The MLSPA released the bi-annual salary guide last week. It's one of the only ways that we get a glimpse of how much money is being thrown around in the league.
This list revealed Lorenzo "Il Magnifico" Insigne made a whopping $14M for the 2022 season (in reality, he made half of that salary because he only played half a season). Insigne signed a four-year contract until the end of 2026. However, that's still a lot of money. The closest player to Insigne was Xherdan Shaqiri made $8.1M, and Federico Bernardeschi made $6.2M. The big question is: Is Insigne worth it?
MLS is a bit of a crazy league. While there's a salary cap, but there are many, many rules allowing teams to circumvent these rules. In this case, the Designated Player or "David Beckham" rule allows a team to spend whatever they want (within reason) on a player and only have $335,000 count towards the salary cap. To further complicate things, individual teams technically don't own the player contract. Rather, the league owns the contract and provides players through a complicated process. Think about the MLS Goalkeeper Pool and how Doneil Henry is still under contract even though he doesn't have a team.
Why does this matter? MLS approved the Insigne contract, thinking it was appropriate for the league. While MLSE doesn't own the contract, it still needs to fund it and have it approved by the league. It means the league fully supports this contract and the amount of money being spent, which suggests a understanding of Return on Investment (ROI) with this deal (more on that idea later).
Here's an example of the power that MLS has over player contracts. Olaf Mellberg was supposed to sign with TFC, but the deal was cancelled by MLS. If you’re interested, you can read all about it here - MLS did nix the Mellberg deal.
What about Insigne as an investment? Toronto FC spent a lot of money, but it makes sense using Supply of Labour argument. Rather than complicate things with a convoluted argument with fancy graphs and economic jargon, the rationale can be simplified into two ideas - the scarcity of a player like Insigne and the necessity of high salaries in North American soccer.
Lorenzo Insigne has 54 caps and 10 goals for the Italian national team. The Azzurri won the 2020 Euros and Insigne scored 2 goals in that completion. Also, Insigne played for and captained Serie A side Napoli, making 414 appearances and scoring 114 goals. Over his career, Insigne registered a 0.47 xG/90 and 0.24 xA/90. There are is only a small pool of players in the world of Insigne’s quality. The scarcity of a player is certainly a factor in the need to pay Insigne such a high wage.
More importantly, Insigne reportedly made around $5M per year at Napoli from 2017 to 2022. He could have re-signed with the team and probably retired with Napoli. However, he decided to leave Italy because of the allure of such a high salary. In reality, MLS teams need to overpay for players to get them to come to North America. While the league and the game has grown exponentially in the past 20 years, it is still viewed as a retirement league for former marquee players. Insigne’s signing was necessary to promote in-form players who are not at the end of their careers. While Insigne is 31-years-old, he certainly is still in form and his statistics indicate his value.
We only got to see Insigne for a total of 11 matches in a TFC uniform. He scored 6 goals and added 2 assists. While those aren’t groundbreaking numbers, Insigne averaged 0.58 goals/90 minutes, which is 20th best in MLS on a horrible team with a non-existent Number 9. Over 34 games, Insigne would have scored 19 goals. That number sounds more respectable, and would have Insigne as the 3rd leading goalscorer in MLS.
Also, there was a significant increase in merchandise and ticket sales after the arrival of Insigne in Toronto. While it’s hard to provide revenue statistics for the six home games that Insigne played, it’s pretty clear there was a significant uptick in ticket sales. For such a dismal season, Toronto FC was 5th in average attendance with 25,423 fans/game. In the six matches in which Insigne played at BMO, the average attendance was 28,626 fans/game. Also, the numerous Insigne merchandise purchases added to the value of the signing, as well as concessions during the game. Some of the residuals from this signing would include more media attention, more viewers, and potentially more advertising revenue for the team. While these are hard to prove, Insigne’s arrival certainly saw an increase in revenue for the team.
Insigne’s signing was announced in January. Domenico Criscito signed with Toronto FC in June and or Federico Bernardeschi signed in July. There would be no Criscito or Bernardeschi without Insigne. While Insigne instantly improved the team by himself, his signing allowed for two more Italians to sign with the club. Insigne’s move to North American football facilitated the signing of more players, all three players made a difference in this lineup, even though they had just finished playing a whole season in Serie A. With a full offseason for this team, and the possibility of signing another quality player in the Designated Player spot, Insigne’s presence in Toronto makes it an appealing possibility. Perhaps his mere presence in a TFC kit makes Toronto a more desirable place to play for MLS free agents in MLS.