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MLS Commissioner Garber Conference Call: March 8, 2012

Dan Courtemanche:  Thank you.  We are going to go ahead and get started with today’s MLS media conference call to kick off the 17th season of Major League Soccer, which begins  this Saturday March 10th.  The season actually concludes Saturday December 1st.  This is the first time we will have an MLS Cup on Saturday in league history.  That is 17 days longer than in 2011 and this season will be the longest in MLS history.  Kick off this weekend our featured speaker Don Garber will be in Los Angeles on Saturday for the LA Galaxy – Real Salt Lake match.  On Sunday he will be in Dallas for the first game with our new television partner on the NBC Sports Network and that is FC Dallas hosting the New York Red Bulls.  Then finally he will bin Portland on Monday when Portland hosts Philadelphia Union.


So as Susan said, those of you how who would like to ask questions for Commissioner Garber you can hit *1 and you will be placed in the queue.


So we are going to kick it off with some brief remarks from Commissioner Garber and then we will go to the Q&A session.  So Don …


Don Garber:  Thank you very much Dan and thanks again everybody for joining us on this annual chat leading into the start of our season.  It is hard to believe that MLS is entering its 17th year and I am entering my 13th season as Commissioner.  So there has been a lot of these annual calls that we have done together and I know that many of you on the line have been attending these calls since the very beginning of the league and we very much and always continue to really appreciate the support and ongoing engagement that we have with our friends in the media. 


It is a very exciting time for us at the league.  We are coming off the most successful season in our history.  We broke our attendance record that was set in the first year of the league.  Our average of 17,872 and a total of 5.4 million fans is a number that we are feeling very proud of.  We also had 87 sellouts.   That was an all-time record and all of you know that it is hard to imagine that the league, our teams, would be selling out so many games and we expect to have a similar number of sellouts in 2012.  We had 10 teams above 17,000 on average attendance; also a record for us.  The league continues to be led from an attendance perspective by the Seattle Sounders with nearly 40,000, 38,400 fans attending their games on average.  Only the New York Cosmos in a couple of years, in ’78, ’79 and ’80 had a higher average.  So that is something that we are very proud of. 


We expect 2012 to be even better for the following reasons.  It really starts with the next round of expansion.  Our 19th team the Montreal Impact joins and will play their first game on March 17th in the Olympic Stadium against Chicago.  They are expecting well north of 50,000 fans for that game and potentially being able to set a record for soccer attendance in Quebec.  They will play five games in the Olympic Stadium before they move into the renovated Saputo in June.  Joey Saputo who many of you know and his staff, they have been really doing a great job over the past year relaunching and repositioning the club.  Jesse Marsch a great MLS player and a guy who has been involved in our league for many, many years is doing a good job building their roster.  All of them are working very hard to deeply connect in this very knowledgeable soccer market, a market that allows us to expand and include a new culture of people added to the MLS family as we will now be televising games in French and now we just launched our website in French and we are going to be playing games in the second largest French speaking city in the world behind Paris, France. 


The supporters culture continues to drive and be the engine that is driving Major League Soccer’s success.  I believe it will continue to be a defining aspect of our league this year and in the next number of years.  Passionate fans in these supporters groups are really what separates Major League Soccer from the rest of the pro sports leagues here in the United States and in Canada.  As we broadcast our games throughout this continent and around the world the images of soccer fans celebrating the way they do in other parts of the world, countries that are known for being big supporters of the sport, I think is adding to our credibility.  We are working very closely with our clubs and their supporters to continue to grow these groups but also to ensure that they are celebrating and managing themselves properly.  In fact we have a full-time person in our office that is just dedicated to this particular project. 


This year we will also launch our new relationship with NBC Sports.  Their first game will be out of Dallas and the President of Programming for NBC Sports, Jon Miller will be travelling with me and some others in the league office to Los Angeles, to Dallas and to Portland.  We are really looking forward to Arlo White and Kyle Martino joining the NBC family and we are excited about this new relationship.  We really think that combined with our long-term partners at ESPN and at Univision that we have an opportunity to continue to spread our league, our clubs and our great players to larger and larger audiences throughout the U.S. and Canada, joined obviously by TSN our national broadcaster north of the border.


