For nearly two years, the COVID-19 pandemic has weighed heavy on Major League Soccer. The 2020 season barely got to the finish line in the wake of postponements and delays, while negotiations on a revised Collective Bargaining Agreement with the MLS Players Association meant a delay to the start of the 2021 campaign.
But with this season having reached its conclusion last weekend in Portland, MLS finds itself on firmer footing, and commissioner Don Garber can exhale a bit. There are revamped competitions like the Leagues Cup to look forward to, and expansion is once again on the minds of the league’s executives. There is a new media rights deal to negotiate as well.
With that in mind, Garber sat down with ESPN to delve deeper into some issues at hand.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity, and was conducted just prior to MLS Cup.
ESPN: You said during the State of the League address [on Dec. 8] that Las Vegas is the front runner for the next expansion franchise, potentially becoming the 30th MLS franchise. How close is that deal to the finish line? What additional details can you share?
Don Garber: I can’t really share much more because there’s not much more to share. We’re engaged in deep discussions with a potential ownership group, we’re very focused on what the facility options are and we’re hopeful to keep making progress. I can’t really say much more than that.
ESPN: Is it a prerequisite that in places like Vegas and Phoenix, the team is going to have to have an indoor stadium given the weather? And to what degree does that change the calculus of an expansion bid in either one of those cities?
DG: Yes [an indoor venue is required]. We’re very focused, we are really bullish about the market and we’re convinced that the key to success in a market like Las Vegas is a temperature-controlled stadium environment, which obviously would be quite costly. So it speaks to the belief in Major League Soccer that any ownership group would see the value of engaging at that level of investment.
ESPN: Are you talking any other prospective ownership groups for Vegas because I know that some have flitted in and out of the picture.
DG: I’ve never confirmed anything with Wes [Edens, co-owner of Premier League team Aston Villa and NBA champions Milwaukee Bucks, as well as one of the co-owners behind the Las Vegas bid]. I think there continue to be discussions taking place in the marketplace. We’ve yet to reach the finish line, but we’re encouraged by the level of interest from investors.
ESPN: How far along are you in terms of discussions in Phoenix and San Diego?
DG: We’re not far along in Phoenix, but we have been in fairly detailed discussions in San Diego. We’ve looked at that market for many years now. We unfortunately lost the public vote on the [San Diego Stadium] site, but we’ve remained in touch with [San Diego State University] and still believe that San Diego would be a great MLS market.
ESPN: Would any expansion project in that city involve San Diego State and their new San Diego Stadium site?
DG: I don’t think that’s the only option, but certainly it’s one of the options.
ESPN: I noticed that in your State of the League, you did not mention Sacramento (previously a front runner for the 30th MLS franchise). Where do you think things stand there?
DG: We currently don’t have any discussions going on in Sacramento. By the way, I think that Sacramento remains a very good professional soccer market. I’m very bullish on the market. But we don’t have any ongoing discussions with potential investors at this point.
ESPN: How disappointing is that given that you guys were so close there at one time?
DG: I’m not disappointed in it at all. I still believe Sacramento is a good market, but it was to be our 30th team. And if Las Vegas turns out to be our 30th team, with a great ownership group and a great, state of the art facility, that could turn out to be a very good outcome for Major League Soccer.
ESPN: To what degree has the value proposition of an MLS team changed given that you have existing teams selling for what I would say is significantly less than the cost of an expansion team, plus the added expense of a stadium and a training facility? To what degree does that change the dynamic in the marketplace in terms of interest?
DG: I don’t look at the last two sales (Houston Dynamo FC and Orlando City SC) as being indicative in any way of team values, in that both took place during the pandemic. A more relevant comparison was the $400 million sale the Chicago Fire from Andrew Hauptman to Joe Mansueto, which was done without a stadium and without a training ground.
DG: Full team sales are complicated and have a variety of different assets within a holding company. Real Salt Lake is no different. Beyond the team and the stadium, there is a development facility, a residency and a small, second-division stadium, which makes the sale that much more complicated. That makes it complicated as hell, right, because every one has different companies that own these things.
MLS teams, when you’re talking about hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars, they’re different relationships. The Herriman [training] facility is in a different structure. People have no idea. We have … teams of 10 full-time people [coordinating deals]. These are really complicated. Fans don’t know that, and they don’t care. But as a guy who’s been doing this for 20 years, these things are really complicated.
What could have been easier than Chicago Fire? You’re buying the Chicago Fire, it’s a club that had no facility; it wasn’t complicated.
ESPN: Are there multiple ownership groups still vying to buy RSL or have you narrowed it down to one in particular?
DG: It’s narrowed down to a very short list.
ESPN: Still multiple groups?
ESPN: I know you get this this question every year, because every year people complain about it, but the playoff format: It seemed like before, people said the games came too quickly; this time around, you had New England with 23 days off. Is there anything that can be done about that? And I get that 2022 is a World Cup year and that’s going be its own kind of animal, but is there anything can be done about the scheduling, to smooth out some of these gaps?
