Are MLS Designated Players like Rooney really worth their wages?

By Luke Christou

Wayne Rooney is set to become a DC United player, joining the ranks of the former European stars that opted to see out their careers as MLS Designated Players (DPs).

Major League Soccer permits DPs to earn above the league’s maximum wage cap. Their contracts are often littered with extra payments and perks that regular players don’t get to enjoy.

According to Sky Sports, the 32-year-old will arrive in Washington to sign a similar contract in the coming days. He will join up with his teammates once the transfer window opens on July 10 and likely slot immediately into the side to help bottom-placed D.C. United climb up the table.

It’s been a long while since Rooney was scoring 20+ goals a season to help Manchester United to the Premier League title. However, the MLS club still see him as a good investment.

With more than 275 Manchester United goals to his name and 50 more for England, despite his decline, Rooney should be able to make an impression in MLS. However, according to Conrad Wiacek, Head of Sponsorship at sports market intelligence company Sportcal, D.C. will be considering Rooney for his commercial value, rather than what he brings to the field.

Wiacek told Verdict:

“There are obvious advantages to MLS sides signing more established European talent such as Rooney.

“These players will provide greater exposure for a franchise in both the domestic market and internationally, leading to higher value commercial partnerships and potentially more lucrative TV deals for the league.”

The Beckham effect

Beckham, at the time a star in midfield for Real Madrid, was the one that started it all. The Designated Player Rule, created to allow the former England captain to join Los Angeles Galaxy on a $6.5m-a-year salary in 2007, is often referred to as the Beckham rule.

Over the course of his five year stay, Beckham reportedly earned $10m in wages.

Despite the huge cost, it was a move that was encouraged by Major League Soccer, as the organisation bid to revive club football in the United States.

The boost that Beckham and his successors have provided to the league in terms of attracting viewers and helping to raise the international profile of MLS is return enough. However, LA Galaxy also managed to recouped its monetary investment.

Money made

The signing of Beckham attracted the attention of health supplement brand Herbalife and the two parties immediately agreed a four-year shirt sponsorship deal. According to sports market intelligence company Sportcal, that deal was worth $3.5m annually. Likewise, when it expired in 2012, Herbalife agreed to a new ten-year deal worth $4.4m annually. By the time that deal reaches its conclusion, LA Galaxy would have made $58m, an $8m profit on signing Beckham.

On top of that, Beckham’s arrival in California saw LA Galaxy welcome 11,000 new season ticket holders. The vast majority of those fans were there to see one thing. That was abundantly clear when LA Galaxy announced that it would cut season ticket prices by 10% in response to Beckham missing more than half of the 2009 season.

Likewise, before the club had even presented Beckham has a Galaxy player, retailers had already sold more than 250,000 replica shirts with his name on the back.

LA Galaxy never reported how much revenue Beckham’s presence in the team generated. However, according to Real Madrid’s director of marketing, he provided $600m in marketing value during his four year stay with the Spanish side. While LA Galaxy doesn’t have quite the same appeal to sponsors as Real Madrid, the fact that Beckham was able to retain lucrative deals with brands like Emporio Armani and Samsung suggests that he was probably worth his fair share in marketing value to the US side too.

Doubling down

Following Beckham’s MLS exit in 2012 after a number of years spent back and forth between Europe and the US, LA Galaxy had set about replacing their former star.

Since Beckham left, the club has gone through another 10 DPs. These include big names like Steven Gerrard and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, as well as some less popular, but still quality players like Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane. Despite many heading to the US as stars of the game, LA Galaxy’s picks have produced mixed results.

Donovan was never anything more than a mid-level player in Europe. However, even if his final season, when he earned $4.25m as a DP, he was providing value in the form of goals and assists. That year he scored 13 goals and added 18 assists in 40 games for the MLS side.

Whether Donovan directly provided a financial return in quite the same way as Beckham is unclear. However, LA Galaxy did win three MLS Cup trophies during his four year stint as a DP.

Sponsors tend to bet on the best sides. The likes of Manchester United, Barcelona and Real Madrid are frequently top the list for revenue, having become known for winning trophies and playing good football. Donovan helped the Galaxy to become MLS’s strongest side and that likely provided some marketing value.

The likes of Robbie Keane and Ibrahimovic have had a similar impact on the side.

Does it always work?

Steven Gerrard came to LA Galaxy in 2015 off the back of a 41-game season with Premier League heavyweights Liverpool. By then in his mid-30s, Gerrard was declining in ability, but was still considered one of the best midfielders in the game and capable of thriving in MLS.

Some 18 months later, Gerrard retired from football, having made just 34 appearances in the US. Despite showing glimpses of his talent, he was far from the game-changing player than the fans were hoping for when his capture was confirmed.

Yet, even after splashing out $9m to keep Gerrard on the books for 18 months, he might not have been as bad of a deal as it seems.

According to World Soccer Shop, Gerrard was the 7th most popular player in the sport for shirt sales following his first season in the US. Likewise, he was the most popular British player, sitting ahead of Harry Kane and Rooney. Clubs share revenue from shirt sales with manufacturers and retailers. However, given Gerrard sold a similar number of shirts to stars like Ibrahimovic, Alexis Sanchez and Eden Hazard, LA Galaxy likely made a decent amount from Gerrard shirt sales.

Rooney’s worth

Rooney never quite achieved what the media and fans expected of him. However, after more than a decade playing on the European stage for one of the world’s biggest clubs, he will complete his switch to the US with the profile to rival the best of them. According to Wiacek, he has Beckham to thank.

Wiacek told Verdict:

“David Beckham raised the profile of the sport in the US, which in turn led to more coverage of European soccer across the United States, so someone like Rooney will already have a strong profile in the market.”

As a result, Rooney will have the same appeal to MLS fans as those that came before him. Even if he is past his peak and unable to perform at his best at D.C. United, history shows that he will pay back his price in jersey sales and marketing value.

A profitable system

It is clear from Rooney’s time at Everton, where he scored once in every four games, down from one in every two games for Manchester United, that he isn’t the player that he once was.

On occasion the MLS gets its hands on a player like Ibrahimovic, who has showed his class in America with seven goals and one assist in 11 MLS games, or former Ballon d’Or winner Kaká, who returned to his best at Orlando City. However, the fact of the matter is that most of the former stars that end their careers in MLS are a shell of what they once were.

And yet, MLS knows exactly what it is getting when it brings in Europe’s declining stars. It has accepted the “retirement league” title that football fans have given it because these players do so much to raise the profile of the game in the US.

Regardless of what they do on the pitch, these players have done enough in the past to justify the investment.

“While interest in soccer is growing in the US, it still ranks behind sports such as American football and basketball in terms of popularity, so signing Rooney, who has a global profile, will only help the franchise from a commercial point of view and help MLS to develop internationally,” Wiacek explained.

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