Rafael Noboa y Rivera

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I help people tell their stories. I like books, gadgets, playing music, and anything related to soccer. I have a sidekick named Tuck.

Contact me at: me-at-rafaelnoboa-dot-com.



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Can the New York Cosmos go toe-to-toe with MLS?

This is a perpetual debate, particularly after the New York Cosmos won the NASL title in their first half-season of resurrection. So let’s explore the question: can they take on MLS? 

The challenge that the Cosmos have isn’t themselves; it’s the context in which they’re operating.

If the rest of the NASL clubs were as polished as the Cosmos (or Minnesota United, or the San Antonio Scorpions, or Indy Eleven), then we’d have a situation worth discussing. But the fact is that most NASL clubs simply aren’t at that level. They don’t have those kinds of resources, and for the most part, they aren’t interested in accumulating those kinds of resources. What’s more, for as much as individual clubs might display outsize ambition, what’s been clear over the three seasons of the reborn NASL is that individual owners are unwilling to subsidize those ambitions to the level necessary to compete with MLS on a long-term basis.

That’s especially true when the product on hand is American lower division soccer. Once the novelty wears off, that’s you’re dealing with — crowds ranging from 2,500 - 7,000, watching soccer being played that isn’t particularly good, in stadiums that were often designed for much larger crowds in different sports. That’s why I’m extremely skeptical that Indy Eleven will sellout their games, for example, despite the enthusiasm of their supporters. And I say that as someone who loves going to Cosmos games.

That goes even more for prospective players. It’s one thing to sign someone like Andre Lewis; he was playing for Portmore United in the Jamaican Red Stripe Premier League. Pretty much anywhere is going to be a step up in terms of league operations. But’s let’s spin this out, and see what it would take for an MLS “lifer”-type, like a Kofi Opare, say, to jump to the NASL. I’m going to do this because I’ll also answer the question of a larger NASL-MLS inter-league struggle/competition, particularly with respect to the other inter-league conflicts that have happened historically.

It’s worth noting that the other big inter-league competitions (AFL vs NFL, ABA vs NBA, and WHA vs NHL) occurred at a far different time in terms of the sports landscape. The fourth competition (USFL vs NFL) took place in the ‘80s, but it resulted in the utter routing of the USFL.

All of these challenges arose in response to pent-up demand for more access to those sports in growing areas of the country, and they provided vastly increased opportunities for professional athletes in those sports, as well as allowing for increased experimentation in those sports.

But of the three upstart leagues, only the AFL managed to achieve anything close to success and stability. Both the ABA and the WHA were characterised by instability across a wide number of areas, and neither were able to achieve what the AFL did, which was recognition by the elder league as an equal competitor. Whilst the ABA and the WHA were able to effectuate mergers with their competitor leagues, those mergers were in terms that were by and large favorable to the NBA and NHL. That was despite both the WHA and, to a lesser degree, the ABA, proving that they were roughly equal to the NHL and NBA in the playing arena.

So where would a potential NASL-MLS competition fit in?

From both my knowledge of sports history of this period, as well as what I know of what the NASL finances and resources look like, I can say that the best-case scenario right now that would result from a competition between MLS and the NASL is something like the WHA: a very one-sided “merger” that treats surviving NASL teams (say, Minnesota, New York, San Antonio and Indianapolis) as expansion teams, needing to pay expansion fees to MLS, without the ability to protect their rosters from being picked over by MLS teams.

At worst, you’d just have something like the USFL: a short period of competition before the increasing prospects of financial catastrophe forced the NASL to take on MLS in court in a bid to force a merger of some kind, via an antitrust challenge, which would likely fail, given existing case law on the subject. The NASL might win, on a technical basis, but like the USFL, be bankrupt and forced to cease operations.

Needless to say, none of this would even come to pass unless the NASL made a conscious decision to pursue MLS-caliber players for their rosters, and decided to engage in a salary competition with MLS. There’s some possiblity of this taking place, because the MLS bargaining agreement expires in 2014. But NASL owners would likely have to overspend in order to get those kinds of players, because whilst most players aren’t making bank in MLS, they’re enjoying other facets that matter just as much, if not more — well-resourced teams playing in dedicated facilities in front of good-sized crowds that get good-to-great media coverage. This is particularly going to be the case with the new rumored TV contract.

You’d be asking an MLS player — in our example, Kofi Opare of the Galaxy, who’s the kind of MLS player that I’d target as a NASL owner — to give up what he’s got with the Galaxy to take a flyer playing for, say, the Rowdies in a decrepit baseball park in front of 4,000 people with little-to-no media coverage.

