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MLS’ parity compared to top European soccer leagues is proving to be a weakness

Competitive balance is the defining quality of MLS. Nothing else — not expansion, not the exploding valuations of its franchises, not the level of play, not the amount of fan interest — does as much to set the tone of the league as the idea that every team, every season should have a reasonable chance of winning, regardless of how much or how little they spend.  

It’s a principle inherent to professional sports in the U.S. and Canada, but one almost completely foreign to the wider sport of soccer. During a period in which the major leagues in Germany, Italy and France have been dominated by one team, the first-division in Spain controlled by two powerhouse clubs with a third acting as an occasional interloper, and the top-flight in England shaped by a pair of teams, MLS, as always, has stood out for both its equality in individual years and volatility between seasons.

In the last 10 years, seven different MLS teams have won the Supporters’ Shield, the trophy given to the team with the most regular season points. The New York Red Bulls are the only team with multiple shields in that span (they’ve won it three times since 2012, though they haven’t even advanced to an MLS Cup in that span). MLS Cup has been won by eight different clubs in that period, with the LA Galaxy and Seattle Sounders the only two to claim the league’s biggest prize more than once since 2012. In all of the big five European leagues, just one club has won at least five of the last 10 championships. 

League

  

Number of champions in last 10 seasons

  

MLS

8

Premier League

5

La Liga

3

Ligue 1

3

Serie A

3

Bundesliga

1

Parity in MLS runs far deeper than the major trophies, though. Broadly speaking, the league is bunched together more tightly in individual seasons, and features more mobility across different campaigns, than any of the big five European leagues. 

Over the last five seasons, the average annual gap in points per game between the first- and last-place teams in MLS and the five European leagues has been roughly the same, but in terms of points per game, MLS has the smallest standard deviation, the smallest disparity between squads that finished at the 25th and 75th percentile of the final standings and the smallest Gini coefficient, which measures concentration/dispersion of a population of measured values. MLS also has a significantly smaller range in average final goal difference between the first- and last-place teams than any of the other leagues, even when controlling for season length. Liga MX was a closer comparison to MLS than any of the European leagues. All of that confirms what we pretty much already knew: MLS teams are, in the main, grouped closer together than teams in the biggest European leagues.

Points per page

Annual range

  

Annual range, 25th-75th percentile

  

Gini Coefficient

  

Standard Deviation

  

MLS

1.37

0.49

0.12

0.33

Premier League

1.34

0.67

0.19

0.38

La Liga

1.48

0.52

0.17

0.4

Bundesliga

1.34

0.66

0.18

0.37

Serie A

1.67

0.81

0.2

0.47

Ligue 1

1.33

0.76

0.17

0.36

Liga MX

1.46

0.44

0.16

0.39

There’s also a lot more movement up and down the table between seasons in MLS than there is in the big five European circuits. In the five seasons from 2017-2021, MLS teams, on average, moved six places per season in the final standings. That figure ranged from 2.99 to 3.91 in the European leagues. Even accounting for the fact that MLS includes more teams than those leagues, that’s a significant disparity. 

In the last five years, MLS has had 14 different clubs finish in the top-five of the regular season standings, a markedly higher percentage of top-five finishers than any of the European leagues had during that span. In fact, seven different MLS teams finished in the top five in at least one season and the bottom five in at least one other at some point in the last five years. That only happened five times total in the big five European leagues over that period — twice in the Bundesliga and three times in Ligue 1. 

There’s rarely been a better illustration of the equality and volatility of MLS than what we’re seeing this season. LAFC lead the league by a decent margin, and are on pace to break the league’s all-time regular season points record. Behind them, Austin FC, CF Montreal, New York City FC and the Philadelphia Union have opened up a bit of a gap. Still, the distance between the top and middle of MLS is nothing like the separation typically seen in the biggest European leagues. Most of the competition in MLS is a jumbled mess. Just five points separate fifth- and 13th-place in the Eastern Conference standings; there are only nine points between third and 11th in the West. 

