MLS Commissioner Don Garber delved into a number of issues surrounding the league's economic model in an appearance alongside U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati at the Bloomberg Sports Business Summit in New York on Thursday, underlining the massive growth made by both the league and the sport as a whole in North America in recent years.
“Salt Lake is the smallest market of our 19 teams and they've had 20 sellouts in a row,” Garber said in a conversation with Gulati and Bloomberg reporter Tariq Panja. “So the connection with the community, the fact that owners are doing the right thing, the fact that players are making a good living, the fact that we've got great broadcast agreements – and even better ones going forward, with FOX, ESPN and Univision – this sport's growing."
“We're not trying to crack the code to have soccer be the most important sport in the United States,” he added. “We continue to do what we're doing, which is grow carefully and incrementally. And as the country has millenials becoming more important, and the Hispanic population exploding, we're in a good spot to be able to capture that opportunity.”
Garber said that even while MLS often looks toward Europe as it seeks to climb into a place among the world's top leagues, its single-entity structure provides counterparts with a compelling model for measured growth and sustainability.
“One great thing about our league, it was founded by a bunch of American sports industrialists who'd owned teams in the NFL or in baseball or in the NBA or in the NHL, and they put a structure together at that time – and Sunil was one of the founders of the league back in 1996 – that allows us to manage our business as a partnership in our boardroom and as competitors on the field,” Garber said.
“The great benefit of that is we have control over how we spend our money and try to marry it to our revenue, so we have a business that makes sense. Something, by the way, that UEFA [the Union of European Football Associations] is trying to do with Financial Fair Play.
"Our structure has been working very well to get us to the point that we are today. We have 19 teams. When I came in 15 years ago we had 12. We have a goal to have 24 teams by the end of the decade … The growth has been substantial and it's been moderated by smart people sitting in a room and doing things right.”
Garber and Gulati were also asked about prospects of a promotion-relegation system in North America like those used in the majority of leagues around the world. Garber echoed previous comments about "pro/rel" from MLS executives, and suggested that it wouldn't happen in his lifetime.
Gulati took a similar approach.
“People often reach out: 'Why doesn't the federation mandate this?' Because we're not in the business of expropriating assets,” he said. “Don's touched on it: When the system came into play in Europe and the rest of the world, that was the agreement coming in. So if you're an owner and you buy into a system right now and you pay X amount of dollars to get in, and the rules of the game change the next day, essentially expropriating assets that were worth X --that's not something we're going to be doing.”