COLUMBUS, Ohio -- MLS commissioner Don Garber said 2023 has been "a transformational year for our league," hailing the media partnership with Apple, record attendance and the arrival of Lionel Messi to Inter Miami.
Speaking to reporters during his annual state of the league address Friday, Garber said MLS set a record for total attendance at almost 11 million and reached new highs for digital and social media engagement and merchandise sales.
Without supplying specific metrics, Garber quoted Apple CEO Tim Cook as saying on a recent earnings call that the company was beating its expectations for subscriptions. He also referenced comments by Apple senior vice president for services Eddy Cue that multiple games drew over 1 million viewers. Garber added that it's still early days for the partnership.
"What we're focused on is the amount of subscriptions that we're selling, the amount of time that those people who are watching those games in front of and behind the paywall are spending on our broadcasts," Garber said.
"How are they engaging with that content? What is the demographic of that content? And then all of those things are things that we and Apple have to work together on so that we could, at the right time, communicate: 'Is all of this working for us? Is it working for Apple?'"
As for Messi's arrival in July, the Argentine superstar provided a jolt of excitement to the league and spurred interest in the Leagues Cup, the midseason tournament involving every team from both MLS and Liga MX.
"The magnitude of his decision to join MLS cannot be overstated," Garber said. "He's playing in our league. We're now just not part of the global conversation of sports, but one of the biggest stories in the world and certainly one of the biggest stories this summer.
"The eyes of the world are now on Major League Soccer because the best player to ever play the game is here and he's succeeding."
Garber was later asked about how the league was planning for Messi's eventual departure following the 2025 season when his contract expires, and maximizing the Argentine's time in MLS.
It has been suggested that the league needs to increase spending and tweak its roster rules to allow more elite players to follow Messi to MLS. Garber indicated that there are currently "no plans" to allow teams to sign a fourth designated player for the 2024 season, though there is an owner's meeting in New York on Dec. 14 in which other changes to league rules will be discussed.
"First, I hope Leo decides to stay longer than 2025," Garber said. "So maybe 2025 isn't the deadline, but our plan is being the league we want to be in 2027, which gives us enough time to continue to do the research, speak to our fans, evaluate what the impact is of some of these changes and then be able to move forward in a positive and productive way."
There have been concerns that Messi's arrival means fans will be priced out of attending games in which he appears. Inter Miami season-ticket prices doubled in most cases. Those worries extend to road matches, but Garber made no apologies for prices going up and insisted that the league's games are still affordable.
"Variable pricing is a part of sports. Every other league does it. So I don't see any reason why it wouldn't be appropriate for Major League Soccer to do that," he said.
"I think the question as to whether or not fans are being priced out of experiencing a Messi game, I don't believe that's true. In the actual market where teams are selling tickets, those tickets are still reasonable. We can't control what happens on the secondary market and as you know, the secondary market pricing has been very high."
With the advent of the Leagues Cup, as well as the FIFA Club World Cup in 2025 and the men's World Cup in 2026, the schedule is getting increasingly crowded. Garber indicated that MLS wouldn't shut down during big events, though added he couldn't "imagine" playing through the World Cup.
"Let me say we can't afford it, so that's a message for everybody," Garber said. "If we have to shut the league down, we lose games, it impacts our players, it impacts our partners, it impacts our fans, it impacts everything that MLS has to deliver for all of our stakeholders.
"That being said, we've got to manage through that process and be clever and creative and figure out how do we configure the schedule with all these different events so that we can make it work."
Noting the arrival of expansion side San Diego FC in 2025, Garber said there are no plans for additional teams beyond that, though he didn't close the door on the idea.
"We have no plans to go beyond 30 teams at this point, but I'll say we never say never to anything," he said.
"We've got to look at how all this develops over the next number of years and if expansion makes sense at the right time, there's a market with the facility and the opportunity for us to manage the competitive format and everything related to that, then we'll certainly consider it."
Garber was asked about the safety of the league's officials after FC Cincinnati defender Matt Miazga entered the referees' locker room following a playoff game Nov. 4 against the New York Red Bulls. Miazga was later suspended for three games.
"The safety of our fans, the safety of our players, the safety of our officials is a massive priority for our league and it ought to be a priority for everyone," Garber said.
"There are times when passion gets the best of people, but that can't be tolerated and ultimately it was a tough price to pay. But we need to tell every player and every team administrator they cannot go into an official locker room and do anything that might appear or might be perceived by an official as being threatening to them, whether it was intended or not."