Liga MX: An idea for the future of the league

GUADALAJARA, MEXICO - AUGUST 17: Fans of Atlas demand to their team during the fifth round match between Atlas and Morelia as part of the Torneo Apertura 2018 Liga MX at Jalisco Stadium on August 17, 2018 in Guadalajara, Mexico. (Photo by Refugio Ruiz/Getty Images).
GUADALAJARA, MEXICO - AUGUST 17: Fans of Atlas demand to their team during the fifth round match between Atlas and Morelia as part of the Torneo Apertura 2018 Liga MX at Jalisco Stadium on August 17, 2018 in Guadalajara, Mexico. (Photo by Refugio Ruiz/Getty Images). /

Big news broke late last week that the Mexican version of the USA’s IRS is opening an investigation into Liga MX clubs. Has the league hit rock-bottom?

Over the past two weeks, it seems story after story is coming out shedding a negative light on Liga MX and the state of Mexican soccer. I wrote down a few thoughts on the subject, as well, considering all the issues and what they mean from a league popularity standpoint. That was all before word came down that Mexico’s tax administration service (SAT) was investigating Liga MX clubs and players.

On the face of it, fans of Liga MX might be concerned that a league already struggling with having enough viable clubs for a viable promotion/relegation structure is now being targeted by the nation’s tax organization. Players are allegedly going months without pay and now the government is getting involved. That can’t be good.

Would anyone be surprised if this comes to nothing, though? This whole thing has the feel of a government agency needing to do something because recent events won’t allow them to look the other way anymore. It would not be a shock if we hear less and less about the investigation until after the 2019 Clausura, when the SAT will punish Veracruz some nominal amount and not much else comes from it.

There are real issues going on for the league, however. Well-documented issues. How does Liga MX move forward? It cannot ignore these problems and expect to remain a major player in the western hemisphere. As I’ve pointed out, MLS, for all its own problems, is growing in size and popularity. MLS is starting to shift itself towards being a league producing some talent for the bigger European clubs. The standard of living is higher in the USA, for the most part, and if issues of players not being paid are not dealt with, it will be harder to keep players from choosing MLS – or the Brazilian or Argentine leagues, for that matter – and the quality of the league will drop.

Maybe bringing in talented foreign players is not a concern for Mexican soccer. If the league merely exists to develop players for El Tri, then so be it.  The best of those young Mexican players will move on early in their careers, though, and the league is still left in the wake of more financially stable leagues.

In some sense, the issue of players not being paid could be on its way to being solved. In October of 2017, Mexican footballers launched AMFPro, to seek better treatment of players. As this gains strength and reputation, perhaps it will alleviate many of the problems for players that have been taken advantage of, in addition to the whole “double contracts” issue.

There still lies the problem of MLS, however. Major League Soccer is connected to Soccer United Marketing (SUM) as its marketing arm for the league. SUM also provides marketing and funds for the United Soccer Federation and Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF). Also involved with SUM is South American Football Confederation (CONMEBOL). SUM played a role in getting Mexico, Canada and the United State the joint World Cup in 2026.

It’s not super clear how the relationships of SUM, the USSF, the FMF, CONCACAF, CONMEBOL, and SUM-parent MLS all work together, but MLS Commissioner Don Garber is SUM’s CEO and former USSF President Sunil Gulati serves on the Board of Directors. This all means that MLS has access to a lot of power and a lot of money.

Setting aside any conspiracy theories or questions this raises, the main point is that MLS has the financial and marketing reach to create a sizeable dent in the Liga MX reputational lead.

How does Liga MX stem the tide and remain atop their perch as top league in North America?

It’s my opinion that Liga MX needs to create an alliance, of sorts, with MLS. I’m not talking full-on consolidation, but increase the emphasis on matches with MLS sides.

Of all the things MLS does have, strong attendance numbers are not one of them. Liga MX is one of the most attended leagues in all sports, let alone world football. The league should leverage this by working with MLS to schedule friendlies and tournaments between their respective clubs.

A yearly MLS/Liga MX tournament, outside of CONCACAF Champions League, could be a mutually beneficial way to increase exposure of both leagues. Obviously, there are obstacles in the way of making such a tournament the best it can be, to be sure. One such obstacle is the MLS schedule. They do not play a schedule that lines up with most leagues in the world, meaning teams are at different points of form and fitness when any matches occur. However, this and most of the other obstacles are minor, to my understanding,  and the benefits could far outweigh the problems.

If Liga MX can put the effort into marketing MLS v. Liga MX matches the way they do Copa MX or, say Veracruz versus Lobos BUAP, for example, they can control the narrative a bit. Highlight the fact that Liga MX has the more historic and stronger clubs fending off up and coming MLS sides.

Finally, Liga MX clubs should actively look to the MLS and USL for opportunities to get young Americans on loan or even by full transfer. There are many young Mexican-American players in these leagues that perk the interest of both Mexican and American football fans. Capitalize on this.

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Essentially, my strategy would be to look towards becoming partners in North America, rather than full-on competitors. Soccer in the United States has its own problems, but in many ways, the problems for soccer in Mexico can be mitigated through partnership with the US. Likewise, the US can help some of its own issues through working with Mexico.

The running joke is that the Mexican National Team is America’s team. The sizeable Mexican-American population in the United States and the passion they have for quality soccer is a major driver of this perception. Liga MX can leverage this. They shouldn’t be afraid of the growth of soccer in the United States, not now, when they currently have the bigger, better, more popular league. If they allow the off-the-pitch problems to continue and try to ignore what MLS is doing right, though, their problems could see them fall behind in the next 10 years.