Tuesday, October 19 2021
Los Angeles, CA, Wednesday, August 25, 2021 - Jonathan Rodriguez of Liga MX celebrates after scoring a first half goal against the MLS All-Stars at Banc of California Park. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

Liga MX’s Jonathan Rodriguez celebrates after scoring a first half goal against the MLS All-Stars at Banc of California Park on Tuesday. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

After Tuesday’s All-Star Skills Challenge, executives from nearly every club in Major League Soccer and Mexico’s Liga MX made the short walk from Banc of California Stadium to the California Science Center in Exposition Park to both celebrate and plan.

The skills challenge was the appetizer to Wednesday’s MLS-Liga MX All-Star game, won by MLS on penalty kicks after the match ended in a 1-1 draw. The game was the largest, most complex collaboration yet between the leagues, but Tuesday’s Founder’s Dinner, held in the hangar-size hall that houses the space shuttle Endeavor, was historic in its own right since it marked the biggest summit of team owners and executives from the two sides, who are taking the first tentative steps toward a partnership that could become one of the most expansive in club soccer history.

“Really the most important thing is that there’s this group of progressive owners that are now talking. They found the chemistry there,” said Martin Hollaender, chief financial officer for Orlegi Sports, which owns Liga MX franchises in Torreón and Guadalajara.

“It’s a very good start,” he said. “But there’s so many details.”

Details that will ultimately determine what shape that partnership takes. But with the countdown to the 2026 World Cup, to be hosted jointly by the U.S., Mexico and Canada, having already begun, the two leagues had no choice but to get the journey started.

“There’s too much money for both sides to ignore,” said Steven A. Bank, the Paul Hastings professor of business law at UCLA and a close observer of global soccer.

MLS forward Diego Rossi flips the ball over Liga MX goalie Guillermo Ochoa toward the goal.MLS forward Diego Rossi flips the ball over Liga MX goalie Guillermo Ochoa toward the goal.

MLS forward Diego Rossi flips the ball over Liga MX goalie Guillermo Ochoa toward the goal, but another defender kicks the attempt away in the first half of the MLS All-Star game at Banc of California Park on Wednesday. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

A partnership between the region’s two biggest soccer leagues would benefit both in important ways. Liga MX clubs covet the massive Mexican American audience in the U.S., one Mexico’s national team has long exploited. Liga MX President Mikel Arriola said 18% of U.S. soccer fans follow his league, giving it a potential base of 188 million in the two countries.

MLS, meanwhile, has failed to make lasting inroads with that same population. Although the league’s TV ratings have seen double-digit growth on all platforms this season, Liga MX remains far more popular in the U.S., with Univision nearly doubling the average MLS audience for the 130 Liga MX games it broadcast on its family of networks in this year’s Clausura tournament.

Closer ties with the Mexican league would give MLS much-needed access and exposure to that demographic, boosting its TV ratings, making its broadcast rights more lucrative and broadening its fan base.

“It’s 100% commercially driven,” Stuart Holden, a former U.S. national team player and part owner of Spanish club Mallorca, said of the growing synergy between MLS and the Mexican league. “But in order to compete with the best leagues in a global transfer market to get the best players, you have to bring in more money and more sponsors.

“Everyone in this country should be looking at 2026 as the next liftoff point. A lot of commercial dollars will be heading soccer’s way, and really it will be the moment where that sport will be front and center in the U.S. media.”

MLS All-Star players celebrate after FC Dallas forward Ricardo Pepi scored the winning goal in a penalty shoot out.MLS All-Star players celebrate after FC Dallas forward Ricardo Pepi scored the winning goal in a penalty shoot out.

MLS All-Star players celebrate after FC Dallas forward Ricardo Pepi (24) scored the winning goal in a penalty shoot out against the Liga MX All-Stars during the MLS All-Star match on Wednesday. (Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

The All-Star game partnership is the latest in a series of collaborations between the two leagues, one that includes the Campeones and Leagues cup tournaments. But it’s also the largest and most complicated of the three because it involves all 45 teams in the two leagues, giving each a stake in its success.

“With our vision we think this is the first steps to build this binational league,” said Dante Elizalde, executive president of Santos Laguna. These “events are a good opportunity to find a better way to find a match between both leagues. It’s really positive to start working in that.”

It also lays the foundation for even bigger things.

“Who knows what this whole North American landscape is going to look like when it comes to soccer in a few years?” said Alexi Lalas, a former MLS player and club executive.

Bank, however, believes talk of a merger is unrealistic given the legal challenges and the enormous difference in quality between Liga MX and MLS teams.

“There’s a better word for it, which is a joint venture,” he said. “You start signing media deals that cover both. You start signing sponsorship deals.”

MLS goalie Andre Blake knocks the ball from Liga MX forward Santiago Giminez.MLS goalie Andre Blake knocks the ball from Liga MX forward Santiago Giminez.

MLS goalie Andre Blake knocks the ball from Liga MX forward Santiago Giminez during first half action at the MLS All-Star game at Banc of California Park on Tuesday. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

That could ultimately force teams to play competitive interleague games that count in their respective league standings, Bank said. To become competitive in that environment, MLS would have to dramatically increase its spending on players, which is currently limited to $9.2 million per club, excluding designated players and U-22 signings.

“I think the owners are saying, ‘If the dollars signs are there, we can ramp up the competitive level,’” Bank said. “And they’re right because there’s enough players you can buy around the world if you need to. You can raise your international slots, you can raise your roster sizes. You can devote more money to scouting.”

That’s why Holden, who is also a soccer analyst for Fox Sports, likened Tuesday’s dinner at the science center to the start of a courtship.

“I think they’re doing it the right way,” he said. “They’re in the dating stage. Maybe one day you enter into a marriage or maybe they’re partners and every now and again they’re together.

“If they do it the right way and if people get excited and interested and the competition’s good, then you’re going to see a lot of more of it.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

Source: Yahoo Sports

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