DG: I wish there were. Next year will be very different, so we’ll be able to see an entirely different format [with regard to scheduling] and as the league continues to grow, the playoff format will likely change. It was an unfortunate situation with New England having the gap between their last game and their first playoff game.
They did have an opportunity to play earlier. They could have played on Thanksgiving, and they opted not to do so. I think it was an unfortunate situation. I respect the fact that outside of fan chatter, [manager] Bruce Arena didn’t talk about it. The Krafts (New England Revolution owners) didn’t talk about it. The players didn’t talk about it. Because the reality was they were the best team in the regular season, though they just were not able to get over the finish line in their first playoff game. I’m not sure that was format oriented.
ESPN: You mentioned during the State of the League about TV ratings for playoff games being up. How did things shake out in terms of the regular season?
DG: Certainly it was up on ESPN. I think it was flat on Fox, up on Univision, up on TSN, down at TVA (in Canada). Ratings were up when I said it was up. I mentioned that television ratings were up and then I said they were really up in the playoffs. OK, overall television ratings were up this year.
ESPN: How much does that help the media rights conversation going forward?
An emotional Carles Gil thanks his New England Revolution teammates after being named the 2021 Landon Donovan MLS MVP.
DG: You know, the media rights conversation is going to be driven by an entirely new package that we’re taking to market.
Our audience continues to grow, and our media partners are pleased with the makeup of the audience and the size of the audience that we’ve been able to deliver. But the real exciting opportunity for us and what is creating lots of interest in the marketplace is an unprecedented package with the possibility for a partner or a series of partners to have every MLS game in every format, with unlimited distribution possibilities, combined with other intellectual property offerings, like our data deals and sports betting deals, or potentially being part of a new relationship.
ESPN: You once said that you wouldn’t consider switching the calendar until the weather is no longer an issue for fans. Is the league any closer to that?
DG: In 2022, we’re going to have our earliest start in the history of our league. The games start on Feb. 26, so we will really be pushing the envelope more than ever before.
We continue to have to manage the largest geographic region for any league in the world, and the most weather changes and time changes of any league in the world. As such, the likelihood of us playing in a dramatically different calendar is far, far, far in the future and we would only do it if we saw the value for our fans and for our competition. Today, we don’t see that value.
ESPN: In terms of sports betting, I know that the league has an agreement with BetMGM, and there have been some sleeve sponsorships, but how much growth do you anticipate in that particular area over the next several years?
DG: I know I speak for everybody in the pro sports industry when I say the real value of the passing of [the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act] and the legalization in many states for sports betting is not revenue, but fan engagement. It’s the idea that a consumer can be involved in the game on an entirely different level than in the past, moving from a passive viewer to more active and engaged viewer. That’s the real value that we see going forward.
You’re going to continue to see more and more opportunities both for the league and the clubs in this space.
ESPN: Two months ago it was announced that the Sporting Kansas City midfielder Felipe Hernandez was found to have bet on MLS games. To what extent does an incident like that keep you up at night given the more pervasive presence of sports betting in the USA?
DG: There is no doubt that the integrity of our game is the top priority for Major League Soccer, and the same is true for every other professional sports league. We are going to carefully and strategically take advantage of these new opportunities to allow people to wager on MLS games, and it’s incumbent upon us to ensure that we have the right procedures, policies and protection services in place to monitor the entire global betting market to ensure that nothing untoward is taking place, whether it be with players, staff or anyone else that’s associated with the league or our clubs.
I am mindful of the fact that there are going to be issues and through proper education and proper surveillance, as well as proper discipline when infractions occur, we are going to put ourselves in the best possible position to manage this very changing dynamic.
ESPN: Is that still the only instance of a player betting on MLS games?
DG: Both cities arguably are among the most expensive real estate in a downtown environment of any city in the world. And in that context, it’s just that much more difficult to get large sporting complexes approved, financed and ultimately developed.
It doesn’t surprise me that I continue to get asked about New York and New England in every State of the League address. And I used to get asked that about D.C. United, and I used to get asked that about when’s Miami coming into the league. So I smile when I think about it, because the time will come when we’ll have an announcement in New York and an announcement in Boston and the media will be looking at 10 years of other questions.
ESPN: Obviously MLS and Liga MX these days are even more tightly coupled. As time goes on, what might we see with regard to these two leagues becoming even more joined at the hip?
DG: Right now, we are so focused on the Leagues Cup. I see no reason to go any further than that. It doesn’t add any value to anyone. Right now, the real value that we get, as people get excited in a close association between the two leagues, is a competition and we have that. Anything beyond that is just, you know, corporate boardroom stuff, and I don’t see any reason for us to even be thinking about that.
I’m very close to [CONCACAF president] Victor Montagliani. I’ve been part of this sport for almost two and a half decades. I am a big believer that CONCACAF needs to be able to be as relevant and as successful as any other confederation and in order to do that, they need to drive more revenue. And in order to do that, they need to have their two most dominant leagues become more successful, delivering player value to the rest of the region, financial value to the rest of the region, and Leagues Cup is one of the great examples of that.