Garber also weighed in on competitive imbalance, the expanded playoff structure, keeping the regular-season relevant and whether the league will schedule more midweek games going forward.
Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber is in Seattle for GeekWire’s first-ever Sports Tech Summit, and he spoke to local media on Tuesday about everything from his belief in the value of competitive balance to future expansion plans.
But first, he responded to a New York Times Magazine story posted earlier in the day titled “The Dark Side of American Soccer Culture.” The article — which posits that some local fan clubs imitate European traditions while ignoring their xenophobic history and marginalizing a pre-existing Latino soccer culture — drew in part from the author’s observations of the Emerald City Supporters group during a Sounders game at CenturyLink Field.
“I thought it was factually incorrect, poorly written, not even remotely researched and didn’t in any way, remotely reflect the supporter culture in our league or the demographics of our supporters,” Garber said. “I was absolutely astounded by the article.
“I don’t think that article was really about supporters. It really was about the demographics of our fan base. And it was just factually incorrect. 30-to-35 percent of our fan base is Hispanic. We’re probably the most diverse league in professional sports. We have the highest percentage of Hispanic fans as a percentage of our total than any other league. We are incredible inclusive. We have been celebrating Pride games throughout the last couple of weeks and had an event in Orlando that I think was a sporting event that made our country proud.
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“I read an article like that and I’m just so disappointed by the lack of professionalism, the lack of research and the recklessness of it. Nobody interviewed anybody from the Sounders. Nobody interviewed anybody from the league. It was just poor journalism.”
Below are selected excerpts from Garber’s question-and-answer session:
– On perceived competitive imbalance between the Western and Eastern Conferences …
“We believe we have the most competitive soccer league in the world. We’re really focused on that. We actually believe that every fan should always have the belief that their team could win a championship. I think we’ve had nine or 10 champions in our 20 years. This year, it’s particularly competitive within our conferences. And I think that’s good. I just went up and had a pep talk to the Sounders staff, who are experiencing a bit of a lull on the field. Here’s a club that’s made the playoffs every year in their existence, and they were an expansion team. To be able to achieve that, to be able to be in the playoffs for all their years speaks to the league we want. It’s very competitive, very compelling and ultimately, from the beginning to the end, fans and players have the view that they have to stay tuned to the very end.”
– On the expanded playoff system — six teams out of 10 qualifying from each conferences — and keeping the regular-season relevant …
“I’ve heard over time that people have concerns about the relevancy of the regular season with it being as long as it is. I don’t hear that quite as much as I used to. Every point matters. I was at the Red Bulls-Timbers game, and I heard the Timbers on the radio talking about, ‘Hey, we got an important point on the road.’ Here we are midway through the season, and that point really matters. It does matter where you finish. Yes, there are many teams that make the playoffs, but who you play against, whether you have to play in, whether you’re at home versus away – that all matters. Look at the results. The last couple of years, we’ve gone down to the bitter end. Our most exciting games were the Decision Day matches. We’re going to have those again this year. It’s a format that we believe in.”
– On turf …
“There is no player and no fan that wouldn’t rather play on grass than on an artificial surface. But we’re also very excited about the fact that we have one of the most successful professional sports teams in America, here in Seattle, and they’ve play on turf since their founding. It’s not perfect, but I’m sure glad that we have the Sounders playing at CenturyLink rather than not here because they didn’t have an alternative. We have had issues with some of our older international players, but for the most part, you’re going to see more and more artificial surfaces in many, many cities in many, many countries around the soccer and football-playing world just based on its accessibility.”
– On Toronto FC star Giovinco and whether it’s a league goal to attract younger international talent …
“Last year, with all the international players added, the average age was 27. Yes, we had a handful of guys that were older than that, that were big names for the league. But the vast majority of international players that are signed are younger. Guys like Giovinco and (Giovani) Dos Santos and Michael Bradley. Jozy Altidore is another example. More and more, you see younger players coming into the league. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that Frank Lampard had a pretty good goal the other day. Last year, Didier Drogba had a pretty good year and was exciting for the fans in Montreal. It’s a careful balance. As a league, sitting where I sit, you can’t be absolute. You’re trying to have the best possible product and put the best possible game on the field with the best and most exciting players. Sometimes they’re going to be young and sometimes they’re going to be older.”
– On expansion and if David Beckham’s proposed Miami franchise is still in the league’s plans …
“It’s funny, because no matter where I am, people always ask about Miami. I don’t know whether it’s David Beckham or just a really cool place. We’ve announced that we’re expanding through 24. Minnesota likely in 2017. Hopefully Miami in 2018, joining L.A, and Minnesota will join Atlanta. We just signed a new jersey sponsorship. We’re doing very well there. 30,000 season-ticket deposits in Atlanta, which is pretty impressive. … We’ve talked about going from 25 to 28. We haven’t put a timetable on that. We have meetings in Detroit, St. Louis, Las Vegas, San Antonio, Sacramento. There are many markets that are interested in coming into the league. I believe that this league can and should be larger. We’ve got to go about it the right way, managing effective growth with quality play and our ability to manage that growth. But I’m confident that, at some point soon, we’ll be able to talk about what the timetable is for 28 teams. I don’t know whether that’s a year, two years or three years. But sometime in the future, we’ll be able to put what I think is a final blueprint together that will allow us to say we’re going to be a 28-team league. … Miami will be a part of that, as our 24th team. That’s realistic.”
– On midweek games, such as Seattle-Dallas on Wednesday, that allow the league to avoid more international dates …
“We want to do what’s in the best interest of our clubs. You have some teams that like midweek games and you have some clubs that only want Saturday night games. Some teams only like Sunday afternoon games. Talking to the staff upstairs, it’s a lot different managing this league than it was five years ago and 10 years ago. You have lots of conflicting mandates and interests. Weather has become a bit of a challenge now that we have three national-television contracts that we’re trying to deliver on. Our Sunday games are 5:00 and 8:00 Eastern, so they’re going to be early on the West Coast. Factor into that CONCACAF and the U.S. Open Cup, it’s such a challenge to deliver on this schedule. It’s the most complicated schedule in pro sports. We’ve just got to be smart, be flexible and do the best you can.”
– On Seattle’s Jordan Morris signing at the midway point of his rookie season.
“Jordan was a great signing. I think it was really, really important for us to sign Jordan. I think it was the right signing for our league. We fought hard against forces that were frustrating to me to bring him into Major League Soccer. To see him scoring goals and having fun in a market that knows him and loves him and have him represent his city and family, it kind of warms your heart. I think Jordan is going to be a big star and I hope he’s in this league for a really long time.”
– On what he meant by “forces that were frustrating” to him …
“It’s always a challenge signing players.”