On the long-term stability of MLS

In December, in Don Garber’s state of the league address, the Major League Soccer commissioner made an astounding claim: MLS clubs were collectively losing over $100 million per season. The announcement was widely scoffed at, and seen as posturing ahead of the upcoming collective bargaining negotiations.

As someone who once flirted with an accounting career, going so far as getting a diploma before realizing how bored I was preparing myself to be for the rest of my life, I know that the profits or losses a company declares in its financial statements don’t necessarily equate to cash gains or losses. That said, it’s discordant to see MLS simultaneously crying poor and announcing multi-million dollar signings of players like Steven Gerrard, Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco. I’m going to do something in this article I don’t usually do: take MLS at its word. The league is in awful shape, losing over $100 million per year, and its solution is to keep buying increasingly more expensive players. Is this a good strategy?

Is the acquisition of players of Jermain Defoe's quality good for the long-term stability of MLS?
Is the acquisition of players of Jermain Defoe’s quality good for the long-term stability of MLS?

First, let’s look at who these expensive players are, and how much they’re making. We’re going to look at 2014 numbers, because it’s obviously too early to know what effect the latest crop of players will have on the league. Here is every player that made $1 million or more in 2014:

  • LAG – Landon Donovan ($4,583,333)
  • LAG – Omar Gonzalez ($1,250,000)
  • LAG – Robbie Keane ($4,500,000)
  • MON – Marco DiVaio ($2,500,000)
  • NER – Jermaine Jones ($3,252,500)
  • NYRB – Tim Cahill ($3,625,000)
  • NYRB – Thierry Henry ($4,350,000)
  • ORL – Kaka* ($7,167,500)
  • POR – Liam Ridgewell ($1,200,000)
  • SEA – Clint Dempsey ($6,695,189)
  • SEA – Obafemi Martins ($1,753,333)
  • TOR – Michael Bradley ($6,500,000)
  • TOR – Jermain Defoe ($6,180,000)
  • TOR – Gilberto Junior ($1,205,000)
  • VAN – Pedro Morales ($1,410,900)
    *It’s not clear how much of Kaka’s salary was paid by Orlando, as he was loaned to Sao Paulo, but again let’s take the numbers provided at their word.
Obafemi Martins is one of only 15 players in the league making over $1 million. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.
Obafemi Martins is one of only 15 players in the league making over $1 million. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.

Only nine out of twenty-one clubs had a million-dollar player on their roster in 2014. (We’re counting Orlando and NYCFC because the player’s union says they had guys earning salaries.) Only four had more than one.  In total, fifteen players, spread over fewer than half of the league’s clubs, accounted for just over $56 million dollars in salary, or over half of the league’s losses. Is the league likely to recoup these losses?

Let’s start with the largest cash infusion in the league’s history: its new domestic television deal worth an estimated $90 million per year. This type of money likely isn’t thrown at the league without the star power of some of the names in the above list. Subtracting the money from the previous TV deal, we can expect the league to offset about $60 million of its losses just on new TV money in 2015. More, if Sky Sports paid anything significant for the rights to broadcast two games a week in the UK. As terms of the UK deal, unlike the domestic rights deal, were not disclosed, I am assuming Sky did not need to pay much, and MLS was happy enough just getting their product on British television. We’re down to a $40 million shortfall.

Now things get slightly murkier. How much of an effect do players of this calibre have on attendance? This is difficult to measure, because winning tends to have a positive effect on attendance and it’s difficult to pin how much of a team’s success is attributable to its most expensive players. The Galaxy, for instance, brought in Robbie Keane in 2011 and saw a nearly 2,000/game bump in attendance, but they were riding a 2010 Supporters Shield victory, and won a second one in 2011. How much of that attendance bump is “oooh, Robbie Keane” and how much is “oooh, I like winning teams.” Let’s see how the rest of the clubs fared.

