But it won’t get there with the minor league business model of Major League Soccer (MLS) Commissioner Dan Garber.
Garber’s business model was crafted in the 1990s, when MLS feared failure. All teams are controlled by the league. The season runs from the spring to the fall, and ends in a series of play-offs, just like baseball.
The league has prospered, thanks to expansion fees. New owners pay hundreds of millions to join MLS, and this gets split among existing teams. This means teams can’t be relegated if they refuse to be competitive. It makes for lazy owners and bad soccer. It means the most important games are played when they don’t draw interest.
The answers are simple, but Garber won’t consider them. He needs to go.
Once he’s out of the way, MLS should buy the minor league United Soccer League. It can do this by selling its own interest in member teams. This will create a windfall that can fund a new structure.
Start by copying the schedule of Liga MX, the Mexican league MLS is trying to compete with. In Mexico the season starts in summer and ends in spring. The Apertura is a round of games through the fall, ending in a tournament. It’s followed by a Clausura, a second round of games, ending in a champion. With this structure, MLS would be crowning its champion against hockey and basketball.
For the first season under the new format, each half of the league plays itself. Current plans are to have 32 teams, so that’s a 15-game Apertura. Finish it with a 4-team tournament, in a neutral (warm weather) site, and give everyone else time off.
The results of the Apertura (it means opening) divide the league into two, based on their records, for the second round of games, starting in March. Records carry over. The top half is playing for a championship. The bottom half is playing for survival. At the end of June, some teams go to the USL, and USL teams win promotion. The next fall, you play regionally again.
In this system every game matters. The season climaxes when it can draw its best audience. Teams can’t cheapen the product by refusing to invest. Regional rivalries are built because you’re always playing nearby teams once. If teams fail, they’re gone. You’re also operating more like the rest of the sport.
Under Garber, MLS has tried hard to be American. But what attracts people is that it’s global. Make it compatible with global norms and it will fly. MLS won’t have to sell its best to Europe. We can buy Europe’s best and watch them right here. That’s what fans want.