BY Stanley Holmes 02:43PM 02/09/2011

On frame: Pay MLS players more money

The average MLS player barely earns more than $100,000 a season

Galaxy midfielder David Beckham earned $6.5 million last year, making him the highest paid player in the league. / Drew Sellers, Sportspress Northwest

In the beginning, there was doubt.

That was 1996 when Major League Soccer kicked off it inaugural season with 10 teams.

Now, as teams and fans impatiently wait for MLS to issue its schedule (Feb. 10) for the 2011 season, it’s safe to say the conversation has switched from doubt to confidence. Yes, Viriginia, there is a future for professional soccer in America.

The evidence is quite encouraging. Two new teams entering the league this season: Vancouver and Portland. Montreal will make 19 next year, and a second New York franchise will bring the league to a magical 20 teams soon after that.

Average attendance for 2010 jumped modestly to 16,675, from 16,037 the previous year. Seattle led the way for the second straight year, averaging 36,173, up 17% over 2009. League newcomer Philadelphia Union had the fourth highest average at 19,254.

Other positive indicators: Sporting Kansas will open its new soccer-specific, high-tech stadium in June. Portland Timbers will unveil a similar state-of-the-art overhaul of PGE Park as will Vancouver Whitecaps with BC Place. San Jose Earthquakes and the Houston Dynamo have announced plans to reshape and/or build new soccer-specific stadia in the coming year.

But not all is perfect. While TV ratings have improved modestly, it seems pro bowling and curling still overshadow pro soccer, at least in perception if not fact. Capturing a wider television audience has to be one of the league’s highest priorities.

Simply, the MLS needs to continue to raise the salary cap to attract more talent abroad as well as attract the best American athletes to the sport. With MLS demanding at least $40 million for new teams — up from $30 million for Seattle and Philadelphia –  league execs need to loosen the purse strings even more and dangle some real dollars in front of real talent. Better talent, better TV ratings.

This is not about abolishing the salary cap. This is not about demanding guaranteed contracts, either.  This is really about protecting the long-term assets of the league. And while the latest bargaining agreement bumped up the cap to $2.55 million per team, it doesn’t change the fundamental reality for the vast majority of MLS players — they are woefully underpaid.

The average MLS salary for the 406 MLS players in 2010: $138,169, down 6.6% over the previous year. The new five-year collective bargaining agreement signed at the beginning of the 2010 season no doubt will improve those numbers — but only slightly. For the reality is that 99 of the 406 players made the minimum salary of $40,000 last year, according to the MLS Player’s Union.

The average salary is skewed by a handful of mega-stars who do draw fat paychecks. Examine the salaries of the teams in Los Angeles and New York, and we can find an enormous disparity between haves and have nots, or designated players and the rest of the players.

Last year, David Beckham, Landon Donovan, Rafael Marquez, Juan Pablo Angel and Thierry Henry, earned a combined $21.7 million in guaranteed salaries from their clubs. This represents about 30% of the entire league payroll of $71.3 million, according to the player’s union.

What’s more interesting: those five players combine to make nearly four times as much as the entire team with the next-highest payroll, the Chicago Fire. Henry and Beckham individually make more than every team except their own. Beckham, with a $6.5 million salary, makes more than the combined payrolls of the New England Revolution and 2009 defending champs Real Salt Lake.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s crucial that the MLS attracts big-name talent and the DP-mechanism is a good start. But now the league needs to seriously bring up the bottom end of the salary structure.  Such a disparity will breed discontent among players and create an imbalance among the teams that shell out for a designated players and those that don’t.

More importantly, though, offering more attractive entry-level salaries to the journeymen players will improve the talent pool. That, in turns, puts pressure on the highly skilled players and the big stars, and ultimately, the level of play and the attractiveness of the game gets better.

A rigorous salary cap along with the league’s single-entity structure has helped the MLS survive and steadily make pro soccer relevant in a crowded American sports market. But its longterm future depends on boosting its TV ratings and pushing its way into the big-four pantheon of American sports.

The MLS will never reach that milestone, or vast social relevance with mainstream audiences, if it continues to pay such modest wages to the very people responsible for making soccer competitive and entertaining. Its future depends on the league and owners being a little more generous.


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  • Derek Young

    I think you meant “likely” second team in NY… or technically the first since the Energy Drinks play in Jersey. Anyway, the league hasn’t announced what everyone expects yet.

  • Robert Dobolina

    I know that the 40k salaries are really low and it will get worse this season since players in the 25-30 slots will be paid just over 32k, but for the bottom 2/3 of the roster their only options is to play on another MLS team or maybe for a little more money in the NASL or whatever the top tier of the USL is these days. To increase those salaries would negligibly increase the on the field quality and add expense during a time when MLS as a whole is finally reaching (I’m including SUM activities)profitability.

