By DAN KARELL
Speaking to fans and journalists across the nation on Tuesday from the Google offices in New York City, Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber touched on a number of topics, including expansion, a change to a winter schedule, and more.
But arguably the most surprising comments came from a question on transparency in MLS. The league took some criticism this season for new rules coming to light only through reports from journalists or press releases from teams after a player signing had occurred. While Garber promised that the league would do more in terms of transparency in the future, he said that at the league’s current stage, it’s better for the league to be flexible rather than rigid.
“What I will say is that as an emerging league, there are times when we are figuring out those rules as we go along,” said Garber. “I don’t know if the Clint Dempsey case is an example of that, but there could be something that comes up where we say, this is something that we need to figure out now, because we will lose this player or we won’t be able to sign this player, or it will prevent us from being competitive in an international competition, whatever it might be. That means, as an emerging league that we’ve got to have the ability to be flexible and evolve.”
Garber said that many of the original rules in place were to keep teams from having a competitive advantage over one another and in the league’s early years, it “wasn’t in their DNA” to be open about all of the rules. But Garber also stressed that there wasn’t any kind of evil plan to keep the rules away from the fans and supporters of the league.
“There’s no insidious plan, there’s no desire to hide behind any artificial system,” Garber said. “There will be more transparency going forward, but we have to accept, (and) I ask our fans to accept, that at 18 years old, we are still evolving and we are still doing some of this stuff on the fly.”
One of the biggest issues facing MLS in the coming year is the future of the league’s national television deals. MLS has deals currently with ESPN, NBC Sports, and Univision in America and TSN/RDS in Canada but each of their deals end at the end of the 2014 season. The league’s ratings have fallen this year and suffered without a big event like the World Cup or European Championship to capitalize from.
Garber seemed to want to move in a new direction in terms of television partners, as current partner NBC Sports is reportedly paying at least $80 million for the rights to the English Premier League and has put much of their resources towards that competition instead of MLS.
“We’ve got to find a way to have a partner that gives us the right schedule, that gives us the right promotion and marketing, that is embracing us in ways that will allow us to have our programming be valuable and be a priority both for the broadcaster and the fans,” Garber said. “If we are able to achieve that, I believe our television ratings will grow.”
The Commissioner also admitted that flex scheduling is something that is being looked at in the future, and while it won’t be in effect in 2014, it could enter the schedule in 2015. It could fix some late season situations that have teams out of the playoff race off national television while teams fighting for a spot are stuck on regional or local television only.
Another of this season’s talking points surrounded a potential switch to move to a winter schedule, aligning MLS with the top leagues in Europe. Garber admitted that the league did have conversations about what he prefers to call a “potential calendar shift” but that there is still a long way to go before anything changes from the current schedule.
Garber outlined one of the main issues to be a ten to 12 week break from late December through late February or early March, as well as not wanting to play games in Northern United States and Canadian cities in the winter. This Saturday’s MLS Cup final in Kansas City is expected to be one of the coldest in history with a projected high temperature of 26F.
“It’s not just about ‘are we going to play three more games in cold weather markets at an earlier time of the year’,” said Garber. “It’s about what do we do with an extended break because I don’t care what market it is, we’re not playing in February and January in places like Toronto, Vancouver and places like that. That’s where the rub is. We have not been able to figure out a way to solve the break, and also figure out a way to justify moving those games out of the very valuable May and June time period into February and the end of December.
“We will continue to look at it, we looked at it more deeply this time around than any time before. We went through some fairly extensive discussions as a league to figure out if we could do this some time in the future, (not for 2014), but that’s not something that we’re going to do in the short-term.”
Finally, during Garber’s address, the Commissioner revealed that the league invests $20 million in their academy system each year. When asked to delve further, Garber said that he believes it’s the league’s priority to work with the U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF) to develop the league’s next superstars.
“I think we win on and off the field if we’re developing better players. There is a question as to ‘is it the right amount of investment and when does that pay off’. Jozy Altidore was sold by the Red Bulls for $10 million, so for one and two players it does make economic sense. We’re not in the business (as you well know) of developing players to sell them.
“We want those young kids, (like New England Revolution midfielder Diego) Fagundez, to be on MLS 36 on NBC, having a kid dream to try to be that guy, and in order for that to happen it has to be on ESPN or Univision on American television or Canadian television if there was an analogous situation up in Toronto.
“I believe it makes sense, we’ve got to find a way that the economics (can) start delivering sooner as opposed to later, and I absolutely view it as our role to be a leader in this area. If we don’t do it, who will.”