TORONTO — Before this season’s MLS Cup final, the most popular topic at commissioner Don Garber’s annual “State of the League” press conference wasn’t Toronto FC or the Seattle Sounders, but a club that fell in the semifinals.
The consternation and controversy surrounding the potential relocation of the Columbus Crew to Austin, Texas, which many insiders regard as something close to a fait accompli, was on the minds of the media. Garber anticipated that and addressed the issue in his opening remarks, promising that he’d endeavor to make the league’s “position very clear.”
The commissioner said, “Like every sports league, we never want to relocate a team. And while no decision has been made to relocate the Crew, MLS is supportive of [owner Anthony Precourt’s] efforts to explore [his] options in Austin.”
Precourt has said that unless a downtown stadium solution can be found in Columbus, he’ll take the crew to Austin ahead of the 2019 season. The California-based investor bought the club in 2013 (Garber said MLS was unable to recruit local ownership), and negotiated the right to relocate the team to Texas at the time of purchase. Precourt announced his intentions publicly in October, at which point he’d already been exploring the possibilities for some time behind the scenes.
Among the several twists and turns in an ever-changing story was a meeting last month between Precourt, Garber and Columbus officials in New York City. Several days later, Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther wrote an open letter emphasizing the fact that potential solutions in the Ohio capital aren’t “achievable if we continue to be pitted against another city. We ask you to reconsider working exclusively and collaboratively with us to advance our mutual interest.
In Toronto, Garber said Precourt isn’t interesting in selling the Crew and isn’t going to stop pursuing a stadium solution in Austin. Columbus will have to be willing to negotiate while Precourt is on “parallel paths,” Garber said.
“So the ball is in the city’s court,” the commissioner added. “Discontinuing conversations with Austin is not possible at this time.”
Garber defended Precourt and the previous owners, the Hunt family, and said the Columbus market has been having “issues … almost since the beginning.”
The Crew have been “struggling to resonate” despite more than $200 million in investment from the Hunts and nearly $40 million by Precourt, Garber claimed.
“We don’t think it’s an issue of ownership. Anthony’s done a very good job. He’s invested a lot of money. He’s not getting enough credit for that. He’s had one of the more successful teams on the field,” Garber said. “You have to be strong and viable with every team if you’re going to continue to grow. As hard as it is—and it’s not fun—and I will say I feel for the fans in that market, I am fully understanding of the challenges they see and how disappointed they are. But we need to find a way to ensure that team can be an MLS 2.0 team.”
Garber said the value of the Crew’s commercial partnerships with jersey sponsor Acura and stadium naming rights sponsor Mapfre Insurance are “the lowest” in the league. Average regular season attendance this year was 15,439, which ranked 20th in the 22-team circuit, and Garber said the Crew rated similarly in other metrics like sponsorship revenue, season ticket numbers, average ticket price and season ticket renewals.
“We are where we are, not as a surprise to any of us, and frankly to the city, but [it is] a surprise to the fans. And I understand that,” he said.
Garber didn’t address the progress of stadium negotiations in Austin or the recent comments by Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine regarding a potential legal impediment to Precourt’s departure.
A few other topics of interest from the event:
World Cup qualifying failure—Garber admitted that many involved in American soccer might have thought they’d finally “cracked the code” to making the sport thrive in the USA, but that the national team’s stunning elimination from qualifying for the 2018 World Cup has forced a bit of a rethink. And that, he said, ultimately will be a good thing for the league and the game.
“This process, which has been traumatic to the system, has us all taking a step back,” Garber said. “When you have things that set you back, it allows strong people to work within, reach outside your own insular group and try to get better, so it doesn’t happen again. After the initial challenge here, I actually think this is going to be a positive—at least on the men’s side—for U.S. soccer and ultimately even for the league.
“It’ll force us to be more integrated on our development programs with the [U.S. Soccer] Federation. I’ll force the [Development] Academy teams that are not affiliated with MLS to perhaps think more about what they need to do, like we have been with DoublePass and the Federation to get better. Bring in better coaches. Maybe they address some of the structural challenges that exist at the youth level. Maybe we are more open to thinking about the Tyler Adamses of the world maybe playing [in MLS] for a year or two then going overseas … and a dozen other things like that.”
Miami—As the MLS board of governors is scheduled to meet Dec. 14 to discuss which two cities from among Cincinnati, Detroit, Nashville and Sacramento to add as expansion markets, David Beckham’s project in Miami has dragged deep into its fourth year.
Garber confirmed that it was “conceivable” that one or more of the new entrants—long identified as teams Nos. 25-26 (to be named in December and begin play in 2020) and Nos. 27-28 (to be named next year or after) could jump ahead of Miami, which has been considered team No. 24.
“It is the most complicated situation in any market that we’ve experienced,” Garber said, citing real estate prices, politics and other issues. He also mentioned the need for a “local owner.” Beckham and his partners, Marcelo Claure and Tim Leiweke, finally recruited majority investor Todd Boehly in the spring. He’s based in Los Angeles.
“We’ve seen that at least in the success of some Miami teams, having a local owner has been one of the factors,” Garber said. “We’ve been working hard on trying to find a local owner for David Beckham. I feel confident that that will come together. I continue to say that we want Miami in the league … there are a lot of values to us having a team down there, and I remain confident that we’ll get something done.”
It’s still expected that MLS will name only two expansion teams.
Player payroll boost—The league announced that the availability and flexibility of Targeted Allocation Money funding—money spent on roster slots beyond the maximum three Designated Players on each club—will increase significantly starting next season.
In addition to the $1.2 million allotted by the league to each team in 2018 and 2019, individual clubs now can spend another $2.8 million of their own money on TAM contracts in ’18 and ’19. One way in which TAM money can be used is to buy down the salary budget charge of a Designated Player, thus opening up an additional DP spot.