The year-over-year changes from 2021 to 2022 have been massive, too. The New England Revolution set the all-time regular season points record just last year, but they have 33 points through 24 games this year, and sit in eighth in the East. The Colorado Rapids finished second in the Shield race last year, but they have 31 points in 24 matches and are in 10th place in the West. Sporting Kansas City, who finished fourth in the shield standings in 2021, is now second to last in the entire league. On the opposite side of the equation, Austin finished last season with the third-fewest points in the league. The second-year club is now tied for the second most, an improvement of 23 places from the final 2021 standings.

More than two-thirds of the way through the season, just about every team still has a shot at the title. Almost every fan base has real reasons to remain engaged down the stretch. It’d be a bit of a stretch, but one could even make an argument that Toronto FC, now sitting 12th in the East and 23rd overall in the league, has a reasonable chance to make a run to the final following their summer additions of Lorenzo Insigne, Federico Bernardeschi and Mark-Anthony Kaye. 

This, of course, is the point. And it’s fun! It’s certainly preferable on just about every level to the ridiculous inequality we’ve seen over the last decade in France, Germany, Italy, Spain and, to a slightly lesser extent, England. 

It’s also, in my opinion, gone a bit too far. It’s good that MLS has competitive balance — just not this much. 


Building itself around the notion that each team should have a reasonable chance of contending each season, regardless of their spend, was, on the surface, a reasonable initial strategy for MLS. 

One certainly can’t argue with the success that it’s brought the NFL, NBA, MLB or NHL — all of which already had elements of this type of structure when MLS was starting up in the mid-1990s. Some of the initial MLS owners held teams in those leagues, too. Salary caps and equality of opportunity within a closed system were their idea of normal, just as they were and are for sports fans across the U.S. and Canada. For the owners, an open, uncapped European-style setup for MLS was a complete non-starter.

MLS went even further than any other North American league, though, organizing itself as a single entity. Technically, owners don’t possess individual teams, but a stake in the league. “Owners” isn’t even the proper term for them. In official MLS parlance, they’re known as “investor-operators.” The distinction allowed MLS a huge amount of control over its players, permitting the league to legally restrict their movement in ways that other North American sports leagues could not. That’s changed a bit over the years, but only as a result of collective bargaining with the MLS Players Association. Even with the gains they’ve made, MLS players still don’t have full freedom to move within the league when they’re out of contract. 

The league has also always restricted how much and in what manner teams are allowed to spend, setting a low, soft cap for spending on rosters and designing several different categories which players fall into. The system ensures that no team can spend all that much more than another, and that the gaps in spending between teams can be concentrated only in a few players, a fact that minimizes the impact of those discrepancies. Other mechanisms like the SuperDraft, expansion draft and allocation process exist to ensure a higher degree of competitive balance, as well. 

The system has succeeded in preventing any one team or a small group of clubs from running roughshod over the league year after year. It has a huge amount of uncertainty. Picking what’s going to happen in MLS on any given weekend is folly. Attempting to accurately predict what’s going to happen ahead of an individual season is virtually impossible. 

But the setup hasn’t generated a big base of fans. Attendance is healthy for many clubs in MLS, but viewership of nationally broadcast matches remains astoundingly low. Supporters might be showing up in numbers that would be more than respectable in any league in the world for Atlanta, LAFC, Portland, Seattle and a few other teams but, by and large, they’re not tuning in to watch clubs other than their own on television — a fact that hugely hurts the league when it comes to making money.

Problems with broadcast revenue probably aren’t going away anytime soon, either. The league’s new media rights deal with Apple has an average annual payout of $250 million a year, but that number looks more flattering than it actually is. According to economist Stefan Szymanski, co-author of the popular Soccernomics series of books and a professor at the University of Michigan, the deal puts MLS between the Portuguese and Dutch top flights in terms of yearly domestic broadcast revenue per team. And it lasts 10 years — all the other leagues in the below table will negotiate new deals no later than 2025. 

“The obvious problem of Major League Soccer is that, while it has a reasonably loyal following, a significantly loyal following in many parts of the country in terms of people going to the games, its television presence is hopeless,” Szymanski told The Athletic. “There is no major professional league in the world that does not rely on television as its primary source of income. This remains the major challenge.”