We do believe that we have a unique brand that we are offering to our fans.  Frankly we think it is one of the most competitive soccer leagues in the world, from top to bottom as it speaks directly to the fact that during our 16 years we have had nine Cup winners and nine Supporter Shield winners.  That is a big part of the DNA of Major League Soccer.  Every MLS team at the start of the year really has a belief that they can win a championship.  I was up in Toronto last night and came back this morning and read the local newspaper and there was a column by a very respected guy who was talking about Toronto FC finally making the playoffs and maybe even making a run for the championship and that certainly would be a great achievement for them after some of their challenges in the past.  I think it speaks to the kind of league that we are.  Our salary structure provides competitive balance.  The majority of our clubs remain in the playoff race until the last few weeks of the season.  We have a very level playing field in terms of how we manage our draft and how we manage our allocation money in ways to ensure that teams that are not performing well in a particular year have the opportunity to get tools to be able to be more successful in the succeeding years. 


In our view MLS has a very captivating and unique blend of talent.  We certainly saw that on display in the Champions League games last night in LA and in Seattle.  Our owners continue to invest in our players.  We have been promoting some of the contributions that we have been making to the US National Team and the development of the American and hopefully soon the Canadian player.  That is a function of not just the development in the first teams but the developments in our academy programs and in our reserve league program.  You are going to see more and more financial and intellectual capital steered towards the middle and bottom of the pyramid while we will continue to have a kind of league where people can get excited by guys like Landon, Henry and Robbie Keane and so many others.  All of those guys as you know, had a pretty good off season loan experience and I think that is added to the increased respect for our league abroad and I think that is important.  You look at a guy like Brek who had a tremendous season last year and is now a regular for Jürgen Klinsmann’s lineup.  So we have got this great combination of young American guys like Brek and Juan Agudelo and great star players who I think can provide the kind of product that people can really care about and connect to. 


As all of you know for the first time in our history our championship will be played at the home venue of the participating team with the highest regular season point total, a move for us to a competitively determined site for our championship.  I think it is high time that we were able to achieve that.  Frankly years ago I do not think that we could have felt confident that we would be able to fill our stands on a week or two week’s notice in many markets and now I have absolutely no doubt that whatever team earns the right to host that game will be able to have a packed stadium and really give something, a great legacy and a great give back to their fans. 


We spent a lot of time in the offseason working hard to address some of the violent play issues that we saw creeping into the league over the last year and certainly over the last couple of years.  I have mentioned in this call last year that we are going to be very focused on protecting our players from injury.  Our disciplinary committee will continue to be led by Nelson Rodriguez.  That committee reviews every game in great detail.  Their job ultimately is to ensure that we are protecting the safety of our players and the integrity and reputation of our league.  The MLS Players Union has a representative on that committee. 


Last year as you know we have addressed some violent play with some pretty significant punishments.  Also for the first time suspended players for simulation and embellishment.  That is the first time that we have done that.  We are making a very strong statement.  We just made it to our coaches and technical directors earlier today that we are going to continue to look closely at simulation and embellishment.  It is something that we believe working closely with our coaches and our players and our union and the league office that we should be able to rid that unsportsmanlike aspect of our game, which I think does nothing to build the sport in this part of the world. 


A big change in the way we are approaching that committee is that in previous years when no injury occurred after a foul or something that the committee looked at and felt was an egregious play, unless there was an injury that committee for the most part did not act.  That is going to change this year.  The committee will be looking at all plays, regardless as to whether or not there is an injury and will act under whatever judgement that committee makes.  That direction is coming directly from our board of governors who has been spending a lot of time with us, empowering the league, empowering the committee to punish players for a foul even if no injury is suffered or if there no caution or red card given by the referee.  So I hope to see that new approach address even further some of the challenges that have crept into our game. 


Speaking quickly of referees, early this week I know that you chatted with Nelson Rodriguez about the formation of the PRO, the Professional Referees Organization. That is a company that is governed and financed both by US Soccer and the league and it is really going to be responsible for managing the referee program for pro soccer in the United States and in Canada.  We have got support from the Canadian Association as well as the minor leagues in this new format.  The aim is very simple, to try to increase the quality of officiating in the US pro leagues, to develop a more professional quality official at a younger age, to really have a reserve league and academy league approach if you will for officials and not to be lost is to do a better job developing officials who represent the US in FIFA competition. 


