It was obvious that Kobe Bryant had lost it in his final season as a Los Angeles Laker. Despite averaging 15.7 points a game, Bryant shot a career-low 31.5 percent, even leading the NBA as its worst three-point shooter at 19.5 percent. When his contract with the Lakers expired, no team seriously considered offering him a new one, and he departed the NBA a legend.
While Bryant definitely could have sold tickets and made a difference elsewhere, everyone knew that with his salary demands, no matter how well he performed within his ceiling of potential, the money would obviously be better utilized elsewhere.
Now, imagine if the lowly Phoenix Suns tried to sign Bryant in 2017, offering a contract between 50-60 percent of their total payroll to boost interest in the team. Across the country, every fan, journalist and television personality would mock them mercilessly and rightly call for their front office to be fired. All Suns losses would be analysed to the nth degree, and by the end of the season, anyone who tried to justify Bryant’s signing would be blacklisted from ever making serious decisions in the league again.
Take that exact same scenario, add in an additional multi-million dollar transfer fee, and now use it to frame Wayne Rooney’s move to DC United. From a performance perspective, Rooney is well past it. This is not a recent occurrence. For the past few seasons, the former Manchester United striker has looked a shell of the player that he once was.
Questions about Rooney’s professionalism have followed the player throughout his career, and troublingly enough, these aren’t even the most concerning parts of the transfer. The worst aspect is Rooney’s salary. At an estimated $5-8m, Rooney might not be the most influential player in his team, but could still be the highest-paid player in the league.
Consider this earlier Bryant narrative in analysing the response to Rooney. Like every American professional sports team, DC United has a small army of scouts, coaches and front-office members that are at least partially responsible for buying players. In many cases, making decisions like these are their full-time jobs. Together, this group decided that they would spend $15-20m on a package for Rooney. Yet, instead of criticising them on one of the worst moves in American soccer history, many fans, journalists and members of the media have actually praised DC United for aspects of the Rooney transfer.
Even if you look past the hundreds of younger, cheaper and exponentially more talented players in the world, on $5-8m a year, Rooney will join Bastien Schweinsteiger and Carlos Vela as the three players in the league that make-up over 50 percent of their teams’ payroll. Think about this fact for one second. Is there any other serious league, team or even sport in the world in which one player is paid more than all of his teammates combined? Of course not – from an athletic perspective, the idea that one man could have the same on-field influence as an entire roster is ridiculous.
Even Lebron James, potentially the best player in NBA history, only makes 11 percent of the Cavaliers’ total payroll, and he plays a sport with five starters. What if Rooney gets injured or suspended? What if he performs like the slightly above average player that he now is and United continue to lose? There goes of half of the DC United payroll, wasted on a player that for the past two seasons has averaged a goal less than every four games. It’s ludicrous that DC United is mortgaging any real chance they have at league success solely on the hopes that one player might sell a few tickets.
In all honesty, this principle should only be seen and framed as embarrassing for professional soccer in the country.
So with that in mind, good luck to Wayne Rooney. As a fan, it’ll be fun to see him score his first penalty. United can tweet something like “Rooney is Black and Red”, and the team can feel proud that they brought a former Champions League winner to the United States. The world might even care about DC United for a few hours, and like Zlatan Ibrahimović and the LA Galaxy, that’s something to be proud of. Right?
But at the end of the day, is short-term vanity a model for long-term success? Is there any possible way that Rooney will perform to the degree that his financial investment could be justified? The answer is to both queries is a definitive no. Not even close. Forget influence, global branding, or whatever bullshit some front office guy with a background in wrestling and a degree in sports administration will inevitably spout; these are the questions that should matter to American teams.
Major League Soccer is now approaching 25 years old. It’s not a young league taking its first steps. There are no more excuses for $200m organisations to throw tens of millions of dollars at athletes worth a fraction of that. Yet clubs like LA Galaxy, Chicago Fire, DC United and Colorado Rapids, among others, somehow still escape the criticism they deserve for shameless levels of incompetence in their year-to-year operations.
When these franchises waste entire years overlooking on-field needs in favour of overblown contracts, they are explicitly stating that business is paramount to success, and that’s a very real problem for soccer in the country. How does a league plan on selling the idea of competition when some of its biggest teams continually patronise their own supporters? It shouldn’t be that hard of a concept to grasp.
Americans will stop taking MLS with a grain of salt when those in charge start to respect their fans, clubs and jobs seriously enough to at least put in the minimum amount of effort needed to assemble a side built to compete.
By Ryan Huettel @ryanhuettel2