Fans love Major League soccer for what it is, but know full well what it isn’t. MLS commissioner, Don Garber, is proud of the strides the league has taken in just over a decade and a half. But he admits MLS has a long way to go before it can be considered one of the world’s premier soccer leagues.
Garber was a guest on ESPN’s Grantland podcast this week, and gave a lengthy interview on the state of the league. In it, he talked about three “game changers”, or factors that could propel MLS into its own great leap forward.
The first is to achieve regional dominance on the field of play. Historically, MLS clubs have fared poorly against their Mexican counterparts in games that count. Garber wants an MLS team to qualify for the annual FIFA Club World Cup so it can try its hand at giant-killing. But it can only do so by beating Mexico’s best in the regional championship.
“…Actually a goal of ours is to win the CONCACAF Champions League, and get to world clup championship,” he said. “I think that will give us, as a club-driven league, what our national team has been able to achieve by beating Spain in the Confederations Cup [in 2009].
Winning on the field would instantly improve the league’s profile at home and abroad. But his other two “game changers” are more than cosmetic. Soccer fans in America want to watch the best players in the world play, and they have plenty of ways to do so.
Garber says the league will grow when more world-class players feature on its teams. There are two ways to do that. The first is by developing them. Once a top players sprouts from an MLS team’s academy, it will validate one fo the league’s most important initiatives.
“The second [game changer] is to have a world class player in our league developed in one of our academies,” Garber said. “Get our own version of ‘Chicharito’ [Manchester United striker Javier Hernandez], and maybe he stays in MLS or maybe he’s sold.”
Television is the most crucial element of the league’s financial future. While ratings for the FIFA World Cup and foreign leagues have steadily grown since 1996, MLS ratings have failed to keep pace. With better ratings comes more television cash. Clubs can then use the money to pay star players, making more fans watch games live and at home. At that point, the cycle will will run itself.
“The third is to continue to really grow the television audience, so that our games are must-see tv for people who love the game,” Garber said. “And not just something that’s important for the local fan, but experiences that are important for everybody who loves the game.
“Ultimately that will lead to higher ratings, and that will lead to us investing more money in players.”