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What Scottish football can learn from the USA

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Major League Soccer has entered a renaissance period in the States, attracting attention from abroad as has never seen before. American soccer has never been something taken overly seriously in Scotland with only pockets of fans maintaining the sport’s cult status.

Now MLS is peaking interest on the world stage. That’s not to say the league is of the same quality as the likes of the Bundesliga or the Premier League, but it is certainly a step up from the sport that has garnered less attention in the UK than Major League Baseball.

Quality does not equate to entertainment however with teams bringing in upwards of 20,000 fans per home game at this early point in the season. Some teams are cashing in on the hype with New York City FC at 43,507 in attendance at their first game and Orlando at 62,510 in the season’s second week: impressive figures for two teams that have only joined the league this season.

These figures might not be eye-watering but they are mouth-watering for the advertisement-heavy US sports business culture. Soccer in the states has had a hard time taking off as it is simply not as lucrative for advertisers who are used to the commercial opportunities in the NFL and other sport leagues. The Super Bowl itself has become synonymous with commercials.

From the point of view of a Scottish football fan, what can the rise of MLS mean? It gives a glimpse into a league that is rallying passions. Passion has been arguably lacking in Scottish football of late. Fans are growing cynical amongst financial collapse and poor performance. The SPFL is top heavy with Celtic increasingly likely to win the league once again with a title race that never came to fruition, the financial state of Rangers has left many fans estranged from a club they love, and the relegation of the Edinburgh’s Hearts and Hibs shows both the consequences of poor financing and poor performance respectively.

These issues are amongst some that the MLS are seeking to avoid. Financially teams in the US are capped with regard to salary. Each team are entitled to spend $3.1 million with the maximum salary for one player capped at $387,500. Teams are allowed to spend more on occasion for a player in certain circumstances. This is to encourage the likes of David Beckham and David Villa to play in the MLS thus increasing the league’s reputation worldwide.

The salary cap hinders teams from running away with the title every year. There are never really favourites in MLS as all teams are on a fair financial footing. The hindrance of the cap for teams means no one team can collect the world’s elite players in the way Real Madrid or Manchester United can. This makes room for a real drive to perform as the title belongs to whoever is talented enough to take it.

Poor spending decisions and corruption have ruined Scottish football for many fans lately. Rangers make the news more often than others, but Hearts recently had their time in the cold light of day, leading to their relegation. Livingston are also facing relegation after a points deduction for their own financial issues. Fans will not forget Gretna either after they fell into administration in the midst of an excellent season.

Limiting spending might allow room for other teams to have their time at the top. Celtic have the money domestically to ensure they are provided with top performers but there is no room even for an entertaining title race with the gaps in funding between teams. If Aberdeen or Dundee United were able to spend to the same extent as Celtic they could hold on to their quality players and make strides in spending on fresh talent. An agreement on a spending limit would also encourage the development of home-grown talent which would benefit Scottish football as a whole.

A salary cap might be the answer to financial crisis within Scottish football. Teams can only benefit from stricter regulations that would help weed out corruption in the game. It is the corruption that is the problem however and a salary cap is not a practical implementation in this country. The corrupt are too well established to allow such restrictions.

The root of MLS success in the recent season has likely been advertisement. Billboards were erected ahead of games, strip deals were struck and companies swiftly attached themselves to teams developing hype. Companies in the US cannot exercise their traditional methods of advertising during soccer matches. There are not as many commercial breaks to capitalise on as there are in the NFL and MLB.

MLS have been able to establish their franchises on the back of World Cup success. The 2014 Brazil competition saw the USA perform well with many Americans backing their team to an extent never seen before. The football fever evolved and has been transferred to the domestic league. With more attention fixed on the league advertisers have been keen to grasp a foothold and develop on the revenue establishing. Combine this with recognisable faces, such as Kaka and Beckham, and MLS becomes sellable.

MLS has also seen teams established with strong links abroad. New York City FC are closely linked with Manchester City which has transferred not only their shirts and colours but also their sponsors. Only in their first season NYCFC are already well established financially through their links to the Premier League side.

Can Scottish football capitalise to the same extent? Much can be done to attract financial sponsorship in Scottish leagues. Football in its current state has been regularly involved in advertisement though not to the same extent as teams elsewhere. More could be done to encourage advertisement to capitalise on games but the simple fact that attendance is lacking puts businesses off. There are also many teams in Scotland making it difficult for advertisers to focus on a particular fan base. There are plenty football fans in Scotland but they are spread out amongst a variety of teams with varying loyalties.

Lack of advertisement in Scotland is not necessarily a bad thing. It would be good to see Scottish football flourish financial through advertisement but not many fans are willing to see the game become overly commercialised. Soccer in the US runs the risk of developing into a corporate machine much like other American sports. Scottish football cannot benefit from the Americanising of advertising methods. It could lead to a change in the game’s identity and drive fans away from the beautiful game. That’s not to say that advertisements won’t come should they find Scottish football gain the same renewed attention that the MLS is receiving.

Scottish football can certainly learn from MLS by keeping a close eye on developments across the pond though the leagues are worlds apart. Salary caps and fan passion may be refreshing from financially weathered Scottish perspective but MLS is on course to become another commercial event in the same vein as other US sports. The development of the MLS is worth watching as the world of football becomes more accessible to the Scottish fan.

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