In essence, breaking it down to brass tacks, it is just giving more funding towards the referee program, hiring more experienced technical staff, increasing training programs, more identification and training opportunities for up and comers, more engagement in assessment, a lot more focus on hiring fulltime officials.  So I think you will see a much more professional approach to our officiating moving forward.  I will say to everybody don’t expect us to change overnight, this is a long-term process.  The new head of PRO Peter Walton will be joining the league this weekend and will be in our control center reviewing the games.  So it is going to take some time for the full impact of this program to be felt but we are very excited about.


Off of the field the league continues to do well in the commercial area.  We have added nine teams over the last 10 years, lots of stadiums, 14 stadiums when Houston comes on board.  14 new owners joined the league in the last 10 years.  A lot of great relationships with terrific companies like Adidas, Volkswagen, and Microsoft.  Quaker just joined the league lineup very recently.  We are excited about our new TV relationships up in Canada.  We talked about six or seven months ago, we never formally announced it, earlier this year we did close a partnership with a world leading private equity firm called Providence Equity Partners viewed by most as the leading global private equity firm specializing in investments in media and communication and high tech.  We are going to work closely with Providence to just find ways that we can build Major League Soccer and Soccer United Marketing.  Their work together particularly in the marketing and media areas to continue to improve and we are very excited about what this new partnership can do to help grow the sport and to help grow Major League Soccer.


Lastly there has been a lot of positive press about the league and some of this stuff I think is helping to solidify the league’s position as truly a league on the rise.  An ESPN Sports poll that just came out confirmed that the entire industry views Major League Soccer as the league with the most promise and the most opportunity.  But very interestingly, I do not know if any of you picked this up, but in that same poll they released the fact that among Americans age 12-24, pro soccer as defined as all professional soccer (MLS, International Soccer) now ranks as the second favorite sport behind the NFL for this age group and the favorite sport by the way among Hispanics, something that shouldn’t surprise anybody, ahead of all of their traditional sports in this country.  That statistic is empowering.  It is not just about little kids coming to games with groups, it is about those kids growing up and being influencers, being contributors to the American and Canadian economy and having the opportunity to show their love for a sport that they grew up with and now that they are living productive lives in cities throughout the US and Canada they have an opportunity to be a fan.  If you look at the images from our stadiums those are the people that are waving the flags and celebrating the sport and I think the engine that will drive the future of our league.


So thank you for giving me the opportunity for some remarks.  Let’s start the questions.


Dan Courtemanche:  We will kick it off with  Simon Evans from Reuters followed by Jack Bell with the New York Times and then Brian Strauss with the Sporting News. 


On that Providence Equity deal you mentioned.  Is that deal for a percentage of SUM?  Could you give us some kind of numbers on that?


I can’t Simon.  As many of you know we did not talk about this at all or private company and don’t talk a lot about our business.  I know it is floated out there.  I felt the responsibility to let everybody know that it closed but it is an investment in Soccer United Marketing, not in the league.  But I am not going to talk about percentages or anything like that.  What I will say is that they are very focused on the value that Major League Soccer can capture in this growing global marketplace where content and multi-screens and live programming is very valuable and we look forward to working with them and making progress together.


You were talking about the popularity of the game amongst kids and so on.  I just wondered in terms of the television market, obviously the numbers have been very impressive for the Premier League.  How much now do you see, I mean previously everyone has always seen any interest in the game as a positive.  Is that still the view?  Or do you know see the Premier League in terms of a television product as being a competitor with MLS? 


We still view this business about raising the overall water level for the sport of soccer in the US and Canada and as more and more people get engaged in the sport we believe that is positive for MLS for a wide variety of reasons, not the least of which is we are here.  If you live in New York, yes you could watch Premiere League games on Saturday/Sunday morning but right now the only place you really can see it live on a regular basis and live the life of a supporter is to be a season ticket holder for the Red Bulls.  The Premier League is not going to be putting down a flag in this country nor is the Mexican League and we are offering the highest level of soccer live in our respective countries and I believe that is a great value.


Don I saw the interview you did with Jeff Carlisle where you talk about working with New York City to try and sort out the stadium issue in New York.  I know it is a bit parochial and maybe a bit specific but is it so that the league has signed with the company developing Barclays Center to do a feasibility study on the west side of Manhattan and specifically the West Side Yards spot that was talked about as an Olympic stadium in the past?


