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Excerpts from MLS Commissioner Don Garber’s State-of-the-League Media Teleconference

on Wed, 11/28/2012 - 00:08
Excerpts from MLS Commissioner Don Garber’s State-of-the-League Media Teleconference
November 26, 2012
About the teams competing in MLS Cup Saturday:
I want to begin the conference today by congratulating the Eastern Conference Champion Houston Dynamo and the Western Conference Champion Los Angeles Galaxy, two teams that all of you know are very seasoned playoff clubs and have had several trips to the MLS Cup over the years.  For the Galaxy this is their eighth trip to the final and Houston returns for the fourth time in club history.  For both coaches, Dom Kinnear and Bruce Arena, this is very familiar territory.  There isn't a person associated with MLS who doesn't think of both of these guys as people who get it done when it matters and putting it all on the line, particularly during the playoffs.  Dom is coaching his fourth final while Bruce is coaching his sixth, and Dominic's teams have been crowned champs on two occasions while Bruce has won three of the MLS Cups in our history.  I want to wish both clubs, their coaches and players the best of luck on Saturday.
About the site of MLS Cup:
For the first time we have decided to have the conference champion with the highest accumulation of regular season points host MLS Cup.  Years ago when the league was originally constructed, I think there was a belief that this concept of a neutral site – certainly with the success of a neutral site with the Super Bowl in the National Football League – would be a format that would work for us and I think in the early days it did.  Certainly MLS Cup sort of became the place to be for the US and Canadian soccer community.  But now this really is about rewarding our fans and our players.  After a long and competitive season, 34 games, we believe that the home team deserves the honor of being able to play in front of their home crowd and giving our TV audiences, both here and around the world, the opportunity really to show this really incredible atmosphere that we have been able to achieve week in and week out in Major League Soccer.  So we are excited about this format change.  We think we are ready for it and I think it will be a very exciting MLS Cup on Saturday.
About attendance:
Our league average this year was nearly 19,000 fans per game.  That is the highest in our history.  We had 114 sellouts, which also is a league record.  We doubled the number of sellouts during the playoffs compared to last year [despite] lots of midweek games, not a lot of time to sell those games. ...  So we are very proud about that.  We had six games with crowds of over 50,000 or more, which is a first for our league.  We are pleased with our growth chart as it relates to total attendance.  …  And beyond the numbers, there is a true supporters culture that is developing in Major League Soccer that we think is providing us a real point of difference.  It is allowing us to give soccer fans of any league the chance to connect with their clubs here in the US and Canada in ways that they can't do by watching their favorite clubs from overseas.  So obviously that is a big part of our strategy.  We know that there are lots of soccer fans in this country and our goal is to convert them into MLS fans.  One way of doing that is to show that you have got to be there to experience it.  If you are going to be a real fan, go to a game, wave a flag, support your club and do it at home.  That is a big part of what we think has been driving our success.  Our guys do not need the messages, the PA announcements that tell them to get loud, have rock music blaring -- all those things that really were big part of the League’s MO in the early days.  The sights and sounds of Major League Soccer are very organic and authentic and that is something that we feel really good about. 
About national television partners:
We had a first and terrific year with our new broadcast partner NBC Sports.  They really took the quality of in-game TV soccer production to higher levels, great on air talent, great story telling, doing those things that NBC does very well and a great concept with Kyle Martino in the middle of the field providing color analysis.   We are excited about our new relationship with them.  Great promotion from NBC really increased our TV viewership. 
Our longstanding relationship with ESPN also increased our viewership.  The ESPN2 telecast of the Portland-Seattle game was the network’s third most watched regular season game ever.  Their viewership for the playoffs was up nearly 25% from last season.  They are great partners.  ESPN loves this game.  John Skipper, now their new chairman, is a big supporter and a good friend of all of ours and we are really looking forward to the next couple of years of our relationship with ESPN.
Lots of changes at Univision.  For those of you who don't know, a gentleman from Mexico that has lots of experience from Televisa took over their sports division – Juan Carlos Rodriguez. We have got a longstanding relationship with Juan Carlos and he is very energized, looking to recommit to Major League Soccer, not just on their new sports network but also on TeleFutura and Galavisiόn.  They will be onsite doing lots of storytelling and lots of pregame shows for the first time with us, something we are very excited about.
