Don Garber

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Don Garber talks #SaveTheCrew status at MLS State of the League address

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Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber has long made his MLS State of the League address during championship weekend, which continued on Friday ahead of the 2017 final between Toronto FC and the Seattle Sounders.

While Garber has taken this time in the past to address topics like expansion and new league rules, this year’s conversation was highly centered around the MLS’ current situation involving an existing club.

[ MORE: A closer look at Saturday’s MLS Cup by the numbers ]

The Columbus Crew continue to be the focal point of league-wide discussions as club owner Anthony Precourt observes his options both in the city of Columbus and outside the state of Ohio, with Austin, Texas seemingly the hottest destination for the long-time MLS side to relocate to in the near future.

Garber spoke about this issue on Friday in Toronto, which will play host to Saturday’s MLS Cup final.

“Let me be clear, it’s the league’s decision, not the league’s approval of an owner decision to determine whether or not moving out of Columbus is something that would make sense for Precourt Sports Ventures,” Garber said. “It requires club approval, but ultimately it is a decision made by the owner. We have said all along, and this was said by Anthony [Precourt] as well, that he would pursue a parallel path.

“A path to see if his situation would improve in the city of Columbus, at the same time determining if there would be a viable option in Austin. What has happened of late is we’re told that they would not continue discussions with Anthony if he was going to pursue this parallel path.

“I assume that will change. I hope that changes because I think we need to have that debate. There’s been talk of owners coming together. Anthony isn’t looking to sell the team. There’s talk about stadium opportunities, which I think are intriguing, so we need to all get back together and see if there is an opportunity to determine two possibilities.”

The Crew have been one of the league’s original side’s since MLS’ inception in 1996, when the league consisted of just 10 teams.

While Garber noted the difficulty of the matter given Columbus’ longstanding ties to Major League Soccer, the veteran commissioner noted that the club and city’s issues maintaining the Crew have been well-documented throughout the years.

“I think they’re able to address some of the concerns that we have been experiencing in that city for many years it is conceivable that the team could stay,” Garber continued. “It’s a legacy team, and it’s traumatic when an owner and league are willing to move a team, whether it’s a legacy team for 20 years or in other leagues when they’ve been around for 50.

“But you need to be in a situation where you can be viable. We have new teams coming in that are deeply-connected in the community and have more commercial revenue, higher fan bases and all the measures that matter. We’ve been experiencing issues in Columbus for many years and we’ve been somewhat quiet about this. It is among the lowest teams, between 20 out of 22 in every measure that matters in pro sports.

“Average ticket price. Average attendance. Average revenue. Their local television ratings. Their local television deal. Every aspect that is going to determine whether a team can be viable. And as our league continues to move in the right direction, we need to have strong clubs. So there’s a lot that needs to happen.”

This past season, the Crew ranked 20th league-wide in average attendance, with roughly 15,439 supporters filing into MAPFRE Stadium during the regular season. Only the Colorado Rapids and FC Dallas averaged few fans on a per-match basis.

In comparison, expansion side Atlanta United — who was knocked out of the MLS Cup Playoffs by the Crew in 2017 — averaged over 48,000 supporters on a per-game basis, with the club boasting a league record 71,874 in one of the team’s first matches at their home, Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

[ MORE: Huddersfield’s Danny Williams eager to rebuild USMNT ]


Below are some of the other topics Garber addressed on Friday.

About the current MLS playoff structure

“If you could wave a magic wand, ending the season before the FIFA break in November and not have that gap then we wouldn’t have that gap you mentioned. I think it’s important to note that we’ve had higher average attendance and higher television ratings for these playoffs than any other year in our history.”

Columbus comparison to Kansas City’s struggles before new ownership took over

“Because those issues have been going on for almost since the beginning. We had, and it was before I came to MLS, but the first year was remarkable. Lamar Hunt went in and said ‘I’ll think of Columbus as an inaugural team.’ You need to have a local ticket campaign. I think they had 10,000 season tickets. Almost since then, after the stadium was built, it took a couple years to settle in. We’ve been struggling to resonate in that market.

