Deadspin writer wonders: Is Major League Soccer a Ponzi scheme?

Posted at 11:54 AM, Aug 05, 2017

All the fuss over Major League Soccer's expansion has at least one guy wondering: Is the whole thing a Ponzi scheme?

At Deadspin, Neil deMause asks why owners are lining up to drop $150 million in franchise fees for a league "that isn't exactly lighting it up in terms of attendance, viewership, or revenue."

Major league sports turn their profits from TV revenue. But for now, MLS ratings are underwhelming: Even primetime MLS matches get lower U.S. ratings than English Premier League games get on a Saturday morning.

Which means, deMause says, those owners have to lose tens of millions more just to lure an audience.

So what's the point?

For one, lots of people have lots of money: The United States is home to 540 billionaires but only 123 teams in the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL.

Also, owners hope to make it rich by riding a rising tide of soccer fandom.

But deMause says the American League doesn't really stand a chance against its more well-financed international counterparts that can pay for brand-name talent.

The way MLS can make money in the short term, he reasons, is by bringing in a new batch of owners willing to pay the franchise fees.

You know, like how a Ponzi scheme works.

That brings deMause to the issue of a soccer-specific stadium -- something MLS says is a requirement. League Commissioner Don Garber reiterated that point just this week.

DeMause's take:

If you're running a normal sports league, Cincinnati’s 20,000-a-game attendance for its USL team would be a tasty lure; if you’re running a pyramid scam, maybe it’s better to take El Paso if they’re willing to throw public money at a stadium deal and Cincinnati won't.

FC Cincinnati ownership – which includes prominent Cincinnati business leaders such as American Financial Group’s Carl Lindner III, Cintas CEO Scott Farmer and Hightowers Petroleum Co. President Steve Hightower -- will spend $100 million on a soccer-specific stadium.

That leaves at least a $100 million funding gap that the soccer team’s leaders hope either Newport or Cincinnati leaders can help fill with incentives.

City and county leaders have been resistant to the idea.

Still, Garber mentioned several times that Cincinnati is impressing.

Garber said FC Cincinnati was discussed in the board meeting with owners: “I will say what is happening in Cincinnati is remarkable. … Both on and off the field, we talked about it a bit when we presented the Miami section at our board meeting. Two games in the U.S. Open Cup at 30,000 (attendance) is just something they should be very proud of. Carl Lindner and Jeff Berding are doing an amazing job.”

Read more of deMause's take on the MLS gamble at Deadspin.