Garber touches on MLS expansion, academies, transparency and more in address

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MLS released a map detailing current clubs and potential expansion sites Tuesday.

MLS expansion

MLS commissioner Don Garber touched on expansion, the league calendar, TV ratings, player development and other intriguing topics during Tuesday’s comprehensive “State of the League” address and news conference in New York City. Here are a few highlights:

On Expansion

Garber reiterated MLS’ goal to field 24 clubs by 2020 and said the league’s commitment to the Southeast U.S., which began this month with the announcement that Orlando City would join in 2015, could continue with David Beckham in Miami and Falcons owner Arthur Blank in Atlanta.

“We need to expand strategically. We’ve got a big chunk of the country where we’re not covered. That’s the Southeast. And we hope to be able to achieve that with Atlanta and Miami … We have a lot of work to do.”

Beckham and TV producer Simon Fuller are in active discussions with Miami authorities regarding a stadium site. They’re also searching for an investor. Beckham has an option to buy a franchise for $25 million, but he’ll need a lot more than that to build a facility. Bolivian telecommunications billionaire Marcelo Claure is considered to be Beckham’s most likely partner.

Garber said the Miami market has changed significantly since MLS folded the Miami Fusion prior to the 2002 season and that the league is “very excited about the opportunity of “David putting together an ownership group and finalizing a stadium site in downtown Miami.” The commissioner said there will be no team “without the right stadium solution” and that there is no plan to review a proposal at Friday’s board of governor’s meeting in Kansas City.

Garber sidestepped a question regarding the Dec. 31 expiration of Beckham’s option agreement with the league, saying only that the parties are working to get something done “as quickly as we can.”

MLS is “making progress” with Blank, Garber said. Blank intends to field a team inside the new NFL stadium scheduled to be completed in 2017 and recently has been “been to a number of [MLS] events, very quietly.”

During Garber’s address, the league displayed a map that also listed Minneapolis, St. Louis and San Antonio as “possible MLS expansion” sites. Garber joked that he hadn’t seen the graphic before taking the stage, then said that there are a number of cities in the Midwest and Texas (he also named Austin), that are “intriguing.”

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Regarding a timeline for Atlanta and Miami, Garber warned that there’s plenty of work to be done in both markets. “You think you’re at the finish line and then the finish line moves,” he said.

On the league calendar:

Saturday’s MLS Cup final between host Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake stands to be the coldest ever. It’s one thing to sell out a championship game played in freezing temperatures. It’s quite another to market a frigid regular season match, and that remains a stumbling block for MLS as it continues to explore aligning its calendar with the rest of the world.

“Frankly, we don’t think we’re ready for that yet,” Garber said.

He did reveal, however, that the league examined the switch to a fall-to-spring season more closely in 2013 than ever before. Whether its to align with the vast majority of the leagues in Europe, which crown their champions in May, or to shift the MLS Cup playoffs away from one of the most crowded portions of the North American sports calendar, there are arguments to be made for a switch.

Garber said the stumbling block was a 10-12 week break MLS would have to take from the middle of December to around the end of February.

“I don’t care what market it is, we’re not playing in February and January,” he said. “We haven’t been able to solve the break and also figure out a way to justify moving those games out of that very valuable May and June time period into February and December. We will continue to look at it … but that’s not something we’re going to do in the short term.”

Separately, Garber said the league remains “very committed” to staging the MLS Cup final at the stadium of the participant with the best regular season record. Saturday’s game will be the second played under the new format. The title match was hosted by the L.A. Galaxy last year.

On TV ratings:

Terrible TV ratings, and the lack of revenue that would accompany more eyeballs, appear to be the greatest stumbling block facing the league in its quest to become one of the world’s best by 2022.

Ratings actually fell in 2013. According to Sports Business Journal, the average audience for the 20 regular season matches broadcast on ESPN networks plunged 29 percent to 220,000. NBC and NBC Sports Network showed 37 regular season games and averaged 112,000 viewers, down 8 percent.

MLS’ TV contracts will expire at the end of next season.

Garber acknowledged that an improved product, which will come gradually as MLS develops more talent and spends incrementally more on veteran players, is part of the solution. But he also said the league’s schedule (which must accommodate international matches, the U.S. Open Cup and the CONCACAF Champions League) and its current broadcast partners shoulder some of the blame.

“We’ve been growing our fan base,” he said. “We have to find a way to find a partner that gives us the right schedule, the right promotion and marketing, that is embracing us in a way that will allow us to have our programming be valuable and be a priority both for the broadcaster and for our fans.”

Garber cited NBC’s “unprecedented” promotion for its English Premier League package as something he’d like to see for MLS.

“We’ve had games that were broadcast every day of the week, most of them were different times. There was little to no consistency on that scheduling, either with the broadcast partner or through our own schedule. We need a consistent game of the week or games of the week … at consistent times,” he said.

MLS and NBCSN will try that “Game of the Week” approach next season. There will be an MLS broadcast each Friday evening from June 27 through the end of the regular season.

Garber said flex scheduling is unlikely. Because of teams’ crowded calendars, stadium availability and other issues, “it borders almost on being logistically impossible,” he said.

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On player development:

Garber revealed Tuesday that the league is spending around $20 million per year on player development initiatives, which include the youth and academy teams run by individual clubs and the affiliation agreement MLS started with USL Pro, whose teams play at the third tier of the US and Canadian pyramid.

Grooming the next generation of talent, Garber said, is as much a part of the league’s mission as scheduling matches every weekend.

He said the unique rules covering college soccer are part of the reason MLS needs to focus so diligently on development.

“[NCAA rules] aren’t necessarily in the view of our technical people as closely aligned with what perhaps is the system in Europe and the rest of the world would be, where players play all year around,” he said, adding that the college game’s relatively unrestricted substitution rules alter the sport further.

“We’re competing with the rest of the world as it relates to that age group,” he said. “We’ll continue to support the college system any way we can, but we hope the college system can look at adapting a bit so we can collectively develop the American game better.”

On transparency

It wasn’t a journalist, but a fan, Portland Timbers supporter John Nyen, who brought up the troubling issue of league transparency.

Whether it was the unwritten “designated players don’t go through the allocation process” mechanism that facilitated Clint Dempsey’s move to Seattle or the mysterious “retention funds” that helped the likes of Omar Gonzalez and Graham Zusi to re-sign with their clubs, MLS found itself awkwardly explaining several acquisition mechanisms after the fact in 2013.

Garber said the league would try to do better, but that finding new rules to fit new situations was part of operating a growing league that remains unprofitable and which continues to stress competitive balance.

“The league has to adapt the way it operates because we have fans who are more closely connected to how we operate than they were in the past,” Garber acknowledged following Nyen’s question, adding that transparency previously “just wasn’t part of our DNA.”

Garber promised more transparency “going forward” but said, “as an emerging league, there are times that we’re figuring out those rules as we go along … There could be something that comes up that’s something we need to figure out now, because we’ll lose the player or we won’t be able to sign this player or it’ll prevent us from being competitive in an international competition … we need the ability to be flexible and evolve.”

He stressed that there is “no insidious plan” or centralized effort to give one club an advantage over another (after all, it’s the board of governors – the club owners – who make the rules).