“The business of soccer in our country, and in particular Major League Soccer, continues to grow. It is a growth market, even with this down economy. We’ve seen growth in all of our measures.
The bottom line is we’re growing, and more and more people are watching our games and that’s important. That makes us happy. It’s a good trend.”
That was the view of how MLS performed this year from Commissioner Don Garber, during a “State Of The League” media teleconference to journalists this morning.
With the build up to next weekend’s MLS Cup final about to begin, Garber took the opportunity to speak to the media on a number of current and future issues, as the League looks to continue to go from strength to strength.
“We want to be one of the top soccer leagues in the world and we want to try and achieve that by 2022. We have a lot of work to do to get to that point and it falls in probably half a dozen different categories.”
This unified shared vision for the League is a lofty aim, but one which MLS seem to have a clear goal in working towards. They want to be “the League of choice for players, for sponsors, for fans”.
To get there MLS has a lot of hard work to do and to continue. A fact not lost on Garber. He needs an exciting “product” that people around the world want to watch and he hinted today that initiatives were being considered “to promote attacking soccer”.
He also promised “a real deep dive” on officiating, as MLS looks to work with US Soccer and the CSA to see how best to manage that aspect of the game. As a caveat though, he went on to comment that “our officiating is a hell of a lot better than our fans give us credit for. I think a lot of this is perception versus reality”. We respectfully disagree very strongly.
The general signs for MLS are promising though.
Television ratings across networks have shown double digit growth and the League recorded record attendances this season. Revenues have grown in most, if not all, of the MLS markets.
A lot of the success and growth of MLS this season, off the pitch at least, has been helped by the addition of Vancouver and Portland to the League.
Garber was very complimentary about the Whitecaps, whilst acknowledging the on-pitch struggles of the team:
“I know they were disappointed with how they ended up on the field, but that didn’t surprise us. I think coming into any pro sports league, it’s almost expected you’re going to have some competitive disadvantages being the last guys in.
That being said, many people around the League believe that they have a very, very strong team and will perform much better next year. They’ve got some very good players that are fun and exciting to watch…I think they will improve.
As it relates to the market, I love going to Vancouver. The experience that I have when I go to BC Place is something that warms my heart. Greg Kerfoot’s very smart, as are his partners. They love the game, they love the League and they love their city. They’ve made massive commitments to the Whitecaps and I’ve got a lot of faith that things will be very, very positive long term in Vancouver.”
He described BC place as a “technological marvel” and encouraged everyone present to go and see it, if they haven’t already, adding:
“I think if we can replicate that system [the roof] in other stadiums throughout our country, I think it could change our dynamics with both our fans and what we can do on the field.”
With such high praise of the stadium, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Vancouver as the host city of the 2012 MLS All Star Game next July, or at worst the year after.
With the successes of the two newly added Cascadian clubs, Garber confirmed that: “Expansion is still a big focus of ours”.
A lot of focus, especially from the New York journalists present, was on where the MLS’ 20th spot may be located.
Interest was confirmed from New York, Detroit, Las Vegas and an unknown city in Florida, with Garber confirming that the New York Cosmos have never been seen as the front runners by MLS officials.
Wherever the League do decide to operate out of next, it has to be a market that has shown an interest to not just support, but develop, football at all levels. We’ve seen the recent successes of taking MLS to places with a real football history over cities that just get teams because of their size and success with other sports.
The decision will be a huge, future shaping one for the League, but that’s not the only big issue that will play an important role in whether MLS achieves its goals.
Next season’s “competition format” was the big announcement of the day, and this is one of those very issues.
Garber revealed that the 2012 MLS season will comprise of 34 games, in an unbalanced schedule, with every team having at least one bye week.
“To me it’s simple math. 38 games would be almost impossible for us to execute with the other competitions that we are required to play, the weather issues that we have, the stadium availability that exists, challenges in a handful of markets, the FIFA dates, all the things that we have to do differently here in the United States than Leagues have to abide by in other parts of the world.
Most importantly, from a competitive perspective, just the travel impact that exists in our country.
The more games we add, the more travel and impact it has on our players and therefore reduces the quality of our play.
I know fans like things a certain way, because they’re watching the Premier League, but we live here in the United States and we have certain restrictions and facts of life that we have to manage to.”
Vancouver Southsider Brett Graham’s mathematical paper proves otherwise for many of these points, as AFTN covered on Monday, and it’s been updated since then to address some more issues.
What this schedule will look like though has still not been finalised, but the hope is that an announcement will be made very soon.
The MLS Competition Committee are still deliberating all of the ins and outs of the new look schedule, and are expected to make a report at next Saturday’s Board meeting, after which a public announcement will be made.
With the Whitecaps’ Greg Kerfoot and the Sounders Adrian Hanauer on the committee, you would hope that whatever the final make-up is, it would be beneficial to the fans of the three Cascadian Clubs.
Garber would not be drawn on specifics, but everyone present knew we were talking about more regionalisation.
He did talk about rivalries though:
“We believe rivalries are important and help drive the passion that fans have for their teams and their desire to watch those clubs they love, and ultimately hate, on national television.
One of our objectives is to grow the national fanbase and grow our television ratings and in order to do that, we believe it needs to be done from within.
Rivalries, we believe, will help be the fuel to drive that energy and it’s a big part of our strategy, so I think people will see in a week, when lay all this out, that rivalry focus will be a big part of the format.”
AFTN has already addressed our concerns on this matter and we raised them again with Don Garber this morning, asking him whether he felt that more games against local rivals would dilute how special matches like the Cascadia derbies currently are:
“I’m not sure I agree with that. I don’t think it’ll be as big a shift as perhaps you do. I’m confident that we’re going to come up with a plan that’s going to work.”
With the obvious demands of television for more action packed games, with full houses and fantastic atmospheres, we think all Whitecaps fans should be preparing themselves now for two trips to both Portland and Seattle next season.
And who knows, maybe more, depending on how the playoffs work out.
The exact 2012 playoff format is also still under discussion, but there is a growing belief that the team with the best regular season record will now host the MLS Cup final. Could be a while before we get a sniff of that game in Vancouver then!
MLS hope to publish the 2012 schedule earlier than any previous season, with an aim to get it out by mid December, or, at the very latest, early January.
The indications as to how many trips up and down the I5 Cascadian fans are likely to be enjoying could come as early as next weekend.
It’s not going to be what many of the fans wanted, but we all need to make it work if we want to see MLS continue to thrive and develop.
I don’t know about you, but I would love to be watching my team in what people consider one of the top leagues in the world in 2022.
We all have a part to play in making that happen.