There are innumerable factors behind MLS’ struggles to build bigger audiences, but money spent on teams and quality of play are likely the main drivers. Until the level of investment into teams matches those made by the best leagues, MLS will likely continue to have issues attracting large viewership for its games. And until it builds up its viewership, the league is unlikely to generate the level of revenue that would justify massive increases in spending. That’s a difficult cycle to be locked into.

It doesn’t, however, mean that the league is maxed out in terms of interest at its current level of spend. And it’s become difficult for me to shake the idea that one of the reasons behind that is MLS’ extreme levels of balance. The league feels very homogenous. The margins between teams seem almost too thin. The bulk of MLS is of such similar quality that it’s difficult to assign meaning to results. The volatility between years throws the value of historic seasons into question. Everything feels too random. 

When it comes to fan engagement, MLS is a hyperlocal league. Even calling it a regional competition feels like an overstatement. In order to generate the TV revenue it needs to achieve its goal of becoming one of the top leagues in the world, it needs to develop a real national following. 

To do that, MLS needs strong, national teams. Heroes and villains. Teams that can be held up as both objects of derision and as measuring sticks. The randomness of the league means those teams don’t really exist in MLS. There are no Lakers or Celtics; no Cowboys or Patriots; no Dodgers or Yankees or Red Sox; no Manchester City or Liverpool or Manchester United or Chelsea. There’s no real elite of four or six or eight teams that can be counted on to succeed most seasons. 

Sports are about stories, and, thanks in part to its lack of an elite set of teams, MLS struggles to define its biggest. That makes the league harder to sell. When all the teams seem about the same, which ones should the league push in its marketing? Which should be on national TV? Which clubs really drive audience growth, or even spark strong feelings outside of their own market and, in a few cases, that of their biggest rival? 

For MLS, there aren’t easy answers to any of those questions. That makes it difficult for big, overarching narrative arcs to develop, which, in turn, creates a higher barrier to entry for the new fans that MLS needs. ‘Everyone has a chance’ as the main selling point really isn’t working. Nothing is surprising when everything is unpredictable. 

“Competitive balance was a technical notion dreamt up by the leagues themselves to defend themselves from antitrust suits, then it was really taken on by economists as some kind of technical measure which could be precisely defined,” Szymanski explained, referencing the old reserve clause that dominated baseball and other U.S. and Canadian pro leagues for the better part of a century. “But what really drives people are things like suspense and uncertainty and surprise and all these kinds of concepts which are somewhat vague and more difficult to quantify. 

“Leicester City (winning the Premier League) in 2015(-16) was incredibly exciting because it was so unexpected — they were constantly producing surprises and that clearly generated interest. But that very upset itself was conditional on starting from a very unbalanced competition in the first place. So, overall, if you just look at soccer, it’s hard to see how this could really be a credible theory to explain things. And as much as American fans of other sports are convinced that (competitive balance) is really, really important, I actually don’t think it’s terribly important in any of the other sports.” 

Part of the reason for MLS’ lack of an elite is time. Though now in its 27th season, MLS is still significantly younger than its competitor leagues in the U.S. and Canada and abroad. It can take generations for real fandom to develop, decades for true, narrative-shaping teams to form. Some of the teams that have legitimate potential to grow into that kind of club — LAFC and NYCFC, for instance — haven’t even existed for 10 years. 

Part of it, too, is due to mismanagement. Teams like the Galaxy, Atlanta, Toronto, Chicago, Cincinnati and Miami have spent wildly in recent seasons, but none have sustained success. Atlanta and Toronto have had excellent seasons, to be sure, but they followed those up in quick succession with multiple poor campaigns. LA, Chicago, Cincinnati and Miami, meanwhile, have mostly been flat-out bad. MLS makes it difficult for any team to perform at an elite level year after year after year, but it’s not completely impossible. The fact that so many of the league’s biggest spenders have been managed so poorly hasn’t helped in this regard. 

MLS’ recent shift to selling more players to foreign clubs also plays a role. New England had a historically successful season in 2021, then sold three of their better players — Tajon Buchanan, Adam Buksa and Matt Turner — to European teams ahead of, or in the first half of 2022. The departure of that trio doesn’t explain the Revs’ drop-off in its entirety (injuries and poor offseason signings factor in, too) but it can’t be ignored. Sales of strong players by good teams will only continue as MLS becomes more integrated with the global market. That will make some degree of season-to-season volatility inevitable, particularly with MLS academies not yet producing at full capacity. 

