MLS Commissioner Don Garber presenting his 2016 MLS Cup State of the League speech. Photo credit: Jeremy Olson - www.digitalgopher.com

The Angle

Don Garber on Expansion, Liga MX, and the Future of Soccer in Minnesota

by on 22 February 2017

If he is tired, you can’t tell. Don Garber, the Commissioner of MLS, is ebullient as he walks into the room to give his pitch to the local media at Minnesota United FC headquarters. He just finished with television and now he’s hitting the writers.

And if he is on a roll, you can’t fault him. MLS has two new clubs to introduce in the coming season (Atlanta and Minnesota) and just closed the call for four MLS expansion spots with 12 applicants. Initial review of those applications began last week, where the expansion committee will hope to come up with its first two choices for the coming years.

“I don’t think there’s a market in our country that couldn’t support an MLS team. Something happened that tipped it over and now there are cities that were never on any list at any time that have vibrant second or third division teams like Cincinnati.”

When he came to the league in 1999, he oversaw the contraction of the Miami Fusion and Tampa Bay Mutiny. Since then, the league has added 13 clubs on the trot. Now, Garber says, the league has the luxury of choosing from a variety of applicants.

“You’re getting to the point of full expansion… I don’t think there’s a market in our country that couldn’t support an MLS team,” he says. “Something happened that tipped it over and now there are cities that were never on any list at any time that have vibrant second or third division teams like Cincinnati.”

The abundance of choices, Garber credits to a broader demographic shift and the simple longevity of MLS. Originally, he says, the league thought they could get the soccer families out to matches, but discovered they all led busy lives. “But then those kids grew up and moved to big cities and now they’re working at Target or somewhere,” he says.

The commissioner has just come from visiting the league’s new corporate partners at Target. They too see a demographic shift and want a piece of the pie. But Garber doesn’t just credit the Millennial demographic, he says that the generation before them are already in positions of power; “they are now governors and mayors and executives and they’re influencing our sport.”

Stadiums and expansion

This takes him to public funding, a sore subject in almost any American city. Dr. Bill McGuire and Minnesota United almost completely skirted around public funding because any request would have been a non-starter. Instead, the team is building its own $150 million stadium with the government chipping in $18 million in infrastructure surrounding it.

If observers thought this was a new positive trend, they were mistaken. Almost all of the MLS expansion candidates have asked for significant amounts of public funding. Asked about that funding, Garber defends them: “Why shouldn’t there be? If you were going to put a big department store in that spot there’d be some public aspect of it, because it’s bringing in jobs and opportunity.” He doesn’t exactly draw a hard line there, however, adding, “It’s just a matter of how much debt and how it’s secured and ultimately how it’s paid back.”

But Garber shows no real scars from the NASL v MLS #SoccerWarz and dismisses the idea that owners may be resentful of being on the outside of MLS. “That’s really a question for them,” he says, “They have to decide what it is they’re going to do.”

Expansion has another dark side to it as well. By stoking the flames of expansion while simultaneously capping it means that there is a potential for a rekindling of the conflict between NASL and MLS from which American soccer only just emerged (of which I previously discussed at length). But Garber shows no real scars from the NASL vs. MLS #SoccerWarz and dismisses the idea that owners may be resentful of being on the outside of MLS.

“That’s really a question for them,” he says, “They have to decide what it is they’re going to do. I believe in strong second and third division leagues in the US and Canada and to do that we need strong owners. And if they’re not able to play in MLS for whatever reason (including our own), I don’t think they go away. I think they’ll figure out whatever solution makes sense for them and their communities.”

Will capping expansion start a shift of clubs being sold and moved around the country? Again, he demurs, “I can’t speak to that. There are certainly no plans to do that.”

Influence of Liga MX

Of course, MLS does not only have the lower divisions to contend with. The US, in particular, is a soccer-crazy country; it’s just not always crazy about MLS. This month, Liga MX launched a new partnership with Univision and Facebook, offering live streams of their matches on the social media platform.

MLS has expanded its presence on television and has its own MLS Live app, but the offer of ubiquitous and free from Facebook and Liga MX is just another way in which MLS has to fight for attention. Garber says that fight for attention means they have to be focused on providing what those other leagues—the Premier League, the Bundesliga, or Liga MX—can’t: proximity.

He says, “Our message is: whoever you are, support your local team. You can watch any team at a different time of the week from afar, but you can’t connect with the players and a team other than through MLS or any other lower-division clubs that are playing in the US and Canada.”

This is a familiar pitch; it’s the case that every club from Chattanooga FC to the LA Galaxy has been making for years now. It’s also one that seems a bit at odds with MLS’ stated need to grow its TV revenue. The league needs fans in Chattanooga to be watching MLS on Sunday night even if they go watch their local club on Saturday night.

Garber hedges on the question of Liga MX’s partnership with Univision and Facebook. At first he says, “I think nobody should be surprised if they read announcements where our league is doing an over-the-top deal with a social media group [like Liga MX’s with Facebook],” but he adds that currently most of those rights are already owned by the existing TV partners. It is unclear, then, if any such similar partnership will materialize in the near future.

Keeping it local

Garber repeatedly emphasizes the integration of clubs into communities as a way to grow the sport even outside of TV revenue. He points to the long history of soccer in Minnesota as an example. Many of the fans who now bring their kids to games were themselves brought to Minnesota Kicks games. “Supporting a local team is a part of their family history,” he says. There is a culture in Minnesota of watching professional soccer even if it feels long-dormant.

The goal, then, is to not just grow fans of the team, but “to establish Minnesota United all the way to the youth level. They may think at some point about having a women’s team. They may push their academy beyond what the league requires.”

Minnesota United has only just started on the process of embedding itself in the consciousness of the community. The stadium, to come in 2019, will go a long way to making a permanent mark, but so will the growth of the academy which will launch for limited age groups in the fall. As in most markets, Minnesotans are already soccer fans, it is the job of the team to make them local soccer fans.


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  • Tres Gatos

    I think your last sentence hits the nail on the head.

    “As in most markets, Minnesotans are already soccer fans, it is the job of the team to make them local soccer fans.”