Clint Dempsey is an American. He now plays soccer in America. The prospect seemed far-fetched, even a week ago. But a determined MLS preempted other European clubs with a competitive transfer and salary package. The league now employs the most accomplished American star, while his legs still possess a little life. This is, without doubt, a coming of age signing for the 18-year-old league. Though, as most 18-year-olds discover, adulthood has many unforeseen stresses.
The idea of signing Dempsey is cool. But it’s not clear what tangible benefits this brings to MLS, beyond street cred. Dempsey will cost more than David Beckham did in 2007. Dempsey, while well-regarded, is no David Beckham, who was the most famous athlete in the sport (perhaps any sport). Beckham’s “effect” on the league, at least commercially, was, by the league’s own accounting “immeasurable.”
Beckham signed on with a league that had 12 teams and was exploring the idea of jersey sponsorships. He left a league with 19 teams, nearly all having multimillion dollar partnerships. League merchandise sales rose by more than 200 percent. Beckham’s major corporate sponsor, Adidas, reupped an eight-year deal with the league worth more than $200 million. His club signed a television contract worth more than half the league’s national deal with NBC. Two of the biggest sporting entities in the world, Manchester City and the New York Yankees, just paid nine figures to buy into the venture. Beckham was not solely responsible, but he was essential.
Dempsey brings more rap game, but none of that clout. It’s hard seeing him solve the league’s national television conundrum when Beckham could not. He’s not revitalizing a local team that already packs in 40,000 energetic fans per game.
Having the American captain could, in theory, provide a boost for MLS after the 2014 World Cup. But that boost never materialized in 2010, despite the presence of Landon Donovan and extensive promotion. It never materialized for the women’s professional game, despite popularity and much greater relative success.
Dempsey is more of an American star than a global one. Maybe he can lure skeptical Americans, getting into soccer by following Chelsea. One wonders, though, whether this move may see his popularity suffer a bit. Dempsey’s appeal has as much to do with his anti-establishment status as his charisma. He has, for most of his career, been the Anti-Donovan.
Landon, accurately or not, embodies the soft and suburban side of American soccer development. He played in youth clubs since he was continent. He was nurtured at the cushy IMG soccer academy. Until recent years, he seemed content not being challenged in MLS. Clint is harder and more organic. He came from less affluent streets. He forged his way outside the system. He took his first opportunity to go to the Premier League and has dedicated the last six years to proving and to improving himself at the highest level.
This move contradicts that image. By signing with MLS, Clint has abandoned his oft-noted “Champions League Dream” for a comfortable lifestyle and fat paycheck. A month ago he epitomized the “hunger” Jurgen Klinsmann wanted to instill in American soccer. Now, he’s the antithesis.
This signing also has significant ramifications for the league, far beyond Dempsey and the Sounders. It hits the nexus for two fundamental and existential issues MLS must address in coming years: player compensation and competitive balance.
Dempsey will earn around $6.9 million per year with the Sounders. He will be, by far, MLS’ hgihest paid player. He will earn more than twice the league’s salary cap and 77 times the league’s median salary. That would be the equivalent of an NBA player earning $176 million per year. Twelve of Clint’s new teammates earn $50,000 per year or less in base salary. That disparity will be noticed.
Signing him is testament to owners’ willingness to invest. It’s also testament to how much is not being invested, how much is restricted by league rules from being invested and how much growth is not trickling down to the average player. If this signing is a “game-changer” for MLS, it may also be a “game-changer” for the players’ union in the upcoming round of collective bargaining negotiations.
Dempsey’s signing may affect the future of the league’s collective model as well. MLS imposes rules that promote competitive balance. Then it breaks (or at least massages) them whenever convenient. The Dempsey move, in particular, will breed resentment from the league’s smaller clubs. They collectively helped finance the cost for him, for a transfer fee of around $9 million reportedly, and will derive little benefit.
MLS did not have the leverage to allot Dempsey to Columbus, Salt Lake or Kansas City. He was willing to play for three teams. Toronto got thrown out so he could play in the U.S. The Galaxy would not have had a DP slot available for him resigning Omar Gonzalez. Seattle was the choice. Dempsey did not end up in LA, but he still ended up at a flashy club with LA-based owners. That’s true for basically every marquee player who enters the league.
Owners in New York, Los Angeles and Seattle want to build international brands and have even more autonomy to bring in top players. This creates tension with owners in limited markets or who prefer to keep the costs down and not be called a skinflint for it. This tension will only grow in coming years. The Yankees and Man City did not pay $100 million buy-in fee to build through the MLS draft. Ditto for the multiple new expansion markets.
Signing Clint Dempsey in his prime may be a sign of MLS reaching adulthood. But as most adults find out, there’s more to that than fun, freedom and access to controlled substances. MLS has some very hard decisions to make over the next few years, decisions that may radically redefine the league.
[Photos via USA Today Sports, Getty]