    Portland ( projects that after the first season, they’ll be making $3M a year (under EBITDA after extraordinary)and if we pretend there’s no single entity and the Timbers can use the $3M towards players, that $5.7M isn’t enough to significantly improve the quality of their team to make it appealing to non-followers and certainly not to those who favor watching the big teams from overseas. MLS is in an interesting situation since we’re not going to see a big jump in payrolls until serious TV money comes in but that’s not happening until more eyeballs are watching the games. The Don says we’re #1 for national (and regional I suspect) ratings so at least Sounder fans are doing their part. The FMF top tier gets $90M with 20 going to ChivasMEX ( so MLS has a long way to go. As I see it, the league really likes the publicity that signing the big DPs (DB, TH, RM, CuBl, FrLj)gives the league but if the league could keep a floor of $2.7M and raise the ceiling to $5.7, then teams could sign more players outside of the league and resign existing players who are worthy with salaries from 300K to 1M and that would increase the level of play more than increasing pay for the low end.

    I think most of the discontent towards DPs happen when the non-DPs are more important. Dwayne DeRosario’s been a top 15 player in the league for a long time and has been complaining about his contract since he was in Houston when he was making $330K. He’s making 443K now and he’s still complaining because he’s more important to his team than the two DPs that Toronto signed who make more than 2x that he does and that’s one reason why he wanted to train for the Celtics. MLS doesn’t know what to do with top 20 league players who want to earn more than a salary in the $300-500k range and so you have disconted players like DeRosario and Shalrie Joseph but are still under contract.

    • Stanley Holmes

      I agree. What ultimately is needed is for the MLS to raise the salary cap north of $5 million per team, which would raise wages for most players and would give much more flexibility to teams to retaining their starters for a longer period. That’s really the salient point here — raise the cap!

  • seattle soccerdude

    Interesting dilemma. Can’t get big TV ratings without higher level of players – but can’t get higher level of players without TV revenues. So take a gamble and raise salary cap ………….. and what if revenues don’t follow?

    I am on the downhill side of the big 5 -0 and remember very well going to Sounders games in the late ’70′s with crouds over 30,000 people. And not just when the Cosmo’s came to town.
    Then the early ’80s recession hit and Pele’ and Beckenbauer retired and the league went bust in a year. Understandable why the MLS doesn’t want to go down that route again – even though Beckham and now Theiry signings could give the impression they are headed that way.

    But times are different now.

    HOW? 1 USA demographics are different. Immigrants to the US in the 70′s and earlier worked very hard to “americanize” themselves ………… It was still very common to change ones name from birth name to american name – and that generation left soccer behind as a relic of the “old world”. To be an american meant following american sports, not the sports from your homeland. So Estaban became Steven and learned American football.
    That doesn’t happen as much now. For proof look at the name of our president!

    2 Television is not 4 or 5 channels. It is hundreds, and the ratings will force the big networks to pay attention to soccer. Univision paid 4 times for spanish language rights to the world cup than ESPN did for English language rights. What happened? ESPN had much higher viewership! Why? because many english speaking fans like myself have watched international soccer on spanish language stations becuase it was our only option. Once given a choice, the mainstream fan base came out of hiding. Knowing this, ESPN will promote the next world cup or if a US team gets lucky, maybe even a US CONCACAF champions league champ going to the Club World Cup Finals and the sport will take off even more.
    And don’t forget ESPN2 and other alternate channels now. More options will mean growing ratings.

    3 The Fan base has matured and the game is becoming a family tradition. In Seattle, where I was raised, I played youth soccer and watched professional soccer from the time I was 10 years old. Most people my age from other places did not. BUT THEIR KIDS HAVE. Time will change this.

    4 The biggest sleeper reason: TV’s are now ALL BECOMING BIGSCREENS. and guess what? Commercial TV can sneak in advertisements by shrinking the play and running a banner on the side or bottom or top of screen. I remember when ABC would literally cut away from a game and show a commercial. Doesn’t happen any more. Ever notice how ESPN and others no longer make fun of the game and even have scores and some highlights from European leagues.
    Now that they can make money off it they will increasingly promote it.

    My prediction: The MLS will watch what happens after Beckham retires or goes back to england next year. If the ratings and attendance continue to grow – or at least don’t tumble like in 1983 (?) when Pele’ left the NASL, then they will begin to loosen the salary cap. When that happens, watch out. Players will follow the money – and not just foreign players coming to the US. When the best Americans stop going to europe for the money, then US clubs will have a shot at competing in the Club World Cup ……….. Just imaging what will happen when the Sounders or the Galaxy or the NY Red Bulls beat Chelsea or Barcelona or Inter Milano for a title?

    Still a few years to go, but it will happen soon.