MLS chief Don Garber not swayed by promotion/relegation report

Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber said a recent Deloitte Sports Business Group study touting the benefits of a promotion/relegation system in North America has not swayed his position.

"I think we have been very, very clear in our views on our structure, and the fact that our structure has worked very well in helping to develop our league, and the sport in the U.S. in Canada," Garber told ESPN FC.

"We are playing the world's game but we are playing it here in North America that has a very, very competitive structure that has proven to work very well for the other major leagues that are in many ways the model for professional sports throughout the world."

At present, North American soccer operates in a closed system that has multiple tiers, with MLS at the top, the North American Soccer League in the second tier, the United Soccer League occupying the third tier, and the National Premier Soccer League occupying the fourth. The only movement into MLS between leagues has been based on a team's financial wherewithal. How it performs on the field isn't factored.

The report was funded by Miami FC owner Riccardo Silva, whose team currently operates in the NASL. The NASL is struggling to stay afloat, with some teams leaving for the USL. The USL has applied to the U.S. Soccer Federation to be recognized as a Division II league.

ESPN FC obtained a summary of the report, which stated that some of the benefits of instituting a system of promotion/relegation would include: increased attendance and match-day revenue, compelling content for broadcasters, motivated ownership at all levels, and improved player development. A survey of 1,058 soccer fans found just over half in favor of promotion/relegation and just six percent opposed.

Garber, however, was not impressed.

"When I read that that report was funded by an owner in one of the other leagues, it did not surprise me and it didn't in any way sway us from our view that our structure is one that has gotten us to where we are, and one that I see us keeping certainly for the foreseeable future," Garber said via telephone.

When asked if he could see any benefits at all from a system of promotion/relegation, Garber said any advantage would be heavily outweighed by the negative impacts of such a system.

"If you could wave a magic wand and not have to address things like: What do you tell a municipality who invests in a public stadium and expects to have the revenue streams that come from being in the First Division? What broadcast agreements and other revenues that you have to abide by and manage through Collective Bargaining Agreements and a myriad of other elements?

"Certainly I can see how fans would think it is exciting and fun, but we are investing billions and billions of dollars in growing professional soccer in North America, and that has us laser-focused on building the right facilities, investing in the right player development programs -- which obviously have proven to be successful -- to create the right digital and social media activities, and to do it in way that ensures that we have this slow and steady path that ensures viability.

"So that is our North Star, and frankly when I look at some of the instability in the lower leagues, I see that it would be very difficult to think about how we would be able to merge it all into one vertical system and have it not create enormous chaos."

The report did ultimately conclude that North America was not ready for a system of promotion/relegation, but Garber said he didn't really pay much attention to the report's findings.

"I have a lot of stuff on my plate," Garber said. "What I will say is that we are in the midst of conducting a year-long research study that went out and interviewed 20,000 sports and soccer fans throughout North America to get their views on what motivates them to be a fan, what drives their passion, and what kinds of things should MLS be focusing on.

"It also segmented the market to divide up the size of various groups that are self-selected as soccer fans. And the numbers of them that are very hard-core folks that are committed to the European structure is very small. But clearly they're very loud and we have to listen to all fan groups if we are to continue to grow."

For now, Garber said the plan is for MLS to expand to 28 teams and not go beyond that, though there appeared to be some wiggle room in that stance.

"I don't expect we will go beyond [28], but I never thought that we would -- when I came into the league at 12 and went down to 10 -- that we would ever get to 14 or 18, let alone where we are now at 23, soon to be 24."

So could he envision an MLS2 with more teams beyond the 28-team target?

"Certainly that's something we have discussed, and it's important to all of us that are focused on growing the game that the lower divisions have a structure that makes sense," he said. "I know that the USL and the NASL owners and the federation's committees are working to try to achieve that. That's what I think all of us are focused on for right now."