It is premature, Jack to talk about any specific sites.  What I will say is the league is taking the lead on developing the stadium opportunity and it is the first time that we have ever done that as part of an expansion process.  It has been nine teams over the last 10 years.  This is the first one that the league is driving.  The most important aspect of what we need to achieve success and that is a stadium.  So the architects, the consultants, the environmental consultants, the economic opportunity consultants will all work for the league and will put together a project that we hope to be able to deliver to a potential owner.  We are working closely with the mayor’s office and they have been a great resource for us in helping to steer us to sites that they think can be developed and work in areas where they think there will be great community support and a great opportunity to achieve success.  We still have work to do to finalize even a time frame for the 20th team in New York but we continue to be optimistic.


Why in this instance did you find it necessary for the league to take over this process?


That is a good question Jack, it is because we want to ensure when this project is complete that we have the perfect site for a stadium and we will take the time as long as it take to ensure that we have the right site.  That is how important this second New York team project is.  The Red Bulls by the way are very supportive of this whole effort.  They believe that the rivalry will help build even more momentum for that club.  They believe it will create one of the great soccer rivalries in the world when the new New York team plays the New York Red Bulls. 


You spoke about all of the growth that the league has achieved over the past few years.  You have managed to do that without much of a bump in television ratings, which is pretty impressive.  I am wondering how much further the league can grow without a significant increase in TV ratings?  Are you guys going to be hamstrung at some point if things stay static or is the goal to be one of the top leagues in the world by 2022?  Where do you have to be on television in order to get there?


By 2022 if we are going to achieve our vision and be one of the top teams in the world we are going to have to have higher television ratings. There is no doubt about that.  But the growth of our TV audience we believe is a function of the growth of the overall popularity of the league, our players and our clubs.  And that is a process that is going to take some time.


What can you do to affect that?  Obviously you have signed a deal with NBC, you are continuing to invest in players, salaries are up, stadiums, all the atmosphere all that kind of thing but if reaching that goal in 2022 is dependent on TV ratings what can you guys do to drive that metric?


Again there are many, many, many things that will be part of that goal.  To be clear in order to be one of the top leagues we are going to have to have higher ratings.  It is not the higher ratings that will drive us achieving our goal.  Achieving our goal will be a function of the continued increase in the quality of our play, the even further development of a passionate fan base.  It will be a much more significantly connected local club in each market. Growing the relevance of our clubs in every market.  Lastly it will be ensuring that we have an increasing value to our overall enterprise.  So all of those things are what is going to be driving the achievement of our vision.  At the end of the day the league is like every other aspect of our business, it is no different than focus on attendance, no different than our focus on growing our commercial business or being sure that we are expanding right and developing stadiums properly.  Growing our television ratings is a priority.  It is a function of our marketing efforts.  It is a function of ensuring that we have the right schedule, that we have the right promotion platform with our television partners and that we have a product that people care about.  Those four things are pillars if you will that we focus on almost every day. 


I will try to ask the same question and will stay away from TV.  I was curious as you talked about how the league has grown so fast and last year was the best year that you ever had.  I am wondering why you are confident that it can continue growing at that rate.  Gravity would seem to suggest that it has got to sort of return to earth at some point and I know you are not going to want to reference another sport but just for the sake of maybe helping you understand the question.  NASCAR a couple of years ago was going to just take over the world and they crashed to earth pretty quickly.  I am wondering if you are aware of those lessons and what you are going to try to do to make sure that you continue to grow and not reverse this trend.


Our structure and our overall strategic system I think prevents it from growing too fast.  Right?  You could argue that if Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo were playing in the league the league would perhaps be more popular than it is today but it would go bankrupt tomorrow.  So we have a system that has checks and balances to ensure that we are growing properly and mindful of the challenges that all of the other leagues have had with expansion and certainly soccer leagues have had with expansion to the point where it put them out of business.  So I am not saying that we are going to continue to have seven percent attendance growth or that we are going to continue to have a successful year like we had last year other than the fact that we just feel good that we have momentum.  We are smart enough not to put time frames on when we think we will be the fifth major sport, because frankly we think we are the fifth major sport today.  We are not going to give you a target as to when we think our attendance is going to go over 20,000.  We are not going to tell you when our television ratings are going to double or triple.  But we do believe that if we continue to be focused on building this league carefully and strategically that we will grow and be more popular each year. 


