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Six Things K-League Can Learn From MLS Part 5

(image via ibtimes.co.uk)
David Beckham and MLS are nearly synonymous to the world football fan. Ask just about any casual fan worldwide what they know of MLS and they'll likely say David Beckham and LA Galaxy. Much has been written over the years of the impact the former England captain had on MLS and pushing it to a new level both on and off the field, so there won't be much of that here. No, what's more important here in Part 5 of Six Things K-League Can Learn From MLS is that David Beckham broke the rules when he joined MLS. Literally. Before Beckham's lauded arrival in the City of Angels, the MLS had a hard and firm salary cap of $2.1 million in 2007, a number far too low to satiate Beckham's $6.5 million annual salary. So MLS made the "Designated Player" rule and allowed their new star to break the rules and have the bulk of his salary exempt from the team's overall cap number. Which is exactly what K-League should do, implement a salary cap and then break their own rules.

Yup, a salary cap. I know full well this is absolutely sacrilegious to many and flies in the face of what the likes of Leister, West Ham, Southampton and many other teams are currently up to in the free spending EPL. But it's important to keep in mind the K-League is not the EPL and the same rules shouldn't apply across the board from the world's most watched league and one struggling for relevancy in its own country. While I'm not a gigantic fan of the exact mechanisms the MLS uses for its salary cap, I do think there are several benefits to the concept that K-League could benefit from.

Easily the biggest benefit of a salary cap, and one of the main reasons it's been implemented in many US sports, is an evening of the playing field. Parity is the buzzword of choice for MLS spokespeople. It's a catchphrase, sure, but it's also something that's come true for the most part in MLS. Just this past season saw an MLS Cup Final between the Portland Timbers and Columbus Crew, two small market teams with moderate salaries. The Crew hail from a city of 822,553, average 16,985 fans per game and spent $4.5 million on salaries last season. The Champion Portland Timbers come from a city of 609,456 with a rabid fanbase that sells out every home game at the 21,144 capacity Providence Park and spent $5.1 million on player salaries. Despite coming from small markets, both teams enjoyed good home support and didn't have to spend a ton to find their way into the championship. In fact, neither team cracked the top ten in Total Base Salary for 2015 (chart below) and were nowhere near the high water mark of $20.4 million set by Toronto FC.

TeamTotal Base SalarySalary RankFinal Standing
Toronto FC$20,401,075112
LA Galaxy$18,820,00829
New York City FC$17,347,421317
Orlando City SC$10,577,597414
Seattle Sounders$9,866,04858
New England Revolution$5,921,005611
Chicago Fire$5,842,783720
Vancouver Whitecaps$5,433,49085
Philadelphia Union$5,269,923918
Sporting Kansas City$5,209,2501010
Portland Timbers$5,123,133111
San Jose Earthquakes$4,557,8921213
Columbus Crew SC$4,557,355132
Colorado Rapids$4,555,5021419
Houston Dynamo$4,504,8751515
Montreal Impact$3,950,869166
Real Salt Lake$3,888,8841716
D.C. United$3,851,509187
FC Dallas$3,670,000194
New York Red Bulls$3,437,738203
*Final places based on playoff performances. Salary information from The Goat Parade.

As you can see, hardly any of the teams that spent big finished overly well. Two of the top five spenders in MLS last season didn't even make the playoffs... and 60% of the league makes the damn playoffs. Taking another look at the chart, it's obvious that only those top five teams are spending well above the rest of the league. With the other fifteen MLS teams being much closer in spending due to the salary cap, it's created a more even playing field where nearly every team is trotting out similar strength rosters and should have a decent shot of winning. At least that's the theory on paper. And in 2015 that theory played out perfectly with six of the top ten teams residing in the bottom half of Total Base Salary. This means the proverbial "little fish" not only has a fighting chance in MLS, but damn well may win the league. Looking at the same figures for K-League shows that quite the opposite is true.

