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.
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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.
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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.”