BOSTON – MLS Commissioner Don Garber sat down with Sports Illustrated's Grant Wahl for an hour-long interview on Friday at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. Garber touched on a wide variety of topics in the discussion, ranging from the league's current collective bargaining agreement negotiations with the players' union, possible expansion markets, technology's role in evolving soccer as a consumer product, and much more.
Here are the most notable discussion points from the session:
GARBER 'HOPEFUL' OF AVOIDING WORK STOPPAGE
The MLS season is scheduled to begin next Friday, March 6, but the league remains at an impasse with the union on a new collective bargaining agreement. A major sticking point from the players' standpoint is the establishment of some level of free agency that doesn't current exist in MLS's single-entity structure, where the league owns all player contracts, not the individual clubs. Garber remains "hopeful" a deal can be reached in time for the season to begin on schedule, but said that the league also is prepared in case of a work stoppage.
"We have been engaged in very detailed negotiations 24/7 up until yesterday. We'll start again on Sunday," Garber said.
"The U.S. government has a mediation service that provides services to any union that is bargaining with management. They just helped settle a strike in the California West Coast ports. That same mediator hopped on a plane and has been helping us out, and they're ongoing discussions.
"We'll get together with the players–a lot of them–on Sunday at the (Federal Mediation and Concilliation Services) offices in D.C., and we've got a couple of days to bang out an agreement. A lot of players, like all players in any union, have issues they want to bring up with management and they have certain rights and the process provides them with the ability to use leverage and negotiate all those points that matter. And we as management understand and accept that. The issues as you've laid out and have been public with free agency; there's a lot of other issues, and we'll continue to bang as hard as we can to try to resolve them."
Garber went on to mention that owners are involved in the negotiations for the first time in league history, including Jonathan Kraft (New England Revolution), Clark Hunt (FC Dallas) and Greg Kerfoot (Vancouver Whitecaps). He also repeatedly defending the league's single-entity structure as a key reason for the league's ongoing growth and necessary for the league's continued push in the U.S. market, especially as MLS competes in a global market for both talent and eyeballs.
LATEST ON EXPANSION
MLS is committed to expanding to 24 teams by 2020, and two of those teams (Atlanta, which Garber said has already sold 19,000 season tickets for its debut season two years from now, and the new Los Angeles team that's replacing the folded Chivas USA in that market) are spoken for. That math is complicated by David Beckham holding a discounted option to purchase a team, which he wants to place in Miami, but thus far has not been able to secure a building site for a new stadium in that market.
Garber said the league hopes to make decisions on the final expansion markets (for now) by the end of the year. Here's what he said about several of the candidates:
On Minneapolis: "There's enormous momentum in that market. They've got a great NASL team (Minnesota United). There's a really cool dynamic happening in the downtown area. There's a ton of millenials who are moving in there. There's a lot of corporations and young people, particularly people from many different countries, who are moving to that part of the country, so we think Minneapolis would be a great market."
On Sacramento: Sacramento's going to have a preseason exhibition game (against the NASL's New York Cosmos) with their USL team, which is third division, and they've sold 20,000 tickets for that, which is amazing. So there's a lot of activity in Sacramento."
On St. Louis: "There's many things going in the NFL environment in St. Louis. St. Louis is a great soccer town. We've been engaged there."
On San Antonio: "We have a game, for those of you who don't know, the U.S. is playing Mexico in San Antonio in April. We sold that game out–tickets went on sale three weeks ago–that game sold out already in the Alamodome. 60-plus thousand. It's the quickest we've ever sold out a U.S.-Mexico match ... So San Antonio is a great market."
LOSING WORLD CUP TO QATAR A 'SHOT IN THE CHEST'
Garber said that when FIFA president Sepp Blatter revealed that Qatar had won the 2022 World Cup over the United States, it was "like getting shot in the chest." He said that the U.S. delegation, including former U.S. president Bill Clinton, was discussing where it wanted to take a celebratory group picture right before the announcement was revealed.
Garber expressed modest disappointment in FIFA's decision to extend World Cup rights through 2026 to FOX because it didn't allow MLS to engage in advanced discussions with potential broadcast partners that would help align agendas between both possibly promoting in concert with the World Cup, and the World Cup bid for the United States itself.
