The MLS is growing. The league has some new stadiums with big- name sponsors. It’s gaining more exposure (just last year the league signed an 8-year rights deal with Fox Sports, ESPN, and Univision Deportes), and is increasing casual fan interest. However, growth may be better served if the league looks at its their salary structure, a single entity system with a tight cap where the league controls where the players play.
The MLS needs to chip away at this system if they are to start competing with top European leagues — and the surging Chinese league. Their current salary structure has a limited form of free agency that an estimated 10 percent of the league qualifies for. There’s also a low minimum salary of $60,000 and player contracts are owned by the MLS, not the teams themselves.
That creates a problem because it means that when players come over from Europe, the league goes through a complicated systems (depending on how the league itself values the player) to determine which teams gets the player.
The result is a league that’s filled with older European players, but even that statement undersells just how hard its been to get marquee names in the MLS. Because leagues such as the Chinese Super League are able to offer more money to these players, even with the MLS instituting the so-called Beckham Rule, the MLS is starting to miss out on players such as Ramires that would lend credibility to it both internationally and at home.
Going with this structure was a smart move when the league was getting off the ground because it made it impossible for owners to overspend, but the league has hit its ceiling with this structure. Other American sports can function with a salary cap, but basketball and football players don’t have a lot of opportunity elsewhere. LeBron isn’t going to Europe anytime soon, no matter how much money they offer him.
If the MLS is to take the next step to truly be one of the top leagues in the world, then it needs to get rid of the salary cap and the single-entity system. I’m not asking for this to happen immediately, it needs to be a slow process in order to ensure that the league is ready to compete in the no-holds-barred environment that European leagues are subject to. But under the current structure, where teams can’t compete for top stars available on the transfer market until they’re relics, the league has a ceiling. And they’ve hit it.