MLS’s Don Garber on World Cup and why U.S. is ‘the ATM of the soccer world’

By Tom Bogert, Pablo Maurer, Jeff Rueter and Paul Tenorio

Major League Soccer’s positioning as the Copa America, men’s Club World Cup, and men’s World Cup all arrive in the U.S. was a theme this week as The Athletic sat down with league commissioner Don Garber and other executives at MLS headquarters in New York City.

The conversation often turned toward MLS’s evolving place in global soccer, and how it planned to capitalize on the flow of big events money set to come into the sport in North America over the next three-plus years.

“There’s no question now that America has become the ATM for the soccer world,” Garber said.

“Nothing is off the table” for MLS in terms of how it maximizes the Lionel Messi effect, with bigger salary budgets, the number of designated players and greater transparency around roster rules among the factors under consideration. The mooted pace of change is “brisk”, with the league’s $2.5-billion, decade-long streaming deal with Apple only in its second year, and questions about how MLS competes with Mexico’s Liga MX and helps to bring through the best young American talent.

Preparing for the World Cup, Copa America and more

Asked what is being done to maximize the opportunity that comes with the increased attention on soccer in North America, Garber said he thinks MLS is now a significant part of the global conversation around the sport.

“The reputation and respect for our league outside this country is actually greater than it is inside this country,” Garber said. “The rest of the world looks at the stability of the league, the growth of the league, the energy, the investment behind it…We have built a soccer ecosystem in this country over a relatively short period of time, and all of that momentum is going to continue to grow over the next number of summers.”

Garber admitted that schedule congestion will be an issue considering MLS plays its season during those tournaments and that visiting teams will be looking to use MLS facilities for the 2025 Club World Cup and 2026 World Cup.

“I don’t think FIFA is expecting us to play a full schedule during the World Cup in 2026,” Garber said. “All of this creates challenges but to me, we’ve been dealing with challenges for nearly 30 years.”

GettyImages 1685468046 1 scaled

Atlanta United draws big crowds at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, also a 2026 World Cup venue (Michael Zarrilli/Getty Images)

The Athletic asked for specific metrics the league is using to determine how much these events are impacting interest in MLS, and Garber again first mentioned commercial growth.

“There’s no question now that America has become the ATM for the soccer world,” he said. “We have raised the commercial value of the sport in our country in ways where it now is perhaps the most valuable soccer market, commercially.”

Garber then alluded to the sporting side and cited a hypothetical example similar to current U.S. national team star Christian Pulisic, who left home in Pennsylvania as a teenager to join Borussia Dortmund’s academy before moving on to Chelsea and AC Milan.

“How do we ensure that that 14-year-old kid who’s playing in Philadelphia who is rumored to be one of the best young kids in the world — how do we ensure that kid wants to play in MLS, that we could afford to sign him, and he wants to play for one of our clubs?”

Garber pointed to MLS Next Pro players who have moved up in the developmental league’s short existence.

“These are kids that, if not for MLS Next Pro, I don’t know what they would be doing,” Garber said. “They might not be playing soccer, they certainly wouldn’t be in America.”

MLS is, however, facing some domestic competition in that area. The USL, the lower-tier U.S. circuit, has recently placed a greater emphasis in recent years on signing young players and selling them on. Garber did not mention the USL in the roundtable, except as a participant in the U.S. Open Cup.



MLS to change key roster rule this summer

Roster rules – a ‘dramatic overhaul’?

Media and fans often discuss the direction the league should take with its roster rules, and those same debates are happening behind closed doors within MLS.

Pressed if changes to those rules are coming given the impact Lionel Messi has had on the league since joining Inter Miami in July, executive vice president Todd Durbin said the league hopes for big changes this winter but is still determining the best course of action.

“We are looking at not just changes to the existing system, but what could the world look like if we have a dramatic overhaul?” Durbin said. “If there’s a bigger salary budget, for example, if we added more DPs, all the things that we’re talking about. What if we had two ‘super’ clubs? Nothing is off the table.”

MLS is already planning a modest roster rule change that would decouple the designated player and under-22 initiative slots so all teams have access to all three U-22 slots with no DP restrictions.

GettyImages 2054416508 e1710494939672

Messi’s arrival has raised questions about when MLS will spend more to attract more stars of his ilk (Thaddaeus McAdams/Getty Images)

“I’ve heard a lot about how we need to change our rosters,” Garber said. “When you think about what our spending has been in the past to where it is now, it’s been a dramatic increase, so I’m not quite sure what everybody expects.”



MLS salary release takeaways: Messi is highest-paid in league history

Durbin added: “Everything has to be anchored in fan research; making sure that it’s actually meeting the expectations of fans, and that we can demonstrate that the investment is going to make a change not only to what’s happening with fan engagement, but also to the bottom line.”

Durbin also offered something of a timeline.

“We’re moving at a pretty brisk pace,” Durbin said. “Obviously, the opportunity isn’t endless, so I would suspect that we would reach some sort of consensus direction sometime in the middle or end of this year. What that means, we still don’t know.”

More from The Athletic:

Roster rules transparency

It isn’t just games that drive conversation about professional sports leagues. The NFL draft, the MLB hot stove and the NBA trade deadline move the needle in a big way for those leagues. They highlight and create narratives around the league and drive fan interest.

In MLS, however, those same conversations are strangled by the league’s own lack of transparency.

Unlike those U.S. leagues, MLS does not make any information about team salary caps available. Outsiders don’t know how much cap space a team has, how much general allocation money it has in the bank or is actively using, how much targeted allocation money it has or is using, or how it has applied other roster rules that impact cap charges.

