Monday, September 22, 2014
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MLS commissioner Don Garber talks winter schedule, lack of transparency in State of the League address

Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber addressed a wide range of topics in his annual State of the League address Tuesday afternoon.

MLS commissioner Don Garber talks winter schedule, lack of transparency in State of the League address

Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber addressed a wide range of topics in his annual State of the League address Tuesday afternoon.

You can watch the entirety of the event in the video player above. There are a few key points that I'd like to highlight, mainly from the question-and-answer session that followed Garber's formal remarks.

I came into the event hoping to hear Garber's take on reports (including my own) that the league has been considering a shift to a winter-centric schedule format. As I wrote last month, discussions on such a move have taken place at MLS headquarters and among club owners in recent weeks.

Before my turn came in the Q&A session, Garber briefly raised the subject on his own. This was part of a response to a question from the San Francisco Chronicle's Alan Black on how to generally grow the game:

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One of the things that I get a lot when people ask us about the schedule is, "Why can they play in the middle of the winter in Russia, or they can play at zero degrees Celsius [32 Fahrenheit] in England, or play in Germany in February? They can do it - why can't you do it?

The average temperature in Kansas City will be somewhere around 15 degrees [Fahrenheit] on Saturday. I think we'll have a sold-out, just an exciting crowd, and it will be terrific.

We need to be able to have teams that are so relevant, so important that they'll be able to deliver that 12 months a year, and frankly we'll be able to have a calendar that will be able to align with the rest of the world.

Later in the Q&A, Garber brought up scheduling again when asked by the Oregonian's Jamie Goldberg about the league's negotiations for new television deals, which are currently ongoing.

"We've got to find a way to find a partner that gives us the right schedule," Garber said as part of his answer.

That was, as I've written before, a bit of a loaded statement. It was sure to be noticed by all the right people.

So I took all of that in, and ended up waiting until the very last question of the event for my turn. I asked Garber what he could tell us about those aforementioned reports. I also asked what opinions he has heard from MLS' television partners - both its current broadcasters and networks interested in the league. And finally, I wanted to know Garber's personal view on the subject. 

This was Garber's answer to me:

Well, I'm not going to talk about any negotiations with our potential broadcasters. So while I'm sure it would be intriguing to know that, those are discussions that are ongoing, Jonathan, so I'm going to have to take at least one portion of that and give you a big no comment.

I will say that as a league, we have in the past looked - and continue to look - at a potential calendar shift. And we went through a fairly comprehensive process this year, looking at whether or not we could manage a schedule change.

And I just want to put in perspective - it requires us to move the schedule so that it would start somewhere around February, and then it could conceivably end some time at the end of May. We would have to take a break during the time when everybody takes a break, start up again some time in July, then play July, August, September, October, November and December.

[At the] end of December, [we'd] have a break from the end of December to probably some time at the end of February to early March - from 10 to 12 weeks. Therein lies the problem. It's not just about if we are going to play three more games in cold-weather markets at an earlier time of the year. It's about what we do with an extended break.

Because I don't care what market it is, we're not playing in February and in January in places like Toronto and Vancouver, 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. I'd tell the group here that we looked at it more deeply this time around than at any other time before. So you are right, we went through some fairly extensive discussions as a league to figure out if we could do this at some time in the future. It wouldn't have been for 2014. But that's not something that we're going to do in the short term.

Perhaps the best question of the afternoon - and the best answer, too - dealt with MLS' renowned lack of transparency. John Nyen, a member of Portland's Timbers Army supporters club, asked Garber about the league's repeated pattern of disclosing new methods of player acquisition after the fact. Some of those methods - including the so-called "Impact Designated Player" - are not explained anywhere in MLS' official roster rules.

Nyen quite bluntly asked Garber when the league would stop doing so much behind the scenes, and bring more of their affairs into public view.

"It's a good question," Garber said, "and I appreciate you asking it the way you did."

So did we all.

Garber went on to respond:

In the past, we had a lot of rules that were put in place because we needed to have the league succeed. Some of them were things that we believed were the right competitive moves. We would never do anything that would place one team at a competitive advantage over another. But it just wasn't something that was part of our DNA, to open up from a transparency perspective, all of the rules from the league.

We're in the process of doing that. The mechanism that got Clint Dempsey should have been exposed, or promoted, prior to - as opposed to afterwards. Because we weren't trying to hide anything. So I think you'll see going forward that we will have more transparency in our rules.

[As a reminder, MLS paid a big chunk of the transfer fee to bring Dempsey to the Seattle Sounders from Tottenham Hotspur.

What I will say is that as an emerging league, there are times when we are figuring out those rules as we go along.

So if - and I don't know that the Clint Dempsey case is an example of that - 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 would prevent us from being competitive in an international competition, or whatever it might be. 

And that means that as an emerging league, we've got to have the ability to be flexible and evolve.

I will say that there is an emergence from our complex system that has almost a culture of people who are beginning to be experts in it. Like they are in the NFL, where they are called "capologists." The NFL system is very, very complicated. Not every fan knows it. And there are 32 "capologists" who really know it.

We had our first "capologist," Tim Bezbatchenko, leave the league office - he was one of the guys behind the curtain who knew all these rules - and he was just hired by Toronto FC to help them navigate it better.

So the best way I can answer it is: there's no insidious plan, there's no desire to hide behind any artificial system. There will be more transparency going forward, but we have to accept - and we 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. That's the best way I can answer it, very openly.

At one point during his formal remarks, Garber mentioned that his goal of making MLS one of the top leagues in the world over the next decade "really starts with the commitment to an increase, a rise in quality of play." There were a few variations on that theme later, as you might expect.