I have talked to several GMs and executives in the last few years and they talk about MLS creating a pent up demand for its product.  Not specifically soccer but specifically MLS.  Did you get a sense at some point that the clamor in a lot of markets was getting really loud not just from some of the specific soccer fans but a large population like the Sons of Ben in Philly?  Did you get a sense of when that pent up demand became fairly loud around the United States?


I think it started, and I will start even earlier, in 2007 in Toronto.  Last night I turned to Larry Tanenbaum and I said, every time I attend a big MLS event, in this case, an event with two MLS teams, I kind of get emotional because this league had so many challenges seven, or eight or nine years ago.  It would have been impossible to have conceived that you would have 40,000+ on a weeknight going absolutely nuts for two MLS teams and then having front page photographs and articles in the newspaper when you leave town.  It started in Toronto.  It certainly reached an entirely new level in Seattle.  And the first time I did the March to the Match or saw the fans come out in the pouring rain of the first championship game we had up there in the pouring rain and fans being there through thick and thin.  Or going up to a meeting in Microsoft and seeing half of the office wearing Sounders jerseys. Then going down trying to lobby for the public stadium support in Philadelphia and seeing hundreds and hundreds of members of the Sons of Ben.  It all sort of feels a bit like a tidal wave that is rising and this massive interest in the league.  Now to Brian Strauss’ point, I would like to see that translate to television ratings. But I am confident that with all of this interest that eventually it will do so.  I was in Orlando the other day and you guys know I was down there, there were 300 or 400 hundred people screaming and carrying on about MLS coming to Orlando.  It felt like an event in Philadelphia and that is a minor league team that has only been there for a year.  So the screaming eagles in section eight.  You know guys in Chicago and DC that have consistently been a big part of the supporters culture in those markets. These are all things that kind of were very empowering and I think it will continue.  I do not know who, I think it was Simon who said, where does it all lead to?  I am not quite sure I know the answer to that because if you asked me two weeks ago whether we would have 50,000 in Montreal or 40,000 in Toronto I would have said no way. 


This is the 17th year of MLS.  The NASL failed, it actually went out of business in its 17th year, have you kind of put the ghost of that league to rest, aside from the Cosmos of course?  Have people kind of got over … that the NASL was what it was and you are what you are now? 


I do not think that the ghost of the NASL ever leaves the offices of Major League Soccer.  It always sort of seems to hang above the sport and I think it will for the next number of years.  Maybe when we have been around longer than they have we will be past the last tombstone if you will for that league.  I still travel around the country and have lots of people who are wearing old NASL jerseys at fan rallies and say that they came into, that their interest in the sport grew with some relationship that they had with an NASL team.  Certainly the foundation and formation of MLS was structured in a way to not suffer the tragedy of the folding of the NASL.  The single entity is directly related to that.  So I think it will always be a part of us.  Lastly you got the Sounders, you’ve got the Earthquakes, all this talk about the Cosmos.  It seems to always want to be a part of the American pro soccer scene.


In New York, are you at liberty to say, you have no set time frame, but how many sites that you are looking at, either total or ones you consider legitimately are viable at this point?  The second part of that is while nobody obviously wants to pay out $83 million dollars it could have been much worse for the Wilpon’s, are they still in contact with you, is that something that is still at least a viable possibility?


We have looked at 19 different sites over the last 18 months.  We have been all over the metropolitan area. We are narrowing it down and are getting focused in a handful of locations.  It is too early to go public with what those locations are. But we are certainly getting more focused on fewer sites than we have been over the last year and a half.  Also we have not had any real conversations with the Wilpon’s over the last eight to ten months or so other than socially.  I still hope that they are able to resolve their issues but right now there is no ongoing conversation with any particular owner.  We made the decision, I think I talked about this publicly a number of months ago to get focused on getting the stadium done and when the stadium is done there will be no shortage of owners who are going to line up and want to pay $100 million for our 20th team in New York.   Brian let me correct one thing too because it might have come over as this world of social media, one of the guys just pulled up and said that I said MLS is the fifth most popular sport.  I think what I said, I hope what I said is the fifth major league sport.  So you may want to correct that or at least I am correcting it for you.


I know you said that you have not been pursuing ownership.  Have the new owners of the Cosmos, have they reached out to you recently at all, because we haven’t heard too much from them?