Up in Canada TSN and RDS are bringing the MLS story to fans up north [and] for the last number of years, they have been great partners of ours. We are very excited about a relationship with them.
About players in 2012:
A breakout season for Graham Zusi, Sporting Kansas City's great midfielder and now a key player with Jurgen Klinsmann. [Klinsmann] by the way was in our office today and seems to be very focused on doing everything that he can to get our National Team qualifying and doing that with a number of MLS players.  Eddie Johnson had a great resurgence with Seattle.   I do not know if any of you guys remember this, but Eddie joined our league when he was 17 years old and had one of his best years with us at 28.  I still think he has a number of good years left in him.  What has got to be one of the great stories in MLS this year is Robbie Keane.  Great form playing for Ireland in the Euros, and obviously a terrific year with the LA Galaxy.
We are spending a lot more time scouting down in South America and Central America.  I think you will see more players, hopefully creative and skilled players, coming from south of the border. 
Nick DeLeon had a good season with DC.  Darren Maddox up in Vancouver.  Austin Berry just recognized as our league Rookie of the Year.  We continue to have a good combination of local American kids, international guys from the region and international players from abroad.
About David Beckham:
As the entire world knows, certainly all of you folks on the phone do, the MLS Cup will be David Beckham's last game as a member of the LA Galaxy.  When David came to MLS in 2007 he said to us and certainly to all of you that he was not coming here to retire.  He was coming here to be a part of a team, to work hard and hopefully win some championships.  And very importantly he was coming here to help grow the sport of soccer in America and to make MLS more popular here and abroad. 
I do not think that anybody would doubt that he has over delivered on every one of those measures.  There is arguably not a soccer fan on this planet that does not know the LA Galaxy and Major League Soccer. David played a significant role in helping us make that happen.  He was an unbelievable ambassador for the league, for the Galaxy and you know he was an incredibly cooperative guy with all the promotional and PR that we and our clubs had for him both in Los Angeles when he was on the road and for the league on a national level.  
His presence here and his experience with the Galaxy served, without doubt, as a significant catalyst for other world class players to come to the league, from Thierry Henry to Rafa Marquez, Robbie Keane, Juan Pablo Angel just to name a few.  Todd Durbin is here in the conference room if you want to ask him about what role David has played, not just in supporting our league, but speaking of it highly, helping us to be aware of and secure some of these international players.  It has been a big part of our ability to sign these guys and we appreciate that. 
Obviously he delivered last year on his statement that he wanted to win.  He wanted to win championships.  Saturday's game will be his third trip to the MLS Cup in the last four seasons.  I think if you ask Tim Leiweke, Bruce or Galaxy supporters I think they would agree that David has made a significant impact for their club on the field.
About the competition format:
It is important for us that we try to keep consistency with our regular season and playoff format.  Though our season will start a little bit earlier this year, moving to March 2nd, we’re in the process of finalizing some exciting, innovative details of a first kick plan that we will announce shortly. … We will do everything possible to not schedule games during World Cup qualifying dates.  We will have a lighter schedule during the Gold Cup.  We will have the same playoff format, one that we thought worked really well this year, though we are working at finding ways to have more rest days between matches, something that I believe our coaches and players will find welcome.
About players in the community:
We continue to be enormously proud of the commitment our guys have year round to community and public service.  There are countless stories that many of you fortunately are able to report on with what our guys do off the field including what they will do out in Los Angeles.  The one for me this year that was the real breakout was about Chris Seitz.  Many of you know him as the keeper for FC Dallas.  He did win the MLS Works Humanitarian of the Year award.  He put his entire career on hold this year to donate bone marrow to somebody that desperately needed it and probably saved a life of a cancer patient.  I think that speaks to the kind of guys that we have in Major League Soccer.
