Recently there have been numerous stories about MLS' growing popularity, and how the league's average attendance is now greater than the NBA and NHL, and in many markets (including our own) competing favorably with MLB.
This impressive growth makes one dream of bigger and better things for MLS both nationally and locally. I've been as guilty as anyone of encouraging the "silly season", as I've posted multiple times on this site about the feasibility of Diego Forlan in rave green, and debated his fit on our squad vs. Drogba, Cisse or others.
But those dreams (mine included) leave out a key point: MLS tickets are MUCH less expensive than the NBA, and probably also less than the NHL. Bringing in expensive players will start to change that, if not next season then soon after. As great as our success has been, the affordability of the product is a big part of that. Big-ticket players could easily lead to rising ticket prices and a shrinking fan base, at least of those who can attend games.
With the Sounders' front office being ground zero for many of the biggest MLS rumors, I surprisingly find myself falling off this particular bandwagon, and dreaming small instead of big...
The idea of having our own $5M man like NY or LA has some definite appeal to it, but would it be in the best long-term interests of the club? I read somewhere - probably from a Dave or Jeremiah post here - that the Sounders estimated balance sheet is something like $50M in revenues and $15M in expenses...a very impressive haul. So we can afford to splurge on one player, but that doesn't mean we should.
As great as it would be to see Tagoe or Cisse suit up for the club, how will that player fit into the club? That one person will be responsible for 30-50% of the team's total expenses (not just player salaries, but ALL EXPENSES). Will he co-exist with teammates making literally 1% of his salary? What happens if he doesn't match the (absurdly high) expectations placed upon him? If he's a bust - and if the league starts bringing in these guys regularly there will be some spectacular busts - how much of a dent will the inevitable negative media backlash have on the league's growth and team's standing in the region with casual fans?
The safest and most realistic business model for MLS teams right now is that of a 2nd tier feeder league. Get quality players from leagues beneath the big five (England, Spain, Italy, Germany, France) who aren't quite ready for prime time, pay them reasonably well without breaking the bank, and when the time comes sell them to European teams. Spending $5-10M on a player's transfer fee and/or annual salary is a risky proposition, and I suspect most of the time we can find players who cost $1-2M that can make basically the same impact. The difference is even regular followers of international football like me don't know who those people are, so we can't speculate with any pretense of knowledge on the possibilities.
Someone who's a recognizable "brand" like Beckham or (to a lesser extent) Henry or Blanco is basically guaranteed to fill enough seats and sell enough jerseys to recoup their costs, but a Cisse or Tagoe or even Drogba? Not necessarily. And the risks of ruining team chemistry, hurting our ability to spend as much down the line for a deeper squad (and other improvements) seem too great to be worth the investment at this stage.
It's fun and damn near addictive to speculate about big names coming here, but there's got to be 20 potential Drogbas out there - not as well-known but capable of turning into elite MLS players. These are the guys who will cost 1/10th of the actual Drogba's price tag, and have the added upside of possibly being able to sell in 3-4 years to a big European club. For the right guy we may very well be able to collect a fee as big as his salary during his entire run here.
I'm not usually one to advocate "dream small" as a motto, but I'll be satisfied if our next DP is a million-dollar guy I've never heard of instead of a $5M guy whose exploits are familiar.
Anyone who reads this please feel free to mock my hypocrisy when I write a "Where's Xavi?" post in two weeks.