the league’s level of talent nosedives into League One depths.

And while we’re on the subject of paying players, how do you explain such growth and prosperity to guys making $20,000 annually? I can tell you based on past conversations with MLS players on developmental deals that there is growing resentment toward the growingly-gluttonous league. Some are wishing they'd signed with a USL club or simply continued their education. The idea of expansion while so many make less than a schoolteacher’s salary is an absolute farce, and a slap in the face to so many players. Instead of devoting vast sums of energy and money toward expanding its waistline, the league would be keen to take care of its own before overextending itself to outsiders.

Speaking of taking care of its own, it’ll be interesting to see how much MLS becomes caters to these newcomers when some of its own clubs are already hurting. FC Dallas is struggling to sell tickets; the situation in Kansas City isn’t that much better. Even amajor market like New York, with the backing of a multimillion globally-recognized brand, is struggling at the gates. And those whispers of inflated attendance figures don’t seem to be hushing anyime soon.

Heck, even the newly-granted Philadelphia club is searching for thick-walleted investors as it struggles to get its act together with just over one year to get itself ready for league play. Yeah, instability before the first player signing is the hallmark expansion success.

Aside from these overblown and joyous press conferences, what has the league achieved in expansion? Sure, the success of Toronto and Seattle appear to be the arguments for the pro-expansion crowd. And that’s fine. But let’s not ignore the realities.

The hard realities include the already-documented monetary troubles of every one of the Big Four. They include stagnant ticket sales despite the promise of swollen stadiums that David Beckham’s arrival was supposed to bring. They include embarrassing television ratings. And let’s not forget the current economic troubles here in the United States, specifically. Americans are already finding themselves squeezed out of pro sports. Who’s to say that conditions will improve by the time these expansion clubs hit the pitch?

The thing is, I’m not against expansion on its face. I’m all for the growth of soccer here in the States. But I won’t sit back and pretend it’s all good while MLS players are starving off of meager salaries, while clubs continue to lose money, or while the entire planet is staring down a long and treacherous road to economic recovery. To think that somehow MLS is remarkably immune to these harsh realities is preposterous.

Expansion has to be undertaken with a great deal of precision rather than speed. It should be methodical, and not rash. It’s folly to believe that MLS won’t at all be affected by the current economic crisis. The ambitious rate of expansion that MLS has employed should be troubling to anyone who’s learned from American soccer’s past.

And therein lies the irony. When MLS was launched, one of its primary objectives was to avoid the pitfalls that doomed the NASL. One of those very pitfalls was rapid expansion. And yet, here we are today, pushing forward into the same markets that failed in NASL only a generation ago.

Don't get me wrong; I love soccer. I want expansion, but only if it's done wisely and methodically. I want MLS to succeed. But I also want my kids to be able to enjoy this league for years to come, and not have to grow up without a major professional league, the same way I did.

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