Garber on Donovan, Shea, TV ratings and the destination league

[MLS SPOTLIGHT] Three days before the start of MLS's 18th season, MLS Commissioner Don Garber took to the digital world to address fans and the media via a live Google+ Hangout in New York. Garber said the league's goal is to be one of the world's top leagues in 10 years. He admitted the league has a ways to go in terms of the quality of play on the field and in terms of television ratings, but the league is hopeful it can follow the model of the NHL, which parlayed strong local fan bases and local passions into a growing national television audience.

The 2013 season is a critical year for MLS. It's the first time since 2004 that it doesn't welcome a new team or open a new soccer stadium. Attendance has climbed to record levels -- up 17 percent since 2010 to an average of 18,801 a game in 2012 -- but much that of increase came thanks to the launch of new teams or opening of new stadiums.

There was expansion in Philadelphia in 2010, Portland and Vancouver in 2011 and Montreal in 2012 and the opening of new stadiums in New York in 2010, Sporting Kansas City in 2011 and Houston in 2012. All averaged 18,000 fans a game or more in 2012.

Seattle arrived in 2009 and it has broken the league attendance record four years in a row, growing its fans base from an average of  30,943 in its first year to 43,144.

How do MLS teams keep growing local support? And most important, how does they develop national followings?

MLS's national television ratings lag behind those for major soccer events like the Men's and Women's World Cup and European Championship, not to mention other U.S. sports leagues.

Garber insisted ESPN's John Skipper isn't concerned about the ratings and NBC came in last year, knowing full well what the ratings picture was.

"Media and others look at it perhaps more than broadcasters and league do," Garber said. "That being said, you need to grow, grow your audience and one of the measures of that growth is on television."

Garber said the league is looking at what the NHL -- whose ratings have exploded in recent years on NBC -- have done to create national interest and in perhaps the first admission that the current schedule isn't working, he added that MLS's playoffs are "in the most competitive part of the American and Canadian broadcast calendar" and "that might be something we might have to take a look at changing."

Garber said respect for MLS is perhaps greater abroad than it is at home, noting MLS's average attendance is now higher than it is in France's Ligue 1 and MLS has growing respect in France, where league officials met this week with French league and federation officials to celebrate the launch of the French federation's academy certification program for MLS academy coaches.

Garber said some MLS owners were willing to spend more on players to make their teams more competitive in the world but the league can't afford to destroy the financial balance that has allowed it to survive and grow.

"How do we raise our quality?" he said. "We have a ways to go to achieve that."

Garber says MLS's homegrown efforts will lead to the development of more and better players. The big issue is, how does the league keep them?

"If it were up to me," he said, "and if it was a perfect world, one that I controlled ever -- and no commissioner controls anything -- we'd never sell a player."

But if MLS's goal is to become a "destination league," as he described it, the league must first be a stay-put league.

That conflict was again evident in the offseason when the league lost two players to the English Premier League -- Brek Shea to Stoke City and Kei Kamara on loan to Norwich City -- and Andy Najar -- the league's first homegrown player sold to a foreign club, to Belgian champion Anderlecht.

Garber said the league was involved in the discussion about Shea's future.

"We wanted to Brek to stay in the league," he said, "and I think it would have good in our opinion for Brek's career development. Brek believed that it would be better for him play for Stoke. He had his first start [sic] just a week ago and we hope it is good for his career. We live in this world where we've got to satisfy the league's needs but also satisfy the players' needs. That's part of the dynamic of professional soccer."

Garber argued that the outflow of MLS players was overrated.

"I will say that far more players come in," he said, "and far fewer players leave than I think the public and the media understand."

But the issue isn't perhaps so much how many players come and go but who comes and goes. Indeed, MLS's failure to keep the best and brightest for something less than their entire careers will be its greatest obstacle in terms of generating the national interest it needs to become a national league.

Perhaps that's why Landon Donovan's hiatus from the Los Angeles Galaxy has been such a hot topic. Garber said he appreciated Donovan's desire to take a break from soccer.

"This young guy has been holding the responsibility as the leader of the sport on the field since he was 15, 16 years old [sic]," he said. "None of us have had to do what Landon has had to do. Think about it. It’s unprecedented for a single athlete in a professional sport."

13 comments about "Garber on Donovan, Shea, TV ratings and the destination league".
  1. Gak Foodsource, February 28, 2013 at 8:45 a.m.

    The current plan laid out by Garber of becoming a "destination" league by 2022 is seriously flawed because it sacrifices the youth development component. Our current plan is to raise/make enough money to buy more and more European players, allowing us to get more players, and younger players (Lampard when he is 33, not 37) from top leagues in Europe. (Because Garber and Gulati are convinced more Americans will watch and follow MLS if Frank Lampard's are playing in every city...) They won't. It is all about the product. What about the American players at home? Why aren't they our FIRST priority? Are we hoping that if we have enough Thierry Henry's running around, their skills will eventually rub off on the young americans training with them? Or that if we can stabilize TV ratings we will have enough money to really invest in youth development? Doesn't it make more sense to invest ALL of the DP money into player development - doubling the amount of academies, making them free, hiring away Spanish UEFA badge coaches to train our coaches here? MLS as an export league for the next 10 years should be a goal because it coincides with developing our youth. Then we can take the transfer fee money chest we have built up and start making strategic additions to MLS via signings to balance out the talented youth we already have. And we will have built a league around young, talented American players. That is the foundation of a successful, "destination" league.

  2. R2 Dad, February 28, 2013 at 9:16 a.m.

    Gak, that makes good sense which is why it won't be implemented. If Gawper was serious they would mimic the German model which has worked wonders. No word on the transition of players rights to teams vs the unholy league ownership configuration they currently have. And, I'd like to hear what he means by "player development"--a phrase abused by just about everyone in this sport. As it sits now MLS IS a destination league-- but just for CONCACAF professionals who aren't Americans.

