SBJ/November 14-20, 2011/Leagues and Governing Bodies

Garber: On-field work paying off for MLS

Major League Soccer celebrated a number of high points in 2011, as the debut of clubs in Portland and Vancouver helped the league post its best average attendance and television viewership. The league has a number of items on itsimmediate horizon, from expansion in New York City to a new television deal with NBC. Staff writer Fred Dreier caught up with MLS Commissioner Don Garber to talk about the successful year, and what we can expect in the coming seasons.

What were the success stories for 2011?
GARBER: Portland, Seattle and Vancouver were a huge success. Off the field our attendance has been growing and our rating is growing. I think one of the great stories is Kansas City. This was a market that had struggled for many years, and there was a time we had evaluated moving the team. And the ownership group and their new stadium have captivated the hearts and minds of the soccer fans and sports fans in that market. And I think the NBC announcement is huge, and we very much look forward to kicking off with them.

It seems like the model of expanding into current Division II markets is working. Will that become the norm for MLS?
I think the success is less about the second division and more about the deep soccer tradition in those markets and what was created by the old NASL. Division II is starting to show real connectivity in markets, and I’m excited to see teams in Orlando and even Miami grow. Success in those markets means they could become good MLS expansion prospects.

“To improve the business metrics, we needed to improve the competition metrics,” Garber says.
You have publicly said you hope to add a 20th team in the New York City market. What is the timeline for adding a 20th team?
Ultimately we want to see if there is an opportunity for adding a 20th team with an emphasis on that team being in New York City. We have been working with the city to develop a stadium opportunity and we continue to work on it with a number of consultants to move the project. But we haven’t finalized anything, and we’re not close at this time.

How do you come in contact with potential ownership groups, and are you finding a drop in interest due to shrinking availability of capital?
The ownership groups contact us, and I have several at the moment. Soccer is a growth sport, and clearly the growth of the value of our teams is evidence that it is a good investment. The current economic condition hasn’t really affected our view of what the team value is. We believe it to be very high, but nothing makes sense when the whole project centers on whether we’re able to get a stadium built.

How is the play on the field affecting business?
For so many years we were so focused on our business and the continued securing of the foundation of the league that we were not able to spend a similar amount of time and resources on ensuring we were really improving the game on the field. This year we are seeing the fruits of that [renewed] emphasis. We have now almost 25 designated players, and that program started in 2007. League competition was our best ever, and the season came right down to the last couple of weeks for playoff races. We realized in order to improve the business metrics, we needed to improve the competition metrics.
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