About expansion:
As many of you probably know our plans continue for the 20th club to be in New York City, a team that would play in a stadium in Flushing Meadow-Corona Park in Queens.   Many potential ownership groups have expressed interest in this project.  We continue to look forward to a day when that club will meet the Red Bulls in what promises to be another great soccer rivalry hopefully rivaling what we have in the Pacific Northwest.  We are still in the process of finalizing terms with the city of New York to secure a 10 acre site for that stadium and we hope to be finishing that process very soon.
On the League’s overall position in sports landscape:
Our goal is to be one of the top soccer leagues in the world.  It is a loft goal but it is one that we believe we can achieve.  We are going to measure whether or not we have achieved that goal by: What is our quality of play? How have we been able to develop and build on the passion of our fans?  How have we been able to make our clubs more relevant in the local market? 
We want to do all of that by having an enterprise that is valuable as opposed to just having popularity and just having a quality of play that is comparable.  We want to do it in a way where we have economic viability. 
 Not many leagues in the world have kind of grown up – or moved up as many rungs on the global sports ladder – as we have over the last decade.  The demographics and the overwhelming market research do not lie.  Lots and lots of changes are going on in the US and Canada.  There is no doubt that our two countries have become soccer nations, countries where fans get the game, follow the game, understand it and really believe in it.  So it is exciting for us to be able to lead the growth of this sport during this massive sea change in the sports landscape in North America and we want to hopefully get us closer to our goal.
Q&A Portion
About David Beckham:
We needed David Beckham in 2007 to help drive our credibility, to help grow our popularity and to show the world really that the United States and at that time really the US and Canada who just came in '07 was ready to support division I league at the levels that it is around the world. 
We do not need anything today to get us to the next level.  It is a wide variety of initiatives from player development, from continued investment, in our overall player pool to better and more focused marketing to smart expansion to a transformation into a digital world where our games are even more available than they are today and etcetera, etcetera.
I believe moving forward that there will be another player that will surprise the soccer world like David surprised the world when he agreed to come to Major League Soccer.  I do not know who that player will be but it probably is going to be one of the great players that is playing in Europe today.  I have no doubt that player will come.  No doubt whatsoever.  David tells us continually, as does Thierry Henry, that there is great interest among the international soccer playing community in the United States and in Major League Soccer and now it is just a matter of getting the right deals done.
About David Beckham’s option to own an MLS club:
It is fair to say that we did not offer the option.  It became part of the negotiation with David, Grant that in retrospect proved out to be a good deal for Major League Soccer and a good deal for David Beckham.  At that time, remember where Major League Soccer was, I believe we had 12 teams at that time, we had not yet had the television relationships that we have today.  We had probably half the number of soccer stadiums and the league was just much more immature. 
What we were looking for was a long term partner in building this league, someone who was committed to working with us in creating more value for everyone and that is the role that David played.  I have no regrets whatsoever in any aspect of this deal. 
There is still a lot of work to do to figure out how that option gets executed and when it gets executed and where it gets executed and what the details are but we believe it was the right thing to do at the time and I sit here today in 2012 and believe today it will be a terrific thing for us going forward. Anything is a possibility other than his right to exercise that option in New York. 
About the Designated Player Rule:
Along with soccer stadiums, expansion of ownership, David Beckham, every game on television in HD, and a number of other things -- the Designated Player Rule was really a transformational moment in the league's history.  Without it I don't think we would be the league that we are today.  We do not sit here today having any plans to expand it any further but life is a long time.  We will continue to discuss how that rule works every year in our competition committee meetings. 
Where we are now, the number of DPs in the league has tripled since 2009, it is now 31 players.  … I believe that our clubs will continue to utilize it in ways that make sense for them but I will say that we are very, very focused on insuring that they are smart.  One of the great drivers of MLS's long term, 17 year success, has been our strategic approach in terms of how we are signing players. I want to encourage our clubs to continue to think that way moving forward.
About possible stadiums in New England and D.C.
I believe there is new momentum down in DC.  There seems to be a more focused approach with Jason Levien both with local government but also with local developers who have access to land.  Both Mark Abbott and I have been in discussions over the last week with the holder of that land.
