As the Portland Timbers get ready to battle Columbus Crew SC in Ohio for the right to hoist the MLS Cup, Don Garber addressed over 100 members of the media and gave his annual State of the League address. This talk was a special one for Garber and staff, as Major League Soccer is getting ready to tie a bow on its twentieth season. Garber was understandably nostalgic and offered a few stories about the generation-long but fragile journey that the league has been on.
"20 years is represented in demographic research as a full generation," Garber said, "A time that a typical child spends at home with their family. Now there are group of fans that have grown up with soccer in their lives, and I think that will fuel our future growth."
But there were plenty of rough waters to navigate. Garber recalled the owners meeting before the 2001 season in the middle of the financial crises that resulted in the league folding the Miami Fusion and Tampa Bay Mutiny franchises. "There were bankruptcy lawyers at our meetings that winter," recounted Garber where he and Mark Abbott presented the owners with "literally a Plan A and a Plan B." Plan A was apparently to fold the league. Plan B was to invest "hundreds of millions" into new teams, stadiums and infrastructure. Owners like Lamar Hunt and Robert Kraft jumped on to Plan B and helped steer the league to where it stands today.
And where it stands today is a pretty impressive testament to the work of that group. "There was a time when we questioned whether this league will survive and we have not only survived, we have thrived," said Garber. Garber pointed out that when the league was created ten owners put in $5 million each and the league was worth $50 million. He then cited the most recent Forbes valuation that put the average MLS franchise at $157 million. Put together, that means that Major League Soccer has grown at an annual rate of nearly 24% over the last two decades. That would be impressive even ignoring that it happened through two economic downturns.
But it's not just about financial performance for Garber, he points to the improved quality of the talent on the field. "There was a time when the Mexican coach would tell his players that if you go to MLS you will not play for the national team. That did not happen with Giovani Dos Santos. Being a league of choice is a rallying cry for us."
Garber also preemptively addressed criticism that he hears about the league regarding the single-entity ownership structure and the growing divide between the financial haves and have nots. "Since inception our owners have been very supportive of the ownership structure. Single-entity has been the foundation of the growth of where we are. It will be the foundation of where we're going." And related to the financial divide he said, "Every fan should believe that their team can win the MLS Cup. It is not a league of haves and have nots. That is something that is empowering to fans and everyone around the league should feel good about it."
Garber also took a number of questions covering a broad numbers of topics; from league payroll, to expansion opportunities, to playoff structure, to roster sizes. Garber held firm to his prior statements indicating potentially minor movements in these areas. He did take time to praise the work being done in Sacramento to bring an MLS franchise to that city.
While the league still has its issues and struggles to relate to its hardcore fans, now is not the time to belabor those sentiments. As the Timbers get ready to engage the Crew in an intriguing Cup matchup, it's more than justified that Garber stand proudly in front of his audience and present his story. The growth of the league is impressive and the future may be even more so.