It is fair to say that they respect the fact, as do the other potential investors, that it doesn’t make sense to have much conversation until we have made more progress on the stadium.  But I have had discussions over the past, however many months ago it was, when the ownership changed.  We did meet and have discussions at that point but that was many months ago.


You talked about the metropolitan area for a stadium site.  I guess that does not necessarily preclude a place like Belmont Park because that is just outside of New York City or is it just New York City?  I just want to double check on that.


Belmont is not on the list. 


Why not?


I think the best way to answer that Michael is that we are focused on locations that have really strong public transportation access and are as close to the urban core as possible.  And while Belmont is a good site and it does have the Long Island Railroad and right off of the Cross Island, I grew up near there, it is not really not close enough to the urban core in our view. 


One other question that has nothing to do with the Cosmos or New York City soccer.  Years ago you talked about how important it was to obviously embrace the Hispanic market and obviously so.  But what did you see then that you said hey this, this is going to be so important for the league? 


Well it is really just pure logic.  Every research study we do points to the fact that soccer is the sport of choice for Hispanics in our country.  We do not need to convince them that the sport is great. We need to convince them that being a fan of MLS should be an important part of their soccer experience and that in itself has its own challenges but there is no denying the value that we have as a sport and as a league by being the sport of choice amongst a population of nearly 50 million people in this country.


You issued at the beginning of last season, around about this time a very sensible statement about protecting players and trying to cut down on violent play, which seemed to be addressed to the referees when I felt it should have been addressed to the coaches.  Now what is happening this year seems to be a repeat of the same thing.  The referees are being given an enormous amount of attention.  You are saying, whether you feel you are saying it or not, the fact that you are paying all of this attention to the refereeing is a clear implication that you do not feel that the refereeing is up to standard.  That however you want to position it can be interpreted as a slur on American referees.  You have gone a step further by bringing in somebody from overseas to supervise this whole shemozzle.  Now are you saying, are you telling me, that there are no Americans that could not be an American, to take the position that you have handed to Peter Walton and Englishman representing a bunch of referees who frankly I do not think perform any better than the American referees that you have had for the past, all of your seasons simply?


What is the question?


I think the question is very clear, I will repeat it in the words that I just said, are you telling me that there is no American available to take that job that you have given to Peter Walton?


Well without doubt any company operating in the global marketplace is going to hire the person who they believe will perform the best and satisfy the goals as set forth in their job description.  So we did not check a passport when we were going through a job search.  We went through an extensive search.  We interviewed people from the United States.  We interviewed people from Italy.  We interviewed people from Spain.  We interviewed people from Mexico.  And we have interviewed people from England.  It was the view of our group consisting of the league office and the federation with consultation with some of our coaches and technical directors that he was the best person for the job.  And as a person who, trying to have a league representing enormous diversity, ethnic diversity, gender diversity, the league office that has 30-40% of its staff speaking Spanish, now six people speaking French it would never occur to me to discriminate against any employee because they came from a particular country. 


On the first part of the question, you referenced speaking to the coaches.  Our group went out, Nelson and the rest of our discipline committee toured all clubs, met with coaches, met with technical directors, and met with players to talk about this new initiative.  That initiative is going to take some time, again it won’t necessarily prevent an injury to Steve Zakuani.  What you want to try to happen is to take that kind of play out of the field so in time it prevents that from happening.  There are horrible incidents that happen in all professional sports.  We are trying to minimize the occurrences in major league soccer.  Earlier today we spent a good part of our coach and technical committee call just talking about this new effort and how we are going to address with the committee disciplining that kind of reckless play and more importantly asking them to work very closely with their players to ensure that they can take responsibility for taking that kind of play out of the game as well. 


I have a follow up question, you have misrepresented me.  I did not say that my objection to Peter Walton was because he was English.  I said I object to him because he represents a style of refereeing, which does not seem to me to fit in with what you are trying to do through the disciplinary committee.


I appreciate that.


Well do you have an answer to …?


I don’t think it was a question Paul, so I …


Well it is a question now … I am asking you.


Do you want to repeat it?


What you are trying to do through the disciplinary committee, which is laudable, which is to clamp down on violent play, and incidentally you might want to tell me, as on the side, whether this is approved by FIFA, does not seem to me to fit in with the style of refereeing, which Peter Walton represents and indeed, which he has put into practice.  I have seen him referee games.