Up in New England the Kraft family continues to be focused on trying to find a soccer stadium solution downtown, which is an incredible move unto itself in that they have their own stadium, which they have privately financed and are able to operate very efficiently there.  But I think as a leader in pro sports in this country generally they want to be a part of being a leader on Major League Soccer and having a soccer specific stadium will help them achieve that. 
About areas that are doing well, and areas that need improvement:
I think we have to be a lot better at everything that we do because we still have a lot of work to do.  I think we are making more progress -- in what I will call fan development -- than we thought we would have been able to achieve even just a couple of years ago.  There is an organic growth of the supporter culture that is creating an environment for us that is (as I mentioned in my remarks) is giving us a point of difference. 
On the converse side we need to continue to focus on growing our television ratings.  We are very pleased in the growth that we have had this year but it is about scale.  We want to continue to expand just the overall size of our audience. … We are putting a lot more resources into this area.  We have hired an advertising agency.  We are going to go out and try to create a lot more noise and connect more with this new 18-25 and 25-35 audience that seems to be very supportive of the sport and supportive of Major League Soccer.  The stats that came out showing MLS and pro soccer as the second most popular sport among young people is something we are really proud of and we want to continue to see that grow.
About youth academies:
Clearly developing young players is one of our top priorities and we will continue to invest massive amounts of money in our academy programs and our reserve league and that investment has not yet paid off. 
We know how important that is to help our country just be better on the National Team level.  We have got a great partner in Adidas that supports this effort.  As you know those generation Adidas players in essence are an incentive for our clubs to have on their roster and that they don't count against the cap. 
About Toronto FC:
You are always concerned with your poor performers.  We spend a disproportionate amount of time with the poor performers and it is just a matter of, as it is in all leagues, working as hard as we can to try to support those clubs that have not been able to see success on the field.  I believe that Tom Anselmi, their new president and COO, is very focused on trying to turn that around.  I believe that they will be looking to make some bold moves to try to address their lack of success on the field.  It certainly pains us a bit.  We looked back at what was such an incredible story in '07 that clearly was one of the real launching pads for the development of MLS – what we call MLS 2.0 – and to see that not capture or not continue to the level that it was in the early years is disappointing.  But I have got a lot of faith in their new ownership structure and I faith in Tom.
About retaining players who receive interest from clubs overseas:
We always do everything we can to retain those players that want to stay in Major League Soccer.  Part of it is there are always a handful of young players who just "always dreamed of playing in Europe" and it is not just about money it is about what it is that they want to do with their lives.  Stuart Holden would be an example of that.  The league was willing to do incredible things to keep Stuart here and he decided that he wanted to go play overseas. 
Many players think it is the right move and then come back to Major League Soccer and there is no shortage of stories.  There are probably more stories of players leaving and coming back than leave and stay overseas. 
So I don't know that I can sit here today and give you a specific mechanism, though we do talk about that.
On the playoff format and lower-seeded teams reaching the final:
I do not think it is a fluke at all.  I think that is why people tune into games and why people write stories about teams that overcome adversity or get players back from injury or have a great coaching approach or get really focused at the games that really matter.  So I am not concerned about that. 
I think that on any given Saturday or Wednesday any team could win and if they have the right fitness and if they have the right luck and if they have the right coaching you never know what could happen in the post season.  By the way, I think that is true in another competitively balanced league like the National Football League.  It is not always the team that is running the table that ends up being in the Super Bowl.
About Atlanta as a potential expansion market:
It would certainly hinge on the new stadium because otherwise there would not be a place to play.  So I will kind of answer the first part.  We continue to be in contact with the Falcons organization, continue to have a close relationship with Arthur Blank, and we believe that he is one of the great sports team owners in America. We hope that he is able to complete whatever plans he has for a new facility and if that is able to come together, try to figure out how an MLS team could be part of their plans. 
About Orlando as a potential expansion market:
I have said many times that we need to be south of Washington, DC.  It isn't of if, it is a matter of when, and it is probably a matter of where.  We continue to believe that the state of Florida needs an MLS team and a division I professional soccer team. 
Before I get to Orlando, at some point I think it would make sense for a team in Miami.  Again, I don't know when that is. It is certainly not now, but that market continues to change. 
