BigSoccer.com – 20 Questions with MLS Commissioner Don Garber We appreciate Jesse and everyone at BigSoccer.com providing the opportunity to address many of your questions. But before we get started, I wanted to start with some thoughts… Our relationship with the hard core soccer fan is important. We value your opinions and hope to expand the number of people that are truly passionate and committed to MLS and our teams. Last week, while attending the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup final in Toyota Park, I commented to Chicago Fire GM John Guppy that it would be great if his Section 8 Supporters Club was double or triple the current size. Imagine what the in-stadium experience would be for all fans if our Supporters Clubs represented a much larger percentage of our total audience! To achieve that, we need your help. Take a friend to an MLS game and show them first hand the unique experience of being part of your Supporter’s Club and how. Take them to a local “soccer pub” to watch an MLS game. Most importantly, share with them the passion of the “beautiful game.” This process can start at next month’s MLS Cup. Why not take a group of hard core soccer fans to Pizza Hut Park on November 12 and be a part of the exciting festivities surrounding our Championship Game? Once again, I’ll be meeting with our fans at the annual Supporter’s Summit on Saturday, November 11 at Pizza Hut Park. It will be an informal meeting where you can ask any question that is on your mind. I believe we are the only pro sports league that provides our most ardent fans this opportunity. It’s a great chance to start an annual tradition of attending our final and having a few hours to chat with League senior management about whatever is on your mind. I hope to see you there and look forward to meeting with you in person. Tickets went on sale to the public earlier this week, and we anticipate a sellout well in advance of MLS Cup on November 12. Don Garber Commissioner 1. What conditions/situations would need to exist in order for MLS to go from the current single entity structure to a franchise system as seen in MLB, NFL, etc.? Will the single-entity structure change much within the next 5 years? COMMISSIONER ANSWER: It is important to note that MLS is much more decentralized than it was in its early years. Ultimately, we are more similar to other U.S. pro sports teams than most people think. Our 13 clubs make the vast majority of the decisions that affect their teams. Teams hire coaches who impact style of play. Those coaches are the driving force behind all player personnel decisions, with the only distinction being that negotiations on salary, etc. and actual contract process are managed by the League office. Teams hire general managers and front office staff who market the club, sell tickets and form a connection to the community. These are the same decisions made in any other professional sports league. Thus, other than minor refinements, we do not anticipate any changes to the single-entity structure in the next five years and even beyond that timeframe. The single-entity structure is good for MLS and soccer in America for the long term. I encourage you to read veteran soccer journalist Bob Wagman’s article earlier this year on the single entity - http://www.soccertimes.com/wagman/2006/mar04.htm . Bob provided excellent examples of why the single-entity structure is important to the economic growth of our sport. I’m sure many of you are familiar with the financial challenges that beset a large percentage of clubs in Europe and South America, despite the game’s mass appeal there. Our business model is sound and helps ensure long-term viability. 2. One question in many parts: How seriously is MLS pursuing the "academy" concept? Are what Chicago and RBNY have now the ideal, or are you going to try to encourage teams to build true academies in the style of Boca Juniors, Barcelona or West Ham? And if so, will these be funded by the league or directly by the teams? How far away are we from finding out the status of the "youth player rights" system that was referenced at all-star time? Is there anything that you can tell us on that front? COMMISSIONER ANSWER: We received many questions regarding youth development and the academy concept. Thus, the above question really represents all of you who asked about this topic. The Chicago Fire, D.C. United, and Red Bull New York have done an excellent job with the youth development systems, and our other clubs are developing plans of their own to manage player develop in each respective market. . We’ve been working hard on finalizing details for a league-wide system for youth development. As you may have seen in Soccer America magazine, one of the key incentives for clubs to invest in youth development is that there will be a means of keeping talent that the club develops. Upon agreeing to a contract with the League, clubs will retain the rights to players they develop (essentially the player bypasses the draft). I believe that in another 5-10 years, that system will be hailed as a leap forward for us in terms of forming strong bonds with the respective local communities. Several of the finer points of our youth development initiative are still being finalized. Our plan is to announce full details during the week of MLS Cup. Stay tuned. 