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MLS Commissioner Don Garber: On Politics, Youth Development & The Future Prosperity of the League

Reflecting on Don Garber’s 2019 Vancouver Whitecaps media roundtable.

2019 MLS All-Star Game: MLS All-Stars v Atletico Madrid Photo by Omar Vega/Getty Images

Prior to the Vancouver Whitecaps Saturday night matchup with the Houston Dynamo, a group of Whitecaps reporters (including myself) had the chance to sit down with MLS Commissioner Don Garber to discuss some of the current issues the league is facing. As part of his greater tour to Vancouver, Garber also sat in with TSN 1040’s Sekeres and Price on Friday afternoon, and presented a charity donation cheque at the Whitecaps’ Legends and Stars match, which took place prior to the MLS match Saturday.

As the interview was almost 25 minutes long, I’ve selected the moments that I felt were most insightful, or simply the most prevalent given the current state of MLS.

While I’ll provide some of my own commentary on Garber’s thoughts - I’d also appreciate your opinions on Garber’s vision for the league...There’s a lot to unpack, so let’s get into it!

The first question for the Commissioner concerned the MLS All-Star game, and why after almost ten years of MLS existence, Vancouver has yet to host the marquee match:

“Good question. The Whitecaps have in their expansion agreement, the right to an All-Star game. And I think they have been thinking about when is the right time to have that event here in Vancouver. It’s theirs when they want it. We’re happy to work with them at the right time.”

As a follow up, Garber was asked if there’s been an ongoing dialogue between the league and the club on this issue, and he provided some insight as to the club’s decision making:

“You know, over the years we have. I actually think it’s smart for the Whitecaps to have it come at a moment when they are ready for it. Maybe that’s an anniversary of some sort. Or maybe it’s at a time when, you know, there’s a special moment that they’re looking to celebrate. There’s hasn’t been a rush on our part, but we are fully committed to having a game here.”

To be frank, I’m not exactly living and dying on the possibility of the Whitecaps hosting an All-Star game, but hearing from Garber, it does sound like there would be additional broadcasting/logistical considerations if the Caps were to host the event (as a Canadian vs. US event), and the club would probably have to pony up financially in some respect in order to initiate the process.

Moving on from the All-Star game, the subject turned to everyone’s favourite whipping boy, the MLS charter policy. When asked if the MLS would consider fully chartered travel, Garber rebuffed the idea in a sense, putting the onus on the players to bring it up under the collective bargaining agreement:

“Well, it’s a difficult question to give you a simple answer to. Of course, I would be supportive of 100% charters, but in the context of everything else that our players are going to be looking for, it all needs to go into the pot. And we mutually need to decide how an available pool of money is going to be allocated to a wide variety of needs. Players are looking for increased compensation, they’re looking for increased movement, they’re looking for increased number of charters and all of it goes into a pot. Then you hope to reach an agreement on all things. In a perfect world, it would be great to have a league that would be able to support our players traveling with charters 100% of the time, but there is only a certain amount of money and the players are going to be very much part of the decision as to how that money is going to be allocated. We do allow our teams to to travel via charter on a limited basis. I can assure you there’ll be more charter travel in the new CBA, whether or not it goes all the way to 100%, I think is a function of how the negotiations go.”

While this response was to be expected, from what I’ve heard, it sounds like the players would have to be willing to make serious sacrifices in order to bargain for something resembling a full league-wide charter policy - so it’s only a matter of time before we see just how important the charter policy is in the grand scheme of things.

Part and parcel of the growing MLS travel issue is the greater and greater number of teams joining the league on what seems like a yearly basis. The Commissioner was asked how the league is planning to continue to support all its clubs, especially the smaller (or struggling) ones, as the league continues to grow at a rapid pace:

“Well, regardless of the size of the league, and regardless of expansion strategy, all clubs require a lot of attention. And in our league, that’s no different than any other league. We, the league office, spend a great deal of our time working with some of our teams that are not doing as well as they’d like and not doing as well as their fans would like. And a lot of time, effort and resources can apply to that. But that’s not a function of expansion. That could be a function of a wide variety of other things. In Chicago, it was a stadium issue that years of work to renegotiate and get out of the Bridgeview lease and move down to Soldier Field. There was an ownership change. It was just announced a couple of days ago, that was part of a process to try to see how we can get the Chicago Fire back to the level of prominence and success that they’ve had in the past. And that’s just one example, which had nothing to do with expansion.”

Continuing with the theme of challenges, another issue that the Commissioner opened up on was the financial challenge of a rapid expansion process, and his perception of the need to establish themselves (MLS) continent-wide before they can expect to see serious financial success. According to the Commissioner, the vision of expansion must be farther reaching than expansion revenues alone:

“There are things that need to happen in order to manage losses - and there are a wide variety of decisions that need to be made. I would say developments that will ensure that you have a better model and more revenues coming into the league. So In our case, we needed a North American footprint. We needed to have enough teams covering enough markets that can create concentric circles that can create, you know coverage over large and small cities that can create rivalries, as you’ve seen with a very successful rivalry week that we had just a couple of weeks ago, you need to build a national and international audience that could drive TV revenue and merchandise revenue. So expansion is not at all about driving expansion revenue. It’s about creating a broad MLS base, a North American footprint that can create opportunity to drive revenue...And the plan is, and I’d say the hope is, and the sort of the big idea is, that all of that investment is going to at some point pay off, that will pay off with more revenue. And as a young league (only 25 years old) our revenues are lagging behind the investment that we’re making. I spend most of my time managing a bunch of owners who I try to convince to spend more money, including here in Vancouver on a wide variety of things, in order for us to have a more valuable and popular brand to be able to offer to fans and to offer to partners and to offer to all of our constituents. And If we can’t ultimately drive more revenue, then I will probably not be looked at as a successful Commissioner after what will be more than 20 years. But my hope is that we’re going to be able to achieve our goals.”

