Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Lessons from the MLS

The A-League structure is very close to the 13 year old American MLS. Built from the ashes of false starts, a small number of teams, backed by millionaires with a tight salary cap.

Perhaps false starts are the way of football outside Europe, each generation has a crescendo of interest generated by the appearance of international stars, an influx of investor money from the field of dreams (build it and they will come), the coming of age of a new generation of football mad migrants, or a world cup qualification. Perhaps this time is different - a sustainable business built as the world matures into a global sports business where only the paytv backed sports can grow.

In achieving sustainability, the Major League has lessons for Australia. While we are unlikely to adopt the stilted commentary, the eastern and western conference (7 teams in each) system, 'all star' games, and 't' for tied instead of 'd' for draw - all borrowing from gridiron's success - there is still much to learn about winning market share in an industry dominated by other codes.

Like the A-League's inclusion of a team from NZ, the MLS has included Canada's Toronto FC. The MLS has sought to keep the teams even through a salary cap and marquee arrangements. We haven't seen the drafting and player bidding arrangements (that have been adopted by AFL). Also the MLS draws on local expertise from outside football to ensure relevance to the local market. The adaption to local interests is a painful lesson learned in Australia, the A-League has now drawn on governance talent from rugby union and Australian Rules, a well advertising specialists (John Singleton) and even owners from other sports (AFL's Geoff Lord).

Starting 1995, over its first 10 years the MLS became two conferences of 5 teams each. Expanding for the 2005 season, Eastern has added Toronto, and Kansas has switched from Western. While Western has added Salt Lake, Houston and the LA based but Mexican owned Chivas USA (sister club to Mexican club Deportivo Guadalajara). Clearly the MLS has an advantage in producing Spanish language content. Chivas is Deportivo Guadalajara's nickname - meaning the Goats - and appears to have no connection to the Scottish drink Chivas Regal.

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