Tim Cahill’s move from Everton to Major League Soccer’s New York Red Bulls has divided fans in Australia. While many understand his motives, some believe he should have returned to help the A-League though difficult times. We asked Peter Wilt, the founding general manager of MLS franchise Chicago Fire and a Melbourne Victory fan, for his perspective on Cahill’s move and he delivers a comprehensive analysis of the decision.
Players don’t always get to choose where they play. When they do get to choose, the choice is usually apparent and boils down to compensation and professional opportunity. Australian Socceroos star Tim Cahill’s decision last week to move from Everton to Major League Soccer’s New York Red Bulls caught many (everyone?) by surprise and had everyone asking “Why?”
It also caused Australia’s soccer community to look in the mirror and ask “Why not here?” Why, if Australia’s beloved midfielder was set on leaving Everton (and leaving Europe), would he choose to play in a league many perceive as comparable to the Hyundai A-League instead of returning home to help grow the game in his native country. He made it quite apparent that the A-League was so far from the standards he sought that he didn’t even give it a glancing thought.
Let’s take a look at his choice and see if there are any lessons to be learnt for the A-League.
Why did he choose MLS?
Cahill’s options were narrowed by his loyalty commitment to Everton not to play for a competing EPL side. The other priorities he listed were the quality of the football, the professionalism of the experience and the impact on his family.
Football: Cahill is not making this move blindly from a personal or professional point of view. He is familiar with the football in MLS. He has seen the quality of play in MLS first hand over the last eight years. Everton toured the US and played MLS teams in six of their last eight pre-seasons. Tour stops included Houston in 2004, Columbus and Dallas in 2006, Salt Lake City and Los Angeles in 2007, Chicago and Denver in 2008, Seattle, Edmonton and Salt Lake City in 2009 and Washington, DC and Philadelphia in 2011.
Most recently, he played against the MLS All-Stars with Everton going to penalties in 2009, and split a pair of matches with MLS sides DC United and Philadelphia Union in 2011. He has also played alongside top American players Tim Howard, who began his career with the New York team in MLS and Landon Donovan, who currently plays in MLS.
The importance in Cahill’s decision of Thierry Henry’s presence with the Red Bulls cannot be overstated. The opportunity to play alongside and linking up with one of the most respected attacking players in EPL history is a dream for any player at any stage of his career, including Tim Cahill. He nearly sounded like a fan boy when he said, “I’m going to be playing with one of the biggest superstars on the planet, and that’s Thierry Henry.”
There also was a sense from those comments that “if MLS is good enough for him, well then, it’s good enough for me”.
Professionalism: Facilities, facilities, facilities. The experience Cahill had on Everton’s previous tours served as a proving ground for MLS to show him, whether they realised it or not, that they offered high quality facilities, treated players well and regularly played in front of large crowds and full stadia. Touring international clubs stay at the finest hotels, eat quality meals and are treated with first class hospitality throughout their stay. For a player though, the most important part is the quality of the work place – the training facility and stadium.
On Everton’s half dozen US tours, they played and trained at some of the newest and finest purpose-built football stadia in the country including Rio Tinto Stadium in Salt Lake City, Toyota Park in Chicago, the Home Depot Center in Los Angeles, Pizza Hut Park in Dallas, Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Denver and PPL Park in Philadelphia.
The class of these facilities and the positive experiences the players had on these tours reinforced Cahill’s comfort level that the professionalism of his experience in MLS would allow him to do his job in a proper environment.
Family: Listed third by Cahill, but likely as important as the first two criteria, is the impact on his family. In his news conference he specifically mentioned the opportunity to share the experience of attending NBA, NFL and Yankee games in New York with his family. The cultural allure of the United States in general and New York City in particular is important to people who have the ability to choose where they will live with their family. Cahill and his wife Rebekah were married in the United States in Las Vegas and have a home in Florida where they often stayed on holiday.
Cahill is not alone in his desire to play in MLS in part due to the quality of life in the US for him and his family. As the Chicago Fire’s President and General Manager, I knew I was going to be able to sign Hristo Stoitchkov for the team in 2000 when I heard his children chanting “USA! USA!” in the background of our phone conversation. The Cahills have three children and I am certain the family was unanimous in support of Tim’s decision to move to New York.
The potential for increased compensation via sponsor endorsements and a post-career landing pad were important aspects to David Beckham’s decision to sign with MLS’ Los Angeles Galaxy. There has been some speculation that similar benefits motivated Cahill. He will not draw near the corporate interest that Beckham generates, however, nor is he likely to make the New York area his retirement home. He has always been a man who can be taken at face value and I believe he was sincere in his listing of football, professionalism and family as the three reasons for his decision.