But it came as no surprise that the commissioner - who serves at the pleasure of the league's many club owners - made no direct references to either raising player salaries or raising the salary cap. Garber did say that "the MLS leaguewide commitment to player development totals over $20 million a year," most of which goes to youth academies.

The closest he came to a direct reference to spending on players was a statement in his prepared remarks that "in order to be that destination point, we've got to have the right players, and we'll continue to make commitments on that front." He also said during the Q&A session that he wants the league to continue growing "a passionate fan base that will be valuable, [and] that value again will allow us to invest more in player quality."

MLS' current collective bargaining agreement with its players' union expires after the 2014 season. Everything that Garber says about players in his league can be taken in that context. I'm sure many of you would rightly hold any commissioner of any American sports league to the same standard.

So when Garber said that "Major League Soccer still loses money as an enterprise," the point was loud and clear.

That last quote came in an answer to a question from Kyle McCarthy of the Boston Herald and FoxSoccer.com, who asked Garber how the league can "balance the need to bolster the balance sheets with the need to invest more in the product going forward."

Garber's response:

Well, you know, it's tough - it's not linear, Kyle. It's more an art than it is a science. It comes down to what I think is a legendary investment and commitment that our owners have made to try to build the sport, not just for today but for generations to come.

And in order to do that, you need to continue to invest so that our product quality grows with more competition here, but also with a more sophisticated fan base. And then that's got to be married with the realities of our economics.

Major League Soccer still loses money as an enterprise, and we've got to find a way that we can get closer to being a break-even enterprise. Because it will never be able to have that goal of being an economically viable business if, for the next 20 years, we lose money. So that's where the art comes in, Kyle.

A lot of that work is done at our Player Product Committee, which owners and team presidents sit on; [and] our Competition Committee, which is team owners, and we look at massive amounts of data and analytics on player development and player investment.

We disclosed - disclosed is the wrong word - we shared with the public, earlier this year, [MLS' Executive Vice President of Player Relations and Competition] Todd Durbin talked about an initiative, the Core Retention Fund, where we were investing money in trying to keep guys like Omar [González] in the league, guys like Matt [Besler] in the league, Graham Zusi in the league. Trying to provide funds to our teams to do things that were strategic, that might not make economic sense.

That's the beauty of the league's single entity. It's that we can take a step back and think about what kinds of things do we need to do to grow the league, so that we can achieve our ultimate goals - even if it requires investment. And that's where the art comes in to play. I wish it was easier, quite frankly. I wish a broadcaster would pay us a billion dollars. Then it would be real easy.

There's one other thing Garber said that I wanted to highlight. In his prepared remarks, he talked about the growth of supporter culture across the league, and how it has had an increasing impact on the league's decision-making:

This is a relatively new dynamic, this concept of a growing, fan support culture. Frankly, it's relatively new in Major League Soccer - it probably is about five years old. I see a bunch of Red Bull folks here in the audience. Nothing like going to Red Bull Arena and seeing what they have going on in their stadium, creating an atmosphere that can turn a casual fan into a passionate, committed soccer supporter.

It's a new dynamic, it's one that is totally real. It's 100 percent authentic, and it provides the league with a real point of difference against some of the other soccer leagues and pro sports leagues across North America.

I have a lot of respect for Garber, and I agree with him on a lot of things. I thought some of his remarks today were among the most honest I've ever heard from him.

I strongly disagree with his view of the supporter culture in MLS.

I've been covering MLS for a decade now, and I started attending games well before that. I can't claim to have been there in the league's first season, but as many of you know, I have spent a lot of time studying and writing about fan culture in the league's early years.

Most of my expertise comes from growing up in Washington, where D.C. United's supporters clubs set MLS' early standard. But the Screaming Eagles were not alone. From New York to Chicago to Los Angeles, fans assembled across the nation as soon as MLS got off the ground.

They may not have made their collective voices heard back then to the degree that they are today. Or, as Garber put it in his particular way, the current era may have "a sophistication from a fan perspective that really didn't exist in the past."

But to say that those fans did not exist is false. They were there, and they deserve recognition.

If any point in time past MLS' early years served as a "genesis" for supporter culture in the league, it was not five years ago. It was 2006, when Toronto FC arrived. Their fans were the ones who truly sparked MLS' new era.

The math from Garber's remark points to 2009. Coincidentally - or perhaps not - that's the year Seattle joined MLS. 

Some people in the Emerald City would, at times, have you believe that the Sounders' fan culture is the sole and inherently superior template for the whole of American soccer. The spectacle is indeed great. By any objective standard, it's among the best in the league.

But the Sounders' fan base is neither sole nor inherently superior. Their acclaim has been earned, just the same as the Sons of Ben, the Red Patch Boys, Section 8 and the Galaxians. I would say the same about every other supporters club in the league, new or old.

It's true that in some cases, less acclaim has been given over time to supporters clubs in markets where the crowds are not as big.

That doesn't mean that people who put in the work in those markets do so with any less heart or drive than those who enjoy a brighter spotlight.

I know Garber well enough to know that he understands this. And I know many people at MLS headquarters and clubs across the country who have devoted many years of their lives to building American soccer on the field and in the stands. I wish Garber would have given them their due.

About this blog
The Goalkeeper is your home for the latest news about the Philadelphia Union, Major League Soccer, U.S. national teams and the rest of the world's most popular sport. It's also a place for fans to gather and celebrate the culture of soccer and its unique place on the sports landscape.

Jonathan Tannenwald Philly.com
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