MLS commissioner Don Garber held his annual season-ending state of the league address on Tuesday, four days before MLS Cup 2021 in Portland.
Many of the questions concerned the league's short-term future: expansion and the next media rights deal. Here are the main takeaways.
1. Las Vegas leads expansion pack. Garber reiterated that MLS has been making progress in Las Vegas, and he confirmed it was the frontrunner for the league's 30th team.
Originally, MLS was supposed to add Charlotte as the 28th team in 2021 and St. Louis and Sacramento in 2022, but those plans were thrown out the window soon after the Covid-19 pandemic hit in 2020. The launch for the three teams was each moved back a year, then Sacramento's principal owner, Ron Burkle, pulled out, re-opening the bidding for a 30th team.
"We're excited about the market, as are all the other leagues here in North America," said Garber.
Las Vegas didn't have a major league team until 2017 when the expansion Vegas Golden Knights joined the NHL. The NFL's Oakland Raiders moved to Las Vegas in 2020, and the baseball Oakland Athletics are considering a move to Las Vegas.
Garber said Las Vegas is a city MLS has courted since its infancy, but it only emerged in the last two years as a serious candidate with the opening of Allegiant Stadium (below), host of the 2021 Gold Cup final and 2021 Leagues Cup final. Vegas was not among the 12 cities in MLS's expansion bidding contest in 2017. Charlotte, Cincinnati, Nashville, Sacramento and St. Louis all eventually were awarded teams.
"The 30th team will not be in by 2023," Garber said, "and that's something that everybody should be aware of."
Garber said he hopes to have an announcement on the 30th team in the next 10 months, but it remains to be seen who will be the owner, where the team will play and when it will begin.
"We're very bullish about the market," he said, "and we'll continue to plow forward. I can't really comment on what our stadium plans are at this point because they're still fluid, but hopefully some time in the next couple months we'll have more to talk about."
2. More pro teams across the board. Garber added that Phoenix and San Diego are other prospective markets still in the mix, reflecting the interest investors have in MLS.
"I think that the interest in Major League Soccer continues to grow," he said. "The value that investors look at when they're determining how they want to engage with professional soccer or even professional sports overall is at an all-time high."
He said the United States and Canada can support 100 pro teams.
"I will say to the group here that we don't have any plans to expand beyond the 30 teams at this point, but like everything else, life is a long time," Garber said. "I don't know what professional soccer is going to look like 10 years from now or 20 years from now and how many divisions there will be and what our league will look like or what the other leagues will look like, where the women's game fits in. What I will say is we're very bullish about the professional game, and I think there's a lot of opportunity for us all."
3. New media rights deal expected by spring. In 2021, MLS has been meeting with its current broadcast partners and other broadcast entities, and Garber confirmed that an agreement is expected to be finalized in the first quarter of 2022.
The current eight-year agreement with ESPN, Fox and Univision expires at the end of 2022. The new deal will be different from the current package in that MLS has combined all local as well as out-of-market and national broadcasts in the package but won't include rights to men's and women's national team games whose rights are now controlled by U.S. Soccer.
"Our new package sort of takes a step forward in assuming and accepting the fact that consumers are going to engage in ways without barriers that are specific to gating or specific to local markets," he said of the lack of local blackouts in the new streaming agreements. "We're seeing that are our ESPN+ package. I mean, this isn't tomorrow, this is happening today and even has been happening for the last couple of years."
MLS went to its clubs and made sure that all local broadcast deals expired by the end of the 2022 season. Garber said that included not just broadcast deals but "everything that has a touch point with a consumer is all now in a package" that MLS has been taking to potential partners.