TeamTotal Base SalarySalary RankFinal Standing
FC Seoul$6,095,76744
Only one of K-League's top five spenders failed to finish in the top five with Ulsan the anomaly in the bottom half. Aside from Seongnam's impressive run, those that spend in the bottom half finish in the bottom half. Sure, in a true capitalistic society these are the laws of the land. You have to spend big to win big. But, you know what? It's boring. Again, this is the spending model the EPL uses and that league's doing just fine, but it's title race is tiresome. One must go all the way back to the 1994-95 Blackburn Rovers to find a team outside of the perennial top four who won the title. Which means the majority of fans start the majority of seasons with little to no hope of winning the title. While Leicester's working their hardest to interrupt the procession, the overwhelming data still points to one of the top four spenders in the EPL winning the title every single year. And Leicester may well slip and allow the trend to continue this season. Unfortunately, the title race is equally boring for the majority of fans here in Korea. As a supporter of the small market Jeonnam Dragons, I can attest to the depths of apathy a fanbase can reach. There's no realistic hope of success here because small teams simply do not win titles. Add in the fact that K-League is nowhere near as entertaining to watch as EPL and so there's only so much teams can do to draw fans with that reality. Yet the EPL model is what K-League attempts to replicate... and it works... for the top few.

Pohang Steelers
Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma
Suwon Samsung Bluewings
FC Seoul
Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors
Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma
FC Seoul
Jeju United
Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors
Ulsan Hyundai
FC Seoul
Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors
Pohang Steelers
Ulsan Hyundai
Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors
Suwon Samsung Bluewings
Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors
Suwon Samsung Bluewings
Even the Runners-Up are in the top four or five spending every season for the most part. Following the league on a week to week basis and watching the games is damn fun, but predicting the eventual champion is mundane bordering on pointless. Is there anyone reading this who doesn't honestly think Jeonbuk will walk away with the title this year simply because they spent more than everyone else? The big four of Jeonbuk, Suwon, Seoul, and Pohang may enjoy good crowds and success on the field, but there's little to no chance for the likes of bottom spenders Gwangju or Daejeon to even finish in the top half and their fans know it. Parity at its simplest means more fans in more markets have the belief their team has a shot at the title, and that's what K-League needs to draw in more fans. If the casual fan believes their team can actually win, they'll go to more games, watch more often on TV, and be generally be more engaged. And it's working in MLS. The New York Red Bulls rang in at the very bottom of Total Base Salary in 2105 and still won Supporters Shield (the trophy awarded to the team with the best regular season record... or as most leagues know it, the title). Because the playing field is much more level, teams are rewarded for smart spending instead of simply spending and spending and spending like Jeonbuk is currently doing in K-League. To consider this further, let's take a look at MLS Champions dating back to Beckham's arrival and the changed salary cap rules in 2007.

2007Houston DynamoNew England Revolution
2008Columbus CrewNew York Red Bulls
2009Real Salt LakeLos Angeles Galaxy
2010Colorado RapidsFC Dallas
2011Los Angeles GalaxyHouston Dynamo
2012Los Angeles GalaxyHouston Dynamo
2013Sporting Kansas CityReal Salt Lake
2014Los Angeles GalaxyNew England Revolution
2015Portland TimbersColumbus Crew SC

So... the Galaxy have a third of the championships on that list... invalidates the salary cap idea, right? Well, not really. It simply points out that teams willing to spend are still rewarded while allowing for small market teams to flourish in the same system. Not one of the other champions on that list could be considered one of the "big four" by K League or MLS standards. From Portland back to Houston, every non-LA champion is very much middle of the road or lower on the annual payroll. By spending wisely in a system built to help them, Portland and Columbus were able to find success both on and off the field this year and continue to give small market fans hope. Using this model in K-League, the salary-based equivalent of Portland and Columbus' championship runs would be Jeonnam and Seongnam duking it out for the title. Seems impossible, right? Well... in MLS it's not. The parity created by MLS' salary cap is something that helps each and every fan start the season thinking their team may actually have a shot at the title. Which in turn not only means more committed fans, but also a more entertaining and far less predictable league.