  • Montreal signed Di Vaio in 2012 and saw diminishing attendance for the two years thereafter.
  • New England’s attendance increased by about 1,850/game, but they didn’t win the Jermaine Jones lottery until September.
  • New York saw their attendance soar by about 6,000/game when they signed Henry in 2010. The arrival of Tim Cahill in 2012 did not have a similar effect; the club lost 1,800 fans that year.
  • Portland has seen attendance increase every year, but that’s as much due to capacity increases and pent-up demand as it is Liam Ridgewell.
  • Seattle experienced a small spike in their first half-season, and a small decrease in their first full season, after the additions of Dempsey and Martins. They’re up about 500/game in total.
  • Toronto lured back 4,000 disenfranchised supporters with their bloody big off-season spending spree in 2014.
  • Vancouver saw a modest 400/game bump after Pedro Morales was added.

Let’s be generous here and say that those attendance bumps are permanent over the contract of the player. You’re going to get maybe 10,000 more butts in seats league-wide, on average, which translates to $12-15 million in extra revenue, depending on the average ticket price of the clubs doing the buying. In the best-case scenario, we’re still left with at least a $25 million shortfall.

Now how generous do you want to get with things like merchandise? Let’s assume every one of those 10,000 extra attendees buys a jersey for their new favourite player. At $140 for a customized jersey and (pure guesswork here) a 30% markup. You’re talking less than half a million dollars in extra revenue. In fact, you would need to sell 773,755 extra jerseys (at my guesstimate figures) to make up the shortfall.

Colour me extremely skeptical that the league is managing to approach breakeven on these players.

So how much of a problem does the league have? Its single-entity nature means the league can distribute its losses somewhat, and it’s probably only going to average a $1-2 million loss per club. The problem, though, is the league is setting itself up to be similar to a European league, with a small number of dominant teams at the top spending all the money and getting all the results. Look at the champions since the league started loosening restrictions and allowing multiple Designated Players: three out of the last four Supporters Shields and MLS Cups have been won by clubs with more than one millionaire salary. In the big European leagues this works ok. There are other things to play for. Relegation battles, cup competitions that the big clubs don’t always take too seriously, the prospect of Champions or Europa League play if you can get hot and sneak into the top five for a year. In MLS you have a race to the bottom for the right to draft next year’s stand-out NCAA player. Woohoo.

After the 2014 season, Chivas USA became the third franchise to fold in MLS' 19 years of existence. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.
After the 2014 season, Chivas USA became the third franchise to fold in MLS’ 19 years of existence. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.

I worry that we’re seeing the effects. The league has just folded its third franchise in only nineteen years of existence. Rumours are swirling that season ticket sales in Montreal were horrendously bad, though perhaps their dramatic upset win in the Champions League quarterfinals will improve that somewhat. A glance at the stands in Houston, Dallas, DC and even Philadelphia shows that many clubs can’t even sell out their barn for opening day. The TV numbers league-wide remain terrible.

This is a league that once enjoyed modest success and growth with their devotion to parity. Nine different teams won the Supporters’ Shield in the league’s first thirteen seasons. Eight different clubs won MLS Cup over the same period. There was a reasonable chance that even if your club sucked one year, it could be good again the next. The league has gone away from  that and it’s not at all clear that a lack of parity is in the best interests of anybody but a select few clubs.

Too Much, Too Soon

The Whitecaps started their 2015 season off with a bang. And ended their first game with a resounding thud. It was a tale of two halves, at least I think that’s how soccer games work, and on this day, the fans at BC Place saw two entirely different Whitecaps’ teams depending on which 45 you watched.

The first half looked like what we have had been told to expect this season from the blue and white – a fast-paced group, intent on spreading the ball around and utilizing their speed to overwhelm their opponents. The Whitecaps’ attack produced a number of quality chances, yet were only able to capitalize on one of them.

Marie Hui sings the national anthem prior to the Vancouver Whitecaps season opener. Sadly, the home team lost their 2015 home opener to the dirty, rotten, stinkin' doughbugs of TFC 3-1. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.
Marie Hui sings the national anthem prior to the Vancouver Whitecaps season opener. Sadly, the home team lost their 2015 home opener to the dirty, rotten, stinkin’ doughbugs of TFC 3-1. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.

Coach Carl Robinson liked what he saw, but post-game he conceded that perhaps that type of phrenetic pace isn’t one that can be maintained over a full 90 minutes. That, coupled with a tactical change at the break by Toronto head coach Greg Vanney, turned the game upside down and what appeared to be a potent Whitecaps attack suddenly looked more like a woodpecker taking a steel pole to task. Not much progress and one helluva headache.

