The past two decades have sent Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber to 20 grand openings across the country, the vast majority of them brand-new soccer-specific stadiums.
His latest stop drove him to Kansas City, Kansas., to tour Pinnacle, a new state-of-the-art training center designed for Sporting Kansas City and U.S. Soccer. He was struck by one key difference in the facility — its emphasis on becoming more competitive on the field.
“It’s almost getting to the point where you get a bit numb because we’ve had so many buildings that we’ve opened,” Garber said Tuesday. “But I’m probably more impressed by facilities like this, where clubs are putting bricks and mortar in the ground that are not just about delivering a fan experience, which is super important, but delivering an experience for the players that will allow them to be more competitive.”
After touring the facility with Sporting Club principal owners Cliff Illig and Mike Illig and coach Peter Vermes, Garber met with the media for a wide-ranging news conference. The interview covered topics such as promotion/relegation in MLS, the viability of a winter schedule, a potential change to homegrown rules and how the league will respond to a Supreme Court decision that paves the way for states to allow sports betting.
The conversation has been moderately edited for clarity.
Question: How important is it for the league to have facilities like this?
Garber: “It is incredibly important for so many different reasons. It’s not just the actual value that it provides our team. It really elevates what Major League Soccer is all about. When you have this kind of investment and this public-private partnership, which is a great model for other states in the U.S. and other provinces in Canada, it shows the significance of Major League Soccer and what we aspire to be. I think in this particular facility, Peter Vermes walks around with Mike Illig and Cliff Illig with such a deep emotional commitment to what this facility represents for Sporting Kansas City — how do they approach performance, how do they differentiate themselves from other clubs, how do they come up with a strategy for their team that’s different from other clubs and gives them a point of difference. So that if I was a player from anywhere around the world or a U.S. player who has an opportunity to play in any market, and I came through this facility with Peter and his coaching staff, I can’t imagine that it wouldn’t be incredibly enticing for me to want to play for this team.”
Question: What are your thoughts on the Supreme Court decision that will allow states to legalize sports betting?
Garber: “The league has been spending a great deal of time quietly trying to understand PASPA and to prepare for what we all were hoping would be a positive Supreme Court ruling. We just think that the states should have the opportunity to make those decisions on their own. But we also think that gambling is happening, so we might as well find a way to manage it, organize it and in our case get an integrity fee to cover some of the costs that we’ll have to ensure that everything is proper. But to also put our arms around it in a way so that we could use this as a way to enhance our fan development. Ultimately it’s not just about people betting on games or having the in-game bets, prop bets, but it’s a matter of how do we build a fan base? To be one of the top leagues in the world, we gotta grow our fan base. We have to have more fans. We have to have higher television ratings. We have to engage with our fans. Maybe sports betting becomes one of those ways that we can build a fan base. We could work with some of the providers to be able to provide exposure to our players and have them engage more with our games. I think ultimately that will be a positive. But it’s a day old. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done."
Question: Do you consider Kansas City a model franchise for future expansion teams?
Garber: “Very much. There was a question if Major League Soccer would survive in Kansas City. And here we are today where in many ways Kansas City is best in class in so many aspects of the club. In a market that’s a relatively small market, to have the size of their fan base, to have the number of sold-out games, to have the state-of-the-art facility, to have this new Pinnacle, to be able to have a team that is competitive with other clubs for the last number of years, to have a terrific technical director and coach in Peter Vermes, it very much is a model.”
Question: Is promotion/relegation viable in MLS?
Garber: “Just because there is promotion/relegation in other leagues that were founded on different principles doesn’t mean that it would make sense in Major League Soccer. We have a vibrant No. 2 league in the USL. We have (Sporting KC principal owner) Cliff (Illig) and his partners that have just put $60 million of capital, along with the public, into this building. If all of a sudden they’re playing in a different division that doesn’t have national revenues — because the USL doesn’t have that — how does that make any sense? There’s no economic rationality to promotion/relegation whatsoever in the era that we’re in today.”
Question: Is a winter schedule viable in MLS?
Garber: “If we could align with the calendar, we would. Why wouldn’t we? It makes a lot easier for us to have the summer open so that we can take a break when our players are getting called into international competitions and capture some of the opportunities when international clubs wanna come here. But you guys know what the weather is like around the country. We’ve had snow and horrible weather in the beginning of our season in early March. There is no league in the world that plays across (four) time zones and three climate zones. We have to operate in an environment that is consistent with the norms and factors that exist in North America.”
Question: Have targeted allocation money (TAM) funds made the impact you expected?
Garber: “More than we expected. It was a three-year commitment, so you’re probably not going to see any changes in the short term, but it was right on target. We basically were saying that we want to put more money into our rosters to be able to have our clubs determine how can they use those funds to improve the middle of their rosters. The mechanism was a good mechanism. The single entity that we have and our ability to manage these kinds of decisions was a way to effectively deliver that. If we need to evolve it, put more money in, change it or reallocate it, we’ll sit down as a group, and we’ll figure that out.”
Question: Will the homegrown rule and territories change?
Garber: “We’re looking at evolving our homegrown and academy process. I don’t know what those changes will be, but certainly there’s been so much investment at the academy level, we need to be sure that we’re doing our part to help develop the national team but also to ensure that our clubs can deliver on what it is they’re investing in. Maybe that means that clubs can go outside of their location. That would mean L.A. could come to Kansas City, but it could mean Kansas City could go to Columbus. We’re talking about maybe investing more in homegrown subsidies and things like that to figure out if there are ways we can incentivize our clubs to continue to invest. But that’s all on the drawing board — nothing that’s ready for prime time yet.”