We have spent a lot of time with (Orlando City owner) Phil Rawlins.  I would call him a friend of the league.  We are very impressed with what he is doing down in Orlando.  I have spent time down there with Phil and his ownership group and met with county mayors and others. …  We will continue to monitor what is happening down there and I think at some point if they are able to finalize a stadium plan that makes sense, we would be very interested in working with them on an MLS team.
About the possibility that both Beckham and Donovan leave MLS:
I don't believe we are going to be hurting when David leaves.  … David helped to get us to a point and we are going to take it from that point and go even higher and not look back. 
I hope to spend a little time with Landon.  I am surprised that it took so long for this question to be asked.  I don't think that anybody that loves this game and is connected to US Soccer or Major League Soccer doesn't fully appreciate what contributions that Landon has had on our sport in this country. 
He is arguably the best player in US Soccer history.  He started as a teenager and he has spent his entire life committed to the sport and I sympathize with what he is experiencing in trying to soul search and figure out what his future might hold on and off the field. 
I think unfortunately for Landon even more so than the Jordans and Gretzkys of the world or Messiers of the world frankly is that Landon not only had to be a great player but Landon also carried a lot of the promotional burden of growing the sport for a decade or more on his shoulders.  So he played during the “day” and then he had to promote it at “night" – and that is tiring.  I sympathize with that.  I hope that he can continue to help grow the league and the sport here and we want to do everything we can, everything I can personally to help him figure out a right way to be able to do that.
About the New York Red Bulls’ perspective on a second MLS team in New York:
No club has a right to block an expansion into a new market.  It is a right that is held by the League and again -- not held by Don Garber, it is held by the partnership.  It is part of our structure. 
Jérôme de Bontin, the (Red Bulls’) new GM, is new to the league, having come from a short stint at Ligue 1, which is structured very differently from MLS. It is understandable that there is going to be a learning curve with Jérôme in Major League Soccer.  I have spoken with him.  I have also spoken and met just last week with Jérôme's boss Gérard Houllier who will be out at MLS Cup and attending our board meeting.  I know Gérard very much believes in that rivalries or believes that rivalries are a real driver of fan passion and marketing success so I am not at all concerned about Jérôme's point of views.  I think it is just part of being new. 
We have the full support of Red Bull ownership and we have had it for many years.  We have the full support of the MLS board.  It has been a part as I have said of our plan before the Red Bulls were in the league and when the league was founded.  I do believe that once Jérôme has a greater understanding of this project he will be as supportive as the rest of the league GMs and owners are because we believe that this second team in New York will help create an opportunity to break through the clutter in this market of almost a dozen professional pro sports teams.
On player development and importing talent from other leagues:
Part of the issue is insuring that we are providing [home grown] players with competitive games at the reserve league and we are working on ways to have a more competitive reserve league.  Part of it could be a closer relationship with the second division and giving those players an opportunity to get minutes with the second division and part of it could be incentivizing our teams with providing playing opportunities for those young players on their first team and those three or four initiatives or even mechanisms we think will provide a greater level of value to our teams who are making these investments. 
We are not changing our international player rule, we are still very, very focused on the dynamic if you will the roster structure that we have and agreements that we have in place with US Soccer. What [improved scouting networks] mean is that we are trying to improve our strike rate with international players.  Another thing, a lot of our international players talk about this a lot, is that we need to build the middle of our rosters so that we have a more competitive environment to develop better players and to create a more competitive environment from our first team down through our reserve league.  One of the things that exists in Europe as you well know and in South America is that players are looking over their shoulder every day because they are afraid that someone is going to take their job.  That is not the worst thing.  Put passports aside, we need to have a more competitive environment so that players feel that they have to put it on the line every single day in practice as well as on the field.
About the Columbus Crew and its ownership:
The Hunts have been very focused on finding a local owner for that club to partner with them because they have obviously have been so committed for so many years and are working so hard with Mark McCullers and Columbus partnership, with the mayor on trying to help that club achieve some of its goals. 
Without the Hunts there is no Major League Soccer.  We will work closely with them to support them in any and every way that we can in Columbus.  I have probably spent more time in that market than I spent in many markets in the last year or so and we will continue to do so.
