When Major League Soccer debuted in 1996, the league had a defined look. There were some shiny uniforms that wouldn’t have felt out of place at a Jimmy Buffett concert. Most of the games were played on NFL fields – sometimes with the yardage lines in full bloom – and the style of play was murderous. An entertaining Instagram account recounts that first year, including a rainy final between the LA Galaxy and DC United, which remains a classic.
After hosting the 1994 World Cup (establishment of a national league was a requirement) and starting with 10 teams, MLS experimented with some “fine play” adjustments. The most important being a shootout at the end of the tie matches so as not to alienate the American fans, who were not used to professional sporting dead ends.
And the names of the teams were far from what the purists expected. There was the Tampa Bay Mutiny, the San Jose Clash, the Dallas Burn, and the Kansas City Wiz. In some ways, the extra frills were reminiscent of the league’s predecessor, NASL, which withdrew in 1984. But, like its ancestor, MLS certainly had (and retains) a strong personality and sense of self.
As MLS celebrates its 25th season– and an MLS Cup match between defending champion Seattle Sounders and Columbus Crew (one of the original 10 franchises) – it’s now a powerful league with 26 teams, with four more on the way. It is also the third busiest American sports league behind the NFL and Major League Baseball with solid broadcast rights and an increasingly diverse and young audience who aspires to football and can prepare it for future success.
Adweek spoke to several people involved in the formation of the league. What has emerged is a fascinating and unique story about his business plan, the ascending arc of the league, some of the eclectic characters and personalities who have built a solid foundation that will pave the way for the next direction in MLS.
The original business plan
According to Sunil Gulati, former deputy commissioner of MLS and former president of the American Football Federation, several people involved in the sport considered embarking on the development of a business plan in the late 1980s, several years after the fall of the NASL.
“It never really worked out,” he says.
At the end of 1991, Alan Rothenberg, president and CEO of the 1994 World Cup, formed a group to lead the way in starting a league. One of the mandates of the organization of the world tournament was that it be held in America. Gulati knew that it was essential to find someone to structure a business plan, as others were working on the World Cup.
“Mark Abbott became the point of contact,” Gulati said. “And later, become the number one employee of Major League Soccer.”
Abbott, who is the league’s president and deputy commissioner, was a young partner at the law firm Latham & Watkins, where Rothenberg was a partner. Abbott overheard Rothenberg asking someone to write a business plan. It was the spark he needed.
“I heard that, I went down four flights of stairs to his office and volunteered to do it,” said Abbott, who grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota and was a boy. ball at Minnesota Kicks games in the 1970s.
Learning from NASL, where powerful teams like the New York Cosmos had outsized influence, one of the most critical elements of the plan was to ensure that MLS had a solid ownership structure. In addition, these owners had to participate in the long term.