Garber touches on MLS expansion, academies, transparency and more in address
On TV ratings:
Terrible TV ratings, and the lack of revenue that would accompany more eyeballs, appear to be the greatest stumbling block facing the league in its quest to become one of the world’s best by 2022.
Ratings actually fell in 2013. According to Sports Business Journal, the average audience for the 20 regular season matches broadcast on ESPN networks plunged 29 percent to 220,000. NBC and NBC Sports Network showed 37 regular season games and averaged 112,000 viewers, down 8 percent.
MLS’ TV contracts will expire at the end of next season.
Garber acknowledged that an improved product, which will come gradually as MLS develops more talent and spends incrementally more on veteran players, is part of the solution. But he also said the league’s schedule (which must accommodate international matches, the U.S. Open Cup and the CONCACAF Champions League) and its current broadcast partners shoulder some of the blame.
“We’ve been growing our fan base,” he said. “We have to find a way to find a partner that gives us the right schedule, the right promotion and marketing, that is embracing us in a way that will allow us to have our programming be valuable and be a priority both for the broadcaster and for our fans.”
Garber cited NBC’s “unprecedented” promotion for its English Premier League package as something he’d like to see for MLS.
“We’ve had games that were broadcast every day of the week, most of them were different times. There was little to no consistency on that scheduling, either with the broadcast partner or through our own schedule. We need a consistent game of the week or games of the week … at consistent times,” he said.
MLS and NBCSN will try that “Game of the Week” approach next season. There will be an MLS broadcast each Friday evening from June 27 through the end of the regular season.
Garber said flex scheduling is unlikely. Because of teams’ crowded calendars, stadium availability and other issues, “it borders almost on being logistically impossible,” he said.
On player development:
Garber revealed Tuesday that the league is spending around $20 million per year on player development initiatives, which include the youth and academy teams run by individual clubs and the affiliation agreement MLS started with USL Pro, whose teams play at the third tier of the US and Canadian pyramid.
Grooming the next generation of talent, Garber said, is as much a part of the league’s mission as scheduling matches every weekend.
He said the unique rules covering college soccer are part of the reason MLS needs to focus so diligently on development.
“[NCAA rules] aren’t necessarily in the view of our technical people as closely aligned with what perhaps is the system in Europe and the rest of the world would be, where players play all year around,” he said, adding that the college game’s relatively unrestricted substitution rules alter the sport further.
“We’re competing with the rest of the world as it relates to that age group,” he said. “We’ll continue to support the college system any way we can, but we hope the college system can look at adapting a bit so we can collectively develop the American game better.”
It wasn’t a journalist, but a fan, Portland Timbers supporter John Nyen, who brought up the troubling issue of league transparency.
Whether it was the unwritten “designated players don’t go through the allocation process” mechanism that facilitated Clint Dempsey’s move to Seattle or the mysterious “retention funds” that helped the likes of Omar Gonzalez and Graham Zusi to re-sign with their clubs, MLS found itself awkwardly explaining several acquisition mechanisms after the fact in 2013.
Garber said the league would try to do better, but that finding new rules to fit new situations was part of operating a growing league that remains unprofitable and which continues to stress competitive balance.
“The league has to adapt the way it operates because we have fans who are more closely connected to how we operate than they were in the past,” Garber acknowledged following Nyen’s question, adding that transparency previously “just wasn’t part of our DNA.”
Garber promised more transparency “going forward” but said, “as an emerging league, there are times that we’re figuring out those rules as we go along … There could be something that comes up that’s something we need to figure out now, because we’ll lose the player or we won’t be able to sign this player or it’ll prevent us from being competitive in an international competition … we need the ability to be flexible and evolve.”
He stressed that there is “no insidious plan” or centralized effort to give one club an advantage over another (after all, it’s the board of governors – the club owners – who make the rules).
“We have to accept, and I 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,” the commissioner concluded.