Cahill is the latest example of David Beckham’s impact and legacy in MLS
The roots of Cahill’s decision are buried deeply in the impact of David Beckham’s earlier move to MLS. I mentioned above that Cahill may not have made the move if Henry had not done the same before him. It can also be postulated that Henry would not have made the move to MLS if Beckham had not blazed that trail earlier.
It is not too much of a stretch then to credit, by extension, the London Olympic torch-bearing speed boat pilot with Tim Cahill’s move. It also makes one consider what other developments in MLS can be traced to Beckham’s signature on an MLS contract in January, 2007. The following is a partial list that I would credit in large part (either directly or indirectly) to Beckham’s signing in 2007:
Expansion: Since January, 2007, MLS has added five teams at increasing fees topping out with Montreal which paid $40 million US to join this season. The business success enjoyed by the Galaxy and the League after Beckham’s signing not only justified the increased entry fee, it significantly increased investor confidence, which directly led to Seattle, Philadelphia, Portland,Vancouver and Montreal joining MLS.
New Stadia: MLS stadia sold out wherever Beckham and the Galaxy have played since his signing. Those crowds and the buzz they delivered helped justify four new purpose-built football stadia for MLS teams in Houston, Philadelphia, Montreal and Kansas City, remodelled stadia in Portland and Vancouver and another new stadium online in San Jose. Collectively, that’s more than half a billion US dollars in development attributable in part to number 23.
Larger Broadcast Deals: MLS currently receives rights fees for its national broadcasts from three US and two Canadian broadcasters. The cumulative rights fees exceed $30 million US per year, which represents an increase of . . . $30 million+ per year in rights fees.
For the 11 pre-Beckham years MLS was in existence, the League received no rights fees and merely divided advertising revenues with broadcasters on a negotiated basis. In Los Angeles, the Galaxy was able to leverage Beckham and the interest he’s generated in the local market into a massive 10 year broadcast package with Time Warner for a total of $55 million US.
Better International Players: In late 2006, MLS amended its $2.1 million US team player budget to accommodate one player per team who could be signed outside the salary cap. This Designated Player (DP) rule was known as “The Beckham Rule” as it was intended to be used to sign Beckham, which they hoped would encourage other marquee players to follow in his footsteps.
The league recognised that some of the DPs, like Beckham, would have name recognition and sell additional tickets and sponsorship to justify the increased compensation. They also recognised that some would be talented players who would improve the calibre of play, but wouldn’t be big names. They hoped there would be very few busts that brought neither name recognition nor talent.
Fifty-two DPs have signed in MLS since Beckham became the first. As expected, some sold tickets, some improved the level of play and some were busts. The rule may never have been implemented, however without the Beckham opportunity and the Galaxy’s aggressive lobbying for the rule change. Some of the positive DPs Beckham should be proud to take credit for include Thierry Henry, Cuauhtémoc Blanco, Juan Pablo Angel, Luciano Emilio, Freddie Ljungberg, Álvaro Saborío, Freddy Montero, Robbie Keane and now Tim Cahill.
Larger League and Team Sponsors and International Matches: As AEG President Tim Leiweke told Forbes, “We don’t talk about (the Time-Warner) deal without David Beckham…We wouldn’t have gotten the Herbalife deal (5 years, $25 million in 2007) without David Beckham. We certainly are not touring Indonesia, Asia and Australia without David Beckham, and we’re not getting the kind of guarantees we’re getting without David Beckham.”
Prior to Beckham’s arrival in MLS, there was not sufficient demand to justify selling the front of team jerseys to sponsors, so teams made zero revenue from uniform advertising. Beckham’s arrival created demand for the Galaxy jersey sponsorship which Herbalife paid $4.4 million US. Currently 16 of the 19 MLS teams have jersey sponsors including at least six clubs at $3 million per year or more. Again, much of this important revenue stream is directly attributable to Beckham’s arrival in 2007.
Record Attendance: MLS had the single largest increase in its average attendance from 2006 (15,504) to 2007 (16,770). It was not a coincidence that 2007 was also Beckham’s first year in the League. MLS attendance has continued to grow during Beckham’s six seasons in the League including an all-time high of 17,872 last year and 18,642 per game so far this season.
These improvements are a result both directly due to Beckham’s presence and indirectly due to many of his residual benefits such as new stadia, new teams, better broadcast deals, more DPs.
Jersey Sales: In 2007, the most popular jersey in sports globally was the Los Angeles Galaxy home white #23. More than 600,000 Beckham Galaxy jerseys were sold in its first year.