Toronto took control in the second half, watching the Whitecaps attempt the soccer-equivalent of the dump and chase time and time again. The TFC defenders took a few large steps backwards and simply watched the balls come, abandoning any semblance of chasing. Yet the Caps seemed content to fire away and perhaps oblivious to the fact that it simply wasn’t working.

Let’s take a look at the highlights, the lowlights, and the limelight in the Caps’ 3-1 loss on Saturday.

Continue reading Too Much, Too Soon

The March to March – Part 6

Whitecaps Wednesday

Another Wednesday, another Whitecaps. Put those two things together and you have a sentence that makes editors break out into cold sweats, and Whitecaps Wednesday. So welcome, and please, make yourself at home whilst I stride this towel over to Jason with which to wipe his moisty brow.

Jason, when confronted with grammatical errors and slightly before the moistiness sets in.
Jason, displaying his reaction when confronted with grammatical errors and pointing to his moistical gland, which moisties his brow.

This is the latest edition of the March to March, bringing the total now to six. SIX! Can you believe it? I don’t even own six pairs of underwear (what proud, decent man does though), yet here I am punching out a sextuple of Whitecaps Wednesday pieces. You probably can’t even count them all on one hand anymore! And if you can, colour me impressed.

August is a busy month for Caps, who manage to squeeze five games into five weeks. That means five airtight predictions in which you can only yearn to store your favourite sandwiches. Click on to read on, friend.

Continue reading The March to March – Part 6

Episode 57 — The peanut butter mullet, a do as old as time

A podcast episode in which Rusell and Jason ride the peanut butter mullet wave of Jaromir Jagr’s career into a discussion of the Canucks, ex-Canucks and Canucks that never were.

• Introduction
• Sofa Surfer Girl by the Orchid Highway
• False start / Rubber Ducky
• Jaromir Jagr’s 8th NHL team
• Holy hairstyles, this guy has scored a ton of points
• Whence the scoring after the twins & Vrbata?
• The Canucks 2nd power play unit is embarrassing
• Vrbata probably won’t make 30 goals
• No Cup since 1967 — Russell blames Phil Kessel
• Thanks to CIVL Radio
• Time for a Change by the Orchid Highway

The travelling Jagrs in their mulletted glory (pictured here before New Jersey or Florida were in the mix). Photo pinched from an Ask Jeeves search.
The travelling Jagrs in their mulletted glory (pictured here before New Jersey or Florida were in the mix). Photo pinched from an Ask Jeeves search.

 

A gimme for the Game of Thrones marketing people

Just prior to last week’s Stadium Series — which saw the LA Kings continue their remarkable second-half winning streak with a 2-1 decision over the mysteriously mediocre San Jose Sharks — one of the Levi’s Stadium webcams got a jealous visit from a territorial black bird. No, not Patrick Kane. C’mon, Game of Thrones people. This footage is a freakin’ freebie.

As for the game, it was all right I suppose. Both of these teams can play something resembling hockey when you give them the chance. The Kings, after eight wins in nine tries, now sit third in the Pacific Division, tied with the Calgary Flames with a game in hand. The Sharks are going the other way — they’ve got just seven points in their last ten games.

Whatever. Even on a balmy California night, I don’t see the appeal behind paying a premium to sit in a baseball stadium to watch puck. The front row is hundreds of feet from the boards, for crying out loud.

Photoshop mangling by Jason Kurylo, who sobbed, 'I could work in film and television post production, I just know I could.'
Photoshop mangling by Jason Kurylo, who sobbed, ‘I could work in film and television post production, I just know I could.’

The March to March – Part 5

Whitecaps Wednesday

Whitecaps Wednesday spent last week in Harrison Hot Springs, dodging village-wide gas leaks and a hearty collection of bed bugs (thanks Ramada Hotels). Luckily, the Caps just officially released what most have expected for a while now: a brand spankin’ new kit, so the previous one, now infested with little creepy crawlies, has found a new home in the firepit.

bed_bug_stuffed_f1559
Truth be told, Jason wanted me to include an actual photo of the bed bugs I discovered wile on vacation. I couldn’t expose my valued readers to that, so here is the least repulsive bed bug photo I could find from a google image search. You’re welcome.

