MLS Commissioner Don Garber held the league's annual State of the League address on Friday afternoon in downtown Toronto ahead of Saturday night's 2016 MLS Cup final between Toronto FC and the Seattle Sounders (8 pm ET on FOX and UniMás in USA; TSN and RDS in Canada).
You can re-watch the event above or read the Commissioner's full remarks below.
Following his address and a Q&A with reporters, the Commissioner also spoke to supporters via a Facebook LIVE Q&A hosted by MLSsoccer.com personality and former player, Calen Carr:
What follows is Commissioner Don Garber's State of the League address delivered on Friday, December 9:
Welcome everyone. I’d like to start by thanking all of you for coming here today and for your coverage of MLS Cup throughout the week, and certainly for the month of energy that’s been leading up through our playoffs.
We will have nearly 500 journalists cover the game. That’s a record for our league and I think it speaks to the increased interest in our league certainly here in Canada and throughout the United States and abroad. This Saturday’s game is going to represent a number of firsts for our league. It’s the first championship game for our league in Canada now that we have our new format that rewards the team that has the most points during the regular season. And for the first time, our game will be broadcast live on network television in the United States on our English-language network partner, FOX broadcast network. It also marks the first time that MLS Cup will be offered in virtual reality on FOX Sports. So download the FOX Sports VR app. And you don’t need the headset. You can just take your smart phone and you can watch the game in virtual reality, something we’re very excited about.
Here in Canada the game will be broadcast on TSN and RDS and it will be broadcast in English and in French with our partners up here in Canada. Down in the United States, it will be broadcast in Spanish on Univision and UniMas, our great Spanish-language partner. The game will also be broadcast also in a record number of 170 countries and in more than 90 different languages. And it speaks to the fact that our league continues to get more and more popular overseas. When we speak to international players and I spoke to David Villa when we presented him with our MVP award just a few days ago, he said there’s enormous interest in our league amongst players and a lot of that interest has been driven by the fact that our games are on live in so many countries around the world.
As you know the game will take place at the expanded BMO Field. And it was an instant sellout, 3 or 4 minutes, something that’s very exciting. It’ll be the highest attended MLS Cup since we moved to our new format. And of course the two teams that are participating in the game will be in their first final: the Seattle Sounders and Toronto FC. So obviously one of those teams will win their first MLS Cup on Saturday.
Behind the leadership of Adrian Hanauer, Joe Roth and all of their partners, the Sounders have been one of the really great success stories for our league and I think for professional sports both on and off the field. They’re the only MLS expansion team to make the playoffs in each of their eight seasons. They’ve averaged over 43,000 fans a game, which doesn’t just lead MLS annually. But it is the second in attendance in the entire Western hemisphere in our sport.
And I want to really recognize and congratulate MLSE chairman Larry Tannenbaum and the entire board of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment for their early vision and support not just of Major League Soccer but for the sport of soccer in Canada.
It’s hard to believe that it was just over 10 years ago when Larry and his partners launched TFC and they certainly have had some struggles on the field. And I’ve talked to many of you about those struggles over the years and it’s just great to see the strong support that they have for their team and to see what it’s done now that the team has been so successful to help raise the profile of a sport in this soccer-loving city and a country that really understands the game.
The buzz in Canada these last few weeks has been incredible. It’s been unprecedented. We’ve had over 100,000 fans pack both the Olympic Stadium and BMO Field for the playoff series between TFC and the Impact and as you probably know the series set viewership records on TSN and RDS. I have to say -- and I was at the playoff game at BMO Field last week -- it was one of the great games in our league’s young history. And as I was sitting in those stands hoping to have something memorable happen, to see it happen on the field and give us something that I think will create lifetime memories for all the people that are fans of this team [Toronto FC] and memories for fans of the Montreal Impact. It’s going to provide us with a very, very solid future for the sport and for Major League Soccer in this country. It’s exactly what we were hoping for when we expanded here, in Montreal and in Vancouver.
The real rise, which I think is pretty remarkable, for the sport here in this country, along with the explosive growth that we’ve had in the US, it's something that has required billions of dollars of investment over the last 21 years in a wide range of areas from infrastructure to a number of other strategic initiatives.
Building soccer stadiums like the one that we’re going to play in on Saturday was not part of the original plan. Folks sat around — and I wasn’t the commissioner at that time — and they talked about what they needed to do to build a Division I soccer league and they didn’t think that they needed to build soccer stadiums. In just a few years, we’ll have 20 soccer-specific stadiums built specifically for our league and for our sport and then several others that were built with soccer in mind. When you think about the new stadium we’ll have in Atlanta, we started talking to [Atlanta United FC owner] Arthur Blank about an MLS team while that new football stadium was being built. And when you see that stadium, you’ll see that it had soccer in mind when it was under construction.
