Six Things We Learned From The MLS Player Salary Data Dump

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On Friday (one day after ratifying a new collective bargaining agreement), the Major League Soccer Players Union released its 2015 salary information. And all across the land, soccer analytics nerds rejoiced as they received the bounty of a big, tasty dataset to explore. The graphs and charts started filtering into Soccer Twitter this morning, with predictable hot takes, er, hot on their heels. The MLSPU’s data dump is largely context-free, yet the numbers yield some insight into the makeup of the league’s labor market; who gets paid, who’s cutting the checks, some ongoing trends, and what (if any) return on investment exists. Here are six things we gleaned after looking at the figures.

(If you want to dive into the data yourself, you can find it here;.)

1. Five teams account for roughly half of the league’s salary costs
Completely unsurprisingly, those teams are (in descending order): Toronto, Los Angeles, NYCFC, Orlando and Seattle (it’s worth noting that two of those teams are in their inaugural MLS seasons). Combined, these five teams spent just under $83 million on player salaries. With the league’s total compensation sitting just shy of $160 million, that means this quintet of big spenders is on the hook for slightly more than 50% of MLS contracts.

2. The ten biggest contracts account for a third of the salary base
Well, 35.5%, if you want to get technical. Orlando City’s talisman Kaka leads the way with $7.16 million in annual compensation, followed by Toronto’s Sebastian Giovinco ($7.11m) and Michael Bradley ($6.5m). Four of the top ten are forwards while the other six are midfielders (although Kaka and LA’s newest catch Giovani dos Santos are #10s, for whom the line between midfielder and forward is somewhat blurry). Three of the top ten are Americans. And, yes, all ten are from the five teams mentioned above. The highest paid player from outside those top five teams is New England’s Jermain Jones, who pockets $3.05 million per year.

3. Of the five highest-paid players, four entered the league this season
The odd man out? Michael Bradley, who joined Toronto from AS Roma in the middle of last season. Everyone else in the top five (Kaka, Giovinco, LA’s Steven Gerrard, and NYCFC’s Frank Lampard) are MLS freshman. In fact, the latter two haven’t even played in the league yet. There’s no doubt that the introduction of Orlando and NYCFC this season, and the willingness of their respective ownership groups to spend big on a first impression, has made a huge impact on the top end of the league’s salary scale. It’s also clear that the league’s recent TV windfall is enabling some of this. That said…

4. Correlation between salary spending and league revenue is mixed
The median salary among MLS players this year is $110,000. That’s up from about $92,000 in 2014 and around $75,000 in 2013. Teams also have more budget leeway this year than in recent years; the salary cap in 2015 is about $3.49 million, up from $2.95 million in 2013 (an increase of about 18%). Among individual clubs, median salaries are both fairly consistent (hovering around the $100k mark) and rising. On the surface, this means that more players are making more money commensurate with their skills. Yet the gains that players are enjoying now are modest compared to the massive revenue surge the league is riding. In 2013, the league’s TV revenue was around $27 million per year. Starting this season, thanks to the new deal with ESPN and Fox, MLS is raking in approximately $90 million per year. So where is the rest of the money going? Surely much of it helps finance those high-end DP contracts listed above (although whether that tells the whole story is anyone’s guess). The figures confirm what has been true of MLS for a long time&#8212: big name Designated Players do very well for themselves, while the rest are firmly in the middle-class tax brackets. A rising tide is indeed lifting all boats, but some are rising higher and faster than others.

5. The gap between the league’s Haves and Have-Nots is wide, and growing
As of 2015, the minimum salary in Major League Soccer is $60,000. Last year, it was a paltry $36,600. Of course, even the previous league minimum looks like a lot of money to a lowly soccer writer such as myself, as it surely does to others who are struggling to get by. Yet players on the lower end of the pay scale aren’t exactly living high on the hog themselves, as Colorado goalkeeper Clint Irwin noted in The Pacific Standard two years ago;. When professional athletes start considering taking on second or even third jobs just to make ends meet, it shows how much the league values its low-and middle-class earners. But the wealth disparity in MLS isn’t just apparent on the individual player level; among clubs, the spending gap between fifth-ranked Seattle and sixth-ranked New England is nearly twice as large as the difference between the Revs and the New York Red Bulls at the bottom of the list. (And no, that’s not a typo— after losing Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill in the offseason, NYRB is bringing up the rear as far as salaries go.) If it wasn’t apparent already, Major League Soccer has become very top-heavy, with a handful of clubs partnering with the league to spend big bucks to pay a handful of players in an attempt to buy success. Which is a little ironic, because…

6. Salary costs don’t necessarily correlate with on-pitch performance
The league’s biggest spender is Toronto with $22.7 million in salary costs. Their current record (as of 7/17/2015) is 24 points with 7 wins, 7 losses, and 3 draws, putting them in 4th place in the Eastern Conference and 11th in the Supporters’ Shield race. That gives them a worse MLS record than the league’s lowest spender, NYRB (26pts, 7W 6L 5D), who are 3rd in the East and 9th in the SS. The team with the best MLS record? That would be DC United (35pts, 10W 6L 5D), who are ranked 16th in salary spending with $4.34 million on their books. The team with the worst MLS record so far is the Chicago Fire (18pts, 5W 10L 3D), and they managed to rank 7th in salary costs at $6.34 million.

Sports analytics expert Rob Lowe posted this chart visualizing just how little salary costs correlate to points earned:

Of course, you could argue that results on the pitch are only one consideration when shelling out big money for big-name players— and maybe not the most important factor. Marquee signings make for stronger marketing potential, higher television ratings, bigger gate receipts, and more merchandising revenue. For a team like Toronto (which can never seem to put a good title-challenging run together regardless of its roster) or NYCFC (a club struggling in its inaugural campaign, despite a star-studded lineup), the investment in salaries for star players may still make for a solid Return On Investment even if they don’t win anything.

So, what’s our takeaway from this year’s salary figures? The league is very top-heavy, with an exclusive coterie of teams making it rain for a handful of players. The gap between them and everyone else is massive and growing wider. And spending big won’t necessarily buy you the MLS Cup. (Unless you’re the LA Galaxy, of course).

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