When we last checked in on the Whitecaps, they were mired in a long stretch of games away from Vancouver and, despite dropping their last game of the month, managed to acquit themselves well overall. July sees them in familiar territory, that is away from theirs, as they finally wrap up their road trip before heading home.

Read on for results!
Continue reading The March to March – Part 5

Episode 56 – Torts, Milos, French girls & grapefruit

Russell & I trade semi-researched factoids for the second time in short order, getting into John Tortorella’s recent soul searching on Tampa radio. In an attempt to show something reminiscent of range, we stretch into Davis Cup tennis and trade two dozen words in French.

• Intro
• Sofa Surfer Girl by the Orchid Highway
• I’m fatigued
• Où sont les pamplemousses?
• John Tortorella is Yoda
• Willie’s ahead of Torts so far
• Davis Cup coming back to UBC
• Daniel Nestor ages not
• Eugenie Bouchard’s legs are all Photoshop
• NHL DOPS: Dmitry Kulikov gets four games
• Time for a Change by the Orchid Highway

"Oh yeah? Well I know I was wrong! How do you like THEM apples?"
“Oh yeah? Well I know I was wrong! How do you like THEM apples?”

Davis Cup rematch at UBC: Canada vs Japan

Two weeks from now, the Canadian Davis Cup team will take to the courts in Vancouver against Japan, hoping to start a special campaign. With the Swiss duo of Roger Federer and Stanislas Wawrinka expected to ease up a bit after finally capturing Davis Cup glory in 2014, the Spanish team largely an unknown commodity, and the French team unpredictable, it appears that the 2015 Davis Cup is somewhat up for grabs. That leaves Canada — healthy, this time around, thank the syrup — with a good chance to duplicate their appearance in the semi-finals two years ago.

Milos Raonic has climbed to #6 in the ATP world rankings, the highest a Canadian man has ever achieved. Can he drive Canada to a David Cup win over Japan?
Milos Raonic has climbed to #6 in the ATP world rankings, the highest a Canadian man has ever achieved. Can he drive Canada to a David Cup win over Japan?

Continue reading Davis Cup rematch at UBC: Canada vs Japan

Giants Head South to Face Silvertips

by Richard Davalos (Hit him up on the mighty Twitter: @QuakesFan84)

Tonight sees the fifth matchup betweens the Giants and Silvertips this season. Everett has won three of the four games so far by a combined score of 14-4. To be fair, the aggregate scoreline is a little misleading as the Giants have picked up 3 of a possible 8 points in the games played — in a late December back-to-back, they took the home game 2-1, and battled to a 1-0 OT loss on the road. The first and most recent matchups, though? Complete domination by the U.S. Division leading Tips. You should have taken the over in those games, as Everett scored at will: 5-1 and 7-1 finals did not flatter the Giants, who were frankly outclassed on both sides of the puck.

Matt Pufahl isn't with the Silvertips anymore, but frankly this is one of my favourite shots from last season. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.
Matt Pufahl isn’t with the Silvertips anymore, but frankly this is one of my favourite shots from last season. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.

Lately the Giants and Silvertips have been pretty even against the field, with Vancouver going 4-5-0-1 and Everett 5-4-0-1 in their last ten.

Besides that Last Ten Games column in the stats sheet, there’s not much in common between Vancouver and Everett this year. The Silvertips and Giants are in different stages of rebuilding: Everett is near completion, while the Giants have a solid foundation of young players but have seen uneven play from their veterans.. Quite literally the only thing they share in common this season is a bottom-half penalty kill, with both teams nullifying only 76.2% of power plays faced, tied for 17th in the 22-team Western Hockey League.

Despite the dismal penalty kill, coach Kevin Constantine has made the Silvertips have been a tough nut to crack — not only are they the second best defensive team in the WHL, with just 149 goals allowed (only Kelowna has allowed fewer at 138), but they have also taken the second fewest penalties in the league, and that isn’t even close. Everett have taken only 544 minutes in penalties (Kootenay has 539 PIM), the third-most disciplined teams are Brandon and Moose Jaw, tied at 665 minutes.  If the Giants want to avoid another blowout, or gasp! to win, they will have to stay out of the box themselves and try to goad Everett into taking a few penalties at home.  They cannot repeat what happened in the last game, when they took 41 minutes in penalties to Everett’s 19 on the way to a six-goal defeat.

