MLS's future: Garber with the long and short of it

By Paul Kennedy

MLS Commissioner Don Garber didn'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."
9 comments about "MLS's future: Garber with the long and short of it".
  1. beautiful game, December 3, 2013 at 9:04 p.m.

    Demographics in America are a reality, but the coaching system lacks the debt and perceptions in order to identify true talent and help it develop to the professional level. Too much emphasis is on physicality, athleticism and not enough is done to develop technical skills and improve the individual players capacity to 'feel' the game, make things happen, and execute at the right moment. When Dempsey's name is cited here as a blockbuster deal,it's delusional delusional. He's no block-buster, a good player, but nothing exceptional. Talking about the TV agreements, the MLS is a failure when it comes to getting the right people behind the microphone. The majority of these commentators are clueless about the game, they suffocate it with small talk or critique it to the nth degree, not to mention the constant barrage of how 'great' these MLS players are; simply mickey mouse stuff.

  2. Zoe Willet, December 3, 2013 at 9:26 p.m.

    In my humble opinion, if the MLS is to be taken seriously, we need to have the same schedule as in Europe, and have the promotion/relegation system. Player quality is there (I see some fairly dubious playing in the EPL!), in large part, and stadiums are coming along. But as long as we do things a bit differently, we will be considered 'weird' and 'second-rate'.

  3. Nate Nelson, December 3, 2013 at 9:32 p.m.

    "MLS still loses money as an enterprise,"

    Garber said MLS wasn't the only league that had complicated rules regarding salary budgets and player movements -- he referred the NFL ..Shit Don where else in the world do the play American football? NFL was/is an original its tried and failed to exist outside the USA..MLS is last to the table of the worlds sport and should act like the world does!

    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. DEMPSEY was done in the EPL as a starter, so why not come back to America and get paid big bucks being marketed..If Clint could still play at that level he would be there. MLS is seen by players of the world as a nice place to finish a career; good money, no rigorous training or competition and a chance for citizenship!

    Garber 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." Who says it paid off..I think NBC coverage SUCKS compared to what FOX did. NBC is just showing “popular teams” Try and watch Man City??

    “It certainly doesn't hurt when you've got investors knocking down the door trying to get into the league.” Well what other choice is there? The USL is such a joke, which is why deep-pockets clubs have left to MLS as they are the only option. NASA and their spilt calendar that no one understands,

  4. Kent James, December 4, 2013 at 12:54 a.m.

    Personally, I'm just glad we still have a professional league. I love being able to watch the league on TV regularly, and I love that there are often stadiums full of fans singing throughout the game. I was not sure that was going to happen in my lifetime. Flaws? There are many (though we may disagree what they are). But there's a lot to be said for survival. Now that survival seems assured, we can work on the difficult task of improving the quality of play. But that takes money, and getting the stadiums and the fan base were necessary foundations on which to improve the quality of play. I'm glad we're now in a position where that is possible. 'Tis the season to be thankful!

  5. Bruce Gowan, December 4, 2013 at 7:38 a.m.

    As a soccer fan living in Florida I am pleased that the MLS is returning to the state. I will support the state team(s) by attending games. I am not however a big fan of the MLS game. I watch several international games a week and I try to watch an MLS game when available on TV. Because of scheduling most of the games are late night in my area. I agree with the other writers that part of the problem is the poor commentating. My big problem is the game itself. MLS is too frantic, sloppy and physical to suit me. The passing is so poor that almost every attempt turns into a 50/50 ball that promotes the physical play. The officials allow far too much contact and that supports the rough play so the games evolve into "knock-down" soccer. I'm sure that many US fans like the rough and tumble play but I don't.

  6. Albert Harris, December 4, 2013 at 10:47 a.m.

    Kudos to Kent for mentioning what so many overlook. Professional soccer in America was a historical loser and yet, now we have a functioning league with all the problems attendant to having a league. This is a problem I didn't think I'd live to see again after the NASL went down in the 80s. At least now no one expects the league to go south anytime soon. 'Tis indeed the season to be thankful.

