To kick things off (pun not intended), I think we first need to look at the tangible; the physical world. Material challenges pose one of the biggest obstacles that American sports, especially soccer, need to navigate around. So let us first turn our sights on these problems and see how they affect implementing and running a national league.
The US is a geographically large country. I mean, really large. The contiguous United States ranks 5th in the world for land area (4th if counting the entirety of the country). If you combine the likes of second-ranked Canada (since they’re technically apart of MLS), the land area that the league stretches across totals 6,974,985 square miles. This surpasses Russia by a total area of 373,000 square miles; about the size of Egypt.
These stats are staggering when you sit and think about them. What’s worse is when you consider the fact that the Russian Premier League (which boasts 16 teams) exists in a country that is predominantly Siberian wilderness and uninhabited Arctic Tundra, you realize that Russia really doesn’t even compete with US/Canada in size. Granted, far northern Canada is much like Russia in its environs, but you also need to factor in that there are currently only three Canadian-based teams in MLS. The comparison to Russia gets even worse when you look at where the Russian teams are located throughout the country. Tom Tomsk (the furthest-East club of all in the 2011-2012 season) is an astonishing 1,100 miles from its closest neighboring club. Perspective: as the crow flies, Los Angeles and Vancouver are almost exactly the same distance apart. I’m not a follower of the RPL, but I’d say the likelihood of Tom Tomsk having a derby with any other team in the league is pretty improbable.
It’s safe to say that Russia’s top flight in soccer is more or less centered around the population centers of the extreme western portions of the country; predominantly Moscow, St Petersburg, and to a lesser extent the arid regions to the south between the Black and Caspian Seas. In this regard, Russia is actually more akin to other European and South American leagues that see small geographical areas with a high concentration of teams, but this is the subject of Part 3.
For a better understanding of the hurdle geography poses, here is a list of countries that house some of the top leagues in the world arranged with the following information: league name; nation’s land area in square miles; greatest distance between two clubs; distance between furthest club and its closest neighboring club; and a corresponding map* —England/Wales – English Premier League – 58,368 – 251 miles – 102 miles – Map Spain – La Liga – 195,364 – 520 miles – 134 miles – Map Germany – Bundesliga – 137,847 – 401 miles – 103 miles – Map Italy – Serie A – 116,346 – 622 miles – 239 miles – Map France – Ligue 1 – 260,558 – 717 miles – 152 miles – Map Brazil – Serie A – 3,287,597 – 1,994 miles – 414 miles – Map Argentina – Primera Division – 1,073,518 – 620 miles – 349 miles – Map Portugal – Liga ZON Sagres – 35,603 – 773 miles – 600 miles** – Map Russia – Russian Premier League – 6,592,800 – 2,007 miles – 1,076 miles – Map Netherlands – Eredivisie – 16,039 – 165 miles – 35 miles – Map Greece – SuperLeague – 50,944 – 414 miles – 217 miles – Map Mexico – 1A Division – 761,606 – 2,027 miles – 701 miles – Map Australia – A-League – 2,941,299 – 3,266 miles – 1,389 miles – Map Japan – J-League – 145,925 – 672 miles – 128 miles – Map US/Canada – MLS – 6,974,985 – 2,682 miles – 419 miles – Map *Note that since this article is being written during the off-season for most of these leagues, an updated version with newly-promoted teams is not reflected… yet. ** Portugal is unique as the island of Funchal houses two teams but is roughly 600 miles off the coast of the Iberian Peninsula.
Of those 14 league-nations, only four (Russia, Brazil, Argentina, Australia) have a total land area of over a million square miles. Mexico is the only other one relatively close to that mark with 761,000. As noted above, Russia has vast amounts of wilderness and uninhabited locations. The same can be said about the other three supra-million-square-mile nations. Brazil’s Amazon region is largely untouched; Argentina has huge swaths of land along the Andes that contains at most villages and small rural towns; and Australia’s vast central desert is literally devoid of civilization.
But this is not the case with the US and Canada. The landscape is dotted with large metropolitan areas all throughout its interior — Chicago, Kansas City, St Louis, Minneapolis, Denver, Salt Lake, the list goes on. Even in the Basin, Mountain, and Plains regions, major cities are present despite the fact that these are literally deserts by all intents and purposes. As you can see, the US and Canada pose a highly unique situation for the management of a sports league. While most of these countries are relatively small when it comes to land area and have high-density population centers in close proximity to one another, the US/Canada is spread out relatively evenly across the continent with large cities everywhere. This poses numerous challenges to league administration; not the least of all travel costs.