We’ve also made a massive, massive investment and commitment to player development, now from the U-12 age group up to all of our clubs fielding second [reserve] teams. We now have more than 150 Homegrown players who have signed MLS contracts, including teenagers like the Whitecaps’ Alphonso Davies and someone like Gyasi Zardes [LA Galaxy] who just a number of years ago was not even thinking about playing professional soccer and now he's a standout for our national team, as well as Jordan Morris [Seattle Sounders], our rookie of the year who’ll be playing on Saturday [in MLS Cup].
It’s these investments, along with investments we’ve made off the field -- investments in digital, investments in marketing, investments with broadcast enhancements, content creation, social and fan development -- that's helped drive something we’ve always hoped to achieve: to know that we have a soccer nation that we all can be proud of here in Canada and down in the United States.
But we do remind ourselves every day that our league is young. We’re continuing to evolve and develop and we remain very focused on building a league that can be one of the top leagues in the world and one that everybody who cares about the game can be proud of.
And thanks to our whole ecosystem — and that includes the media and it has our owners, our fans and it has all of our administrators and coaches and everybody that's part of building this soccer nation approach that we have — our business in 2016 was our best yet and it’s one that continues to show growth.
We established another record for total and average attendance with almost 21,700 fans per game. We now rank 6th among global soccer leagues in average attendance. Our attendance has increased year-on-year in six of our last seven seasons. It’s up 40 percent from 10 years ago when TFC was just thinking about coming into Major League Soccer.
More people watched our matches on national television networks this year in the US and Canada than any other year in our league's history. Our international presence was the largest in our history. All of our matches that are broadcast internationally are on the top broadcaster in those markets and they’re broadcast live.
We are the fastest growing major professional sports league in North America on social media with followers up almost 95 percent in the last year and almost 1000 percent since 2013. I know many people are watching this State of the League address digitally. And I want to thank all of our fans and all of those people that get the fact that people are consuming media and content differently, whether that’s on Twitter, on Facebook on Snapchat or Instagram. And it’s something our league remains very, very focused on.
Our merchandise sales were up almost 25 percent over 2015 and they were the strongest in league history and we see that continuing to grow as we add more and more teams.
And as reported by Forbes, the valuations of MLS teams are at an all-time high. Forbes has reported that the value of our clubs is up 20 percent compared to last year and up 80 percent from 2013. And when you go back to when Forbes originally started doing their valuations, we’re up 4x, 400 times.
And we’ve continued our commitment to the communities where our teams exist and where our players live and work and this is something that’s very important to our league. Our MLS WORKS philanthropy program is something that we started when we were fledgling, when we were young. And we really had few resources to commit to all the things that we needed to do to build this league. But being committed and providing access to our players and helping to rebuild our communities was part of our purpose since Day One.
Just this week MLS WORKS and TFC, represented by their great president Bill Manning, worked on a social center in the Covenant House here in Toronto. Just this past month, Seattle made a major financial commitment to America Scores to provide underserved kids in the Seattle area with a 5-day-a-week after school program that combines literacy and sports. These are the things that empower us and these are the things that make all of our thousands of employees proud to be part of our league.
And on the pitch we had another great season. Tomorrow night we’ll crown our 11th different club during the 21 seasons of our league, reaffirming this idea that we believe every fan and every player in every market ought to believe that their team has the ability to be in and then ultimately win the MLS championship.
We have become a league of choice for top players from around the world. In fact, when you look at some of the players that are competing in Saturday’s game, you have guys like Sebastian Giovinco, Seattle’s Nicolas Lodeiro along with great US national team players like Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore and Canada’s Tosaint Ricketts. These are guys who said 'I want to be in this league, I believe in this league and I’m going to make your league, Major League Soccer, my league of choice.'
As you know, following what we’ve been talking about the last couple of days, our clubs are very focused on targeting younger players and that has led to the signing of guys like Giovani Dos Santos from Mexico, Mauro Diaz, Gyasi Zardes, Carlos Gruezo, Alejandro Bedoya. All players that are representing a very important trend that began a few years ago with the signing of guys like Ignacio Piatti and Diego Valeri, arguably two of the more exciting players in Major League Soccer. These are players who came to our league in their 20s, the prime of their career. When you look at the average age of players who were signed in 2016, it was 25 years old. It’s the lowest age of all the newcomers we’ve had in the last five years.
And while 2016 was a good one, we still believe — and I think we’ll be in this mode for quite some time — that our best days and years are still ahead. Next year Atlanta United and Minnesota United will join our league as our 22nd and 23rd teams. Atlanta has sold more than 22,000 season tickets. That’s the highest ever for an MLS expansion club, including the Seattle Sounders by the way. And on Monday we’ll have yet another historic day in our league as Minnesota will break ground — and I hope we can break some ground. As I understand it’s about five or 10 degrees in Minnesota this week — on a beautiful, new state-of-the-art soccer stadium. And that club is firmly on track to reach their cap on season tickets that can be sold in their new stadium when they take that new stadium a year from now.