But much of the randomness of MLS is by design. The roster rules and league structure were created to control costs and ensure that the bigger budget teams can’t dominate year after year. The tight margins in individual seasons and extreme mobility between them are features, not bugs. 

The comparatively narrow spending gap between most MLS teams means, naturally, that the discrepancies in quality between them are small. As such, it doesn’t take much for teams to rise or fall down the pecking order. Combine an injury with a key departure and you can drop dramatically. Combine a return to health of one player with the signing of a new star and you can rocket upwards. The changes between 2021 and 2022 for New England, Colorado, Kansas City and Austin are good examples of this. It’s harder for that phenomenon to happen in leagues with bigger spending gaps. 

The nature of how teams are allowed to spend plays an equally important role. Each team is given a budget of around $10 million per season for salaries and annualized acquisition costs for their players. Each team is also allowed to sign up to three designated players whose salaries and acquisition costs mostly don’t count towards the overall roster budget. That creates massive imbalances in individual rosters. Teams like Toronto and Chicago end up spending up around 70 percent of their entire wage bill on their three highest-paid players. The system ensures that rich teams can’t rush ahead, but it’s inefficient. Considering how much the league spends on players, it should have a better level of play than it does. 

The structure also doesn’t incentivize really going for it in the regular season. With the championship decided by a single-elimination playoff tournament that half of the league qualifies for, there’s not a huge cost to coasting through the regular season. 

Seattle and Portland are good examples of this. The Sounders and Timbers both typically drift through the regular season. They’re hardly ever dominant, but they’re always good enough to qualify for the playoffs and often strong enough to make a deep run once there. Their playoff success — one or the other has represented the West in every MLS Cup since 2015, and they’ve combined for three titles in that span — would indicate that they’re “national” teams, but their up-and-down regular seasons (they have one shield between them in their histories) probably lessen that effect. 

This sort of setup can work, but only for leagues like the NFL or NBA that are at the pinnacle of their sport. MLS is in a much, much different position. It’s not at the top of its sport. It’s not even all that close. And unlike American football or basketball, professional soccer is a multilateral, competitive industry. The NFL and NBA don’t really have to compete with anyone for players. They can cap wages, and thereby limit costs while legislating equality of opportunity, without sacrificing their best-in-class standard of play. That’s not reality for MLS. It can limit costs and ensure a high degree of competitive balance, but doing so means that it will miss out on players that its teams otherwise would have been able to sign. Players that would theoretically raise the quality of the league.

“Why is it that these teams are bouncing around and it feels like their outcomes are random?,” asked Szymanski. “I mean, it could be because you have 30 great teams fighting it out and really working hard and trying to be the best. It could be that they’re giving everything in the intent to be the best, but they all end up being roughly the same. Or it could be that they’ve artificially restrained competition in some ways in order to make sure that they’re all similar, in which case you’ve significantly dampened incentives. That’s what I would say happens in the American system.” 

And while this level of balance is fun for already avid fans of MLS teams duking it out for the final playoff spots, it doesn’t appear that it’s even necessary to drive interest. A 2014 paper co-authored by Szymanski tracked a number of studies and found that the majority of them showed no significant relationship between difference in team quality and attendance. An earlier study by a different economist found that the expected disparity between two different teams didn’t do much to affect TV audiences; the most powerful mover, according to that study, was the aggregate quality of the two teams measured by the wages of all the players on the field. If competitive balance is a thing that fans actually want, scholarly analysis has yet to prove it.

“The empirical evidence — there must be several dozen papers in this area, and they’re almost completely split,” Szymanski said. “It’s about a third, a third, a third: a third say there is an effect, a third say there isn’t an effect and a third say there might be, there might not be. Which we should take to mean that we don’t have convincing evidence of any effect.” 

