With the 2012 MLS Draft (er, excuse me, I forgot “super” in there) coming up, this is usually the time when most people start to debate the importance and future relevance a college draft will have on Major League Soccer clubs. People will also point to the increase in foreign players being brought into the combines, like Joao Plata who TFC drafted in the second round 49th overall last year, Paolo Cardozo (selected by LA) and John Rooney (selected by New York). And people will also mention the increased role academies are having in developing premier level talent, meaning there will only be one or two good college players coming out each year.
My opinion on this is that Major League Soccer built its player development strategy in a way that is based too much on Europe – with its divisional-based system and old school development tactics – and not on the realities of the North American sporting and geographical landscape.
The first issue with academies is that they will for the most part only serve selected cities. Real Salt Lake are the only team that is investing in an academy program outside of their own “territory” – which leaves a majority of the population in the United States under-developed.
While one may argue that eventually as clubs grow in wealth they will start investing in other markets – long term, when viewed from a business expeneses standpoint, the cost of running a satellite academy is significantly higher than if local solutions are involved.
MLS should, in my opinion, look towards the Model the CHL as a prime example of how to set up player development. The Canadian Hockey League, which spans the entire country and is divided into regions, produces exceptional talent year after year. There is the OHL, QMJHL and WHL, catering basically the entire Canadian population. A similar thing should be done for the United States.
Here is how the system will work and what its advantages will be:
1) The league maintains the same essential system as before: each club runs its own academy in its own market as before. It would be foolish to say to a club like Toronto FC that has spent 20 million in their own academy that they have to invest the same as the New England Revolution or San Jose Earthquakes.
2) However, in all other markets, the expenses are shared to create an investment in building minor league clubs all around the country.
Ideally each state will have its own minor league, as with the OHL (Ontario) and QMJHL (Quebec) – run by MLS. The idea is for these clubs to come close to breaking even and providing training for the players. Your expenses are a development team, renting a facility that seats about 1,000-3,000 people and traveling. Have the team play about 20 games a year, 10 home and 10 away. If you figure about $5-10 per ticket and an average attendance of 500-1000 tickets you figure revenue of about $70,000 to off-set the expenses.
Ideally as well, you expand into the lower age groups, all owned and operated by MLS.
Here are some other ways the expenses are off-set:
1) Major Branding Opportunity: MLS now gets to have its brand all over the country into any place it expands. More exposure = greater national interest and television ratings.
2) Somehow the current soccer system in the U.S survives economically. It is based on supply and demand. If MLS needs to start the system off by using the “pay for play” model in areas that it doesn’t already have a local club – then so be it. But if someone is going to be monetizing and leveraging soccer development, it should be MLS. Garber and his executives should try to be getting a stronghold while they still have the chance on all soccer properties everywhere in North America. Get the kids at a young age and indoctrinate and push the MLS brand every you can in the continent.
3) Transfers + moving these players on to the league: talent needs to come from somewhere and if you’ve developed this talent in leagues you own, there is no need to pay high transfer fees or worry about players bolting off to Europe without you being compensated.
4) Creates parity in the league: the draft can now actually be a feasible way of dividing talent as with the NHL, NBA, NFL and MLB. Since a majority of the player developed, in the long run, will not be home grown to local clubs, there will be a wealth of talent available at the draft – making it a big event and not some one round conference call.