“I made this comment, and I’ll make it again. I did it in an interview with someone this morning. The Hunt Sports Group, when they owned the team, had invested over $200 million. Anthony Precourt has invested nearly $40 million. You can read what investor and investment lost kind of synonymously. We’ve had those challenges for a long time, so we don’t think it’s an issue of ownership.

The possibility of one of the upcoming expansion teams leaping over Miami

“It’s conceivable. It’s conceivable that that could happen.”

Are soccer-specific stadiums a necessity for clubs trying to enter MLS?

“That question is going to get answered as we debate Detroit’s bid, which was very strong. It had a very creative way of downsizing Ford Field, but was not part of the original requirements that we had when we sent out RFPs to the 12 cities that raised their hand. I think something I’ve said to all of you is that this is an evolving league. We’re 22 years old. We’re competing against leagues like the NFL that have celebrated 100 years next year. We’ve got to be sure we’re evolving our decisions along with how our league evolves, how our fan base evolves, all that goes into what makes teams successful.”

When asked about NYCFC playing two home matches away from Yankee Stadium in 2017

“It’s not optimal. It wreaks havoc on our schedule. It’s not good for fans. And I think Jon Patricof is a good local chief business officer. They’ve been patient, but it’s been a challenge. I think if we were going to look at this situation today, as if New York City was going to come in as team 25 or 26 or even 27 or 28 we would have required that there be a stadium finalized at that time.”

On recent developments in U.S. Soccer Federation presidential race

“Let me start by saying that I understand why people are upset that we didn’t qualify for the World Cup. When you miss it it’s a disappointment for all of us.  For media, for fans, for league executives, for federation staff and players. I spoke to many of them after Trinidad. I think there’s been a lot of attempts to attribute blame as if there’s one switch you can pull and then all of the sudden it changes. And I think this process, which has been traumatic to the system, has us taking a step back and realizing that we were all experiencing positive momentum.

“We were beginning to think that we cracked the code, and when you have things that set you back it allows for strong people to work within and reach outside your group to get better. I actually think will be a positive, at least on the men’s side, for U.S. Soccer, and even the league. It will force us to be more integrated on our development programs within the federation. It’ll force the non-affiliated teams that aren’t affiliated with MLS to think more about what they need to do, like we have been within the federation to bring in better coaches. Maybe they address some of the structural challenges that exist at the youth level.

“Maybe we are more open to thinking about the Tyler Adams’ of the world playing for a year or two and then going overseas.  There are a dozen other things like that.I believe strongly that soccer in America is, in many cases today, stronger because of the relationship between our league and the investments and our federation. I will segway to Sunil [Gulati], who has been an unbelievable leader for the federation. He hasn’t gotten enough credit for that as we’ve gone through that recent narrative.

“You’ve got thriving leagues. You’ve got an incredible launch of the women’s league, which was almost a single-handed commitment on his part. You’ve got a strong commercial business. You’re got a corpus of income sitting in the coppers waiting to be deployed and allocated. You’ve got a supporter movement. There are a lot of things that have happened. We didn’t qualify, and that stinks, but the sky isn’t falling and we just need to be smart in how we work together to ensure that this doesn’t happen four years from now.”

MLS reveals increased TAM for 2018, 2019 seasons

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For those still confused about Targeted Allocation Money, we’ll get to that in a second.

The good news though is that more of it will be coming to Major League Soccer ahead of the 2018 and 2019 seasons.

[ MORE: A look look at Saturday’s MLS Cup final by the numbers ]

During the 2017 campaign, MLS allowed each of its clubs to use $1.2 million of TAM, while the next two seasons will give teams the option of spending an additional $2.8 million on a “discretionary basis.”

TAM was started in 2015 in order to allow MLS sides the opportunity to strategically manage how they handle roster decisions. The current setup allows teams to use TAM to sign Homegrown players and buy down Designated Player contracts to non-Designated Player contracts, as two examples.

One important aspect of the added allocation of TAM for the next two years is that it cannot be traded amongst MLS sides, as is the case with regular TAM.

