Two unspoken words convey profound meaning for MLS
By Pat Martin, MLS Editor
New York, NY (Sports Network) -
Two words that weren't spoken during Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber's media conference call on Tuesday afternoon were worth a thousand.
When Garber addressed the media on a number of MLS topics for almost an hour- and-a-half, to coincide with the kickoff of the league's 2009 season this past weekend, the much-publicized, much-discussed English international wasn't even a thought.
Beckham, who joined the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2007 with a great deal of fanfare, was loaned to Italian power AC Milan this winter, and talk of his potential permanent transfer was seemingly the only subject written about this offseason.
But after what Garber described as "one of the most exciting weeks in Major League Soccer history," there was no mention of the international soccer star. This time the media preferred substance - excitement, expansion, economy - over style - Beckham.
The excitement generated from the league's 15th team, the Seattle Sounders FC, and its inaugural game this past Thursday, as well as the expansion announcements of Vancouver and Portland, took center stage.
"That is going to create a rivalry that we think will change the landscape of the sport of soccer in the U.S. and Canada," Garber said of the Northwest regional rivalry created by the expansion announcements. "It's going to provide for us a very concentrated, competitive environment both on and off the field that we think drives the sport in other parts of the world where the sport really dominates the culture in society. We can't wait to get all three of those teams on the field."
Talk of David Beckham's potential permanent transfer to AC Milan was seemingly the only subject written about this offseason.
The excitement started last Wednesday, with the announcement that Vancouver would join MLS as it's 17th team in 2011. Since then, the league's second Canadian franchise has already sold 5,000 season-ticket deposits, two years away from its opening game.
The excitement continued the following Thursday when the Sounders FC hosted the opening to the '09 season with an extravagant opening ceremony before topping the New York Red Bulls, 3-0, in front of over 32,500 fans at Qwest Field.
"That had the feel of a super big-time event," Garber said. "I've been in the sports business for almost 30 years, was involved in producing a Super Bowl for many of those years and countless other events, and I gotta tell ya, that was one of the most spectacular sporting events that I have ever been to. It brought tears to my eyes, literally. It was an emotional moment for me and MLS President Mark Abbott. I looked over to [TV personality and Sounders FC co-owner] Drew Carey standing on the sideline, and he literally had tears rolling down his cheeks."
But the men who should have been overcome with emotion were the men who were present about 14 years ago in a small office in Los Angeles, hashing out how they would form a new professional soccer league called MLS. The vision of those men appears to be coming to fruition as evidenced by the support for franchises like Seattle and Toronto and the fact that ownership groups like Vancouver and Portland are willing to pay $35 million apiece just for the right to join the league.
"For 13 years Phil Anschutz, Robert Kraft, the Hunt Family and others have been laying the foundation for Major League Soccer and really spending hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars to build the sport in this country," Garber said. "They, in essence, have established the foundation for the sport that other new markets are able to capitalize on. The league continues to grow. We have our challenges, but clearly the league has been able to move forward over the last decade, and that's created some pent-up demand in new markets."
More excitement manifested Friday, when Portland was announced as MLS's 18th team - also joining the league in 2011 - and climaxed with a riveting weekend of league fixtures that saw an average of 3.14 goals-per-game in front of an average of 17,095 fans.
"We spend a lot of time in [the MLS league office] and [with the media] talking about the business side of the sport, but we had said in the offseason that we really have to start prioritizing the competition on the field," Garber said. "Our business is secure, our foundation is laid for the long-term and now, not that we haven't done this in the past, but we really have to ensure that we solidify the quality of play."
That seems to be the case, with 53 of 56 MLS All-Stars and year-end award winners from 2008 back, as well as a host of new exciting professionals joining MLS in 2009. With the first week of the season in the books, things look bright for MLS for this season and beyond.
"The sport in America is growing," Garber said. "In every measure that one looks at in sports business, there's evidence of that growth. From growing television ratings for the ['08 European Championships] to the success of international games that we've had over the last number of years. The USA vs. Mexico match that had record [ratings] numbers on ESPN. The [United Soccer League's Montreal] Impact's success with the [CONCACAF] Champions League in Montreal. That is not something that anybody expected to happen. When you put all of the success and growth of the sport into a pot and you stir it up and then you can deliver day-to-day competition with a pro league [like MLS], we are going to benefit from all of that growth."
And with that growth comes more MLS expansion. Not only is it possible in the near future, but probable, as early as 2012.
"I suspect that we will expand from 18 to 20 teams," Garber said. "The question is not if, it's when."
But how can a so-called second-tier sports league continue to grow in these economically troubled times?
"To many people, we have a controversial structure called a single-entity, where the league is structured as a company and that company allows it to make strategic decisions collectively," Garber said. "Most importantly, the player contracts are signed by the central office and we have a very tightly constrained salary budget per club. We can manage our business in a way that will evolve through both boom times and challenging times.
"We'll add a team in '09, a team in '10 and two teams in '11. The franchise values have grown from $10 million in 2005 to the $35 million in 2011. Our overall business has grown. We are going through uncharted economic times and we have the ability with our system to cut back on spending. We have the ability to reallocate revenues with our clubs if we have challenges locally as opposed to nationally.
"We can evolve to go through these times and hopefully come out stronger when the recession ends. None of our teams have debt. We don't allow debt on our teams, so we don't have some of the other issues that exist in other pro leagues. Our costs are still really low. A $2 million salary budget is infinitesimal compared to the salary caps in other leagues and will continue to grow very slowly over time."
And hopefully, over time, MLS will be able to string together more weeks in which David Beckham isn't the main topic of discussion.