3. What information can you provide in regards to the MFL/MLS tournament (CONCACAF Champions League?) next summer? COMMISSIONER ANSWER: Our plan is to announce the proposed competition between MLS and Mexican First Division clubs by the end of the year. We anticipate that the competition will feature MLS versus Mexican First Division clubs in a European Champions League format. Games are likely to take place mid-week with a small rollout in 2007 and a full tournament in 2008 and beyond. . Like most of you, we want to see our clubs continue to raise their level of play. This competition, along with the CONCACAF Champions Cup, provides another means for clubs to test themselves against regional competition. 4.Regardless of the rumored "Beckham Exception", are there plans to increase the salary cap so that MLS can be at least competitive with lower-tier European leagues like Denmark and Norway? COMMISSIONER ANSWER: We review our team salary budget each year and we plan to discuss it again at our upcoming MLS Board Meeting in Frisco. We are evaluating our current spending levels to determine what if any changes should be made to ensure the continued focus on the quality of play in balance with a rational economic plan. Regarding Denmark and Norway, we do believe we are competitive with salaries in those leagues. It was former MLS goalkeeper Adin Brown who stated in a Sept. 6 New York Times article that he made more money playing in MLS than he does now in Norway. As you know, soccer is a global game and players change leagues regularly. We have already seen some players go abroad and then come back to MLS, or play in MLS and then go abroad. We’ll continue to see some of both, but I think it’s clear that MLS will become an increasingly desirable destination for players in the next few years, for a variety of reasons. 5. What is the status of expansion? COMMISSIONER ANSWER: We received many questions about expansion so we decided to answer all of them with a status update on a market-by-market basis. I will tell everyone that the interest in MLS expansion is at an all-time high. This is very different from even just a few years ago when we had to solicit potential expansion markets and owners. MLS President Mark Abbott leads our expansion efforts and discussions. The list is in alphabetical order: ATLANTA – We’ve had recent discussions with two different potential ownership groups and we plan to spend more time focusing on this key Southeast market. . We would like to have a presence south of Washington, D.C. and Atlanta has many of the attributes we look for in a new market. Unfortunately, at this time, Atlanta does not have an appropriate facility for an MLS team. The stadium that was home to the WUSA’s Atlanta Beat, Herndon Stadium, is too small and does not have the modern amenities needed for an MLS team. We are interested to see how the Honduras versus Guatemala match does next Tuesday in Atlanta. Two FC Dallas players – Ramon Nunez and Carlos Ruiz – will be playing against each other for their respective national teams. AUSTIN -- Although a great city, we are not currently considering Austin for a future MLS expansion team. CLEVELAND – Most of you are all aware that we have been talking to Paul Garafolo and the Wolstein family for a few years. They continue to work hard on securing a stadium and we speak with them regularly. Cleveland is a front-runner for an MLS expansion team. LAS VEGAS – We have met with government officials in Las Vegas this year and with an appropriate (indoor) stadium, this could be a terrific market. MILWAUKEE – Peter Wilt continues to lead the efforts to bring an MLS team to Milwaukee. Peter keeps us updated on a regular basis. Current news on potential MLS expansion into Milwaukee can be found at: http://www.milwaukeeprosoccer.com/ PHILADELPHIA – Like many of the potential expansion markets, we believe that the Philadelphia area is an excellent soccer market. Although Rowan University has been unable to secure all the funding it sought for its campus development proposal at this time, we remain interested in, and supportive of, the efforts to complete a stadium there. We’ve been in discussions with multiple ownership groups for the Philadelphia market and I have spent a great deal of time in Philadelphia during the last two months. Again, we need to finalize a plan for a soccer facility, but we are encouraged with our recent progress in this area. PORTLAND – We hear many great things about Portland and are familiar with the success the market has had with pro soccer in the past with the NASL’s Timbers (and with the current USL version of he Timbers) and at the collegiate level with the University of Portland. We have spoken with potential investors about bringing an MLS team to the Pacific Northwest and Portland has been discussed. We’ll continue to analyze the market. SAN ANTONIO – We took a hard look at San Antonio last year and former Mayor Ed Garza was very helpful in leading