Garber names 4 finalists for 2 MLS expansion teams

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Don Garber announced on Wednesday the four finalist cities — Cincinnati, Detroit, Nashville and Sacramento — for two Major League Soccer expansion teams to be awarded in the next round of franchise expansion.

[ MORE: Toronto FC vs. Seattle Sounders for MLS Cup again? ]

Owners and officials representing each of the four respective cities will make their formal pitches to the MLS expansion committee on Dec. 6, followed by a board of governors meeting on Dec. 14 and an official announcement “before the end of the year.”

“The leaders of the Cincinnati, Detroit, Nashville and Sacramento MLS expansion ownership groups have bold visions and innovative plans for their clubs, stadiums and their involvement in their respective communities. We are pleased these highly-respected business and sports leaders have been so determined to bring Major League Soccer to their cities. We have been greatly encouraged by the progress that all four of these groups have made and we are looking forward to their presentations.”

Sacramento’s bid, which has been an odds-on favorite for more than a year, would see Sacramento Republic make the leap from USL to MLS, doing so in a privately-financed stadium which has already seen pre-construction work begin at the downtown railyard site. Cincinnati, another popular pick among soccer fans and the media alike, has seen similar — and in some cases, even greater — success in USL. Their stadium deal, however, remains far less of a certainty as the ownership group and city council have yet to agree terms of a financial package for the $70-75 million requested.

[ MORE: All the big news from Contract Deadline Day ]

The group in Nashville recently received approval from its city council for $225 million in revenue bonds to build a $275-million stadium on the city fairgrounds. Nashville SC, which was founded in 2016 and fielded an under-23 PDL in 2017, will begin playing in USL in 2018. Detroit’s bid centers around Ford Field, the 65,000-seat dome which is home to the NFL’s Detroit Lions, despite statements from the league which in the past have made clear a desire for soccer-specific stadiums.

The tough question at the end of the road — one that Garber and Co. presumably (hopefully?) have considered and for which they have a plan — is: what happens when the league finally reaches 28 teams and the $100-150 million expansion fees, which have become the most reliable injection of consistent revenue for the league, come to an end?

There’s also the matter of David Beckham’s Miami project, which is now in its 47th month (not an exaggeration) of attempts to bring a team back to south Florida. How much longer will/can MLS hold a spot open for Beckham when there are other (albeit, far less desirable) options which are further along and much more of a safe bet?

Columbus officials release statement after MLS, Precourt meeting

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Columbus mayor Andrew Ginther and Alex Fischer, the CEO of the Columbus Partnership, met with MLS commissioner Don Garber and Columbus Crew owner Anthony Precourt on Wednesday in a bid to keep the Crew in Ohio.

It did not go well.

[ MORE: Rochester Rhinos in jeopardy ]

Ginther and Fischer released a statement on the meeting, claiming that they offered every option to get Precourt and Garber to take relocation to Austin, Texas, off the table only to be shot down by the MLS hierarchy.

“We met with Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber and Columbus Crew SC owner Anthony Precourt in New York today. It is clear the MLS and ownership did not come to the meeting willing to commit to staying in Columbus. We know this is heartbreaking for the dedicated fans in Columbus and across the country who have shown unwavering support for the Columbus Crew SC.

We are disappointed and frustrated. We were united in putting all options on the table, with the expectation in return that the MLS and ownership would cease pursuing moving the team to Austin. Great American cities do not get into bidding wars over sports teams to benefit private owners. Garber and Precourt were not willing to do that today.

Once the league and owner are committed to Columbus, we stand ready, willing and able to support the team’s success. On November 21, standing alongside the best soccer fans in the country at MAPFRE stadium, we will be cheering Black and Gold onto victory. Glory to Columbus.”

Relocation stories are never fun, but this one is infuriating. From the timing of the announcement — before a big playoff run — to the words of Precourt, it’s been one big stinger after another.

Sadly, stories like these are unavoidable when a league size is limited and closed. Precourt bought the original MLS team with the hopes of moving it to Austin. The sale was approved with that language in it. Essentially, the Crew barely had hope of overcoming those desires.

