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It will soon be now or never for the MLS despite enjoying 25 years of growth



On April the 6th 2021, the MLS will celebrate 25 years since the first game of the competition was played. From the outside looking in, this does look like a professional soccer league that is going from strength to strength. Indeed, the 25-year plan that the league embarked on back in 1996 seems to have been more or less accomplished.

But, the truth is that the MLS is losing money at a rate that has the potential to sink the league and leave it unsalvageable. Unless the league is able to negotiate a new TV rights deal when the existing one expires at the end of 2022, it could be consigned to the scrap heap and left with very little appeal to overseas professionals.

A short history of the MLS

The idea of the MLS was first brought up in 1988 when the USA – desperate to host the 1994 World Cup – promised FIFA that if they were awarded the hosting rights, they would construct a new and improved professional soccer league. Naturally, you can see the obvious attraction that this promise would have to FIFA, given how lucrative growing the game at the grassroots level in America would be for everyone in the soccer world.

The States were subsequently awarded the hosting rights, and the World Cup 1994 was a huge success. Soon after they were given the green light, however, they sought to make good on their promise of creating a world-beating professional league by investing in stadiums and grassroots soccer.

A long-lasting legacy felt locally

Interestingly, and closer to home, South Carolina is still reaping the benefits of that decision after the United Soccer Academy announced a huge expansion in 2018 to accommodate for the growth in soccer across the Charleston region.

We’ve also seen Scottish football team Hibernian team up with The Charleston Battery in a strategic partnership, designed on improving player development on both sides of the Atlantic.

What’s more, is that North Charleston’s new $14 million athletic center that is to be built, has been done for the purpose of hosting more soccer games. As mentioned, this is all testament to the hugely positive legacy of the MLS but the effects are not only felt locally.

Here we are 25 years down the line, and some of the biggest names in world football are investing or playing in the MLS.

The global appeal

Indeed, we just need to look back on David Beckham’s substantial investment in the MLS to appreciate the true pulling power that this league has. The man who was named England captain in 2001 bought the rights to create Inter Miami and, in doing so, reminded us all of the financial potential that the MLS still has.

Beckham, currently a brand ambassador for Tudor Watches, has collaborated with the biggest companies in the world over the course of his career. The 45-year-old was the player to put the now-legendary Adidas predator boots on the map; and who can forget his iconic beach advert with Pepsi? The point being, when Beckham arrived on the MLS scene, so did the power of the world’s richest companies.

Beckham’s voyage into the MLS hasn’t been without its challenges though. The Inter Miami owner lost his first round of legal battles in his bid to keep the name of his franchise after Inter Milan sued him for a trademark infringement. The Italian giants, who are flying in the Serie A and as of the 8th of March, and are at short odds priced by Betway of 1.25 to win the league, were never going to give Beckham a free pass after he played for their arch-rivals AC Milan. Indeed, Inter didn’t take kindly to Beckham’s quirky spin on the name, and it does look like they will succeed in making the Englishman change the club’s title.

Still, as they say, no advertising is ever bad and David Beckham’s vast and lucrative online brand would have grown even more following this court battle.

Deal or no deal?

You may at this stage be asking how the MLS could be headed for financial ruin given all the success stories? Behind the scenes, there is a very different picture being painted.

In 2018, the 23 teams that competed in the MLS lost a combined $100 million, and, the year after that, only seven clubs in the league were able to turn a profit. As it stands, most clubs in the league are operating at a loss given that there simply isn’t a big enough TV deal in place at the moment to support the league’s expansion.

For the time being, ESPN and Fox Sports pay the league a combined £75 million per season, whilst Univision props up the deal by adding another $15 million. This altogether totals $90 million a season for the MLS in TV rights. To put this in comparison, the NFL generates $8.1 billion through various TV rights deals, which does begin to give you a clearer idea of how much the MLS is currently missing out on.

It goes without saying that the future of the MLS will rely on the new deal that is set to be negotiated and put in place for the beginning of the 2023 season.

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