MLS as a Retirement League: Maybe it had to be

By | February 29, 2020

The MLS is often viewed as “retirement league”, but to achieve success, that might have been a necessity.


The popularity of the MLS in the United States is growing, but it is still a very underdeveloped league compared to other leagues around the world. This stems largely from the country’s lack of a history around the sport of soccer and its inclination towards the other “big four” sports including baseball, football, basketball, and hockey. However, in an attempt to bolster the popularity of the MLS, clubs started signing heavyweight players from overseas to play for their teams. This started with David Beckham back in 2007, and has since attracted former stars like Wayne Rooney, Zlatan Ibrahimović, and even the likes of FIFA World Player of the Year and Ballon d’Or winner Kakà.

David Beckham with the LA Galaxy

While many of these players brought much needed attention to the MLS, as just their names on rosters helped sell more tickets and boost league popularity, the attention came as a double edged sword. All of the aforementioned players were well passed their primes when they transferred to the MLS, where many enjoyed tremendous success. The combination of their age and success upon arrival in the league created an image of the MLS that accentuated the gap in caliber between it and its counterparts in Europe. Hence, the title of “retirement league” was bestowed upon the MLS. However, as insulting as that title may seem, it might be a necessary stepping stone on the path to success for the MLS. Prior to the recruitment of aging stars overseas, the MLS struggled to garner attention and attract fans. Unlike other countries like England, Spain, and France where soccer is the largest and most established sport, the MLS has to compete with very large, and very successful sports leagues like the NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL. These leagues command the attention of the vast majority of American sports fans, and all of them are grossing over 3 billion dollars in revenue every year, with the highest earners being the MLB and NFL which generate a whopping 9.5 billion or more. By comparison, the MLS only earns 461 million dollars in revenue. A point of concern with this argument may be that fans of the larger European soccer leagues come from everywhere in the world, so why can’t the MLS attract an international audience and tap the international market? Maybe it can eventually, but no league starts by attracting international fans. A league first taps the market in its home country before foreigners will ever pay any interest. Not to mention that the MLS would be sorely mistaken to overlook the market United States, which has the potential to be one of the largest in the world for soccer. As such, the MLS has to start with the challenge of competing with titans of the professional sports industry who already command a large influence over the United States’ young athletes. This makes decision to recruit aging big name players from European leagues much more understandable and it may have been a necessary strategy to attract a fanbase and carve out a place for itself among the other professional leagues in the United States.

The MLS’s competition within the United States dwarfs other sports leagues around the world in terms of revenue. Even the BPL doesn’t compare to the MLB and NFL.

Despite its reputation and its competition, the MLS is growing at a tremendous pace. The success brought by acquiring foreign players and growing their fanbases has allowed MLS teams to expand rapidly, establishing youth academies and recruiting foreign players from South America. Teams have been able to dramatically increase their investment in player development, and as a result, the level of competition in the MLS has risen. European clubs no longer disregard peak performers in the MLS as they once did, as is shown by players such as Alphonso Davies or Tyler Adams who were both signed by influential German clubs. These up and coming stars can compete at a high level regardless of the league where they choose to develop their game.

Alphonso Davies, prominent winger for Bayern Munich.

Will we ever see the MLS become the British Premier League? Maybe, maybe not. But, assuming the current trend continues, the MLS is on the right track to shedding its title as a retirement league and taking a place among the world’s elite soccer leagues.



Which Professional Sports Leagues Make the Most Money?

MLS and How It’s Gradually Coming Out of the Stigma of Being a Retirement League

Wayne Rooney to D.C. United: MLS still a retirement league for stars on the wane




2 thoughts on “MLS as a Retirement League: Maybe it had to be

  1. Eric Werbel

    Interesting perspective. I had never considered that the MLS being a retirement league could help the league’s growth. It does make sense, especially as most starts are not born and raised in the US, but come from other countries around the world.

  2. Laurent Dubois

    Excellent reflections, Conor! Grant Wahl’s book The Beckham Experiment offers a really great account of some of the foundations for our current situation in the MLS, and I recommend it highly.


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