Precourt claims that Columbus didn’t present a viable plan to keep the team in Ohio, from MLSSoccer.com:

Precourt Sports Ventures and Major League Soccer met this afternoon in New York City with Mayor Ginther and Alex Fischer, at the request of the city, in anticipation of being presented an actionable plan and a legitimate offer that would advance efforts to improve Crew SC’s long-term ability to operate and compete in Columbus.  Both PSV and the league entered the meeting with open minds, no demands and a complete willingness to listen and entertain concrete ideas or a meaningful proposal from the city’s representatives at the meeting.

We were extremely disappointed that no concrete offer or proposal was presented and then told by the City of Columbus that it would not communicate with us past today.

Precourt Sports Ventures made a clear commitment to Columbus four years ago by purchasing 100 percent of Columbus Crew SC.  In the meantime, despite successful efforts to reinvent the brand and improve the Club, market challenges for Crew SC in Columbus continue to mount.

Despite the city’s refusal to make a real offer and its decision to cease conversations, we remain open to a productive dialogue if the City of Columbus reconsiders.  Columbus Crew SC remains focused on our quest to win MLS Cup.

In terms of business, Precourt has every right to move the team, and MLS has every right to let him. And it seems — strictly inference here — MLS views the outcome of giving Cincinnati a team after Columbus leaves as somehow a fine trade-off for Ohio.

If MLS started today, Columbus probably wouldn’t get one of 28 markets. That’s not the point. They have a team, an original team, and those are generally hallowed in major and important American sports leagues.

But as someone who grew up in Buffalo with constant threats and hostage moves regarding the Sabres and Bills to pony up or risk losing the team, I hope Columbus finds the solution our city did: Owners who were willing to make less than the maximum to cater to a community in love with its teams.

Imagine a United States without the home of Dos a Cero boasting a top tier side. Again, this remains a league barely over 20 years old, and Garber and Co. are very much navigating the equivalent of the Wild West (along with teams in other leagues). Still, concern for what’s been built in Ohio would be nice, at the very least.

Report: Ford Field likely to host Detroit expansion side if MLS bid accepted

Junfu Han, Detroit Free Press
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With 2020 just a few years away, Detroit could have a faster solution to its stadium conundrum as it seeks entry into Major League Soccer.

[ MORE: Projecting the USMNT call-up list against Portugal ]

The Detroit Free Press is reporting that the city’s expansion group — led by Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert and Detroit Pistons co-owner Tom Gores — has added the Ford family to its partnership as Detroit moves closer to having itself MLS bid heard.

In addition to the Fords joining Gilbert, Gores and the rest of the group, it seems as though Ford Field — where the NFL’s Detroit Lions currently reside — is seen as the venue in which the expansion side would play upon entry into the league.

Detroit was previously planning a $1 billion stadium project at the Gratiot Avenue jail site, with a 23,000-seat venue in the cards. However, that longer seems to be the case.

“Partnering with the Ford family bolsters our powerhouse group and provides a perfect stadium solution in the heart of Detroit’s central business and sports and entertainment districts,” said Detroit Pistons vice chairman Arn Tellem, who is also a member of the Detroit ownership group. “Over the last two years, we have invested significant time, effort and resources into our bid to bring MLS to Detroit. After careful study and analysis, we concluded that the downtown location of an MLS stadium is paramount to an MLS team’s success.

“And no MLS stadium sits in a better downtown location than Ford Field.  We also saw additional evidence that multi-use stadiums can be very successful in the right situation and we believe our new proposal is superior for the city and for MLS in every way.”

The parties involved are expected to make a push towards expansion in 2020, where the entry fee is $150 million, as opposed to waiting until 2022 when the fee is expected to increase for clubs interested in joining MLS.

As it stands, Detroit is one of several major cities being considered for expansion. Los Angeles FC (2018) and David Beckham’s Miami project are the next clubs in the works right now, while Cincinnati, San Antonio, St. Louis, Nashville and others appear to be close behind in the pecking order.

MLS commissioner Don Garber has previously stated that the league is looking to reach 28 teams by 2024, and that would be the cut off for expansion.

Garber and MLS released the following statement on Thursday following the reports of Detroit’s amended bid.