A group of men gathers around a television to watch a basketball game.
It’s late in the third quarter, and when the Indiana Pacers hit a 3-pointer to push their lead over the Miami Heat to seven, the group starts to make macabre jokes about a LeBron James-less NBA Finals and the future plans of TV executives.
Star power is important. Whether you love James or hate him, his presence in games means big TV ratings and big dollars for the league.
But this is a soccer story.
In its 18 seasons, Major League Soccer has taken serious strides across the American sports landscape — and it’s done so while featuring only a handful of household names.
“Soccer, since its inception, has really been a tribal sport where fans first and foremost support the club,” Dan Courtermanche, the league’s executive vice president of communications, says. “It’s all about supporting the badge, or the crest.”
For an example of that, Courtemanche said, look no further than Sandy. Real Salt Lake coach Jason Kreis has long espoused that his “team is the star,” and the club has parlayed that into success both on the field and at the ticket office.
But as MLS works toward commissioner Don Garber’s goal of becoming “one of the top leagues in the world” by 2022, will it need more individual star power? While local television ratings are solid in many of the league’s markets — including Salt Lake City — national television ratings continue to be miniscule, drawing only a quarter of what even the modestly viewed NHL brings in.
“I don’t dismiss the star-power element,” said RSL general manager Garth Lagerwey. “But I do think it’s inefficient to constantly go out and try to find the next big thing. You’re going to be right sometimes and wrong sometimes.”
The league has seen the power of one player already. David Beckham’s arrival in Los Angeles brought sold-out stadiums and garnered international attention. Before the superstar came to the Galaxy in 2007, the league’s expansion fee was reportedly $30 million. Last week, New York City FC was announced as the league’s 20th team — a project that reportedly came with a $100 million expansion price tag. Other players have caused the needle to move only for MLS to see a return to the mean after the player has gone. Beckham “is the one guy who moved it league-wide,” Lagerwey said. “MLS is unequivocally bigger now post-Beckham.”
But Lagerwey also called Beckham’s move to the league — a free transfer of a megastar in his early 30s — “one-in-a-million-type circumstances.”
With Beckham’s retirement, MLS still features former Arsenal star Thierry Henry on one coast and Landon Donovan, perhaps the best American-born player ever, on the other.
There are, of course, barriers when it comes to stardom in Major League Soccer. There is the inevitable exodus of homegrown talent overseas.
And while Beckham ushered in a designated player rule that allows teams to pay top-dollar for up to three players, the rest of the payroll must fit under a $3 million cap. Even if that number was higher, many teams could not afford the tab. New RSL owner Dell Loy Hansen, for example, has said next year will be the first time the club will operate in the black.
MLS officials hope to create sustainable growth through other means.
The league’s TV deals and collective-bargaining agreement both end after the 2014 season, at which point there will be changes — for the better, league officials hope.
And the introduction of NYC FC has been billed as a “transformative” moment for the league.
“Rivalries drive the success of soccer around the world,” Garber said. “You just have to look at what goes on in Manchester, or with the six or seven teams existing in London. We hope that that same spectacle and very intense rivalry will be created when NYC FC and the Red Bulls meet in New York and New Jersey.”
The Red Bulls on one side of the Hudson will have Henry and Aussie star Tim Cahill. NYC FC, owned by the New York Yankees and English power Manchester City, will certainly add its own star power when it begins play in 2015.
“[But] while we want exciting players because people will pay to come see them and they’re the type of guys that, when they have the ball, fans are on the edge of their seats, the first priority still comes down to supporting the club,” Courtemanche said.
The league’s highest-rated televised game last season was between Portland and Seattle.
“Name the stars on those teams,” Courtermanche says.
Cream of the league
Top-earning players in MLS for 2013 season:
$4,350,000 • Thierry Henry, New York
$4,333,333 • Robbie Keane, LA Galaxy
$3,625,000 • Tim Cahill, New York
$2,500,000 • Landon Donovan, LA Galaxy
$1,937,508 • Marco Di Vaio, Montreal
$1,725,000 • Obafemi Martins, Seattle
$1,663,323 • Dan Koevermans, Toronto FC
$1,132,492 • Kenny Miller, Vancouver
$730,000 • David Ferreira, FC Dallas
$645,333 • Dwayne De Rosario, D.C. United
$604,000 • Federico Higuain, Columbus
$600,000 • Chris Wondolowski, San Jose
$599,333 • Shalrie Joseph, Seattle
$527,115 • Sherjill MacDonald, Chicago
$495,000 • Jose Kleberson, Philadelphia
$456,250 • Darren O’Dea, Toronto FC
$453,333 • Alvaro Saborio, Real Salt Lake
$445,000 • Kalifa Cisse, New England
$400,000 • Diego Valeri, Portland
Source • Major League Soccer Players Union