MLS is Embarrassing USA Soccer

Is American soccer really the best version of itself in 2019? How long will the people of America let the failing Major League Soccer closed system squat aimlessly on the USA soccer division 1 sanction? Surely, in a land with 24 million soccer players and an insane abundance of infrastructure and resources, American soccer can do better than the paltry TV ratings and embarrassing attendance numbers of the MLS/Soccer United Marketing cartel.

It is time to reevaluate America’s commitment to MLS as the capstone of its soccer ecosystem. For years, fans have been battered with the tired old “give it time” excuse, yet two and one half decades later USA is no closer to closing the gap with the world’s top soccer nations. The U.S. national team is no better off than it was in the mid-1990s, USA club teams have not won the CONCACAF Champions League for 20 years, and the “best” American players are still nobodies in the global marketplace.

MLS launched in 1996, and it has had nearly 25 years to stabilize and prove itself as the standard-bearer for the future of USA soccer. What are the results? MLS captures a smaller and smaller slice of the entire American soccer fan market with each passing year (this slice is down to 6% as of 2018). MLS national TV broadcast numbers, which happen to be the most accurate way to gauge product popularity, are embarrassingly low. Apart from a few outlier teams with peculiar, carnival-like crowds, MLS fan attendance is sparse. Even the small, tin-can, soccer-specific stadiums are being fitted with tarps to cover empty seats.

It is not a crime for MLS to be less popular than foreign club soccer options in 2019, but the crux of concern should be that the MLS popularity share in American soccer is trending downward. Even if MLS is “growing” when evaluated against versions of itself in previous years, that marginal growth is worth little when foreign club soccer competitions (Premier League, Bundesliga, Liga MX etc.) are growing at a faster rate. MLS might be growing a little inside of its own isolated bubble, but zoom out to the entire American soccer market pie, and MLS relevancy is shrinking. Is this really a course worth continuing on?

What is the next step in the evolution in American soccer? The fork in the road is clear: Continue down a path of “we’ve always done it this way” with a failing MLS closed system, or dream and plan for an American soccer that will one day be the best soccer nation in the world. It is up to the millions of people and thousands of clubs in American soccer to decide their future. The governing authorities must ultimately submit to public pressure, so each and every person must understand that their voice matters. If enough common constituents in USA soccer decide to speak up for change, either USSF, FIFA, or the U.S. government will be forced to open USA soccer for all with a system of promotion/relegation (#ProRelforUSA).

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The Antitrust Argument that Will Open USA Soccer

What would it take to defeat the Major League Soccer (MLS)/U.S. Soccer monopoly with an antitrust  lawsuit? It is important to remember that the USA soccer closed system has something that the isolated U.S. sport closed systems do not: a globally recognized divisional sanction that provides a clear pathway to individual club profit beyond internal league competition. Hinging an antitrust lawsuit on the lucrative nature of FIFA’s divisional sanction standard is the key to toppling the unjust MLS/U.S. Soccer monopoly.

There is a strong antitrust lawsuit case to be made against MLS/U.S. Soccer monopoly because a nation’s division 1 sanction is directly linked to profit via international club competitions. Qualifying for the CONCACAF Champions League and the FIFA Club World Cup are the profit pathways in USA’s case. USA clubs directly benefit from participation in these competitions through shared TV and ticket revenue from the tournament itself. The other side of this same coin is that division 1 sanctions are seen as the standard indicator of club quality around the world, and that achieving this status indirectly leads clubs to profit through global prestige and notoriety. International shirt sales and TV rights for the D1 league are indirect profit examples in this case. 

When stake the antitrust argument on the factors of domestic competition only – as the case example of the Fraser vs. MLS did around the turn of the millennium – it is a much more difficult case to win. For example, isolated U.S. sports like American football or baseball can make a decent case that they are competing fairly because there are no extracurricular profits to be had outside of the confines of their own competition. Sure, teams and owners can make profits within a U.S. sports league, but the direct and indirect profits they generate are not assisted by the outside interference of a global governing body for their sport. Being in their U.S. sport league does not assure them of entry into any international competitions that provide externally generated profit opportunities as FIFA does for domestic soccer clubs around the world. These U.S. sports leagues could also make the case that anyone is free to start a competing league since there is no globally recognized D1 standard to adhere to in these isolated sports.

The winning legal case can be distilled down to this: Access to the USA soccer division 1 sanction allows clubs in the USA soccer ecosystem to attain profits through access to FIFA-sanctioned competition. Allowing one company or club to hold exclusive ownership of this D1 sanction is violation of U.S. antitrust law and principles. MLS should be given the choice to either align with an open-access, promotion/relegation USA system, or it should be forced to give up the U.S. Soccer Federation division 1 sanction an operate sanction-free like all of the other closed USA sports leagues.

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