Expand MLS South. No Farther South

July 30, 2013

Major League Soccer has a laundry list of initiatives with an aim to becoming one of the top leagues in the world by 2022.  While the league can make progress towards these, eh hem, goals organically, another way to do this would be to incorporate a handful of Liga MX’s big clubs into MLS as part of the league’s next growth stage.  U.S. and Mexican soccer (and by association, Canadian soccer) are joined at the hip in many ways, whether the fans of these rivals choose to acknowledge it or not.  Pick the relationship angle: the fans themselves, players, national teams, clubs, leagues, sponsors, TV, SUM, the economic engines of CONCACAF, the desire to lift CONCACAF’s profile outside the region…and there are probably more.  They all jumps borders.

Soccer is the most global of sports.  And even some of the biggest clubs in the most popular leagues in the world are owned by foreigners who sign foreign players.  The pleas to keep domestic leagues the province of domestic players plying their trade for domestic ownership is really a relic of the past.  The sport is better now.  Domestic leagues, stopped at borders in the name of preserving the development of national teams, are amongst the last remnants of this thinking.  The clubs of North America can take the lead in propelling this next phase forward.

The obstacles to a league (call it MLS, call it the…NASL…no don’t, call it whatever) combining the top clubs from Canada, Mexico and the U.S.  are many.  FIFA won’t allow it.  MLS has its single-entity structure.  Liga MX is a wealthier league.  The clubs play different seasons.  Player acquisition strategies are dissimilar.  The U.S. and Canadian dollars are too different from the Mexican peso.  Mexico is too different from its northern neighbors.  These are just some of them. But if a handful of Liga MX owners wanted to volunteer their clubs for the project (at the invitation of MLS), received FMF backing and combined this with Canadian and U.S. soccer federation and club ownership support, this group could lobby CONCACAF on the merits.  With CONCACAF backing, FIFA, while unpredictable, would be wise to get out of the way.  The other issues could be worked through.  I might eventually follow up with a separate post on suggestions how.

Call it crazy.  Call it impossible.  Call it expansion 3.0.  The league’s early clubs were brand new, essentially created from scratch.  The next, and mostly successful phase of expansion (2.0) involved the not-quite-promotion of USL clubs who also brought with them some semblance of an organizational structure, along with some fans.  We know these as the Sounders, Timbers, Whitecaps and Impact.  Inviting existing Liga MX clubs into MLS would be the next extension up the “expansion” ladder.  The clubs would join with legions of supporters, history and fine-tuned soccer operations.  Ideally, MLS would welcome, say, six Liga MX teams into the family forming their own division, which would be part of a twenty-four team league.   Yes, I’m presuming a few MLS teams may not want to participate in such an expanded league yet.

There are numerous reasons this makes sense for MLS, and they all hit on the league’s growth initiatives.  Let’s say three of the invited clubs are America, Chivas and F.C. Monterrey.  You’d be adding the largest market in North America, Mexico City, and two others in the top twenty with Guadalajara and Monterrey.  With MLS TV contracts expiring at the end of 2014, the addition of Mexican clubs expands the league’s TV audience into Mexico.  Adding such a large soccer market should help ratings, which in turn should help bump up advertising rates.  And with many Mexican clubs having fans in cities such as Los Angeles, Houston and Chicago, the visiting club supporter’s section should liven up the match atmosphere.  Attendance is then not only helped by these visiting team supporters, but it makes for a better viewing experience on TV, theoretically aiding in ratings.

MLS clubs also benefit by the immediate uptick in level of play.  CONCACAF Champions League play has demonstrated that while MLS clubs have closed the gap on their Liga MX peers, a gap still exists.  MLS players would gain by playing in a different type of environment in Mexico, and against top players.  This would help the development of national team players, who must get comfortable playing in challenging atmospheres and against the best competition possible.  Lastly, it’s easier for MLS clubs to expand their brands into Mexico when Mexican clubs are part of their league.  The awareness is at a higher level.

Why might a handful of Liga MX clubs want to separate from their league to join their northern neighbors?  Rather than continue to play clubs from modest sized Mexican markets, they might see the potential of taking their clubs into a league that includes the large markets of the U.S. and Canada.  They could expand their brands to non-Hispanic fans that may not be familiar with the Mexican clubs.  As noted above, the clubs would also be playing in front of many of their own fans in select cities.  The TV revenue potential should also be greater in a North American league versus a Mexican one.   As the Mexican clubs would be coming from a position of strength, they’d be giving up the most to join a three country league.  But the economic potential of a league stretching from Montreal to Mexico City is hard to ignore.

This version of MLS would be the destination league for the top CONCACAF players who choose to play in their home region.  Combined with players from throughout the world who already call MLS and Liga MX clubs home, this league would arguably be the best of the Americas, taking MLS officials closer to their goal of having one of the top leagues in the world.  And the Sounders angle?  Well, as a fan I’d certainly be open to watching the team take on some of the top clubs in Mexico as part of regular league play than some of the less than inspiring mid to bottom table MLS clubs.  And given the growth potential of a truly North American league, the Sounders revenue potential should increase, allowing for the acquisition of better players to raise the talent level.  All in all, the value of franchise should increase.  It’s a crazy step, welcoming big Mexican clubs into MLS, but it has the potential to vault the league into a new era, while further solidifying the soccer links of the three countries.