Why is the Chinese Super League Winning and the MLS Loosing?

by William Hague

Written in May 2016

MLS Logo VS ?Chinese-Super-League-Logo

The only way to say it is “MONEY”. The Chinese Super League has been able win players away from the MLS because they have near unlimited amounts of money to pay for transfer fees and do not have a salary cap. They have operated on the reasoning that they don’t have the talent to build a team themselves is that will just have to steal it from the Premier League and even from the MLS, ironically.

What is common with both leagues is that they are both “aspirational” (Carlisle). They both are trying to become something greater. The means by which they do so are very different, however. MLS has been about slow and steady grown within the very saturated sports market in the US. All contracts are held by the league, not the teams, which keeps it a centralized, single-entity structure. Contrasting, the Chinese Super League’s growth has always been surrounded by offering talented teams massive amounts in transfer fees. They used to only go for prestigious European teams but now they are going for MLS teams as well (Carlisle). On the player level it has been seen that the MLS goes for players that are further away from their prime than the players that the Chinese go for (Duerden).

The common response to the lack of equality is to say, “Well, why doesn’t the MLS invest more money in acquiring players?” The reason is that the MLS would have to see an uptick in total revenue to justify an increase in spending (Carlisle). The MLS actually run like a business where it doesn’t spend more than it makes. The Chinese Super League has the backing of the government’s revenue so operating like a business is not a concern. In actuality the revenues of both leagues are pretty similar. They have right around the same game attendance numbers and the MLS has a TV contract at $720 million while the Chinese has a 5 year deal at $1.3 million (Carlisle). So both leagues are bringing in semi-similar revenues but one can spend astronomically more than the other.

The MLS isn’t too concerned with the Chinese Super League as it was never set up to compete with other international leagues (Lisi). It was setup to improve the US National Team so that we could compete better in international tournaments. Even today, the MLS wants to retain its ethos and play by the rules it set for itself. It has survived into its 21st season because of their methodical approach of investing in the long-term, not the short. MLS spent $40 million on youth development giving every team has its own academy (Carlisle). That is quite a remarkable investment as it start to mirror the European academy system that has produced so much international talent.

For players to come to the MLS in recent times has to do the US culture and language. What is attractive to foreign players to the MLS is the chance to live in North America and enjoy the lifestyle that come with it in relative anonymity (Carlisle) Even then it is more difficult logistically as the MLS has a lot of regulations as it relates to transfers (Duerden).

I think the MLS will stay strong and will prosper through all of this. I like their commitment to their ideology. I like the way they operate like a business and don’t spend outside their means. By committing large chunks  the revenue that they do have to youth player development is also another smart move that proved to be successful in the European leagues. On the other side, I am concerned with short-term talent going to China in the next 10-20 years but I think the MLS will come around after two strong decades of player development. I am much more concerned with the Chinese Super League’s spending and if after the president dies, the league will survive and prosper with the money they will be given. I think it all depends on how invested the public is in the sport and if the popularity is enough to carry it. If the teams can start to operate off their own revenue, that is a good sign that they could survive hard financial times later on.


How to cite this page: “Why is the Chinese Super League Winning and the MLS Loosing?”, Written by William Hague (2016). The Chinese Super League, Soccer Politics Blog, Duke University, http://sites.duke.edu/wcwp/research-projects/the-chinese-super-league/ (accessed on (date)). 


Carlisle, Jeff. “What Does the Chinese Super League’s Ambition Mean for MLS?” ESPNFC.com. ESPN, 15 Feb. 2016. Web. 01 May 2016. <http://www.espnfc.us/major-league-soccer/19/blog/post/2805827/what-does-the-chinese-super-leagues-ambition-mean-for-mls>.
Duerden, John. “Why China, Not MLS, Is Luring Stars Away from Europe.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 01 Feb. 2016. Web. 01 May 2016. <http://www.theguardian.com/football/blog/2016/feb/01/why-china-not-mls-is-luring-stars-away-from-europe>.
Lisi, Climente. “Is MLS Competing with the Chinese Super League?” US Soccer Players. United States National Soccer Team Players, 4 Apr. 2016. Web. 01 May 2016. <http://ussoccerplayers.com/2016/04/is-mls-competing-with-the-chinese-super-league.html>.