Monday, January 15, 2007

Changes in the MLS

The biggest question right now asked by fans of American Football and the MLS is what the Beckham signing is going to mean for the rest of the league. Essentially, there are two contrasting viewpoints.

The first, and the most optimistic, is that the Beckham signing will lead to a groundswell of support and publicity for the MLS which will lead, in a decade’s time, to the league becoming far more successful. In this theory more Americans will watch the game, more foreigners will pay attention to it, more stars will sign with American clubs, and eventually the MLS will come to be seen as more equal with the great European and South American leagues. American fans, in turn, will embrace the league more and more as it gets bigger and better, and the system will be re-fed each year by an army of Beckham-inspired youth.

The second view is, of course, unduly pessimistic. It states that this folly is little more than a rerun of the Pele experiment of the 1970s, where an insignificant league signed a big star, which filled stadiums for a few years, but once he left the league essentially went bankrupt. They point out that Beckham has signed an ENOURMOUS contract, and that his deteriorating play suggests he will do little to actually improve the league.

For now, at least, I am going to take the middle ground. I think, for one, that the MLS has done a good job over the last ten years in building a solid infrastructure to a good, second tier-type football league. I don’t see it going away anytime soon. As Sports Illustrated’s Grant Whal points out time and time again, the next step for the MLS needs to be to build a credible minor-league and academy system, something they are in the process of and something Beckhammania should not distract them from.

It also seems unlikely that Beckham will bankrupt the league. His personal popularity and advertising appeal and savvy suggest that he will always make money for his employers (much of that huge contract is actually endorsements) and he certainly will, at least in the short term, provide a nice financial bump for the league. If the league is going to face financial problems in the future, it will not be because of Beckham, but because of the signings that follow him.

Let’s say that the Beckham signing works wonders for the next year or two and clubs make money and use the “Beckham rule” to sign more players from Europe. Will they go after players like Ronaldo and Figo, both of whom were admittedly great in the day (I really like them both, actually) but are clearly in decline much more pronounced that Beckham, or will they go for younger players who are better but less famous? More importantly, what will they do when the next Clint Dempsey comes along? Will they sell him to Europe, or will they be able to keep him in the states? And, more importantly, will they be able to create a league strong enough that young players like Dempsey WANT to stay? That is what is going to make the next few years of the MLS so interesting, and that’s why I’m so excited to be watching it.

No comments: