Why Colombia?

Anyone who has read anything on Soccer Soap Box pretty quickly sorts out that I am a US Soccer supporter (and occasional complainer.) But after the United States, the country that gets the most coverage here is undoubtedly Colombia. Colombia is, after all, my adopted-by-marriage second country.

I’ve also been over-sharing Colombian related ideas lately because I was recently visiting the country (my ninth such visit if my math is correct) at the same time as my local team the New England Revolution was adding two and a half Colombian players and MLS is seeing an influx of Colombian talent. It was my perfect storm. (Oh, and two and a half players? Ask a Revs fan.)

Having also had the luck of taking in the Colombian season’s opening weekend at the Bogotá derby between Millonarios F.C. (the prevalent favorite amongst the in-laws) and Independiente Santa Fe (where “new” cousin Andres is a serious “hincha”), I was tweeting away about Colombian soccer.

Now, I am not an expert on Colombian soccer but I do pay some level of attention to it. Then an innocent enough tweet from Twitter bud Jim, came in, and has been logged in my psyche ever since.

I sent some quick thoughts from Colombian vacation about the similarity in types of soccer that are played and the players’ desire for stability, but figured it might be worth a few more thoughts here, since others must be wondering the same thing.

**Knowing that my research is far from complete, please share your thoughts, challenges and color commentary to what you are about to read. I’m interested in thoughts.**

Is The Cafetero’s Influence on MLS Real?

First, let’s set some context. Is there really a significant weighting of Colombian players, or are recent news items simply messing with our perspective?

A quick scan of mlssoccer.com shows that 28 “active” MLS players are listed as having been born in Colombia. (Yes, this includes Colombian-born American players. The same logic will apply to other countries below because, look, I have a day job… let’s just get some context.)

So how does this number compare? As for other South American countries that might seem like logical comparisons, consider these contributions: Brazil = 18. Argentina = 7. Uruguay = 5. Chile = 4. Venezuela = 3.

How about some of the theoretically less expensive Central American markets? Costa Rica = 9. Honduras = 4. Panama = 3. Guatemala and El Salvador, one a piece. And the much pricier Mexican market currently shows a contribution of eight players.

For some perspective, six more active MLS players are born in Colombia than were born in Canada, where MLS actually has multiple teams. And there are more Colombian-born players than the combined contributions from France, England and Germany.

MLSSoccer.com may not offer the perfect data set, but it is clear that there is a strong Colombian influence in MLS right now.

But why?

Certainly, it’s a multi-dimensional issue, but at the center of everything is how Colombian soccer’s past is affecting its present and future.

A Look Back Into The Cloud.

Most people need no reminder of Colombia’s difficult past. Violence was a societal norm for many years, fueled by leftist guerrillas and money drenched drug lords. While there are still challenges, luckily much has changed. I’ve seen much of it with my own eyes. Over the last dozen or so years of visiting, it’s hard to comprehend how much more “normal” life has become in the country. Progress continues and is imperfect, but compared to the struggles that existed a couple decades ago, Colombia is blossoming.

But in soccer terms, the same cannot be said. In fact, in no other country has the relationship to soccer investment/success and overall well-being of the country been so inversely related.

The better, and more lawful, the country becomes the harder it has become for soccer, because the growth of Colombian soccer was largely fueled by the exuberant investments of narcissistic drug lords, who turned professional soccer teams into personal trophies.

This is much more difficult, if not impossible, in today’s Colombia where drug cartels are on the run and money laundering is taken seriously. But the after-effects of these investments, both positive (in soccer-terms) and negative are easy to see, and directly related to why MLS is finding Colombia a fertile fishing hole for top talent.

The Cloud Darkens.

MLS, not unlike the Colombian league in the 80s and 90s, is filled with rich benefactors. These benefactors have determined much of the success, or survival, of the league. There is, however, a business distinction. (Aside from the obvious “moral” distinctions of how many of the Colombian owners were very, very bad people.)

By and large, the MLS investors appear realize that they will need to lose money initially for a hopeful windfall somewhere down the line, and the league (whether regarding single-entity or salary caps) has been built to support careful, logical growth.

Those that spent the “black money” of the drug world in Colombian soccer were little concerned about what profits they would see, or when they might come. They wanted to have a legal-looking way to launder money, and they wanted to fuel their ego trips with Champion teams. The cash-transaction-heavy flow of ticket sales was a perfect way to get money flowing in and out of their illegal enterprises. The biggest clubs were fueled by incoming drug money, and ticket sales created a fast and loose way to launder that money (with easily bloated attendance numbers to make tracking difficult.)

They had no real reason to create alternative sources of team income. Now, in countries with smaller TV markets and a public that is perhaps less able to buy $120 team jerseys, this is a perennial problem, but thoughtful teams can do what’s possible to diversify themselves. With the deep pockets of the drug-cartel owners, and the appreciation for the easily falsified revenue streams that ticket sales produced, Colombian teams never bothered.

(As an aside, imagine an attempt at a single entity league in those times, with those owners? Ouch.)

So, not surprisingly, when the drug money (thankfully) became scarce, the teams were very ill-prepared to self-finance. Ticket sales remained the key source of revenue.

Much of this crystalized for me as I was reading an interesting article in La República on the flight back from our recent Colombian visit. It was an interview with Felipe Gaitán Tovar, the newly announced President of Millonarios F.C. as he took his new position from a role totally outside of local sports. His focus (on top of the needed-to-be-said – and obvious – hunt for the next Championship) was an interest in getting the team on better financial footing, and even issuing a second round of local stock. After admitting that the team was too reliant on ticket sales for income, he explained that his prime objectives included diversifying the team’s revenue streams, leveraging the brand and consolidating sponsorships. He also discussed looking to find ways to increase attendance at games, and much is being done to better control ultras, market games and appeal to a broader fan base. (For an English link, this Microsoft-translated version works pretty well: here.)