The MLS Players Association releases players’ salary information, but those numbers are derived from different equations than how MLS organizes its own salary cap.

GettyImages 2073569610

DeAndre Yedlin’s trade from Miami to Cincinnati gave Miami an unknown amount of cap relief (Michael Miller/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

One recent missed opportunity came from Inter Miami, which spent preseason trying to get cap compliant ahead of its opener. The chance to drive weeks of conversation around the makeover of a roster surrounding the biggest star in MLS history went wanting. Instead, MLS’s opacity encouraged speculation about whether Miami could get cap-compliant and whether it actually did get compliant in time.

Garber acknowledged it’s an area the league has to study and improve.

“We’ve been trying to figure it out,” Garber said. “We argue about this internally a lot. And some of our group thinks all leagues have roster rules, the difference is they’ve been living with those roster rules. (NFL) ‘franchise player’ tags are just part of the American lexicon. So (NFL fans) accept it. … There will be more transparency, I promise you. We will make it easier. We will. When and how and what those things are, we’re trying to figure out.”

He continued in a later answer.

“We’ve got to get better at it; we have to,” Garber said. “We have to figure it out. Why would we not want to have more people following our league? That’s not brain surgery. What the answer is, I don’t know yet. But we have to figure it out.”



NYCFC stadium passes key city vote

The Apple deal after year one

MLS’s media rights deal with tech behemoth Apple is still evolving as the league continues to try and find the right formula for its broadcasts. The league has made significant changes to broadcast talent and format this offseason, largely eliminating the use of sideline reporters and focusing more resources on Spanish-language broadcasts. It has added new names and rotated out some of the service’s most recognizable faces.

Some of these changes were content-driven, while others were driven by cost-saving measures. Sources briefed on the details of MLS’s overhaul say that the league aimed to cut some $2 million from its broadcast budget this year as it works towards profitability.

“After year one, we’re just trying to figure out what’s the best way to organize all of our resources,” Garber said when asked about the cuts, mentioning broadcasting MLS Next Pro and MLS youth team games. He added it may take “many years to figure it out.”

GettyImages 1559376564 scaled

MLS Season Pass broadcasted the 2023 All-Star game vs. Arsenal (Stephen Nadler/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

Viewership data was relatively easy to access during MLS’s previous deals with traditional broadcasters but ratings, multiple sources within Apple and MLS say, are now closely-held pieces of information. “There are high-level executives within the league office itself that don’t see those numbers,” said one source. Data on subscription numbers has also been hard to come by.

“I think the time will come when we’ll be able to distribute a lot more information on the Apple deal,” said Garber. “They’re trying to figure it out. This is a company that was not in the media business, right? They’re now in the sports media business and the way that you evaluate usage and ratings is very different if you’re dealing with a global streaming project. In time, we’ll figure that out.”

MLS announced last year that it had inked a deal with Box 2 Box Films to produce a behind-the-scenes documentary on the league and Garber said that the show will focus on eight MLS teams.

He also offered another tidbit: according to MLS’s data, the average viewer on Season Pass is watching 55 minutes of whatever match they’ve tuned into. However, that number was offered without important context like the number of viewers it is being drawn from.

“This is not a game that you turn on when you’re cooking Sunday dinner,” said Garber. “Somebody has to intentionally make a decision to actively go on that subscription and watch the game. This concept of stickiness — like, as you’re trying to think about how sticky are the articles that you’re writing.”



MLS instructed broadcasters to limit ref commentary

Comparisons with Liga MX

With more soccer available in the U.S. than ever, fans have plenty of ways to compare MLS’s quality and entertainment value. That frequently positions MLS against its southern rival, Liga MX, as the Mexican league remains the most-watched soccer competition in the United States.

Recent results haven’t been flattering. MLS sides have lost against Liga MX opposition in every matchup so far in the 2024 CONCACAF Champions League, with Pachuca’s 6-0 second-leg win against Philadelphia Union standing out, along with Supporters’ Shield-holders FC Cincinnati bowing out to CF Monterrey.

GettyImages 2079594054 scaled

The Union struggled mightily against Pachuca this week (Manuel Velasquez/Getty Images)

“One thing that we know is that (we’re) very specifically measured against Mexico,” said Garber, whose interview occurred before that Philadelphia loss. “Referentially, our fans are saying, ‘Are you able to be the best in your region?’ They’re not saying ‘Are you better than the USL’ or better than the other leagues (in the American pyramid). They say, ‘What are you going to do if you play in a real tournament and you’re playing against Club America or Chivas? We’ve proven the improvement of our league in the Champions Cup, that we’re way more competitive than we were a number of years ago. It’s our roster rules that allowed us to do that.”

MLS finally reached a breakthrough in the CONCACAF Champions Cup in 2022, when the Seattle Sounders became the first non-Liga MX club to win the tournament since Saprissa in 2005, and the first MLS team to do so since the 2000 LA Galaxy. Multiple MLS teams have recently made runs to the final before falling to a Liga MX opponent.

MLS created the midseason Leagues Cup tournament in part to further bring teams from those two leagues together.

“If Columbus beat Minnesota, there’s nothing referential about that,” Garber said. “We want Columbus to beat Tigres because there is a referential aspect to that. That’s not easy — it’s not just about spending money. It’s about how do you spend that money? We’re looking at the whole ecosystem…(Fans) have a lot of alternatives, and I want to be sure that we’re good enough.”

(Photo: Mike Lawrie/Getty Images)

Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top