By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Dec 8, 2017) US Soccer Players - Do you hate Major League Soccer’s single-entity system? Driven to rage and heartbreak by the Columbus Crew’s investor/operator's flirtation with Austin, Texas? Frustrated and confused by the league’s gratuitously complicated and confusing roster and salary rules?
Well, the structures are working, MLS is on course to join America’s pro sports heavyweights. If the league's leadership has to crack a few eggs along the way, so be it.
That was the underlying message behind Don Garber’s State of the League address on Friday afternoon, one day before the 2017 MLS Cup at BMO Field. For better or worse, the revealing event underlined both the extent of wider doubts about the league’s philosophies and its leaders’ firm commitment to maintaining them. It also pointed to a bumpy ride still ahead for Columbus fans.
Commissioner Garber stood up in front of reporters and a live online streaming audience with improved postseason television ratings and bullish announcements about new “TAM” salary spending allowances to tout. However, it was the Crew dominating the near-hour of revealing back-and-forths with the media, including a briefly testy interaction between Garber and USMNT legend turned pundit Alexi Lalas.
“It’s a legacy team and it’s traumatic when an owner and a league is 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,” said Garber. “But you need to be in a situation where you can be viable.
“As we have new teams coming in that are deeply connected to the community, dramatically more commercial revenue, higher fanbases, all the metrics that matter, what we’ve been experiencing in Columbus for many years – and we’ve been somewhat quiet about this – it is among the lowest teams, 20 out of 22, in every measure that matters in pro sports: average ticket price, average revenue, local television ratings, local television deal; every aspect that is going to determine whether a team can be viable. As our league continues to move in the right direction, we need to have strong clubs.”
Garber emphasized that a changing MLS where wealthy, ambitious newcomers like Atlanta are drawing more fans and dollars by several magnitudes is leaving the Crew behind. He repeated his assertion that Crew owner Anthony Precourt will not accede to Columbus city leaders’ request that he stop his talks with Austin and commit to central Ohio as a condition for further negotiations.
“We’ve been struggling to resonate in that market. The Hunt Sports Group invested over $200 million in that team. Anthony Precourt has invested nearly $40 [million],” stated Garber. “We’ve had those challenges for a long time, so we don’t think that it’s an issue of ownership. Anthony’s done a very good job. He’s invested a lot of money. He’s not getting enough credit for that. He’s got one of the more successful teams on the field.
“It’s not fun – and I will say that I feel for the fans in that market and I am fully understanding of the challenges that they see and how disappointed they are – but we need to try to find a way to ensure that that team can be an MLS 2.0 team, to be able to compete like a small market can. Portland would be an example, Kansas City is another example. And I think many of the expansion teams have been small-market, some of them even smaller than Columbus. You have a [USL] team down the road in Cincinnati that’s averaging over 20,000 fans a game. … It’s just an incredible difference between those two and they’re playing in the lower division.”
Put another way, Columbus took the Crew for granted. Now there’s heated competition for that place at the table.
“The level of municipal public support is significant” in aspiring MLS expansion markets, said Garber, “and we haven’t seen that in Columbus. I’d almost put it around the other way: Maybe Columbus should look at what Detroit and Nashville and Cincinnati and Sacramento are doing, and think maybe if this thing has turned from where it was to where it needs to be, that the Crew might have been more successful.”
Put into context, all this sketches out a rather surreal vision of an aggressive, bullish league with a sort of promotion and relegation – but in economic rather than on-field terms.
Columbus is lagging behind in business metrics, while the league has conducted market research in Austin that leaves it confident that Texas’ capital city will embrace an MLS team. Thus, relocation looms, even if it risks tearing apart the bonds crafted between MLS teams and their fans over the past two decades.
“Leagues don’t like to move teams. You do it as a last-resort decision,” said Garber. “Clearly it’s something that has trauma to the system, and we understand that.”
In a revealing exchange with Lalas, Garber more or less admitted to the existence of the widely-reported loophole in Precourt’s purchase of the Crew that forbade him to move the team – to anywhere but Austin. Basically, the club’s situation had grown dire enough, and local ownership so impossible to find, that Precourt was the best option for the sale in 2013 even with that poison-pill escape clause.
“We are a private business,” asserted Garber. “All teams, in any league, if they satisfy the tests as to whether or not the factors are non-existent for them to be successful, can come to a league and try to determine whether or not that team could move. We’ve seen it in the NFL, we’ve seen it in other leagues for generations. So in this case we did what we needed to do in order to get an owner to come in and buy that team.”
The commish did leave the door open for a future reconciliation that could keep the team in its city. Yet he also sought to compare the situation to San Jose's. The Earthquakes relocated to Houston to become the Dynamo in late 2005 but reborn as an expansion side two years later. The idea of the Crew starting again from scratch someday is probably cold comfort to most. But it may be the only silver lining from Friday’s developments.
Yes, MLS fans can take heart from the announcement of the hefty new dose of allocation money for 2018. Even that appears to be a sign of doubling down on the centralized MLS model that remains so jarringly different from the world’s elite soccer leagues.
“We don’t come to the process with an idea of trying to make it complicated or make it into a system that’s not understandable,” said Todd Durbin, MLS' executive VP of Competition & Player Relations, when a reporter asked why the league doesn’t just raise its salary cap and give teams more autonomy.
“We come to the process primarily with a base understanding, a base commitment among our owners, that we’re committed to make decisions collectively, and if we’re going to invest money, what is the best way to invest that money in a strategic way. And we continue to believe that rather than just increasing spending generally, if we are going to be increasing spending, we should be doing it in response to a very specific need … today it was really about the continued recognition that the next stage in our evolution is that we really need to drive value and quality in the middle of the roster.”
That sounds like a far cry from the Premier League, La Liga, Bundesliga, and other overseas offerings that American soccer fans find so compelling. Durbin made clear that MLS prefers to compare itself to its domestic sports counterparts instead.
“I will say that I have spent a little bit of time looking at the other leagues and systems they have, and continue to believe, perhaps naively so, that ours is actually much more simple,” he said. “If you look at baseball and look at free agents and plan B free agents, and basketball, the Larry Bird rule and Larry Bird rule 2 – I just think part of it is the nature of sports in this country when you’re talking about building spending in the context of competition, and competition balance, that you’re going to have some degree of rules that may seem a bit complicated.”
As Garber later said, the USMNT’s failure to qualify for the World Cup has left many in American soccer questioning previous conclusions about the game’s structure here. He’s in no hurry to second-guess the assumptions at the root of his league’s foundation, though. That’s something weighty for all of us to consider.
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