Well Paul, I know you a long time and I do not mean to be disrespectful.  I do not think that is a question.  Let’s just leave it at this.  The league is doing everything it can in all aspects of our business on and off the field to improve.  This is an effort that I applaud the federation for thinking outside of the box.  There are very few leagues that have a professional officiating company.  This company will be jointly managed by the league and the federation, which is an innovative approach for the way refereeing has been structured here in the United States.  We are going to put time, money, and thinking and believe we have hired a terrific guy to do it.  The time will tell whether or not we had it right.  We have always been the kind of people that when we get things right we like to say good on ya and if we get it wrong we like to say let’s get focused on fixing it.  But I appreciate your comments.


You mentioned the game in Toronto last night and anybody who was there I think would say it was a real occasion.  You also talked about the attendance expected in Montreal and some of the pundits pointing to Vancouver as perhaps being a team that might surprise this year.  It seems like a pretty clean bill of health for all three franchises right now.  Did you have a feeling that Vancouver and Montreal would be this kind of seeming hit out of the box?


No we did not.  I think having been in this business for 12 years now you have to live the dream a bit and hope that things can over deliver but the sport is still emerging in North America and we go in expecting that we are going to have a tough fight and lots of challenges so when we get to have success like last night or hopefully the 50,000+ on the 17th or some of the great things that are going on in Vancouver we feel it is well earned but still remains, or still seems to be a bit surprising.  There is still no shortage of people that do not like this game and in many ways kind of try to hold it back among the more traditional members of the sports community.  And when you have a moment like last night boy that really just makes you feel very proud about being in the soccer business.  I was sitting with the owner of the club who owns an NBA team and an NHL team and he said that this is just one of the best sporting events that I have ever been to.  It was remarkable in there.  I would not have expected it to be that great.  I knew it would be fun but I did not know that it would be that special.


If I may just follow up, there was a fair bit of discussion as you know about the pitch.  Obviously it was kind of a one-off but what are your thoughts on playing on that kind of surface?


We talked about the surface a bit last night and certainly my heart was in my mouth a couple of times when some players looked like they were stumbling on what seemed to be seams on the field.  They looked at laying grass and it was not feasible.  The surface did not look to me like it was the type of new field turf that we hope to have our players play on.  I think we would look to address that issue if we were to go back there for a game.  Not this year, but I think in future years.  So I think we can do better.


Commissioner I know that DC United stadium questions are like a broken record for you at this point but there was a resolution passed, as I’m sure you know, earlier this week by the city council to support to keep the team in DC for the long haul.  Do you see this as a sign of tangible progress?  Do you think it is just straight political posturing?  What was your take away from that?


I applaud the gesture and I hope that it is the beginning of a very quick path to finding a facility for the club.  You should be aware of this, United and Events DC are in the final stages of working on an agreement that will restructure some of the financial aspects of the deal between the two of them.  I think that is a positive sign and another indication of DCs interest in working with DC United or the District working with DC United.  Will and Kevin are really committed to doing what they need to do to try to resolve the situation.  A long a parallel path Baltimore does remain an option for a stadium should they not be able to resolve their situation.  I am certainly watching the situation very closely but I very much, and I want to make this point clear, I very much appreciate and applaud the gesture that was made with the resolution that came out of the city council.  Certainly a positive, hopefully a positive next step. 


I wish I could applaud you for your ability to not sidestep questions because I have listened to you ever since you have been commissioner.  We have been covering the league since its inception.  I would like to ask your opinion, for many years MLS has tried to compare itself to the other US team sports and that is an understandable aspect.  But a lot of people in the international community have been saying that soccer is and always has been a little bit different.  With the advent of US soccer under Jürgen Klinsmann and the new academy system going to 10 month program, the separation of high school and academy systems, I would like to know what your opinion is about trying to get players early commitment to the sport so we do not lose players that played high school, people like Cal Ripken and Chad Johnson who played in high school to get that early commitment to the sport in the United States?


