What does increased investment in the MLS mean for football?

In 2004, MLS began a significant expansion program in which it doubled the number of teams from 10 in 2003 to 20 in 2015. 11 expansion sides joined the MLS in this time, with Chivas USA being dissolved to bring the league up to 20 teams.

From 2016 the MLS has looked to increase the league to 30 teams by 2023. Atlanta United and Minnesota United were the first to join, with Los Angeles FC being added in 2018. FC Cincinnati, Inter Miami, Nashville SC and Austin FC have also been announced in this time with Austin being the newest franchise joining in 2021.

With the league growing continuously since 2004 in an impressive fashion, a lot of this growth can be attributed to the opportunity to bring star players into the league from around the world.

Designated players were introduced in 2007, the Beckham rule as it has been nicknamed, to bring higher profile stars to the MLS. This rule allows clubs to sign three players off outside of the salary cap. David Beckham was the first player to be signed to this label, signing for LA Galaxy on a five-year deal.

Since Beckham’s arrival a number of high profile stars have come to the MLS to play, often towards the end of their careers. LA Galaxy have been one of the most notable sides for bringing superstars into the MLS, with players like Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Javier Hernandez and Steven Gerrard all representing the club at one time, Hernandez still.

The role was filled by the likes of Granit Xhaka and Cedric Soares, as well as Bukayo Saka; however, none of these substitutions worked. Both Xhaka and Soares look unnatural at left- back and Saka is definitely someone who thrives more up front. No doubt that moving forward, a more solid left-back with more reliability is needed to help strengthen Arsenal at the back.

One of the biggest superstars to play in the MLS is Brazilian legend Kaka. He signed for Orlando City in their Expansion season in 2014 and spent three seasons at the club.

New York has also seen star names like Thierry Henry, Rafael Marquez and Tim Cahill for the Red Bulls and Andrea Pirlo, Frank Lampard and David Villa at New York City. Huge names in football which have brought attention and excitement for the MLS in the Big Apple.

Juan Pablo Angel, the Colombian international, has been a Designated Player three different MLS franchises. He arrived at New York Red Bulls in 2007, spending three seasons there before playing for LA Galaxy and Chivas USA.

Players coming from Europe and South America especially have added to the quality of the league, as well as the appeal to the viewer. These players brought interest and investment from abroad, as well as produced a higher quality product for the US audience.

With sports gambling now being legal in the majority of states in the US, the interest in MLS has expanded into different avenues. Sports betting sites give punters the opportunity to gamble on the matches being played, generating some added interest and sponsorship deals. MLS is now accessible worldwide to soccer fans as well as gamblers who will look to draw their attention more to the competition and drive more interest in soccer in the USA.

The way MLS can work with betting vendors saw the sport be a leader in allowing gambling sponsorship and stadium rights amongst all other US sports. Teams can grant rights to sports betting companies to advertise within stadiums, during broadcasts and digital deals. Gambling sponsors can also use clubs logos in their advertising.

This investment into MLS and its teams will give greater investment into the product. The opportunity to bring in more income will also force changes to the league. Where more investment is available, MLS will adapt more to the growing interest. This could see higher salary caps leading to continually higher quality players being drawn to the league.

As well as the investment from sports betting companies, owners are investing more into their clubs looking to attract more talent. David Beckham, owner of Inter Miami, injected over $15 million into his team to support their growth since becoming an expansion side in 2020. After their inaugural season, Beckham looked to add more experience in Gonzalo Higuain as well as bringing in former Manchester United teammate Phil Neville as manager.

MLS commissioner Don Garber stated the need for revenue will be able to satisfy all the things that all of our critics and all of our supporters want; more investment in players more investment in infrastructure, more investment in marketing and content, and fan development. The last piece of that for us is media.

This increase in investment will help elevate MLS to the levels of the competing leagues, like LIGA MX, European leagues and South American football. With investment also in youth development, the USMNT and USWNT will continue to see the benefits and national pride and interest will continue to grow to help develop the league further.

As MLS looks to continue its expansion, aiming to move to 30 teams, there could be changes in the format to ensure its continued growth also increases the quality of the product. A change from two conferences to three may be considered, with Eastern, Central and Western like the NHL, or smaller groups like the NFL model. With a draft system for players coming out of college, it could be difficult to picture a two league format with promotion/relegation.

This investment in world class players and facilities will see increases in audience levels which will in turn bring more lucrative media packages. This is the goal for MLS officials and teams, and with new investment from sports betting companies, well known owners and rich investors tempted away from European clubs the league can continue to develop. It reputation is continually growing and is taking the right steps forward for further growth and increased recognition nationally and globally.