At this point, you may be thinking "alright, I'm in. Parity throughout the league sounds great! But how does the MLS salary cap actually work and can it be transitioned to K-League? Are we done talking about David Beckham? And what the hell is a DP?" Well, we're definitely done with Becks for now. As for the MLS salary cap, it looks like this:

Salary Cap: $3.49 million
Max Salary for non-DPs: $436,250
DP Salary Counted Against Cap: $457,500
Max Number of DPs: 3

There's also General Allocation Money (GAM), Targeted Allocation Money (TAM), and a whole host of other money moving mechanisms in the league that can be used to pay down player salaries and avoid the DP tag. In the most MLS of trades, just today two teams traded GAM for TAM. Sound a bit confusing? It is. And that's why K-League could learn from MLS' salary cap and improve on it with far fewer hoops to jump through. Keep the Designated Players and a portion of their salary counted against the cap, but eliminate the odd money allocation through GAM and TAM, and raise the salary cap a bit to allow for more mid level talent. However, an exact replication of MLS' numbers won't exactly work for K-League. In MLS, the average player's salary is $283,000 and the highest is Kaká's $7,167,500. In K-League, the average player's salary is $108,589 and the highest is Leonardo's $1,047,157. Undeniably there's a large disparity in salaries, but we can still use these basic numbers from MLS to come up with the following system for K-League:

Salary Cap: $2.25 million
Max Salary for non-DPs: $167,277
DP Salary Counted Against Cap: $173,916
Max Number of DPs: 3

If the figures seem a bit low, keep in mind there are some mechanisms already in place in K-League that keep costs down... for better or worse. According to Goal.com's Steve Han, "the league imposes a cap for domestic rookies, which is set at $50k and the minimum is $20k. Shockingly, Busan striker Lee Jeong-hyeop, who was also the starter for the national team prior to his skull fracture, is currently on a $35k-per-year contract." So keeping all non-DP salaries under the cap should be quite doable for most K-League teams. If not, it may simply mean reducing the number of players on the roster from the 30 K-League Classic averaged last season. Running with 26 or 27 players would be more than fine for the vast majority of teams and reducing the roster by even three or four players will help cut costs tremendously. I mean... it's not like having 35 players last year helped Daejeon any, did it?

Regardless of how teams finagle their rosters to get under the cap, it's vital that they do not only for parity and entertainment, but for sustainability. Having a cap in place means each team owner can go into the season with a more predictable budget and something close to cost certainty unless they decide to splurge on a player or three. In which case, the sky's the limit and they can spend whatever they want on a small number of players. However, they won't be able to stack their team so much that the rest of the league can do little more than look up and weep. The obvious downside to capping spending is that it may hinder K-League's ability to compete with the ferociously spending Chinese Super League in Champions League. But, for a league who's fans are protesting budget cuts by drinking milk, it's clear the focus needs to be domestic first for K-League. K-League cannot keep pace with CSL's spending and shouldn't try. The CSL model of spending simply isn't sustainable, and attracting grossly overpaid players doesn't need to be K-League's role in Asian football. Frankly, it can't be. Instead of trying to keep pace with Chinese spending, turning the focus inward and creating a more financially stable domestic league will allow for slow growth over time by creating more financial certainty for those investing in the league. Additionally, a more even competition means each owner investing in the league has a proper chance of reaping some rewards for their investment as long as they have knowledgeable staff running the club.

Slow and steady isn't as sexy as breaking the transfer record three times in one window, but it's an approach that's worked for MLS and could for K-League. Parity combined with the star power allowed through the DP rule means more unpredictable and entertaining football on a weekly basis. Because nearly every team has a legitimate shot at winning every year, more fans across the country pay attention to their team. This has led to MLS seeing an all time high average attendance of 21,574 in 2015 and their highest earning TV deal to date. Attendance and TV time means more exposure, which means more sponsors wanting to hand over some money. More money in the league means a higher salary cap, more money for players, and a higher standard of quality on the field from the slightly more expensive players. Rinse and repeat.

It's time for K-League to stop mimicking the spending structures of the EPL and CSL and try something more sustainable to grow the game domestically. K-League genuinely needs more fans, and creating a more balanced competition like MLS has with the salary cap may be one of the best ways to do it while creating more financial stability. If it's worked for MLS in the overly crowded sports landscape of America, surely it's worth a shot here in Korea, right? If that's still not enough to entice the baseball-mad Korean fanbase, check back for Part 6 which is sure to energize some folks.

What do you think? Is a salary cap the best route for sustainable success in K-League? Share your thoughts in the comments below! 

Six Things K-League Can Learn From MLS
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

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