That’s a good question and I am surprised it wasn’t raised earlier because I think I have got that page one Sports New York Times Article on the US Development Academy sent to me by more people than just about any other soccer article in quite some time.  And I am not going to hedge here.  I do sit on the Board of US Soccer and chair the professional committee and my commitment as commissioner is to have the best possible league with the best highest quality of players to do whatever we can to grow the American game and help our national team win a World Cup.  But I also am a parent of kids and played high school sports myself and really appreciated the social and behavioral benefits of playing organized high school sports provided me and provided my son and I see the impact that high school soccer, football and lacrosse have in the community that I live in.  So I have some mixed feelings about it.  There is no doubt that this is a necessary step that we had to take.  But I am a bit sad about the implications of what it might provide to some people that might want to play the game.  I do not believe that it is going to prevent people from playing soccer.  I think if you are a good player who really believes that you have a great future in the sport you are going to play in your academy and you are going to get better or more benefit to what it is that you are looking to achieve for yourself personally than playing in high school.  I just hope that we can watch this closely and ensure that we evaluate it and see the results of what is a fairly significant step that our federation took and I will reiterate again a step that I applaud and support.


You have talked about the growth of the league and how much of it has been fueled by expansion in markets like Seattle and Philadelphia where there has really been a passionate fan base that has really kind of grown even before the teams were there.  Looking at some of the older markets or I think what you have termed the legacy teams, what can you do to kind of generate that same sort of fervor for the team?  Is it mostly stadium-based as what happened in Kansas City or is there more to it that the league can do?


Well what the league can do is continue to focus our resources on our team services group and share the best practices and the successes that are taking place in those markets that are hot and see if there are elements of that that we can translate into markets that are struggling.  I know it is not lost on anybody that all leagues, whether they are soccer leagues around the world, or pro sports leagues here, have teams that are doing very well for a period of time and then they go down in a trough for awhile and they build up in popularity and then there are a handful of clubs that just seem to always be at the top of the heap.  I think that with Major League Soccer it is too early to find trends.  I said this in an interview that I did earlier.  Seattle has been doing great since 2009.  When we are on this call in 2019 and they are selling out CenturyLink for every game at 60,000 then we will know that we really have something that is significant and will be part of the sports landscape in that city forever.  So we try not to get too, we are concerned, but we try not to get too upset about what is happening in those markets that are sort of struggling or have lost some of their popularity.  That being said, I have been in Columbus a lot lately and working closely with them.  They are trying to reach a 10,000 season ticket goal they have just done a jersey front sponsorship deal.  I think Columbus will have a better business next year than they had last year.  We are seeing success and growth in season tickets in Chicago, we are seeing that in Dallas and these are all things that are a function of more ownership, a refocus of efforts amongst ownership, perhaps a new chief business officer, perhaps a new approach to marketing, perhaps new relationships in the community, just a wide variety of things that I think make the good teams better and make the teams that are struggling hopefully get on a path to becoming great. 


Just to follow that up.  Is there any movement on the stadium situation for the New England Revolution?


I do not think anything since the last statement made by the Kraft Sports Group.  I will say that I am having breakfast with Robert Kraft tomorrow and I am sure it will be a subject that we will talk about.  I think there is an opportunity there that that if we are able to get some public support hopefully we will be able to get something done.  We talked about it a bit last night at the Toronto game.  Our view is that if Boston, if the Revolution have a soccer stadium in Boston, it will be one of the best most vibrant environments in the entire league.  So we are going to continue to try and work to see if we can get that done.


So let me just wrap up with a couple of quick thoughts and so many of you guys have been around the league longer than I have and have seen the ups and downs and it is clear that we feel pretty good about where we are today but still are very mindful that we have a long way to go.  I think that everybody in the soccer business always has one eye looking forward and one eye looking backwards to ensure that we are stepping in the right direction but that we are going down the right path at the same time.  I made a comment at the US Soccer Annual Meeting that if the collective efforts of the entire soccer community that has helped driven some of the recent success of Major League Soccer and the credit really goes to all of those people that have worked so hard to make MLS a really popular sports league and one that has got lots of promise from our players to our coaches to all of our administrators certainly to the significant commitment of our ownership and lots of people sitting around here in the league office that live and die every day for Major League Soccer.  At some point we should probably get something out, statistics that will shock some of you, this league, I have been here for 12 years, the senior executive staff here has been here for 12 years or longer.  So the people who are working in the league office really believe in Major League Soccer, down to their core have devoted their lives to it.  It is something that I really appreciate and want to be sure in front of all of you guys who have devoted your lives to it as well, that you know that I really appreciate everything that they have done.


So hopefully we will see you guys at a game.  We will see you on the road and thanks again for your support. We look forward to hopefully another good year.