Cold, hard data on average annual travel costs per club per year is hard to come by. Searching for that information without having any prior connections to league or club PR reps is tough. But let’s look at some cases of other dilemmas in travel expenses for sports teams. In 2008, it was reported in various outlets that expenses for travel had risen by rates of between 10 and 15 percent that year. Some colleges were claiming a 20 to 25 percent increase in their travel costs for sports. This caused many schools to cut back their scheduling, especially for long distance trips. Top-tier professional sports obviously have access to much deeper pockets than athletic departments and amateur clubs. However, the frequency in which they travel as well as the distances they travel (especially those coast-to-coast flights) wreak havoc on the bottom lines of even the most lucrative teams. Expecting to continue on this path is impractical and unreasonable, even more so if the trend of rising costs persists.
While MLS has always had a conference system which was originally intended to mitigate this problem, the addition of a balanced schedule for each team detracts from any effects it might have. A return to an unbalanced schedule for the 2012 season should see some sort of benefit gained by most clubs, but many think this dilutes competition across the league, especially in relation to the Supporter’s Shield, which goes to the winner of the regular season. A better system is definitely needed.
Another difficulty with an area this large is tailoring the structure of the league to fit the myriad types of cultures and styles that coalesce into the nation that is America. The Northeast markets are a far cry from the Northwest or Central or Southern markets. Instead of having a league that has an overall style with subtle nuances (as in England or Germany or Italy), we have a melting pot of mentalities, club cultures, perspectives, and supporter demand. Sure, the American game could be said to have a “physical” nature, but I would argue that is far from a “style” or “culture” and more of a reflection of the overall American attitude to any sport or competition. It’s a representation of our desire to compete at all costs, not a full-on methodology of the game in itself.
As an example, the tendency for the Pacific Northwest clubs to field high-attacking line-ups as opposed to the more balanced approach of many of the Northeast clubs is a stark contrast of two very different markets pushing the same sport. The same could be said about the Mountain region clubs, the West Coast clubs, and the Southern or Central clubs. The Northwest is also a very large portal into the type of club culture that region has. Take a look at the supporter’s groups from any team and it’ll give you a good idea of the mentality of that club’s fans. Anything from raucous Army’s to chanting to intense percussion to anthem singing to brass instrument playing; each club has a highly individualistic supporter culture, and this is reflected in the club itself. Moreover, as the residential academies of each club progress and start churning out more and more local and home-grown products, I believe we’ll see an even higher degree of the local culture being seen on the field.
Lastly, the one thing that is tied to geography and affects the logistical side of the sport directly is weather. An entire continent worth of meteorological diversity is bound to affect how the game is managed, administered, structured, and played out. As this summer heat wave scorches on across the Northeast, I think of the likes of Dallas and Houston who combat persistently high temps and humidity for three months of the year or more. The arid climates and high altitudes of Denver and Salt Lake have an effect on player conditioning and game performance. The Northwest deals with continuous rain for much of the year, akin to something like the British Isles. Snow and extreme cold has been a factor in places like Toronto, New England, Columbus, and Chicago. As the league expands into new areas (ie, Southeast with its extreme humidity, or additional Canadian areas with colder climates), it and its clubs need to have plans for how to adapt, adjust, and survive. Excessive variations in weather, in and of itself, is the obstacle that no other country in the world has to deal with when planning out its leagues.
Here’s another way of looking at the overall geographical problem: imagine a single league spanning across the entirety of the Mediterranean region including Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. The sheer size, variance in climates, and cultures surrounding the game would be akin to taming a leviathan. This is the United States and Canada. And this is the unbelievable challenge MLS faces on a day-to-day basis.
Despite this cornucopia of difficulties, managing a league in this situation isn’t impossible. What’s needed is thinking outside of the box; that is, outside of the traditional American sports mindset of a single, universal entity that ushers virtually the entirety of the continent under its umbrella. I firmly believe that this business model is not sustainable in the long-term, especially if US Soccer Federation, Canadian Soccer Association, and MLS all have the interests of domestic player development and the Men’s National Team as a high priority. If this model continues, it will be at the expense of the vast amounts of talent and skill that exists in every corner and remote area of our country, from Rawlins, Wyoming, to Bangor, Maine, to Decatur, Alabama. Potential players are slipping through the cracks in this system. The American Soccer Pyramid is not established to handle the sheer volume of people and places our geography and society are providing it.
A glimpse into all these problems can be found in the lower tiers of the American Pyramid. The NASL is struggling to expand out of the east coast and midwest, but is still having difficulties with clubs covering travel expenses to Puerto Rico and Edmonton. Likewise with USL-PRO and their sole west coast affiliate, the LA Blues. The NASL is barely covering the markets that have been neglected by MLS over the past 17 years, let alone successfully expanding into newer, smaller, yet potentially highly-viable markets. USL-PRO seems content with existing primarily in what’s labeled as “Third- and Fourth-Tier” markets like Harrisburg, Charleston, and Rochester. And, with these facts now stated, I can’t think of a better segue into Part 3: Market Saturation.