"Nothing can be more important to the development of a soccer nation than a World Cup. My comments about Qatar are similar. Not just Qatar, the Middle East, because the sport should grow because the World Cup will be there. I'm sure there will be benefits that will derive to the region. While we're disappointed, it is what it is and hopefully great things will come out of that.
"Hopefully, great things will come out of the World Cup we hope [is] coming here in 2026, and one of those great things is the ability to work with broadcasters and work with sponsors and work with municipalities and work with others to create a buildup that will have the sport have more influence, have more infrastructure, have more popularity. And we're going to lose one of those key things right here because the broadcast rights are gone."
As to whether the extension of TV rights through 2026 would hurt a potential U.S. bid to host that World Cup, Garber replied (with a touch of frustration): "There's a lot of water we still have to negotiate regarding the World Cup thing, and as most of you know, it's not a linear process when dealing with Zurich, so I don't know."
MLS OPEN TO TECHNOLOGICAL ADVANCES
Garber is very interested in MLS being a "guinea pig" for technology in the sport, but because soccer is a global game, MLS is not able to enact rules changes like other U.S. sports, where only ownership/rules committee approval is required. He believes that making the sport more accessible for millenials who are used to technology would help grow the fanbase.
He also noted that, unlike American football, soccer has both resource constraints and uniform constraints when it comes to wearable technology and other tech implementations, but is open to doing anything the rules makers want to do.
"If I were king, we would have instant replay," Garber said. "We would have cameras on our players. We would be putting them in our goalposts. We would be having microphones on our field. Our guys would be wearing GoPro cameras and we would be doing a whole lot of stuff to be able to attract the attention of this new young audience that's connecting with us as their sport of choice. In order to do that, we have to engage with them in ways they are used to."
Garber also noted that MLS players are training in compression equipment and Adidas data collection devices. He said the players care about biometric data and the control of it. He also said that that IFAB (the International Football Association Board) is looking at putting "added time" on the scoreboard so fans have more of an idea as to when a match will end.
DESIRE FOR DOWNTOWN STADIUMS
Garber said urban stadium development remains a key strategy for the league going forward. He and the owners believe that millenials and others who work in downtown areas are primed to be engaged by the experience of walking to a stadium in a downtown area.
The league started with the realization that it needed to build soccer-specific stadiums (like Columbus Crew Stadium), then moved to soccer complexes (like in Frisco, Texas and Commerce City, Colorado). Garber noted that the entrance of Toronto–"a very authentic market"–changed the way the league thought about the whole stadium and fan culture experience. Garber is excited that D.C. United got its new stadium situation settled, and hopes for something similar in Boston, where the New England Revolution are exploring options for an urban stadium.
"That is the model that we think is the right model," Garber said. "It took us 10-plus years to figure out, many, many, many billions of dollars of investment to get to the point where we believe that if you put a stadium downtown like Jonathan and Robert Kraft are thinking of doing it, you've got a lot of young people who are interested in being supporters. They can walk to the match, they can march to the match, they can go from work. That is a pretty good formula."
MISCELLANEOUS: TV, NYCFC, PRO/REL
Garber suggested that the NHL's move from a highly localized sport with limited national interest to one that's created some national interest in select events is the one that best parallels where MLS is in terms of national TV interest. He thinks the new TV contracts, with a weekly Friday night match in Spanish and a weekly doubleheader on ESPN and FOX on Sundays will help make the MLS more of a destination TV product. His belief is that the low ratings are mostly due to the league still being fairly new in comparison to other established sports leagues.
Garber disagreed strongly that NYCFC, one of two new expansion teams entering the league this season, misled its fans in the framing of the arrival of Frank Lampard, who is now spending the full season on loan at Manchester City. Garber suggested that it's a great story that we're talking about players like Steven Gerrard, Kaka and Lampard coming to MLS and it shouldn't be about why a player would come in the summer, as nearly every major player coming to MLS has done in the past.
As for chatter about a promotion/relegation model, Garber said he's learned never to say never but "it's not on our radar screen at all right now." He suggested that pro-rel works better in leagues in the rest of the world because they don't explicitly have revenue sharing and don't really want parity in their leagues.