It wasn’t hard to see the change in tenor from Don Garber in the 2021 version Major League Soccer’s State of the League Address. A fully completed season in front of fans with no canceled games can do a lot for one's disposition, it turns out.
The 2020 league address was pretty dour, coming off the heels of a shortened season plagued by issues related to the coronavirus pandemic. Garber revealed then that MLS was looking at losses in revenue at around $1 billion, especially brutal for a league that insists that it is still not profitable. While Garber didn’t get into any financial specifics this time around, their absence was notable and the tone was certainly more optimistic that the league would not only survive the pandemic but thrive, as MLS looks to secure a new TV deal ahead of the 2026 World Cup and continues its expansion push.
Speaking of expansion, Garber re-asserted the poorly kept secret that there is a favorite in the race for the 30th slot in the league.
“We’re making progress as has been announced or leaked in Las Vegas,” Garber said. “We’re excited about the market, as are all the other leagues here in North America. Wes [Edens] is a guy that we all have longstanding relationships with. We’ll continue those discussions and continue to try to get something done with our 30th team.”
Edens is an American businessman who owns Aston Villa of the English Premier League adn the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks and has already trademarked the name “Vegas Villains.” Garber indicated he hopes to have something done with the 30th team in the next 10 months, and that Vegas is the front runner, though the league continues to talk with San Diego and Phoenix. Conspicuous from that list is Sacramento, who was awarded an expansion team, but lost it when their lead investor pulled out.
As MLS looks to secure a team in Las Vegas, they’re also attempting to resolve the ownership situation in Real Salt Lake, after former owner Dell Loy Hansen was ousted from an active role in the team. The league took over operations and the sale of the team in January, though MLS hoped to have found a buyer by now.
“We continue to be engaged with and in discussions with potential owners,” Garber said. “I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to get something closed. We had a timetable to get that done by the end of the year. We’ll see if that’s still achievable. That’s only a couple of weeks away. If not I’m hopeful we’ll get something done soon.”
Things are looking much brighter for the League’s 29th team, set to debut next season. Garber revealed that Charlotte FC has sold upwards of 20,000 season tickets, and are hopeful they can set a new attendance record in their opening game next year against the LA Galaxy. Garber said the financial metrics will justify having Charlotte play in an NFL stadium, which is being retrofitted to accommodate soccer.
“[I]n some markets, as we’ve seen, we’ve been able to see great success with teams that are playing in large stadiums, as long as the MLS team owner is in control of that building and controls the stadium, controls the branding, controls the dynamic and the stadium environment,” Garber said. “It started with Seattle, which is a high watermark that was taken even higher in Atlanta, and frankly I think we’re better off playing in Seattle and Atlanta than if we were playing in 20,000-seat stadiums. Their average attendance is north of 40,000 fans.”
Garber also revealed that the next TV package, which the league expects to have an announcement on in the first quarter of 2022, will include all games — nationally broadcast, local and the new MLS Next Pro league announced on Monday. The blackout rules have long been an area of frustration and it sounds like that should get better, at the very least. All teams had been advised to allow their local-broadcast deals to run out at the end of 2022, allowing the league to bundle them together.
“Our package will have every game, including our local games in the package,” Garber said. “It’s an exciting time for us to think about what that could look like ‘23 and beyond. Yes, our MLS Next, our MLS Next Pro games are all part of that package, how do we produce those games and whether or not they’re with one carrier or direct-to-consumer are all things we’re looking at.
“Been working on this for years, and I’m confident that somebody who’s got a kid that’s playing in MLS Next is going to be able to watch their kid play in a very unique and exciting offering.”
- Nashville SC’s “will-they, won’t they” stay in the Western Conference won’t be resolved in near future, especially since the 30th team won’t enter the league until 2024 at the earliest. “Best thing I could say is we know where they’re going to be next year, and we’ll have to figure out what happens with them in terms of what conference they’re in in 2023,” Garber said.
- Garber also said the format of the league will stay the same for the foreseeable future, meaning no return of the Central Division. “There is no plan to expand the number of conferences to date,” Garber said “Once we make the final decision on a 30th team, I suppose we’ll look at it as we look at everything, but I’m not foreshadowing in any way that there might be changes to it.”
- Garber did foreshadow that the league may not stay set at 30 teams, though he said there are no immediate plans to do so. “[I]f you look at the fact that every other top major league in our country is 30 or 32 teams, that in many ways is driven by conference setup, and it’s also driven in many ways by the geography of our country and dilution from a player pool and dilution of large national revenue distribution,” Garber said. “But in MLS with all the things that are going on, or I should say in professional soccer with all the things that are going on, I’m not quite sure that 30 teams is the ultimate end goal for Major League Soccer.”