[MLS SPOTLIGHT] Not for the first time has the soccer powers-that-be moved the goalposts during the game.
In a conference call with reporters Thursday, MLS commissioner Don Garber waxed positive, with justification, regarding most elements of the league’s status: fans and media in another expansion city, Montreal, brimming with anticipation; a major new television partner, NBC; upward trends in attendance (a record 87 sellouts last year) and exposure; a large investment by an outside company in Soccer United Marketing; and a new referee's organization that is a joint venture of MLS and other leagues as well as U.S. Soccer, tasked with improving the standard and development of officiating.
All are important issues and most of the information had already been confirmed; Garber did spring a surprise of sorts by discussing at length the league’s spearheading of a search for a suitable stadium site for a New York expansion team, a drastic deviation from its normal procedures. It’s one thing to staunchly express a preference that the 20th MLS team be based in New York City, as Garber has done for years; it’s quite another matter for the league to boldly take the lead.
“It’s premature to talk about any specific site, but the league is taking the lead on developing a stadium,” said Garber, who during his tenure as commissioner has seen the league shrink from 12 teams to 10 and, starting in 2005, rapidly grow to 19. “It’s the first time we’ve ever done that as part of the expansion process.
“There have been nine teams over last 10 years to build stadiums, but this is the first one where the league is driving most the important aspects: Architecture, consultants and environmental all work for the league. We will put together a project and then we hope to be able to deliver to a potential owner. We’ve been working with the mayor’s office and it has been a great resource for us, helping to steer us to sites that can be developed and where there is enough community support and to achieve success. There’s still work to do.”
This is a drastic change from standard operating procedure regarding expansion, which is a mandate for prospective entrants to present: a) a deep-pocked ownership group; b) demographic data and fan support that indicate a viable market, and c) a suitable stadium or polished proposal of building one.
On the call Garber also spoke of his visit last week to Orlando, which is bidding to get its attributes and ambition into the mix. He praised the “300 or 400 people screaming and carrying on about MLS coming to Orlando. It felt like an event in Philadelphia, and that’s a minor-league team that’s only been there for a year.” There’s money in the team; the club’s ownership group is fronted by president Phil Rawlins, an IT mogul who owns English Premier League club Stoke City.
But the prevailing League Think is still the Big Apple. Garber said during the past year and a half the league has inspected 19 sites and have reduced that figure to between eight and 10. He also said the expansion fee could be as high as $100 million, more than double the $40 million paid by the most recent additions to the league, Portland, Vancouver and Montreal.
"When the stadium's done, there'll be no shortage of owners who will line up and want to pay $100 million for our 20th team in New York," Garber said.
Provident Equity Partners is the company that has sunk money into SUM, which manages and promotes various soccer properties such as Mexican national team friendlies played in the U.S. Garber confirmed that the deal had closed; he didn’t reveal the percentage of ownership the company purchased, nor the price. A source cited a figure of $75 million, which the Board of Governors met in Kansas City during the NSCAA Convention and MLS SuperDraft in January to discuss how to spend. News outlets reported in September that the league was negotiating a sale of a 25 percent stake in SUM; Garber declined to give any figures.
“I know it’s floated out there, I felt a responsibility to let everybody know that it closed,” said Garber, “but it is an investment in Soccer United Marketing, not in the league. But I’m not going to talk about percentages or anything like that. What I will say is that they are very focused on the value that Major League Soccer can capture in this growing global marketplace where content and multi-screens and live programming is very valuable.”
The night before the conference call, at Rogers Centre in Toronto, Garber got a clear indication of how the league’s presence and value has escalated as 47,568 fans roared and threw streamers and groaned during a riveting 90 minutes that ended with the Galaxy having rallied from a 2-0 deficit to snag a 2-2 tie with TFC in the first leg of their Concacaf Champions’ League quarterfinal.
Like any commissioner of a professional sports league, Garber is prone to over-modulate the good points of MLS. But he wasn’t giddy, just heartfelt, when he revealed what that experience meant to the league, and to him: “Last night, I turned to [Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainmant chairman] Larry Tanenbaum and said, ‘Every time I attend a big MLS event’ –in this case a Concacaf event with MLS teams – ‘I kind of get emotional, because this league had so many challenges seven, or eight, or nine years ago, it would have been impossible to have conceived that you’d have 40-plus thousand people on a weeknight going absolutely nuts for two MLS teams, and having front-page photographs and articles in the newspaper when you leave town.’”