By Paul Kennedy
MLS Commissioner Don Garberdidn't have much news to report in Tuesday's MLS State of the League address from Google NYC, but the Q&A with media and fans that followed provided a fascinating insight into where he thinks the league is going.
Garber didn't answer every question -- he had a "big no comment" regarding the ongoing television negotiations -- and every question didn't come up -- Chivas USA's future or the start-stop playoff schedule, to name two -- but you got the sense he was very comfortable about the state of the league and its long-term future. (It certainly doesn't hurt when you've got investors knocking down the door trying to get into the league.)
Will MLS be one of the top leagues in the world by 2022? The answer to that question is almost less important that the sense that MLS knows it has demographics on its side and therefore it will thrive, whether that's one generation or two generations down the line.
You won't have said this five years ago, but MLS is starting to capture a fan base that will have real value -- a fan base that is different from that of other sports, "more interactive, more productive, more engaged," as Garber said. It certainly helps that MLS via its equity funding is throwing millions into identifying its fan base, working on converting young fans and analyzing their behavior.
Here are some takeaways on what Garber said on more short-term topics ...
EXPANSION.David Beckham is in the news almost every day regarding his MLS expansion option and interest in putting a team in Miami, but one got the sense from Garber that no announcement will be forthcoming soon. "We can't do anything until they finalize a stadium plan," said Garber.
Garber said the No. 1 priority was for MLS to move in the Southeast. After Orlando City, announced last month as MLS's 21st team, who will be the 22nd team? At one point, Garber mentioned Atlanta before he mentioned Miami, confirming that he may believe Atlanta has a lot more pieces of the puzzle solved (ownership group, stadium plan) than Miami does right now.
If Atlanta and Miami are No. 22 and No. 23, what city will claim the 24th and last seat at the MLS table as part of its plan to expand to 24 teams by the end of the decade?
Asked about an MLS chart that pointed to five expansion target cities: Atlanta, Miami, plus Minneapolis, St. Louis and San Antonio, Garber said he'd need to have a word with his chart-maker, but he went on to later add Austin (matching MLS's demos to a tee) to the mix.
Three teams in the Southeast, plus one each in the Midwest and Texas would seem to be ideal, though that would make 25 teams. (Solution: dump Chivas USA.)
For all those of you out there thinking of bringing an MLS stadium to a city near you, Garber did rank the two keys to any expansion formula: 1. ownership, 2. downtown stadium. (The latter wasn't always part of the equation. But as MLS has struggled to fill soccer-specific stadiums in Chicago, Colorado and Dallas, all built in outlying areas, and thrived in downtown stadiums in the Northwest, that's changed.)
CALENDAR. Don't expect to see any shift in the MLS calendar from spring-fall to summer-spring any time soon, though Garber admitted the league looked long and hard at the issue. He admitted up front: "It's nearly impossible to get a perfect schedule."
The current problem: FIFA fixture dates pose huge and increasing conflicts as more and more MLS players, members of national teams, are retained. But Garber said the league couldn't afford a winter break of 10-12 weeks in the middle of the season or justify trading valuable May-June dates for dates in December and late February.
TELEVISION.National television remains MLS's Achilles' heel, the one area where its go-go story breaks down. Just two weeks ago, the Portland-RSL playoff game ranked 139th out of 139 programs of the week on ESPN.
Problem is, there are no easy or short-term solutions. Flex scheduling? Garber correctly points out what there are so many moving parts to the MLS schedule -- most notably, competitions its clubs or players play in outside MLS -- that shifting games forward or backward is a lot easier said than done.
Garber admitted that there has been little to no consistency in the MLS TV schedule, and that along with network promotional support would solve half the TV ratings battle. (He praised NBC for its promotion of the English Premier League, saying it has been "as important as anything in the NBCUniversial family and it paid off.")
ECONOMICS.The other half of the TV ratings battle? The product. Garber didn't shy away from the fact that the quality on the field had to be more in line with what U.S. viewers can get throughout the weekend, whether on the NBCUniversal networks, beIN Sport or the Univision stations, if MLS should count on them tuning in.
But he also said the league owners weren't going to begin spending wildly at the risk of losing what they are building for generations to come.
"MLS still loses money as an enterprise," was Garber's answer to MLS's financial health -- just a reminder: a new collective bargaining agreement needs to be negotiated next year -- though enough owners are doing well enough that they are attracting plenty of new investors behind them.
One of the biggest knocks on MLS is that the media and fans are kept in the dark on the mechanisms by which player moves are conducted -- and as long as the league office is involved in player deals they'll remain secret.
But Garber said MLS wasn't the only league that had complicated rules regarding salary budgets and player movements -- he referred the NFL and its cadre of capologists and MLS's first capologist, Tim Bezbatchenko now GM at Toronto FC -- and he acknowledged the league could have done a better job explaining league policies. It just so happened that MLS's new retention money program, its program to attract No. 9 and No. 10 players and the blockbuster Clint Dempsey deal that brought him to Seattle all came up this year.
"We are still evolving," Garber admitted, "and still sometimes doing stuff on the fly."