MLS commissioner wants to become more of ‘selling league’
ATLANTA (AP) — The commissioner of Major League Soccer wants his teams to get in the selling business.
In his annual state of the league address leading up to the MLS Cup final, Don Garber said the transfer deals that sent teenagers Alphonso Davies and Tyler Adams to the German Bundesliga should be a model for all clubs.
“We need to become more of a selling league,” Garber said Friday at a downtown Atlanta hotel. “We’ve been buying for so long. But as we’ve gone through the analysis, it’s hard to justify the investment we’ve made in players and the investment we’ve made in domestic development. We have to have something that turns the model around or it’s going to be unsustainable.”
Davies, an 18-year-old Canadian who played this season for the Vancouver Whitecaps, is joining Bayern Munich as part of an MLS record $22 million transfer. Nineteen-year-old midfielder Tyler Adams of the New York Red Bulls also is moving to the Bundesliga, moving to sister club RB with Leipzig under a five-year arrangement.
“In world soccer, players get sold,” the commissioner said. “If something happens in Atlanta, I’m sure they will do whatever they can to have higher attendance and even more popularity next year, even if they sell one of their stars.”
Garber also signaled a new playoff format next season. A likely change is from two-legged series in the conference semifinals and finals to a total knockout format hosted by teams with the better record. That probably would move the MLS Cup back to November for the first time since 2011.
“We want to make the regular season more and more important, where winning in March is as important as winning in September and October,” he said. “The system we’re looking at will place a very, very high emphasis on the regular season.”
Atlanta United has shattered most MLS attendance records during its first two years, averaging more than 53,000 per game this season. Another mark is expected to fall Saturday night with a projected crowd of 73,000 for the championship match.
Garber said Atlanta and the Seattle Sounders, both of which share large stadiums with NFL teams, have given the league reason to look beyond its normal model of wanting teams with soccer-only stadiums that seat around 20,000.
The Sounders averaged more than 40,000 per game in 2018. No other team reached 27,000, and only a handful even had the capacity to reach that level.
“Every now and then, you have something that shocks you,” Garber said. “What happened in Seattle (which entered the league in 2009) was the first example of that. What happened here in Atlanta continues to astound me. We’re more open to thinking about it. We have two examples of success with large stadiums. But the model is still focused on smaller stadiums.”
Garber said a key to Atlanta’s success was making United feel like a joint partner with the NFL’s Falcons in $1.5 billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium, a retractable-roof facility that opened last year.
Each team has its own locker room with all the bells and whistles. The stands were designed to accommodate both a football field and the wider soccer pitch. The football lines are removed from the artificial turf for all United games.
“Arthur Blank and his organization have embraced this team and put it on par with the way his family looks at the football team,” Garber said of United’s owner. “When I walked into the stadium, I saw a giant painting of a United player right next to a giant painting of a Falcons player. They’ve managed to find ways to share the building, rather than make United a tenant in the building. That’s something to look at moving forward.”
The league will grow to 24 teams next season with the addition of an expansion franchise in Cincinnati , while Nashville, Tennessee, and Miami are scheduled to come aboard in 2020.
The Miami club, led by David Beckham , has endured a tortuous search to find a site for a new stadium, but Garber said approval last month from the city’s voters on a proposed development adjacent to Miami International Airport is a major step toward finally getting the long-planned franchise to the playing field.
MLS is also planning a 27th franchise in Austin, Texas, which was initially set to be the new home of the Columbus Crew. MLS is working to finalize a deal with the Haslem family, which owns the NFL’s Cleveland Browns, that would keep a team in Ohio’s capital city and lead to a new downtown stadium .
Garber said MLS is likely to grant a 28th franchise in the next year. St. Louis, Phoenix, Detroit and Sacramento, California, are among the contenders.
Whoever is left out in this round of expansion may not have to wait long for another shot at a franchise. Garber said he expects the owners to begin discussing the feasibility of taking the league beyond a 28-team alignment at a board meeting next week.
“I don’t anticipate an announcement coming out of that,” the commissioner said. “But there’s no doubt in my mind that we can support more than 28 teams in Major League Soccer.”