the efforts to bring an MLS team to San Antonio. However, we have not had any discussions in 2006 with any government officials or potential owners regarding the San Antonio market. SAN DIEGO – We’ve had some success with international matches in San Diego with our Soccer United Marketing division, and we believe San Diego could be a great MLS market. We’ve had many discussions with potential owners in San Diego throughout the League’s 11 seasons. SAN JOSE – As you know, MLS has a partnership with Lew Wolff and John Fisher, the owners of the Oakland Athletics, to bring professional soccer back to the Bay Area. Lew and John have acquired a three-year exclusive option to acquire a MLS team should the group be successful in developing a new soccer-specific stadium. They have hired three full-time staff members to work on bringing the Earthquakes back to San Jose. You can subscribe to their email newsletter for updates at - http://web.mlsnet.com/mls/about/sje.jsp. Lew and John are looking at many options to build a soccer-specific stadium in the Bay Area. We hope to return to the Bay Area soon. ST. LOUIS – St. Louis is another front-runner for future MLS expansion. You have probably read in local media reports where we are speaking with a potential ownership group in St. Louis. This potential ownership group has visited many MLS stadiums and had a large group attend the 2006 Sierra Mist MLS All-Star Game. They have identified a potential site for a stadium in just outside St. Louis, and local officials from that city recently visited Pizza Hut Park. SEATTLE – We continue to believe in the potential of Seattle and were particularly impressed by the success that Sounders owner Adrian Hanauer had with the Real Madrid/DC United game they organized in Qwest Field. We will spend more time focusing on getting an MLS team in the Northwest in the coming year. 6. Also, is the 16-team limit a temporary one or one that you see lasting for a decade? COMMISSIONER ANSWER: Our current goal is to have 16 teams by the end of the decade. We’ll then take a step back and put together another 5-to-10-year plan. We realize we need to add more teams to raise the profile of Major League Soccer, but it has to be done in a smart and strategic manner. 7. Three points to pose one question: a. Many have brought light to a crowded schedule the MLS season and playoffs and US Open Cup face. b. Many are currently unhappy about the playoff design. c. Finally, lots of soccer 'traditionalists' or 'purists' believe a single table without playoffs is the only way to appropriately create buzz in the regular season and fairly crown a champion. The question: If you accept these as true, or even true in part, what do you think about the possibility of: 1) Scrapping the MLS playoffs 2) Crowning the MLS regular season league champion (MLS Cup Winner) 3) Entering the four top clubs into the Quarterfinals of a redesigned US Open Cup You formed a "competition committee" at the start of the year, to address many things, but most importantly the competition format. Gazidis said we might see big changes in 2007. What is the status of that committee and have they made any recommendations yet? COMMISSIONER ANSWER: Thanks for your opinions on these competition issues. Your opinion probably reflects many in the BigSoccer.com community and in the overall soccer community. A few brief answers plus some elaboration for you: 1. A slight clarification: The Competition Committee consists of members of the Board of Governors and has existed since the League started. This year, we formed a Technical Committee of current and former coaches, players and referees who are considered among their peers as experts on the game. That committee is reviewing a wide variety of issues, including the manner in which we determine the MLS Cup Champion. The pros and cons of all possibilities are being considered. We’ll be addressing these issues at our next Board of Governors meetings at MLS Cup in Frisco, Texas. . 2. We all want to see MLS draw the kind of passion and mainstream support that soccer receives in many other countries, but that does not necessarily mean copying everything from those leagues. Personally, I like the thrill of a final, where two teams go at it for 90 minutes (or more), and only one emerges as champion. The MLS team with the best regular season record earns the Supporters’ Shield and a berth in the CONCACAF Champions Cup. . 3. We are currently discussing the future Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup format with U.S. Soccer. Deputy Commissioner Ivan Gazidis chairs the US Open Committee and will work with the group on the 2007 format. 