These comments from the Commissioner stand rather comically in opposition to what most believe the Whitecaps ownership group is trying to do with the club: leveraging franchise valuation against yearly operational losses. In the big picture, it will be interesting to see how patient less “laissez-faire” ownership groups are willing to be in regards to the big picture of the MLS’s long term profitability, and whether or not they are confident the league can hold up its end of the bargain.

My own question for the Commissioner turned his focus to youth development, and I asked Garber whether or not he was happy with the current arrangements MLS clubs find themsleves in at the developmental level. His responses were surprisingly candid:

“I think the system is working well for where we are today. But I don’t think it is the right system for the future. Now 10 years ago, when we had reserve teams that were playing against each other, it was the only competition that we could have for the bottom of our roster and for an extended roster, to allow players that we’re not playing for the first team a chance to get competitive games.”

“Then, we went and met with the NASL (which is now defunct), and the USL, and we said: “Why don’t we create a relationship where we will buy and invest in teams in your respective leagues so that we could have those (developing) players play in a very competitive environment against guys who are trying to nip at their heels and win games, guys who are mature players and are playing in front of fans.” That environment is what makes professional football/soccer work all around the world. The NASL passed on it, and the USL said yes.”

“Over the years the USL has continued to develop their model. Now the question is whether or not the USL is the right structure going forward for Major League Soccer. And those discussions are going on as we speak to try to figure out what the best format is, or best structure is going forward.”

“It is particularly challenging here in Canada, because we have massive investments going on in Vancouver, and in Toronto, and in Montreal. Meanwhile, we no longer have the same mechanism and the same structure to be able to have those players that we’re investing in deeply have a competitive environment to be able to play in. Now at some point that needs to be resolved or the Canadian player is not going to get developed as effectively as they need to get developed. Right now, the Whitecaps don’t have a USL Association because they’re not permitted to have a USL team here in Vancouver (this comment was made in reference to USL stadium restrictions and CSA licensing). Toronto has a USL 3 team, and there are a wide variety of reasons for that...”

“I’m excited about the development of the CPL. But we do need to work together to figure things out. The Canadian Soccer Association needs to figure out how they’re going to engage with Major League Soccer teams that are investing millions of dollars per team in youth programs (not including academies), to ensure that that investment is going to help develop the Canadian player, and help justify the investment that MLS Clubs are making, otherwise that investment is going to go away. Because right now, it’s not making that much sense.”

Obviously, this is a highly nuanced issue, but it sounds like Garber is not happy with the MLS’s youth development as a whole, and especially frustrated with the way things are going in Canada. I think this is a massive positive. Whether it’s through CPL, USL or an MLS development league, the Vancouver Whitecaps, as well as the other two Canadian teams, need to find a way to more seamlessly transition their Academy efforts into MLS quality talent. So the more the league is aware of this, and willing to get behind this cause, the better.

Last, but certainly not least, Garber touched on some of the social issues which have marred this MLS season. Specifically, he covered the league’s treatment of the “Iron Front” symbol, and their stance on white supremacy groups. If you haven’t seen it already, the Province’s JJ Adams broke down the Commissioners’ comments on this issue through his twitter account:

While Garber’s carefully worded comments make some sense on a surface level, the reality is that the implementation of the MLS’s signage policy is different in practice than it is in spirit - and this has created some serious unrest. While there’s no resolution that’s going to make everyone happy, the league could probably do a better job of understanding the environments and dynamics that make up the clubs and cities who represent the MLS badge.

Finally, the Commissioner provided a brief comment on the Whitecaps’ Women’s team scandal from earlier this season. Specifically, Garber explained the role the league played (or lack thereof) in dealing with the issue:

“It wasn’t about the league getting involved to instruct them to do anything. It was letting them know that we were here to support them, so that we could together find a way that this club could deal with it. What was a really, really challenging situation. And It took time for it to work its way through. I don’t think anybody looked at what was going on with the the Southsiders as something that was anti, you know, ownership or anti the club. I think there were fans that had real issues with what was going on and wanted to be sure that this issue was raised to the forefront. It was, and it was dealt with. And I think we’re behind it...we all need to understand that it was a horrible situation. And I feel for those that were involved. And I’m glad that we’ve been able to, you know, address it, And then hopefully work together so that we can move on in a positive way.”

What are your thoughts on Don Garber’s Vancouver Whitecaps media roundtable? Are you optimistic about the future of the league and its youth development process? How do you feel about the MLS’s stance on social issues? Be sure to let me know in the comments section.