Passion/Credibility/Worldwide Visibility: Beckham’s benefit to MLS extends beyond dollar signs to the increased intrinsic value and perception of MLS domestically and globally. The league gained significant credibility with all audiences including the oft-missing “Eurosnob” fans who dismissed MLS as unworthy of their attention. Surely there are many remaining in that camp in the US, but the massive active support now seen throughout MLS that was limited to a minority of teams pre-Beckham points to the inroads that he and the DPs who followed helped create. MLS games are now broadcast regularly on a global basis much more than in the pre-Beckham era and that is likewise a direct benefit of his signing.
Expansion, new stadia, record broadcast deals, better players, larger league and team sponsorships, record attendance, jersey sales, increased passion, credibility and worldwide recognition add up to a phenomenal legacy that proves AEG and MLS’ investment in David Beckham was worth every penny and Tim Cahill was that investment’s latest reward.
Why didn’t Cahill choose the A-League?
Full credit to Matthew Hall for addressing the elephant in the room at Cahill’s New York news conference when he asked if the A-League was ever considered as an option. “Cahill was blunt. No. And it wouldn’t be in the future either,” Hall wrote.
Cahill’s words were indeed stinging, but he threw in the qualifier “and that’s no disrespect” to soften the blow. Here is his complete response to Matthew’s query:
”It’s simple. This is a massive move for me. Moving to the A-League, in all fairness, would have been a step backwards. And that’s no disrespect.
“It’s basically; I want to still play at a high level. There’s still another World Cup for me to play in and qualify for the Australian team, and this is a massive opportunity. I didn’t speak to any A-League clubs and it was never in my plans.
“The one thing I do in Australia is create pathways for kids to follow their dreams with my soccer clinics and I make sure that they know that if a kid like me can make it then they have opportunities.
“I think I’m more interested in the grassroots level of football in Australia and not playing there.”
The pertinent comment is in his first paragraph. He perceives playing for New York Red Bulls in MLS as “massive” and playing in the A-League as “backwards”. The unanswered question is “what are the differences in the two leagues that make one “massive” and the other “backwards”?
With Cahill being too gracious to get into specifics, it is up to others to speculate though his earlier comments about the reason for the move provide considerable hints. The move was about football, professionalism and family.
Football: Playing in New York will provide better football than playing in the A-League in Cahill’s opinion. Having Henry and former Mexico Captain Rafa Marquez as teammates is a good start and opponents like Beckham, Keane, Donovan and 26 other DPs provides better competition for him every day in training and in games. While the A-League allows roster budget exceptions for “marquee players”, no team in the A-League can offer Cahill the level of competition he’ll get in MLS, in his opinion.
Professionalism: The facilities in the A-League are generally over-sized, under-filled and many lack the high-end amenities of the ultramodern purpose built stadia in MLS. Six of the 10 A-League stadia have capacities of 30,000 or more and even the four smaller venues are rarely filled leading to an unprofessional image.
No League is without off field drama, but the A-League’s recent run of losing franchises, owner discontent and general dysfunction likely didn’t impress Cahill and contributed to his impression of a move to the A-League as “backwards”.
Family: I hate to provide conjecture on something this subjective, but I will nonetheless. I suspect Cahill’s family believes they can always return “home” to Australia when he retires, but the opportunity to live in the United States – and New York City in particular – is unique and probably would not happen later in life.
How can the A-League become attractive to players like Tim Cahill?
MLS did not just “luck” into signing Beckham. Having a team in the glamour capital of Los Angeles certainly helped, but MLS prepared itself in advance to attract him. The A-League similarly needs to prepare itself to attract the next generation of Socceroos. Losing Cahill was not a one off. There have been other high profile Socceroos who have passed on the A-League as Hall notes in his SB Insider article:
“Mark Schwarzer told Football+ magazine last year he would not play in Australia when his European adventure ends; Harry Kewell came and saw and left; Lucas Neill is in no rush to pull on any boots in his hometown;”
Regardless of what many A-League supporters may believe, the attraction to play in the A-League is simply not enough right now in those players’ minds and that is ultimately what matters. So what needs to change and how can that change be enacted? Let’s use Cahill’s three criteria … plus the unstated, though necessary, criteria of fair compensation:
Family: It is important to promote the good aspects of living in Australia and treat players and their families well. If teams and the league do that, the word of mouth promotion of the A-League by those players will help attract players. And even more importantly, don’t treat players poorly. Bad news such as missed paychecks, poor medical care and broken promises circulate quickly.
