Sunday, November 12, 2006

The Beckham Rule

On the eve of the MLS Cup, Major League Soccer has made a dramatic change to its rules. For the first eleven years of the league, each team has had a salary cap that has prevented it from signing the most expensive talent in the world. The purpose of the cap was to stop teams from spending themselves into oblivion (like the old NASL did in the late 70's) and get teams to focus on cheaper American players which would boost the quality of the US National Team.

Well, starting next year, each team will be allowed to ignore the salary cap to sign a marquee player. Additionally, teams will be able to trade their designated player slot to another team which means that some teams may have two designated star players.

The rule is being called The Beckham Rule since it seems to have been largely pushed by a few owners so they could bid on David Beckham next summer when his contract with Real Madrid expires.

Why are they doing this? Because 17 million people tuned in to watch the World Cup Final last July but less than a million will tune in for Sunday's championship match between New England Revolution and the Houston Dynamo (ABC, 3:30pm). There are a lot of soccer fans in the US. However, few of them follow the top domestic league in their own country. The owners in MLS believe that by signing a handful of star players, those non-MLS fans will start watching MLS games.

While, I think this new rule will be fun for existing fans, I don't think it will add a lot of new fans. The fact of the matter is that there are very few household names among soccer players. Yes, Beckham would bring in a lot of fans. However, that would be for one team. Who are the other twelve teams going to sign? Ronaldo and Zinedine Zidane would two other household names. However, it pretty much ends right there. Is Red Bull going to sell enough additional tickets to cover the cost of signing Luis Figo?

Despite the new rule and the owners' deep pockets, they are still going to be looking for older players who are available on a free transfer. That cuts down the pool of potential players significantly. Plus, you are probably going to see a handful of teams such as Los Angeles, Chivas and Red Bull New York pursue these sort of players vigorously and other teams such as Dallas and Columbus ignore the opportunity. So, it won't raise the overall level of play throughout the league. It's just going to be a bit more glitzy in spots.

By the way, my prediction for the MLS Cup is Houston over New England 2-0 with Brian Ching bagging both goals.

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