No, Don Garber isn’t a ‘player’ in the traditional sense (or the Def Jam/Bill Bellamy sense either for that matter).
But he is in charge of the United States’ premier domestic soccer league. So naturally I couldn’t resist tuning in for his first and last trip to Columbus for the next 365 days. The commissioner formally known on Twitter as @thesoccerdon joined Columbus/FC Dallas owner Clark Hunt of Hunt Sports Group and Columbus GM Mark McCullers to discuss the state of MLS as we approach the start of it’s 17th season.
Now part of this event was geared towards the Crew specifically. I’m going to stay away from that as much as possible and focus on the league wide issues that were discussed. It should be pointed out that much like any “major announcement” MLS makes, this panel showed up and got started 15 minutes late. Incredibly professional as always Don!
If it seems like I’m singling out “The Soccer Don”…it’s because I am.
I am a passionate Columbus Crew supporter. I have been ever since I was a teenager. I desperately want to see MLS be counted among the world’s elite pro leagues. And to Garber’s credit the league IS growing rapidly. You’d have to be a fool not to notice it just over the past five years.
However, it’s all for nothing if the growth isn’t sustained; if the league doesn’t continue to build going forward. I’m not talking about expansion either. Once again Garber reiterated the league’s ongoing efforts for a second New York team, as well as a trip to Florida to look at Orlando. The commissioner said it is imperative for the league to have a presence down South; specifically in Florida. And he’s right. I think Orlando should absolutely be given the chance to become MLS’ 20th (and final) member. I’m glad he specifically said Florida. Florida needs an MLS team. “South of Washington DC” (as the Commish put it) does not. Take it from someone who has to deal with Ohio State football every fall: you cannot compete with major college football.
Garber did, however, touch on a topic that WILL sustain the league’s growth over the next decade: the supporter culture. He spoke at length about new advertising campaigns (like the new NBC promos) that will highlight the idea of what it means to be a supporter for a certain team. Again, he’s right on point. Except he should’ve been doing this five years ago. He tried to kiss a little you-know-what and talk about how the supporter culture has been alive and well in Columbus for several years. He even went so far as to say he was afraid to go over to the Nordecke (German for “north corner”) to interact with Columbus’ supporter groups. A lot of us (supporters) are well aware that supporters groups, not families of four looking for a sweet deal on concessions, will be vital to the league’s long term group/success. It’s just too bad it’s taken the league so long to finally figure it out and (more importantly) actually doing something about it.
At one point it was brought up that ESPN did a survey that found that, after the NFL, people ages 12-20 enjoyed watching pro soccer more than any other sport. Garber was quick to point out that the survey said “pro soccer” and not MLS. I (as well as many of you I’m sure) have always said that it’s only a matter of time before soccer explodes in this country because kids are playing/watching it at a younger, more impressionable age than ever before. A true grassroots movement is taking place even as we speak.
But do kids want to watch soccer…or do they want to watch MLS? Do they want to see an elderly David Beckham in an LA jersey? Or do they want to see Lionel Messi terrorize Real Madrid’s backline?
Of course the game itself is played by the same rules (though even that wasn’t always the case in MLS), but it’s still a fair question. At this point in time there is a “distinction” between the two. Yes I am one of “those people” who would love to see an American soccer league with promotion/relegation, a single table, no salary cap, etc just like in many of Europe’s top divisions. Why? Because it’s worked for over 100 years everywhere else in the world. Because it’s where Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo want to play.
If the league were to completely mirror the English Premier League starting tomorrow, how many people would take to the blogs/Twitter and complain about it? How many people would truly be upset if there were no more playoffs? No more Superdraft? No more convoluted roster rules that, on the surface, appear to favor bigger clubs like Los Angeles and New York?
Said Garber, “They [Big clubs] play by the same rules as you (Columbus/smaller clubs)”
And this is where I take exception with Garber and some of the league’s staunchest supporters. They cling to that “distinction”. I want to abolish it altogether.
Someone asked the panel what the league plans do to about “converting” people like this person’s friend who have come to the United States after growing up as a supporter for a non-MLS side. The discussion featured phrases (and I’m paraphrasing here, not quoting directly) like “our brand of soccer” and the “North American game”.
NO NO NO NO NO!!!
Soccer isn’t about branding. Soccer is universal. It’s why all of us have fallen in love with it. Because it’s the same game being played, whether it’s in the streets of Guatemala or at the San Siro in Milan, Italy. It’s all the same!
Until you come to the United States…
Garber went so far as to use the term “soccer snobs” when addressing the issue. Snobs?? You want people to support clubs in your league as well as their country of origin and your best method of doing so is to insult them? THAT is why I worry about the long term growth of MLS. Because there will always be that divide between “American soccer fans” and the “Euro snobs”. The league will never survive if there is a “Republican vs. Democrat” mentality among the game’s fans here in the United States.
The commissioner said that between World Cup qualifying and the Olympics this summer, some MLS players could miss as many as 12 MLS regular season games. TWELVE!!! But to his credit he acknowledged that such situations cannot continue and he alluded to the strong possibility of the league aligning its season with that the of the FIFA international calendar.
Well done Don! Now what’s next…?