“I’ve always argued that soccer is basically Exhibit A in the case against competitive balance and its benefit to sports leagues,” he later added. “Compared to the North American leagues in the other sports, soccer is the most incredibly unbalanced competition in so many countries around the world. And you can look and see that the idea that it would be a significant factor in determining a following, in interest, in attendance, it’s just a non-starter. The Premier League would count as being a very unbalanced league in North American terms. The Bundesliga has the same winner every year. And yet people go week-in, week-out, year after year, knowing full well that Bayern Munich are going to win.” 


If academic research doesn’t show definitive links between competitive balance and fan interest in leagues and MLS’ model hasn’t delivered the audience needed to build the league into one of the best in the world in an economically sustainable way, then why not try something different? 

At this point, is it not worth creating conditions in which a clearer elite could more naturally form? Having an actual elite could give a bit more oxygen to compelling narratives, allowing interesting stories the time, space and definition needed to take hold and generate more interest among potential new fans. With MLS about to enter into the business of selling subscriptions — price still to be determined — to Apple TV, those stories will be exceedingly important.

There are ways forward. 

Designing a league in which an elite could form and a measure of competitive balance could still be maintained wouldn’t be that hard. Shifting from the current system of roster rules to one where a spending floor and ceiling are the main features would likely do the trick. That would allow teams to more evenly distribute their spend over their entire rosters — teams like Toronto and Chicago, if they chose, could reallocate the 70 percent of their wage bill that they currently pay to their three highest earners to, say, their 10 highest-paid players without decreasing the total amount they spend. That kind of move would likely decrease some of the star power in MLS, but, as I wrote in December, it’d make for stronger overall rosters. It would also likely raise the quality of play around the league, perhaps leading to better results in the growing number of competitions between MLS and Liga MX. Success in those competitions could be hugely beneficial to MLS’ growth.

If they execute properly, this system would allow the high spenders greater opportunity to move a little bit further ahead of the pack than they can in MLS’ current model. It wouldn’t guarantee anything, of course. Even under a system defined by a floor and ceiling, some teams would still no doubt allocate the bulk of their money to a handful of blockbuster signings. Some high-spenders would inevitably still be mismanaged. But the proposed system would at least allow for easier development of a medium to long-term MLS elite.

And that kind of model wouldn’t eliminate competitive balance! It’s not as if it would turn MLS into the Bundesliga. The gaps in quality between rich and poor clubs would probably increase over time in such a system, but the discrepancy in what they spend wouldn’t be as big as it is in the European leagues. The tiers of teams wouldn’t be completely calcified, only a little bit more rigid than they are at present.

Plus, MLS already has the greatest mechanism to ensure competitive balance in the history of sport: single-elimination playoffs. As long as the league continues determining its champion through a postseason tournament — and it’s not going to move away from that anytime soon — every qualifier will have at least a puncher’s chance of winning the title. Even with this hypothetical change to a spending floor and a ceiling, keeping the playoffs would almost certainly lead to a greater variety of champions than we see in the European leagues. Locally, teams could still keep their fan bases engaged without too much extra trouble. 

The league could probably even decrease the size of its playoff field and still get better outcomes. Such a move would lower the number of clubs still in the hunt at this point of the season, but it 

would increase the emphasis and importance of individual regular season matches and perhaps promote better practices at clubs across the league. 

That the league hasn’t made shifts to allow for the easier creation of an elite is down to priorities. MLS understands everything I’ve laid out here. The people at the league office are intelligent. They know the trade-offs they’re making. Owners do too, but some of them seem more committed to the idea of being able to compete while keeping their costs low — competitive balance, to be kinder — than actually growing the league as a whole. The product strategy committee is the group with the power to lead any change. That committee is controlled, according to sources, largely by co-chair Clark Hunt, the owner of FC Dallas. For years, Dallas was one of the lowest spenders in the league, though they’ve started to climb, ranking ninth in overall payroll in April, according to the MLSPA, as they’ve begun selling players to European teams for millions. 

Getting this right is critical for the growth of MLS and, correspondingly, the growth of the sport in the U.S. and Canada. Throughout the history of the league, MLS has prioritized competitive balance over just about everything else. It’s worked in some ways, but it’s falling short in the most important one. The league doesn’t have the audience it needs in order to grow in the way it says it wants. If MLS wants that to change at or near its current level of spending, it should shift its priorities and allow for the easier development of a more defined elite. 

(Photo: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports)

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