8. What is MLS' marketing strategy - and why does the league appear to pick a different slogan/theme each year versus sticking with one over time? The "Colors" ads were weak - and downright silly - regardless of the hip hop star voiceover. "It's your game" was the best of the bunch - but there is no consistency year-to-year which gives the impression that MLS doesn't know who and what it's going after. COMMISSIONER ANSWER: I have to agree that we have been somewhat “schizophrenic” with our marketing strategy. That’s why we are currently undergoing an intensive analysis of the League’s brand. SME, one of the world’s prominent sports branding companies, is conducting this brand analysis. For more on SME, click on - http://www.smebranding.com/ . In addition, we are conducting detailed marketing research to aid in this brand analysis. Many of you have probably participated in online surveys, in-stadium surveys or local focus groups for this research project. In addition to soccer fans, our marketing research study also is surveying the general population and the general sports fan to gauge the interest in MLS. Major League Soccer’s marketing strategy for the League is to focus on three primary groups: 1. Youth … mainly the 14 million soccer players in the US under the age of eighteen. This group consists of individuals who are developing preferences for a lifetime and often times have disposable income and leisure time. We believe this group is the brand influencer of an entire generation. 2. Hispanic – there are nearly 43 million Hispanics in the United States and 85 percent of this group comes from soccer-loving countries. They are passionate about soccer, but that does not necessarily make them an MLS fan. We have to change the perception among many Latin Americans that the quality of play in MLS is low. We believe that meaningful competition between MLS clubs and Mexican First Division clubs will help us convince more Hispanic soccer fans, especially the 27 million Mexican-Americans, that MLS is an exciting, high-quality league. 3. Core Soccer Fan – Research states that there are 65 million people in the United States connected to the sport of soccer and six million list soccer as their favorite sport. The core soccer fan group is loyal and knowledgeable, but often is a fan of European or South American soccer and not a fan of MLS. Improving our talent pool, and perhaps just as importantly, the presentation of our games, is essential to capturing this audience. Regarding the “Embrace the Colors” campaign, we’re sorry to hear you did not like the campaign. Our objectives behind the “Embrace the Colors” campaign were: • Tap into the club-and-country connection that is one of soccer’s best selling points, especially in a World Cup year • Showcase the diversity of our League • Show that MLS is the foundation for the U.S. National Team • Enhance team brands and rivalries • Increase face-recognition of MLS stars and Thanks for the compliments on the “It’s Your Game” campaign from a few years ago. Who knows, maybe we’ll bring that back. We certainly need more of those who love soccer in this country to take ownership of its future here. Our brand analysis and marketing research will help drive the marketing campaigns for 2007 and beyond. 9. Is there a plan to improve the quality of refereeing in MLS? What kind of review do referees do after the games? Are there penalties/fines/etc for egregious errors like the goal call for RSL where the ball clearly did not cross the line or the numerous non-calls on physical play that is causing players to be injured? COMMISSIONER ANSWER: We are committed to improving our referees and have many programs currently in place to improve our officials. As I mentioned earlier, Major League Soccer formed a Technical Committee to evaluate all levels of competition. That committee is in the process of researching and producing recommendations to our Board of Governors about a variety of competition issues, including our playoff format, our player pool, our officiating, youth development, and scheduling. We are confident that we will soon institute measures that will ensure the best possible training, monitoring, and accountability for our officials. The referees for all MLS games are assigned and supervised by U.S. Soccer, and under the leadership of recently-elected President Sunil Gulati, the Federation is also taking steps to raise the quality of officiating at the professional level. U.S. Soccer is responsible for the education and training of officials and the assessment of their performance is handled by MLS. Dr. Joe Machnik oversees all aspects of Major League Soccer’s referee program and works closely with U.S. Soccer’s Esse Baharmast. A detailed article explaining the MLS Referee process appears at - http://www.mlsnet.com/about/league.jsp?section=referees&content=evaluation. The article is written by four-time MLS Referee of the Year Paul Tamberino, who is now U.S. Soccer’s Manager of Professional Assignment and Assessment. Tamberino assigns MLS officials and a Coach/Mentor to each Game. The U.S. Soccer Coach/Mentor works with each referee to properly prepare him and his crew for each Game. After the match, Dr. Machnik is in communication with the respective coaches (and at times general managers) to review the officials’ performance from a League perspective. Machnik produces a written report which the U.S. Soccer Coach/Mentor included in his final assessment of the Referee’s performance. Officiating is an extremely important part of our game, and I want to make sure everyone is aware that we (MLS and U.S. Soccer) are closely analyzing our referees.