By: Kaitlyn Kacsuta, Ruling Sports Intern (Twitter: @KRKacsuta)
MLS has utilized a unique business structure since the late 1990’s, one that establishes the league as a single entity, rather than a unity of various ownership groups who agree to play together. In this way, MLS controls significant aspects of the league: a strict salary cap, no debt, and a right to approve any financial transaction of each team. Those who are the investor/operators have a right to operate a team in a particular market and share equally in the league’s national television, merchandising and expansion fee revenues. The individual teams are entitled to stadium and jersey naming rights and local sponsorship money. MLS also provides critical sales, sponsorship and marketing support to its club to improve team revenue at a local level.
It seems as though following this MLS business model is more viable option for slow, but steady growth that will not burn through league cash flow in three years, unlike the two previous women’s leagues following the standard sports league model. The MLS model has thus far provided what a fledgling league needs the most, time. While some of the individual MLS teams are still not profitable, league support and viewership is up. Recently, the D.C. United Club sold for $55 million and Montreal paid a $40 million expansion fee to enter the league. Not only have league profits grown over time, but also with time MLS has built 15 youth development academies for promising American players. The new women’s league, if it given enough time, might also gain the ability to establish regional development academies for female soccer standouts.
Another interesting aspect of the MLS model has been the soccer-only stadium push by the League. The soccer-specific stadium, first established by Lamar Hunt with the Columbus Crew, has undoubtedly been a massive cog in the MLS machine. There are currently 13 soccer-specific stadiums in North America that house MLS teams. Kansas City has become a hotbed to American soccer, averaging nearly 19,500 fans per Sporting KC home match at two-year old, Livestrong Sporting Park.
The hopeful women’s soccer league should also be played in soccer-specific stadiums when players take the pitch in 2013. It is not enough to play matches on college campuses, with the occasional big game at a MLS or football stadium, because that does not create an image that women’s soccer desperately needs – sustainability and commitment. Playing in true soccer-specific stadiums is a major step that must be taken for long-term growth of women’s soccer, even if that requires significant support from MLS. After all, working together has proved possible with the NBA-WNBA partnership model. Some teams in the new women’s league will certainly be able to draw fans, but others will undoubtedly struggle to fill seats. By adopting the MLS model, those struggling teams can be balanced by the successful teams to a degree. This attendance offsetting worked for the MLS this year, where attendance was the highest ever at an average of 18,800 fans per match and the team with the lowest attendance rate, Chivas USA, at 13,000 per match.