Small-market MLS Cup gives league a bit of its charm

Jamie Squire

Not since Super Bowl I has a major North American professional championship been contested by two teams representing smaller media markets than Real Salt Lake and Sporting KC.

No one is going to confuse Kansas City or Salt Lake City for being major media markets. The combined populations of the two cities checks in at less than 750,000. Both are perfectly fine cities, by all accounts, but neither is going to be confused for a budding metropolis.

In the world of North American professional sports, they are actually two of the smallest television markets, with Kansas City and Salt Lake City weighing in at Nos. 31 and 33, respectively.

In fact, Saturday's MLS Cup between Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake will feature teams representing two of the smallest television markets in all of the five major North American sports leagues. Since MLS started in 1996, there has only been a handful of teams from smaller markets to make the finals of their respective leagues. In that time, no NHL or Major League Baseball teams from smaller markets have advanced to the championship series. The San Antonio Spurs (four times) and Oklahoma City Thunder (once) are the only smaller-market NBA teams to advance to the finals in that time. In the NFL, only the Green Bay Packers (three times) and New Orleans Saints (once) have done it.

You actually need to go all the way back to Super Bowl I -- Packers vs. Kansas City Chiefs -- in order to find a matchup that featured two teams from comparably small markets. (From best I could tell, the championship with the smallest combined media markets in North American history was in the 1955 NBA Finals when the Fort Wayne Pistons played the Syracuse Nationals.)

In MLS, though, small-market teams seem to have had a bit more success, even if no final has featured anything quite like Real Salt Lake and Sporting Kansas City. This is actually Kansas City's third trip to the finals and RSL's second. The Columbus Crew (32nd biggest television market) also made a final, meaning more small-market teams have made the MLS Cup finals than in any of the other four major leagues during this time.

While small-market teams seem to be defying the odds in other leagues, in MLS they are actually leading the way. Sporting KC and RSL are considered two of the league's model franchises, as they both play in beautiful soccer-specific stadiums that are usually filled to capacity. RSL, in particular, has managed to make the playoffs a league-best six straight seasons, while Sporting KC has only missed the playoffs in six of their 18 seasons.

The most basic explanation for this is that MLS has done a rather exceptional job of limiting the influence of money on the standings (whether or not this is a good thing is up for a debate, but not something I'm making a judgement on either way right now). Even since the institution of the Designated Player Rule in 2007 -- which effectively allowed teams to spend unlimited amounts of money on one to three players -- team payroll has had very little correlation to how teams perform. For every LA Galaxy or New York Red Bulls there's a Toronto FC or Chicago Fire. RSL and Sporting KC were right around the middle in terms of player payroll and neither has a player on the roster making as much as $500,000 a year.

But it's relatively easy to be an efficiently spending team when the gap between the big-spending teams and lower-spending ones is relatively small. No team spent more than $11 million on player salaries and most teams spent around $3.5 million.

For right now, this suits the RSLs and Kansas Cities of the league just fine. They can spend smartly, focusing on infrastructure and building up their academies -- which both seem to be doing quite well -- without worrying about neglecting the first team.

But if MLS is going to reach the levels it aspires to, it's worth wondering if teams like this will be left behind. As teams start getting more and more money from revenue streams like local TV contracts, and more importantly are allowed to spend it, is the gap between the small- and large-market teams going to actually start to matter? Those are questions that MLS will eventually have to answer, weighing at least part of what has made the league among the most competitive in the world against the desire to become one of the best.

For now, though, let's just enjoy this game ... even if it's in the middle of nowhere.

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