The Giants visit Braden Low and the Everett Silvertips in Friday night WHL action. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.
The Giants visit Braden Low and the Everett Silvertips in Friday night WHL action. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.

Quick Hits

Vancouver have been good at home, but are losers in 10 of their last 11 games played away from Pacific Coliseum. Everett, on the other hand, have been dynamite at Xfinity Arena: they’ve won eight of their last ten at home, with that lonely loss just a few days ago versus Tri-City. If the Giants are going to make that post-season, they really ought to figure things out on the road. Of their 17 games remaining, nine require loading up the bus.

Vancouver is six points behind Tri-City for the number one Wild Card spot, and one point ahead of Kamloops for the last playoff spot, although both teams have a game in hand on the dirty, rotten, stinkin’ Blazers.

The next home game for the Giants is next Wednesday against the Red Deer Rebels — at noon! — in the annual Hooky Day.

Giants beat Memorial Cup champion Oil Kings

The Vancouver Giants won their third straight home game with a messy but satisfying 3-1 decision over the Edmonton Oil Kings. It wasn’t a high-flying, high-scoring, fight-filled affair like the previous two wins over Red Deer and Seattle, but hey, a win is a win is a win.

Edgars Kulda of the Edmonton Oil Kings looks for a tip in front of Vancouver Giants goaltender Cody Porter. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.
Edgars Kulda of the Edmonton Oil Kings looks for a tip in front of Vancouver Giants goaltender Cody Porter. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.

Carter Popoff popped off a pair of goals, including an empty netter, and now sits at a team-high 22 goals. Only Zane Jones’s moustache has more scores this season, but 18 of the nose tickler’s 26 goals came with other clubs before it and Zane Jones himself joined the Giants in a trade in early January, and the countless young ladies swooning over that ginger liprug just don’t count. Rookie left winger Vladimir Bobylev potted his third of the year in the second period, and that wound up being the game winning goal.

Let’s be clear. This Edmonton team is not the same one that won the Memorial Cup last year. When he’s not winning World Junior gold, Curtis Lazar is playing for Ottawa Senators. Griffin Reinhart also won one of them shiny medallions, and has split the rest of the year between the New York Islanders and their AHL affiliate Bridgeport Sound Tigers. (Aside: what the hell is a sound tiger? A jungle cat whose mental acuity isn’t in question?) Put plainly, the Oil Kings ain’t a patch on last year’s Eastern Conference-winning team.

Edgars Kulda had his share of supporters in the crowd as his Edmonton Oil Kings lost 3-1 to the Vancouver Giants. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.
Edgars Kulda had his share of supporters in the crowd as his Edmonton Oil Kings lost 3-1 to the Vancouver Giants. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.

Still, a defending champion, even one tenuously holding onto their own playoff spot, walks into every building with a certain swagger. There were scores of classic red, white and gold Oil Kings shirts at the Coliseum on Wednesday — even if the visiting team wore awful black third jerseys neon green trim on the ice. Edgars Kulda, whose older brother Artūrs played for Latvia in 2014 at both the Olympics and World Championships, received cheers from countrymen every time he approached the puck, but it was Lane Bauer who scored Edmonton’s only goal on the night. Cody Porter was solid in his 12th win of the year, stopping 31 of 32 shots, several of the point-blank rebound variety.

Brett Pollock of the Edmonton Oil Kings models perhaps the ugliest third jersey in the WHL this season. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.
Brett Pollock of the Edmonton Oil Kings models perhaps the ugliest third jersey in the WHL this season. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.

The Giants hit the road for a pair of weekend games south of the border, back-to-back puck drops against the Everett Silvertips and Tri-City Americans. For the moment, .despite being seven games under .500, Vancouver sits in a playoff position; the G-Men are one point up on Kamloops with a game in hand.

The next Giants home game is Wednesday, February 18 against the Moose Jaw Warriors — it’s a noon game on a weekday, which means the lower bowl will be packed with school children on field trips. The energy in the place is outstanding for this game every year, a promotion the Giants are calling Hooky Day.