MLS Anonymous Player Poll Reactions

     To celebrate the 20th anniversary of Major League Soccer, ESPN gave an anonymous poll to 61 current players in the league asking them various questions about the structure and state of the league.  Since this is a great chance to understand the players’ on many important issues in the game, I thought I’d review some of the bigger questions and analyze what the answers of the players have to say about the league as it reaches its big anniversary.  To read the full ESPN article, click here: http://www.espnfc.com/major-league-soccer/19/blog/post/2491873/mls-anonymous-player-poll-on-diving-relegation-promotion.  Here are six questions asked in the poll, and what the results tell us about the league.

     #1- Promotion/Relegation: The first question I’d like to analyze is the first question of the poll, which asks players if they would prefer a promotion and relegation system like those present in many other leagues around the world.  64% responded yes, 34% said no, and 2% had no strong opinion.  A promotion and relegation system is one of the many changes I said I’d like to see take place in the MLS in my MLS Problems post back from last July: http://toplevelsports.blogspot.com/2014/07/the-6-biggest-problems-with-mls.html.  It forces every team to try hard throughout the season even if they have no chance at finishing high in the table and making the playoffs, essentially serving as a preventer of tanking.  It makes every game worth playing and worth watching, adding drama to the league as the season winds down.  I assume the way this would work with the conference system is that the bottom one or two teams from each conference would be relegated.  However, like some of the people who responded negatively said, there simply isn’t enough quality in lower level teams from leagues like the NASL to really be able to compete in the MLS.  Additionally, the MLS would have to finalize all of its expansion to be able to have a true promotion/relegation system.  Overall, I’m happy nearly two-thirds of players are in favor of the competition introduced should a system be implemented.
     #2- Salary Issues: The players were asked if they believed they could make more money in a different job.  Apparently, many players play for the love of the game, since surprisingly this question’s results were practically split down the middle, at 46% yes, 49% no, and 5% maybe.  While some of you might be quick to criticize the athletes of being ungrateful, let’s look at the numbers before making judgments.  Player salary has long been a problem in the MLS, as the minimum salary is only $36,500, which is far below the median household income in the US, which is around $50,000.  While the average player salary is $226,454, that number is significantly boosted by the league’s best players, including five which make at least $6 million per year.  The median salary in the league is about $92,0000, meaning half the league’s players have a salary less than that.
     The average player salary pales in comparison to the other major North American sports, with the NBA leading both North America and the world with an average player salary of $4.5 million, nearly 20 times more than the MLS average.  The MLB’s $3.9 million, NHL’s $2.4 million, and NFL’s $2.0 million all make the MLS look like a semi-professional league, rather than the quickly growing league it is.  However, the MLS has a revenue of roughly 10 times smaller than the lowest “Big 4” league, the NHL, meaning proportionally the player salary is still reasonable.  However, these players work just as hard as athletes in other leagues, and deserve to be paid more than they do.  This will probably come as the league becomes stronger as a whole, but for now it is a problem which gained more votes than any other when the players were asked to name the league’s biggest issue.  72% of those surveyed said they would change teams for money alone.
     #3- Concussions: 41% of players responded that they would play in a big match knowing they had a concussion.  Concussion are a huge issue in professional sports, and really all sports for that matter.  As I wrote in April, http://toplevelsports.blogspot.com/2015/04/concussions-down-in-nfl-but-work-still.html, players are becoming more and more aware of the dangers of concussions, which is a very positive thing.  However, still much work still needs to be done to educate all athletes of the short and long-term effects of concussions on the brain.  I have no doubt that if this question were posed 10 years ago, a far higher percentage of athletes would say they would knowingly play concussed.  I think the 41% number is a good one, but one that reverberates the idea that concussion education and awareness must be a prime point of emphasis for the sports world in the future.  
     #4- Elite League?: Another interesting question posed by the poll asked players if they believed the MLS could emerge as one of the world’s best leagues within 10 years.  Interestingly, 54% responded yes, showing a mix of optimism and (unfortunately), realism among players.  I’m not really sure what I expected the results of this question to be, but I find it intriguing that the outcome was so even.  It’s hard to define “one of the world’s best.”  Does that mean a top 5 league?  10?  Right now I feel like the MLS is a borderline top 10 league in the world, but one that has showed tremendous growth and potential in its short lifespan.  However, it is far from competing with the best leagues the sport has to offer.  There are a group of top leagues, which I would say includes the EPL, Bundesliga, Serie A, Liga BBVA, Ligue 1, and Primeira Liga which are on a different playing field when compared to the rest of the world.  To break into that group will take time, money, and league structure changes.  Currently, the only players coming to the MLS from Europe seem to be former great players nearing the end of their careers, such as Thierry Henry, David Beckham, and Kaka.  These players come primarily to be ambassadors of the game in the US.  However, for the MLS to compete internationally, they have to be able to keep the best North American players, as well as draw in top prospects from other continents.  The main item needed to do that is money, which I have already shown that the US is lacking in, at least comparably.  The MLS does not have a single name on Forbes’ list of the world’s 20 most valuable soccer clubs, and that will have to change in order to attract talent.
     #5- Playoffs: One of the MLS’ unique attributes is that unlike other soccer leagues around the world, it has adopted a playoff system similar to those present in the other “Big 4” sports.  This has been the subject of much debate and criticism, and while I advocated the end of this system, and have called it my least favorite playoffs of the major team sports here: http://toplevelsports.blogspot.com/2014/10/ranking-playoff-formats-of-big-5-sports.html, the MLS players seem to disagree with me, as shown by 66% of them approving of the system, while only 29% are opposed.  After more thought, I understand that the system must bring more excitement to the players, as while it may be clear just a couple months into the season who the top couple teams are, ten clubs get a chance at winning the title through the playoffs.  While other leagues have a similar kind of system through tournaments such as England’s FA Cup, the players clearly would like to see the playoffs continue.  Despite my personal feelings, I do concede that playoffs are great for advertising and drawing in new fans to the game, which ultimately can play a crucial part in the growth in popularity of the league.
     #6- Match Fixing: When I scrolled down to this question, I immediately became nervous.  If after I laid out my position on match fixing so strongly in “Stop Saying Sports are Rigged by Referees!” (http://toplevelsports.blogspot.com/2014/06/stop-saying-sports-are-rigged-by.html), the poll came back with any result other than 100% of players not being involved in rigging, I would have been extremely infuriated and ultimately disappointed in the integrity of the game.  Luckily, no one responded that they had ever been approached by someone looking to fix a game.  While I’m not sure even in the anonymous poll that anyone would admit to having been approached, it is comforting because I believe in the accuracy in all of the other questions, so I feel there is a strong chance this one is accurate as well.
     Well, those are around half of the questions posed in the actual survey, so you can read the rest if you wish on ESPN here: http://www.espnfc.com/major-league-soccer/19/blog/post/2491873/mls-anonymous-player-poll-on-diving-relegation-promotion.  How do you feel about the state of the MLS as it reaches its 20th birthday?  Would you be interested in more reaction-type articles like this, where I give my opinions on surveys and studies done in the sports world?  As always, comments are both encouraged and appreciated.
     Thanks for reading,
     Connor

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