Beyond our two newest clubs, there are the things in 2017 that we’re very focused on: As you probably know, it is strategic expansion. Following our board meeting on Thursday in New York, we’ll announce a process and a timeline for our next round of expansion which will add clubs 25, 26, 27 and 28 to Major League Soccer. And contrary to what’s been reported, we are not announcing our expansion process today. It is one of the key topics for our board meeting next Thursday and we do plan to announce the full details of our process, our timeline, pricing and everything else relating to expansion as early as the 15th, hopefully by four or five o’clock in the afternoon.
Second priority is to continue our focus on fan development. Our supporters are the heartbeat of MLS and we believe that we have the best fans in professionals sports. They’re young, diverse and they’re really expressive. You will see that when you go to the game [MLS Cup]. If you haven’t been to BMO Field, it’s something special and unique and we’re deeply committed to trying to step up all of our efforts to get more and more young people to join what we call the movement to become part of these passionate environments in our stadiums, to show your colors with our great adidas gear, to wear those colors with pride, to watch our games on TV, to follow our league across a variety of social and digital platforms.
We’ve just completed an extensive, year-long research study that basically analyzed the entire North American soccer market that will give us the data and the analytics that will allow us to make the decisions that are strategically sound. So it’s not just about what people want us to do, but it’s basically what we have to do in order to take those fans that are not following MLS and give them the product and give them the access that will turn them into being committed MLS fans.
We’re also going to be investing in performance. Today we’re officially announcing — although it’s probably the worst kept secret in Major League Soccer — that we're expanding our Targeted Allocation program (TAM). Those are the funds that we provide to our clubs to spend strategically to improve their rosters. Next year all 22 teams will receive a total of $1.2 million of what we call targeted allocation money. And that’s an increased of $400,000 per club from what we previously announced and it’s an increase of $800,000 over what we announced last year.
While all these additional funds are being announced today, the investment that we've made in what we call TAM — supporting the improving of the middle of our rosters — across 2016 and the growth of 2017 will go up $33 million. That’s a massive amount of money that we’ve invested over that two-year period in this program.
We’ll also continue our deep commitment to developing elite young players through our youth academies. And this includes new initiatives with the Canadian Soccer Association, something that we talked about last week that will allow for resources to be allocated to develop more young Canadian players for MLS clubs. I've said in our opening press conference with the launch of Toronto FC, our work here will not be done until Canada qualifies for the World Cup on the men’s side. I’ve said that publicly, I’ve said it to Victor Montagliani [CSA and CONCACAF president]. I’ve said it to our three clubs [in Canada]. It’s something that we all need to work together to be able to achieve. And we have three efforts to get some resources behind that.
The first is to form a joint task force between the league, the CSA and our three clubs to work on youth development programming. That’s what we do down in US Soccer. It’s a group that works together very effectively. We want to do the same thing here.
In addition, we’re expanding our Generation adidas program to be Generation adidas Canada. As many of you know, that program allows us to subsidize our teams to allow us to sign players who are young and might not be signed because of the impact they would have on a team's cap. These players will be off the cap and that’s going to allow our clubs to invest more in young Canadian players.
And the third is an initiative that will allow any player that’s participated in a US- or Canadian-based MLS club academy to be considered a domestic player upon signing his first professional contract with any MLS or any MLS club’s USL affiliate. So that’s an initiative that took a long time for us to put together and it’s one that we think will help, again with the two others, develop young Canadian players.
And for the first part of the 2017 season, we will test video assistance for our referees. And our goal will be to implement VAR — Video Assistant Referees — during the second half of the MLS season, after the MLS All-Star Game. When ready, this innovation will allow our league to be stronger, it will allow our referees to have better technology to be able to support their decisions on the field or allow right decisions to be made. We've received great support from IFAB, great support from FIFA, great support from the CSA and US Soccer and it’s something that we’re very excited to be one of the few leagues in the world that will hopefully enact VAR in 2017.
And then lastly, it’s about the leadership in world football. Coordinating with our growth over the last decade, MLS has increasingly become an engaged, committed and influential member of the global soccer scene. In addition to our growing international TV footprint, we have longstanding partnerships with CONCACAF, with US Soccer, with the CSA and even moreso now than ever before with Liga MX.
During the past year, we’ve taken a leadership role in the formation of something called the World Leagues Forum. That’s an organization that’s been formed by all the professional leagues led by Liga MX, the Premier League and the Bundesliga and MLS is on its executive committee to basically have a seat at the table when UEFA, when FIFA, or anyone is making decisions that affect the world of global soccer. We’re going to have a seat at that table to ensure that they’re thinking about the impact of those decisions on the professional game.
And we’re going to continue to travel around the world, meet with fans, meet with partners, meet with broadcasters, meet with media people to continue to drive what we think will be great value to us all so our league and soccer in these two countries can continue to grow.
So finally, just a thank you. This is a global effort. We are playing the global game in North America, but it also takes the commitment of all of us to work together to achieve everything that we have been able to be so proud about this year, our 21st. We look forward to working with our fans, our owners, our administrators, everyone that’s part of the game to be here — maybe not in Toronto — but to be here at MLS Cup in 2017 and to have that be another record-setting year with new teams and new value for us all. And I want to thank all of you and all those that are part of the game for all of their engagement and all of their support.