Soccer in the United States: An Unstable Model, Part 1

Since the 1880s, soccer leagues have formed, collapsed, and faded from memory. The sport excelled more in a regional status than in the mainstream. Why over the course of United States history has soccer exhibited such instability in the mainstream? Not one reason fully answers this question on its own; however, this article focuses on one of those reasons: the prioritization of leagues over teams.

During the 1960s, businessmen with little to no knowledge about soccer created leagues and emphasized the profitability of the sport. They used the same model as the American football business to operate soccer and treated it as a commercial property. When club revenues and attendances failed to meet their expectations, the investors sold their ownership, relocated the teams, disbanded them, or a combination of these options. For the most part, this mindset continues to prevail in the 2010s.

In the United States, divisions offer financial benefits to the leagues sanctioned by US Soccer. Owners invest hundreds of millions into an expansion fee to join Major League Soccer, then a soccer-specific stadium, and finally the team itself. The expansion fee serves to reimburse the current owners for the dilution of the revenue-sharing. It leaves less money for the investors to spend on acquiring players and to pay their contracts. In effect, the owners prioritize the league over the club.

US Soccer allows MLS, USL, and the NASL to operate for the most part with little interference. It enables the latter to compete with each other for television contracts, to woo teams to switch leagues for a price, and to petition US Soccer to change their division status with the intention to demote a higher league. Sadly, it creates an unstable landscape that hinders the potential to develop the sport in the United States.

European soccer operates much differently. It has established leagues within a permanent hierarchy. Only the teams experience mobility. With no reason for the leagues to compete with each other, it places more emphasis on the success of the individual teams.

If US Soccer implemented a permanent league hierarchy, it would reduce the prioritization of leagues over teams. Leagues would then be static and unchanging thus no longer requiring them to be in competition with each other. This structure opens the possibility for US Soccer to implement promotion and relegation as the requirement for club mobility, to finally end the expansion fees, and to give clubs more freedom within the leagues.

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