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How MLS is using a lack of history to its advantage

COLE BURSTON/AFP/Getty Images

Major League Soccer began in 1993 with just 10 teams and over the past few decades has been reshaped several times into the top-flight American league we know today.

In its brief history, MLS has experienced changes to its layout, received investment and welcomed new additions from the US and Canada. However, it has struggled to attract much interest from other continents and much of this has been down to the league’s lack of history, something that European and South American teams openly boast.

On the other hand, Major League Soccer is now finding success in all corners of the globe and is proving that it doesn’t need history to do so.

Up until now, European football fans have often dismissed the MLS by stating that it is simply a “retirement league” filled with veterans well past their prime footballing days. In addition to this, the league is relatively new and thus its lack of history often deters potential spectators. However, does history really make a league better? Here, I take a look at some ways that the MLS is developing and improving by focusing on aspects that make it a truly unique league.

Wise Use of Available Financial Capital

There is no denying the fact that, as a brand, MLS has managed to collect large sums of investment through TV deals and others alike. This money is being invested into stadia, branding and expanding MLS coverage, which is all good news. But in terms of appealing to a wider audience, the money is also used by clubs to make marquee signings. Up until now, veteran signings have dominated the Designated Player slots but the tide is turning towards younger players, particularly from South America.

In 2007, at the age of 32, David Beckham moved to the LA Galaxy and the English international had some success in diverting the attention of the English media towards America. Soon after, other star signings followed suit. However, now that MLS has created a worldwide media presence, not all Designated Players are at the twilight stage of their careers; Sebastian Giovinco made the switch at 28 and hasn’t looked back since, while Atlanta United have three Designated Players all under the age of 25.

With this we see how MLS has used its large financial capital wisely over the years, first to make marquee signings and improve infrastructure such as Stadia, and now, to improve the general quality of the league for years to come, by signing young and promising players that many European sides themselves would want to have.

Unique League Format

While MLS may not boast financial capital similar to European big-shots such as The English Premier League, the league’s format has allowed its steady progression. This is because the Designated Player system means that clubs are each able to bring in big-name players, but will also need to invest in their youth systems and training facilities, rather than breaking transfer records to secure players’ rights from abroad. This is something which we see in most traditional football leagues.

This is a very smart move that keeps the league balanced and allows it to continuously develop. Rather than having teams splash out on players alone, clubs are being forced to improve their own facilities and nurture homegrown talent which, in time, will serve to benefit not only MLS but also the USMNT.

Uncertainty Generated by Equilibrium of Quality

In addition to this, the layout of the league is also very unique when compared to top-flight divisions in European countries. By splitting the country into an Eastern and Western Conference and by discarding the standard prospect of relegation, MLS can pride itself on being a unique and, perhaps, forward-thinking league.

In terms of transfer policy, as has already been discussed, the requirements regarding Designated and Domestic player slots provides a balance within the league and prevents any chance of one team in a league, dominating both financially and in terms of transfer power. This is present in Spain, for example, where Real Madrid and Barcelona have the financial capability to steal the best players from all of their rivals.

Not only does this create equilibrium amongst the teams regarding quality, but makes for a more interesting competition year in, year out. While European leagues can often determine favourites before each season based on a team’s quality or their history, such assumptions cannot be made in MLS. Yet another clear example of where having no history can be seen as a positive.

Yet another clear example of where having no history can be seen as a positive.

Impressive Stadia and Fan Satisfaction

The league has reached a stage were numerous new franchises seem to be rolled out every year and with great success. Each new franchise is paying even greater attention to what their prospective fans seek, realising the potential to instantly generate a huge following, with which comes substantial revenue.

Rendering of Atlanta’s Mercedes Benz Stadium, which is set to open in September, 2017.

While Atlanta United FC are currently constructing the impressive Mercedes-Benz stadium, they can boast an impressive record of having sold out their first 7 home fixtures at their current stadium. Likewise, Orlando City SC realised the importance in attracting huge crowds and are just one of a handful of teams to introduce safe-standing stands, a concept that is considered too dangerous by many elite clubs.

LAFC is hoping to revolutionise the fan-club interaction paradigm and has also taken this suggestion on board. Amongst other refreshing ideas, the latest franchise are even hoping to introduce capped season ticket prices in a bid to become a forward-thinking club that fans can get behind.

MLS may not have any substantial tradition but there is no doubt it is revolutionising football as a brand, while improving infrastructure and creating history of its own, one franchise at a time.

No History makes for more Creative Branding

The aforementioned concept of “football as a brand” is something that, until recently, has been ignored in Europe’s elite leagues. MLS enjoys more freedom when it comes to designing club crests, logos and other products related to branding simply because it lacks significant history which it must cling onto.

The English league underwent a transition last season when it dropped its sponsor and simplified its badge. Clubs such as Manchester City, and also Juventus, in Italy, followed suit. Big teams are now realising the need to focus on themselves as a brand, rather than solely being a football club with century-old traditions and history.

The transition to becoming, principally, brands will take time in European countries, as fans possess the desire to hang onto their glory days and not forget their history. However, marketing teams for MLS franchises have been given more freedom when helping to design the brand aesthetics, thanks to the fact that they have less historical aspects they must incorporate.

The lack of history and subsequent creative focus on branding is helping the MLS to grow leaps and bounds, with its most recent TV deal signifying a huge presence in both English and Spanish-speaking countries worldwide. Moreover, the modernistic and refreshing approach to creating a brand is simultaneously attracting a more sophisticated and younger audience to football in North America.

In conclusion, MLS has figured out how to develop and succeed on a worldwide scale despite lacking the history that most European clubs and leagues can boast. By using the money available to create impressive Stadia and Arenas, the league set itself up for the long-haul, whilst the marquee signings provided a short-term solution to the lack of support coming from abroad. The league is now beginning to mature and its attitude towards social media and fans, on top of a unique league format with unique requirements have set MLS apart from the standard, traditional leagues.

Soccer in America is growing, and thanks to its refreshing view on branding and creating sustainable franchises, will continue to do so. What was once considered a boring, retirement league with little history, is now becoming a revolutionary, modernised example for football associations everywhere.

Editor’s note: A typo concerning the league’s available capital in comparison to English football has been corrected.

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  1. Pingback: Dear MLS, it's time to get rid of turf - From The Touchline

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