MLS expansion model could prove valuable example to Australia's A-League

With speculation rife that a new West Sydney team is set to be admitted into the A-League, Beau Busch looks at expansion in Australia and the lessons to learn from USA's MLS
By Beau Busch

Owners unable to deliver on their promises, an inability to attract investors and a failure to connect with the community. The reasons for the A-League’s expansion struggles vary.

In contrast, over in the United States, Major League Soccer’s (MLS) introduction of new clubs has been considerably more successful. Having started with 10 teams in 1996, MLS has now grown to 19. There were some difficulties early on but the past seven seasons have seen eight new clubs introduced with nearly all among the league’s most successful.

They have also had a positive impact on the league as a whole with crowds for the 2011 season averaging an impressive 17,872, an increase of 7.2 per cent on the previous season. While the funds available to owners have no doubt played a role in the success of expansion in the United States, wealth is not the only important difference between expansion in the A-League and MLS.

The MLS utilises a number of tactics to help expansion clubs become successful on and off the pitch as quickly as possible. Among these is extra financial assistance in the form of allocation money. Like the A-League, MLS has a salary cap which clubs must adhere to but the league has the ability to distribute funds to expansion or struggling sides, which can be used on the recruitment of players without counting towards the cap. The idea is simple: expansion clubs are starting from a disadvantage and financial assistance is a means of reducing this.

The recruitment of quality players for expansion clubs is also aided in MLS by the use of an allocation ranking system. This system sees clubs who are about to undertake their maiden MLS season ranked first, meaning that they have first option to sign a United States national team player returning to the competition after having gone abroad for a transfer fee.

MLS's Portland Timbers | Expansion success

As well as having first option on returning national team players, expansion clubs are offered the number one draft pick. The draft consists of the best college players, which is where most talented young players move to the MLS from. This offers expansion teams the chance of obtaining a real asset that could in the future earn the club considerable money from a transfer to Europe.

The importance of the stadium has also been crucial to the expansion. Many of the clubs own their own stadium and most were built to cater for football. This has proved crucial to the financial stability of clubs.

The importance of the stadium has been underlined by the approach MLS has taken to finding a suitable venue for the introduction of a second New York team. Several consultants have been appointed for the sole task of finding a ground that would not only enable the best experience for supporters but also the one that makes the most financial sense.

"The choice for the Football Federation Australia is to embrace change in the expansion model or carry on with one that has so far proved far from successful"

This has not always been the case in the A-League, with many club owners speaking of how stadium deals are harming their chances of financial stability. The answer for the A-League is not a simple one as most club owners do not have the funds to build their own stadiums. However, the importance of better deals for clubs with stadium owners should play a role in awarding future franchisee licences.

The ownership model of MLS is also vastly different from the A-League. Rather than simply owning a club, owners buy into MLS gaining a stake in the league, not just in a club as is the case in the A-League. With owners of A-League outfits eager to have more say in how the competition is run, this may be a way of ensuring that they are able to do so. This may also play a role in attracting additional investors as they may see more opportunity to determine how their investment is spent.

The MLS is not perfect but significant crowd growth, the strong performances of expansion clubs and a quickly improving playing standard means there is much that can be learned from the competition. The choice for the Football Federation Australia is to embrace change in the expansion model, or carry on with one that has so far proved far from successful.

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Beau Busch is a former A-League defender with Sydney FC and North Queensland Fury who currently plays with Arbroath in Scotland's Second Division