That being said, the overall family experience is pretty much going to be what it is regardless of improvements made by the league and its clubs. Sydney and Melbourne are going to be world class cities regardless and living in any other A-League city is also going to be positive. The quality of life and cultural and educational opportunities in Australia rank with many of the best cities around the world. For better and worse, it isn’t London and it isn’t New York and that’s fine. Embrace and promote the positive aspects for a family to live in Australia.
Professionalism: Much of this is about the club facilities. Improvement in training and game facilities can be important parts of attracting a bigger pool of talented players including Socceroos. This isn’t easy to do. Well at least the new purpose built stadia are hard to get. The training facilities are simple – just write a cheque!
The costs aren’t as large as a stadium and can generate some revenue as a multi-use semi-public facility. Most fields can be made available for public rental, while the club can maintain exclusive use to private indoor and outdoor training facilities. Most A-League teams have suitable training grounds, but are tenants of a university, stadium authority or other landlord. This limits potential for improvements, generating revenue and creating a club culture, because the team does not control the overall programming of the facility.
Creative partnerships like Adelaide United’s discussions to take over operations of The Parks can benefit all parties and give the club the ownership culture and control they desire as well as exclusive use of quality facilities.
Developing purpose built stadia is obviously more difficult. It requires public private partnerships that provide important benefits for all. The best way to put a club in position for this is to increase attendance at home games. Being able to guarantee a community that your club will bring 15,000 to 20,000 fans on a regular basis will go a long way in justifying their part of the stadium investment. Coming to the negotiations with a corporate naming rights partner in hand will also lessen the risk to the public sector. This article isn’t intended to be about stadium development, so I’ll leave this here and move on.
Football: This is very much a cart and horse situation. The better players will start coming when the football is better, yet the football won’t be better until the better players are in the league.
The football will improve when the following happens:
Domestic youth player development is critical to building the foundation of the A-League’s long term talent base. Others are much more knowledgeable than I am on this subject, but the FFA’s recent refusal to increase the A-League clubs’ share of transfer fees is a step backward. The FFA should increase the 80% club share of transfer fees contingent on minimum club commitments to fund the National Youth League and W-League. Restructuring the state leagues with their input and building a pyramid to properly bring them under the umbrella of the A-League seems to be a step in the right direction that will yield a better pool of domestic players for the A-League in the future.
- Player compensation on the high end should be increased strategically. Increasing minimum salaries and overall average team salaries does little to improve the level of play, because the same players will simply be making more money. The best return for investing in a higher player payroll is in the upper end of the pay scale. It will help retain quality players who otherwise may leave and will expand the pool of interested talented players who are now playing elsewhere including Socceroos.
This needs to be increased strategically and in phases as revenues and overall growth warrants. MLS has been a good model for this. They began with one DP and five international slots per team. The number of DPs per team has increased to a maximum of three since 2007 and expansion has increased the total number of available domestic roster spots even though the number of international slots has increased from five per team to eight.
- Improvements also need to be made in the international perception of the quality of A-League officiating. Officials are criticised worldwide, but that doesn’t mean better efforts can’t be made to improve it. MLS worked with the US and Canadian federations to professionalise their referee department. This interview I conducted last week with their new head of officiating, retired EPL referee Peter Walton, showcases their commitment to improving that critical aspect of the game. Similar efforts by the FFA would require some additional funding, but it will be available through the new broadcast deal and would result in tangible improvements to the game.
- Stabilising the League and its franchises must be a priority. The impatience in poor attendance caused by poor management resulting in team contraction must stop. Improve management, engage the public, fix the problems. Don’t run away from your problems by flushing the teams and their built up traditions and history down the toilet. There are not enough markets in Australia to slash and burn and expect to start over a few years later. The public becomes disenchanted and a generation becomes turned off to the professional domestic game.
- Commit to improve all revenue streams including tickets, sponsorship and broadcast. The next television deal is expected to increase substantially, which is a great step in the direction to make the A-League more attractive to Socceroos. The FFA hopes its new deal will at minimum double the current value of its rights fees with Fox Sports, which should allow clubs to cover their salary burden. It will be important then that clubs and the league don’t simply pocket the windfall, but instead invest other revenues in high end player salaries, community engagement, marketing, game experience, officiating, the W-League and the National Youth League.
It’s too late to convince Tim Cahill to play in the A-League, but if improvements and investments are made to the A-League now and consistently in the years ahead we will see that when it’s time to return home, Matt Ryan, Rhys Williams, Brett Holman and other Socceroos won’t hesitate about saying they want to make a “massive move” to the A-League.
Image: NY Daily News