  3. Alexander Lozano, February 28, 2013 at 10:33 a.m.

    Good points by Commissioner Garber...but the simple fact is that, until MLS' on-field quality becomes better...and I love MLS...the general consensus will be to play in Europe, in order to become the best player possible. MLS is getting better but still has a way to go, however I do believe that American players would be best served by playing regularly in MLS than sitting on the bench in Europe...that's my biggest peeve about selling our best players!

  4. Andrea Hana, February 28, 2013 at 11:53 a.m.

    Gak and R2, I agree that we should be concerned about local player development, however, we need to increase interest first. If we are losing our good players to foreign leagues what good did the development of homegrown players do? As in the instance of Andy Najar. I think that initially Garber has it right for MLS. Attract players. That means foreign OR local. He said that some MLS owners are willing to spend more on players to be more competitive in the world market of soccer. That's a reality. Although, they don't want to break the financial bank and end up with the problem that so many EU clubs have with finances, risking losing it all. Give it some time. Get us on board with the world community. Along with that will come the funding for the local development.

  5. Andrea Hana, February 28, 2013 at 11:54 a.m.

    By the way, I'm a Sounders Girl, all the way! We LOVE our soccer here, as it shows in our attendance! :)

  6. Gak Foodsource, February 28, 2013 at 1:17 p.m.

    I appreciate your feedback, Andrea but time is in short supply. Decades of young players have passed by, lost under the misguided direction of ODP and IMG. We can't let another decade pass. I am afraid this policy of buying talent will shift the focus from developing players. I have no problem with Shea and Najar leaving - it's a sign of success. We receive the transfer fee. That money should go directly to FC Dallas' academy. Italy, Germany, and Spain are te model - all three focused on local development and talent. None spends frivolously on foreign imports. Each has a thriving pool of youth to choose from for their national teams.

  7. David Mont, February 28, 2013 at 3:18 p.m.

    But you're mentioning countries -- Italy, Germany, Spain -- where children from the very young age live and breathe soccer. This is not the case at all in the USA. I don't believe a country where soccer is not even close to being the number 1 sport can ever produce players that would allow the US national team to compete successfully with the abovementioned powers. If a child comes home after a soccer practice and watches football or baseball or basketball on TV, that child will never become a new Messi or Ronaldo or Lampard.

  8. Nate Nelson, February 28, 2013 at 3:32 p.m.

    Agree GAK, but the core issue is MLS with the league controlling player movement the game is closer to theater than sport. The MLS draft is another example of american showmanship and the USSF is the tail wagging the dog. Tell me a guy like Conor Obrien isn't good enough for MLS..bullocks..more and more agents are advising players to play abroad for a better experience and by signing with MLS they control you for how many years?!!? There is a reason why MLS is uniquely american. I am sure americans watch on TV more overseas matches than MLS. The majority of work the USSF does is to protect MLS. MLS has grown thanks to USL owners, not USL, anyone knows USL is crap which is why the good ones have not choice but MLS, others fade away and USL Bernie keeps taking fees. anyone want a team in Puerto Rico?

  9. Gak Foodsource, February 28, 2013 at 4:19 p.m.

    David - I should have been more specific. I'm talking about leagues. La liga, the bundasliga, and seria a all have very high percentages of of domestic players in their leagues. Italy wouldn't even pick players for the national team unless they played in the seria a. (Ask Giuseppe Rossi). Contrast that with leagues that buy players - England. Italy, Spain, and Germany all have leagues that have domestic youngsters as the foundation, and imports as additions to their squad. England buys imports as its foundation, and augments with domestic players.

  10. Gak Foodsource, February 28, 2013 at 4:24 p.m.

    Nate - completely agree on MLS and its controlling interests. Single entity is both the best and worst thing at the same time. It built our league and was the only reason it hasn't failed, but t prevents MLS from growing. Single entity is here for at least 10 more years because too many teams can't yet stand on their own financially. But accountability, and goals more specific, concrete, and realistic than "be the best league in the world by 2022", should still be demanded by the media and public. Our entire soccer federation is run by two men who run unopposed in elections for their posts. That's almost worse than FIFA. And one of those men is a professor who champions the free market over monopolies...

  11. Doug Olson, February 28, 2013 at 10:42 p.m.

    The League doesn't control US Soccer. Garber isn't "sacrificing" youth development, he has supported MLS Club's participation in the Development Academy, which is where USSF is trying to fix the limitations of ODP's pay-to-play and Bradenton's inability to scale. DA is showing results, the homegrown recruitment perk rewards the clubs for participating, I don't know how much more you think Garber can do to boost USSF's DA.

  12. Gak Foodsource, March 1, 2013 at 1:58 a.m.

    Garber spends too much money on marketing, and every DP signed is a dollar that could have been spent on academies, infrastructure, and coaching. Torsten Frings played a year and a half in MLS for 2.43 million dollars. I could have bought three full time UEFA badge coaches for that price.

  13. Doug Martin, March 1, 2013 at 10:39 a.m.

    Until Garber and MLS allow Canadian players to be considered Domestic for all teams in the league the development model for three clubs is broken, TFC,Impact de Montreal and Whitecaps are placed at a disadvantage in terms of developing Canadian players, and end up fielding American players who will never represent Canada on the International scene unless its in Club play.

    Fix that and attract some top Mexican city's ( Monterey, Cancun etc. ) to the league and make it true NAFTA league, then you will see the league have the potential revenue and player base to be in the World's top three leagues, Budesliga, La Liga, and Serie A.

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