The only way that realistically happens is if you’re vastly overpaying Opare, offering him say, $120,000 instead of $35,000. And if you’re that owner, you’re not going to put tushes in the seats with Kofi Opare; you’re only going to do that with people that casual-at-best fans have heard of. So you’re not just paying Kofi Opare $120K, you’re faced with paying someone like Carlos Bocanegra, who’s clearly at the end of his career, $300,000, or more, just to get him to move to your league. And even then, there’s no guarantee of success.

The reason that the ABA, WHA, and AFL were able to do that (the AFL not as much) is because talent aside and payrolls aside, the team’s resources were roughly on par. Teams either shared facilities or played at roughly equivalent places, had similar media exposure, and so forth.

That’s most certainly not the case any more. Unless the NASL owners were to rapidly overhaul their entire teams, ranging from their stadiums to their payrolls to the league’s media exposure to their backroom staff, it’s abundantly clear which league offers a more secure option. Any agent advising their client to sign with the NASL over MLS would likely be committing malpractice, unless the NASL team was offering an absurd salary. And even then, you’d want that contract to be front-loaded to the maximum extent possible.

TL;DR: The only way the NASL could come close to challenging MLS is if it jumped collectively on a time machine to the 1960s.

The Rich/Poor divide in soccer

The first reason a deep divide between rich and poor teams is a “bad” situation is because it affects the competitive integrity of the league. The best example of this is in Spain: in La Liga, there’s in effect *two* leagues: the Real/Barça “liguilla” and everyone else. On occasion, a team like Atlético Madrid or Valencia manages to break the duopoly, but the financial effort needed to do so is unsustainable, even in a short-term basis, thanks to the way that TV contracts are drawn up in Spain. I’ll explain that shortly.

That effectively forecloses any real probability of a team other than Real or Barcelona winning the league title; at the beginning of the season, the question therefore isn’t what team will win La Liga, it’s whether La Liga will be won by either Real or Barcelona, with the other teams merely serving as schedule filler.

People argue that there’s “other championships” that the non-rich teams will play for, so whether or not those teams are competitive in La Liga is irrelevant. That statement doesn’t make any sense, because the same competitive disparity that exists in La Liga also generally extends to those tournaments, because they’re played over two legs, thus minimizing the chances for an upset. It’s one thing for a team like Celta Vigo to spring an upset over 90 minutes; it’s another thing for them to win over 180 minutes, home and away.

But it goes beyond that. The way that the TV contracts are drawn up in Spain is by team. The two most popular teams in Spain are Real and Barcelona; they’re the most popular because they can afford to buy the best players; they can afford to buy the best players because they have the richest TV contracts in the country; they have the richest TV contracts because most people follow them.

You see the vicious circle here? Here’s another way of looking at the financial disparity. These were the yearly budgets for the 10 most indebted Spanish teams in 2012, along with their debt(from the Guardian, all money in euros):

  • Real Madrid: €442 million 
  • Barcelona: €428 million 
  • Valencia: €131 million 
  • Atlético Madrid: €110 million 
  • Sevilla: €90 million
  • Villarreal: €67 million
  • Deportivo: €65 million
  • Athletic Bilbao: €53.1 million
  • Espanyol: €50 million 
  • Racing Santander: €42 million

Now look at their debt:

  • Real: €543 million debt
  • Barça: €489 million debt
  • Valencia: €500 million debt 
  • Atlético: €300 million debt 
  • Sevilla: €15 million debt
  • Villarreal: €150 million debt
  • Deportivo: €160 million debt
  • Athletic Bilbao: €35 million debt 
  • Espanyol: €165 million debt
  • Racing Santander: €137 million

That’s just ridiculous. This is what an unsustainable economic model for a sports league looks like. The only way a team like Valencia can remain in operations is if their deficits are forgiven, or if they get bailed out by a rich owner. Clubs like Real and Barcelona are able to “surf” their debt because Real and Barca take half the annual TV pot of around 600 million euros ($822 million), which helps lift their annual earnings close to 500 million and means they can afford to buy the best players and pay the highest wages. Think about it: that’s 50% for two clubs, and the other half for the remaining 18. The disparity is stark: a 2010 study by Sport + Markt showed that Real & Barcelona earned almost 19 times more from TV than the smallest clubs in Spain’s top division, by far the biggest gap in the major European leagues.

The richest clubs in the English Premier League, in contrast, which generates more than a billion euros a year in broadcast revenue, earned about 1.7 times more than their smaller rivals. Even if you have “super teams” like United, Chelsea, City, and so forth, you still have a certain balance. A team like Hull City can compete, as can Swansea and West Brom.

Sports shouldn’t be like “winning the lottery”. I’m not saying that Real and Barça need to be broken up, but there needs to be some semblance of competitive balance.

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