When Major League Soccer debuted in 1996, the league had a certain look. There were light-colored 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 meter lines blooming – and the style of play was full of bruises. An entertaining Instagram account covers the first year, including a wet final between the LA Galaxy and DC United that remains a classic.
After hosting the World Cup in 1994 (the establishment of a national league was a prerequisite) and starting with 10 teams, MLS experimented with some improvements to the “beautiful game”. The best known is a shootout at the end of a tie so as not to alienate American fans who were not used to professional sports stalemates.
And the team names were far from what the purists expected. There was the Tampa Bay Mutiny, San Jose Clash, Dallas Burn, and the Kansas City Wiz. In a way, the additional successes were reminiscent of the league’s predecessor, the NASL, which collapsed in 1984. But like her ancestor, MLS undoubtedly had (and continues to have) a strong personality and self-esteem.
As MLS celebrates its 25th season – and an MLS Cup matchup between defending champions Seattle Sounders and Columbus Crew (one of the original 10 franchises) – it’s now a strong league with 26 teams, with four more on the way . It’s also the third most popular league in U.S. sport after the NFL and Major League Baseball, with solid broadcasting rights and an increasingly diverse and young audience that craves football and can set it up for future success.
Adweek spoke to several people who were involved in the formation of the league. What came out was a compelling and unique story about their business plan, the league’s upward arc, some of the eclectic characters and personalities that formed a strong foundation that will set the course for the next evolution of MLS.
The original business plan
According to Sunil Gulati, former MLS deputy commissioner and former president of the United States Football Association, several people involved in the sport were considering developing a business plan in the late 1980s, several years after the NASL collapsed.
“It never really got anywhere,” he said.
In late 1991, Alan Rothenberg, chairman and CEO of the 1994 World Cup, put together a group to show the way to start a league. One of the mandates for hosting the global tournament was that it should take place in America. Gulati knew it was important to find someone to structure a business plan as others were working on the World Cup.
“Mark Abbott became the point person,” said Gulati. “And later you will become number one in Major League Soccer.”
Abbott, who serves as the League’s president and vice commissioner, was a junior associate at Latham & Watkins law firm, in which Rothenberg was a partner. Abbott heard Rothenberg ask about a business plan. That was the spark he needed.
“I heard this, walked down four flights of stairs to his office and volunteered,” said Abbott, who grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota and was a ballboy at the Minnesota Kicks games in the 1970s.
Learning from NASL, where powerhouse teams like the New York Cosmos had an oversized influence, was one of the more critical components of the plan to make sure MLS had a solid ownership structure. In addition, these owners had to be there in the long term.