  7. Miguel Dedo, December 4, 2013 at 12:02 p.m.

    DC United is in worse shape than Chivas USA

    DC United is in worse shape than Chivas USA
    While many are aware of the organizational problems of Chivas USA, few seem aware that DC United has perhaps equally severe organizational problems and perhaps the worst relationship with its community among all MLS teams – including Chivas USA.
    Relationship with District of Columbia government. In September 2013 – the week season ticket renewals were put up for sale – the team issued a press release about a new stadium. The release announced a “plan” approved by DC’s mayor, to try and develop a site – with no commitment of resources, either money or real estate, from anyone. Since, there has been no further news. The city’s maintenance of the team’s current site (RFK Stadium) has been no better than casual, its “maintained” of the parking lots around the stadium and the roads into and out of these lots aggressively negative.
    Relationship with the Washington Post. The Washington Post seems to have a firm policy against reporting on the team. While any ripple of the organization, administration or personnel of the city’s professional football, baseball or basketball teams receives multiple columns reporting and analysis, there is no news and certainly no analysis of what is going on with the soccer team. (Several of the Post’s leading sportswriters do occasionally include a redneck jibe about soccer in their reporting on more “meaningful/interesting” sports.) The Post’s “soccer writer,” Steven Goff, does no more than summarize DC United’s press releases; he seems content with 2 column inches per week, this often jumbled into a catch-all section of the sports pages, with reports of injury to an obscure Europe tennis player and a disturbance at a polo match in Buenos Aires. Steven Goff is no more than a house mouse, re the Washington Post and re the DC United.
    The soccer community in the DC area would benefit from some real investigative reporting, not only about why the team continues with a coach and a general manager who last year put a team on the field that achieved the worst record ever recorded by an MLS team (I wish we had been as good as Chivas USA!) as well as of the team’s disastrous relationships with the city government and with the Washington Post.
    If Don Garber can delay granting a new franchise to David Beckham until there are firms plans in place for a new stadium in Miami, he might consider moving the DC United franchise unless similarly firm plans are in place in DC. As to investigative reporting of what is going on, within team ownership/management, re the DC government, and re the city’s media, there are probably some juicy stories to be told. An aggressive journalist might make a name for herself.

  8. Bruce Moorhead, December 5, 2013 at 3:07 a.m.

    Kent and Albert, I'm with you. I recall the lean years 1985-1995 with no Div 1 league, and also 2001 when it looked like MLS might fold. We have much to be thankful for. Miguel, thanks for the DC summary. I didn't realize it was that bad. I remember the Post doing a good job covering DC United and soccer in general, but its been years since I read that paper. Chivas and DC might have to move.

  9. Nick Prodanovich, December 8, 2013 at 1:30 p.m.

    I don't see DCU as quite as dire as Miguel indicated.

    I have been a season ticket holder from day 1. This past season has been very, very difficult to watch. Frankly with as absolutely as awful a team United has put out on the field its quite a testament to the fan base that 13 to 15k came out to watch that crap.

    The key to United is the Stadium. If and its a big If the stadium at Buzzard's Point comes through, United will quickly reassert itself as a Premier MLS team will one of the larger fan bases.

    However, the current situation is not sustainable because the team's core fan base is being affected. If its seems the ownership and front office doesn't care why should the fans.

    The other major mistake was the wholesale firing of what was the strongest and best Customer Service/Ticketing and Marketing groups in the league. They were fantastic, long term and really know how to service their customers. But when the team performance suffered year after year, and the attendance starts to drop the Front Office staff took the brunt of the ownership house cleaning. They went after the wrong folks.

    Unfortunately we are left with a soccer operations leadership that are clueless on the field and have not keep up with MLS, and now have lost the experienced Back Office. As a fan I have lost all the connections to the DC United "Club" that was founded in 96.

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