About potential ownership and timetable for a second team in New York:
There are several owners, I can't talk about who they are, but you would expect this is an exciting opportunity and there are a wide variety of people that have expressed interest and some that we are in detailed discussions with.
There is a lot of work that needs to happen to finalize our agreement with New York City over our use of the land and our ability to lease that land to build the stadium.  I do believe that we will resolve that shortly.  I can't put any timetable on that but we are at the finish line. 
I don't think that there is any one obstacle.  These projects are very complicated.  You have seen what Bruce Ratner in Barclays Center and what the Yankees and Mets went through to get their stadiums finalized before they were able to build.  You know this is a privately financed project so it is even more difficult for the owner to come in.  There is no public funding support and very importantly and I think this is a point that again, not that interesting for the other people on the call, but this is a major, major job growth opportunity, one that has everybody in a local market included the electeds excited.  About 2200 or so construction jobs, 800 day of game jobs and about 200 full-time jobs and this is a huge economic opportunity in a borough that needs it and in a time when our city could really use the job growth.
On the MLS business model and stadium building as templates for other soccer Leagues:
Last month, I was on a panel with Merritt Paulson, Adrian Hanauer and Robb Heineman and I was told that it was the highest attended panel of the Leaders in Football session in London.  There is enormous intrigue with our system, obviously with all the things that are going on with Financial Fair Play and the challenges with teams in receivership. I do not know that our system would work anywhere overseas but somewhere between where we are and where they are is probably a point where hopefully there can be more economic rationality in global football because it certainly seems a little bit upside down to me.  I do not know how that comes together.  Ivan (Gazidis) – who with Mark Abbott and Todd (Durbin) were the guys who wrote the MLS structure – is very active with UEFA and with the EPL on the initiative that they are working on. 
Clearly the stadium development story is one of the real important chapters in the MLS history book. It was part of the original plan. … When Alan and Mark were going around raising money, they knew then that we needed to have a plan to build soccer stadiums but they were just not able to raise the money to start the league and raise the money to build stadiums at the same time.  But Lamar knew that and it was just a couple of years later in 1999 when Lamar was able to build Columbus Crew Stadium.  But boy it has been a pretty positive story.  Think about the bricks and mortar and the permanency that soccer stadiums provide to fans and the economic opportunity for owners and the prestige and great platform for players.  It is a big part of the MLS history books.
An enormously important part in driving supporter culture [is the soccer-specific] stadiums.  Think about the challenge that we had in the Meadowlands when you had security that did not work for the club.  You had an environment that was not conducive to embracing the supporters culture.  There were just so many things that our teams [with soccer stadiums] can do.  Sons of Ben being important to the design of PPL Park.  Kansas City's transformation from Arrowhead to where they are in LiveStrong Sporting Park.  The fact that our clubs can work with their supporters in allowing them to bring banners in and to work with them on where their sections are, allowing us to deal with the traveling supporter movement and so many things.  Without our stadiums, there is no supporter culture in Major League Soccer like there is today.
About the salary budget:
There is an agreed upon percentage increase in the cap as per our CBA.  That is something that was negotiated many years ago and we have two years left on that agreement.  The Designated Player Rule obviously allows our clubs to increase spending outside of the percentage increase in the salary budget.  We probably spend more than we are required to just based on the Designated Player Rule.  Not probably, I know we do.  So right now we believe that careful strategic growth in spending is important but until revenues are there to match spending it does not make sense other than for our own egos.  We still are dealing with a relatively narrow market in terms of what the economic opportunity is in the short term.  We do believe in a long term value proposition.
About alternatives to a second team in New York as the 20th team:
If we are not able to get something finalized [in New York] we would obviously have to start looking at other markets until we are able to execute the second team here in New York.  We have talked about Atlanta, we talked about Orlando, Miami, we haven't talked much about Minneapolis but they too have expressed interest in an MLS team.  So I think you will continue to see interest in the sport and in the league with potential investors in new markets.  The goal remains to try to get something done [in New York] and if we can't, we will look elsewhere.