To understand the stark reality of a business model dependent on ticket sales in Colombia, understand this… today’s first division Colombian league would gladly accept the average MLS attendance figures, in fact, it would be a significant improvement, even in some of the larger markets. I’ve found it difficult to find any reliable attendance figures, but in a great Economist article (that highlights some of the themes I write about here) league attendance is shown to have fallen from an average of 15,423 in 1991 to just 8,099 “last year” (presumptively the 2010 campaign given the date of the article.)

Despite a healthy attendance at the game I recently attended, featuring two teams from the Capitol city on the season’s first weekend, conversations with locals suggest even regular games for the smaller of the Bogotá clubs are lucky to see ten thousand fans. Now imagine what the clubs well outside of the very large city see. Presumptively, that number of 8,099 is, if anything, flattering the league. For this weekend’s smaller-market games, some attendance figures found in El Tiempo, the largest of the Colombian daily papers, were between 2,000 and 3,500.

It’s a harsh reality, and a very big drop off outside of the top clubs.

The Cloud’s Silver Lining.

Believe it or not, however, there are a number of upside benefits to the Colombian teams’ spending-spree pasts and need for a more secure future that make the league a very interesting market MLS (or others seeking players.)

However irresponsible, the past spending sprees successfully created great soccer teams, infrastructure and youth programs. The investments in these teams might not have held much water in terms of building a long-term sustainable business model in terms of revenue generation, but the owners did want to win and would pay (and perhaps do much worse) to get that success.

Need a better place to practice? Fine. Need a way to groom youth teams? Fine. Just win, no excuses.

All this investment, and success, created an infrastructure in the largest clubs and an expectation of great soccer all throughout the country that persists today. Which maybe be a reason you tend to see that most Colombian teams are filled with Colombian players. This is both because they have the capability to find and groom young players, but also that they lack the money to be significantly active buyers of foreign talent. Of course, there’s a sprinkling of other foreign players in the mix, but by and large it is a local talent base.

So what you have today are high expectations and decent infrastructure to find and groom players (by luxury in the richer clubs, and necessity in the smaller clubs), contrasted by low attendance, poor business model readiness and an increasing need to find alternative ways to pay the bills.

Less Money, No Less Expecation.

All in all, this means that Colombians maintain a high standard for what they expect to see in their local soccer teams. They grew up with World Class soccer, and don’t want to hear that a cleaned up league means lesser standards of what is on the field. (Though it most certainly does.) The larger clubs have a decent infrastructure to groom players, and an ability to leverage their attendance and sponsorship advantages to quickly buy promising players from small clubs.

But those large clubs still need to grow, and one manner to do so is to sell players. MLS has no lock on the Colombian market, but it increasingly is seen as a good market for these players. With many Colombian stars having jumped to Europe only to bounce back home fairly quickly, there seems to be a hope that MLS offers a good compromise of style, security and broader exposure for these players to be “re-sold” to larger leagues, without the harsh blow-back that so many foreign players get from a stint in Europe.

In order to leverage the hope that MLS will showcase their talent more broadly, you’ll see the Colombian teams agree to loan-to-buy arrangements that include an agreement that if MLS is to sell that player on for a windfall within a pre-determined amount of time, the initial Colombian sellers see a percentage of that second sale. (A thought that seemed reasonable with established international player agent Michael Wheeler.)

One could surmise that this was why Independiente Santa Fe was interested in renegotiating their deal with the Portland Timbers when it became clear that Jose Adolfo Valencia, who was expected to be an impactful young Colombian import, needed knee surgery that would take him out for the year. Not only did they need to amend the loan section, but they may have wanted to extend a sell-on clause as well. (Nothing that specific was said, I’m solely making some presumptions.)

MLS offers Colombian teams and players an opportunity for broader promotion, organized (if not the richest) business practices and a sense of stability. It also offers a successful track record of ensuring Colombian successes, either in the form of established star players doing well (Valderamma, Alvarez, etc.), young starts excelling (Fredy Montero) and players coming, doing well and being sold to other leagues (Juan Toja.)

Alternatively, MLS sees Colombia as offering an ability to find and groom skillful players, teams willing (or needing) to negotiate to get deals done, and an increasingly easy place to see players. Seeing a talented African player is a bit trickier than the one-stop Jet Blue flights through Orlando I took to get to Colombia.

Other Factors.

All the above structural reasons help explain the increase in Colombian participation in MLS, but there are more sporting ones as well. Here also, I do not proclaim expertise, but can suggest that even I fall on pretty tired stereotypes of the slower, more skillful soccer played in Colombia. There is some truth in that perspective, but in the limited views of the league I’ve had lately there is also a physicality that suggests many of their players will not be in any way overwhelmed by play in MLS.

Presuming that element has been growing, it’s a good thing. Not, of course, because I hope the Colombian league gets more physical and less skill oriented, but that I sense they could never lose the desire to see creativity and quick, interchanging passing.

What’s Next?

The main challenge to MLS continuing to scoop up Colombian talent isn’t going to be a lack of Colombian talent or interest in making deals, but more likely the fact that other professional leagues will step up their own efforts to grab that talent. Mexico, always a reasonable destination for star Colombians, is a market that could steal talent otherwise destined for MLS. And Carlos Bacca, who was among the League’s leading scorers in 2010/2011 just signed in Belgium, so MLS is not the only group watching these players.  Perhaps he’s that league’s Fredy Montero?

Given that, hopefully the solid pipeline will continue, but it will only get more challenging to get the best players on our fields. I’ll share some other thoughts on the Colombian league and how other regional leagues line up as options for MLS talent in post very soon.

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