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Stars Drive MLS Popularity, But Is That The Right Strategy?03:59
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In 2014, Seattle Sounders star Clint Dempsey pulled in just under $6.7 million. Toronto’s Michael Bradley earned $6.5 million in guaranteed money. But only a dozen or so players make seven figures, and the league is counting on their star power to increase the popularity of MLS.

Rick Burton, a professor of sport management in Syracuse University’s David B. Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamics who also served as the chief marketing officer for the U.S. Olympic Committee at the Beijing Games in 2008, joined Bill Littlefield to discuss the league's strategy.

BL: Let’s start with the idea of using your top stars to build the brand of a league. In the NFL, a regular season matchup between the Broncos and the Patriots with over 100 players on the sidelines, turns into “Manning vs. Brady.” Why has that worked so well for the NFL?

It's 'Animal Farm.' All the animals are equal, but a couple are more equal than the others. And it can break down in different ways.

Rick Burton, sports management professor

RB: I think there have always been stars associated with sports. But I think a guy who really deserves a lot of credit for changing the orientation is David Stern with the NBA. And he really looked at the kind of Larry Bird-Magic Johnson phenomena and saw that if you try to promote the stars, you actually get more traction with the fans.

And I think from that we've seen it grow now to other leagues. And so in talking about Major League Soccer, I don't think it's unusual that Commissioner Garber is kind of taking a page from David Stern's playbook.

BL: I want to ask you about your own personal experience with this subject. From 2003 to 2007, you were the commissioner of the National Basketball League in Australia. How did marketing that league’s stars work out down under?

RB: You know, not great in a strange kind of way. I went down there kind of very much a disciple of David Stern's approach to the game and thought, "All right, I'll bring some American ingenuity down with me. We'll promote the best players." But the Australians have a very egalitarian approach to sport — and really to life in general — and it was a really foreign concept to them to put an individual ahead of the team. My efforts to get the owners to really start to promote individuals really didn't work very well, and I needed to switch my tactics.

BL: Even in a culture where marketing the stars does work, are there disadvantages to building a league’s marketing around the power of a handful of individual players?

RB: Well, there absolutely are. One is injury and the other is arrest. When a team puts all their eggs on the back of an individual player, it's a tricky process if you then have a problem with the athlete. I think there's also the component that Major League Soccer may deal with which is that you can have kind of an us-and-them mentality. You know, it's "Animal Farm:" All the animals are equal, but a couple are more equal than the others. And it can break down in different ways.

BL: What are some of the other things that the league may have to worry about in that respect?

RB: Well, any time you're working on a Collective Bargaining Agreement, you've got to have a uniformity on the union side. It becomes problematic, I think, if you've got a decisive split.

BL: MLS is almost 20 years old, but you could trace its focus on big-name players to 2007, when David Beckham signed with the L.A. Galaxy. Beckham brought a celebrity obviously that transcended soccer and the league. Today the MLS website touts teams’ big spending on global talents. In your view, how critical is star marketing to the league’s future?

[sidebar title="Life As An MLS Rookie" width="630" align="right"]Former Columbus Crew defender Ross Friedman explains what it's like to play for a team where some players drive Porsches and others still live with their parents.[/sidebar]RB: I think it's important, but it's bothersome in some ways. America has changed a great deal. We've embraced soccer much more so. There are far more Americans covering the English Premier League and La Liga and the Serie A. But if you put in on a particular star, you're actually acting in a lot of ways different from how it's being done in Europe.

If you're paying a lot to a particular player the final score is 1-0 and that player didn't score a goal, you probably also have a little bit of fan dissatisfaction because they've paid to come out and see a star.

This segment aired on February 28, 2015.

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