AUSTIN, Texas — Depending on your perspective, Major League Soccer is going through growth, growing pains, or a little of both.
After a year-long saga that involved Austin soccer fans weighing in at City Council meetings and soccer fans everywhere engaging in robust social media discussion, that city’s new franchise has broken ground on a stadium, while other cities are lining up (behind the newly-announced St. Louis team) to be one of the next two expansion sites. While the league approaches a self-imposed 30-team cap it could conceivably stretch further, its leaders have big decisions to make on upcoming broadcast contracts and how to handle transfer fees in and out of the league.
Mark Abbott, president and deputy commissioner of MLS, sat down with Pro Soccer USA after Austin FC’s groundbreaking to discuss all of those issues, including whether the league will be adding a much-talked-about fourth Designated Player roster slot anytime soon. Here are the highlights from that Q&A.
Pro Soccer USA: What was the significance of Monday’s groundbreaking, moving from interest in Austin as an MLS city to it becoming more of a reality?
Mark Abbott: “What drives a lot of our growth are young people in their 20s and 30s … cities that have strong corporate bases, cities have a lot of diversity, and we see all of that here in Austin. But we couldn’t have done it unless we had a stadium plan. That was a requirement for all the markets.
“And once that happened, We had all the elements in place to make the decision to come here. I think since then, there have been a number of things that have really validated that . . . the season ticket deposits that we’ve seen; clearly, the community’s embraced it. I think the addition of strong local owners has been an important part of continuing to connect the club with the community here.
“I think it’s really going to be something that the community here will embrace. It’s going to be a world-class stadium with all the amenities that you would expect, but it’s going to have a real Austin feel to it. The design incorporates a lot of the feel of this community.”
PSUSA: Austin ended up getting its own franchise rather than moving from Columbus, so there’s still only been one franchise move in MLS history to date — San Jose to Houston after the 2005 season. How did the potential Columbus move compare to what happened then?
MA: “The commonality in those situations is that what we wanted and needed was to ensure that we had the elements in place for a club to be successful. And in the end, that’s what the fans want, too. We needed to have strong ownership, a stadium plan, support from the community, both from fans and from the corporate community. And if you think about what’s happened here, we have that in Columbus with the Haslam family, the new stadium project downtown, support from the Columbus Partnership for the corporate community and from the fans.
“And we have that here in Austin. We have that with Anthony [Precourt], with bringing in local owners, the stadium plan in a great location, the corporate community coming out supporting us, and the fans. That was what we wanted to see happen. And that’s what happened. And that’s a good result.
“When you think about what happened in San Jose, similarly, we couldn’t get a stadium plan there. The team moved to Houston … but luckily, we were introduced to Lew Wolff and John Fisher, and they were committed to working on a stadium project in San Jose. And then we ended up with beautiful Avaya Stadium. No sports league relishes relocating a team, but here, I think we’ve had great outcomes.”
PSUSA: What does St. Louis coming on board as the latest expansion team mean for the league?
MA: “You’ve got an incredible ownership group there, the Taylor family, which is so committed to St. Louis.
“What’s special about that group is that it’s the next generation, these daughters and nieces who are going to be moving in running that team. It’s just a great ownership group, right? One that’s doing this as a generational opportunity, in partnership with Jim Kavanaugh, who is tremendously successful entrepreneur in his own right. We’ve always had a lot of faith in the market, historically, with St. Louis being one the of hotbeds of soccer for a hundred years in the United States. And then, you have this opportunity for stadium downtown. And that combination of factors came together, and we said, ‘That’s a place for us to be.'”
PSUSA: You said earlier today you’re looking to grow MLS to 30 teams. Could 32 teams be on the horizon? And might Sacramento be the 29th team?
MA: “The plan is to focus on getting to 30. It’s a large country, so we’ll see what happens, but our plan is to focus on 30. We said in April that we’re trying to focus on Sacramento, and we continue to have those discussions with them.”
PSUSA: With broadcast contract negotiations coming up, and with great numbers for the last men’s and women’s World Cups, how do you see that translating to developing MLS and its audience?
MA: “We’re in a very enviable position in that there is a large market of professional soccer fans in the United States. When we started the league in the mid-’90s, there might have been a question as to whether we were going to have to convert people to soccer fans. That’s no longer the case. It’s clear: People follow us, they follow the Mexican League, they follow the Premier League. The question now is: For those who are soccer fans, but not engaged with us, how do you get them engaged with us?
“It’s two simple things. One is to continue to improve the quality of the competition. There’s a bunch of elements to it: players, player development, officiating and the introduction of [Video Assistant Referees]. And it’s the fan experience, seeing beautiful stadiums and what the game-day experience is like, what the TV experience is like. And the combination of those two things that will continue to grow our share of the market, which is already quite large.”
PSUSA: Where do you see MLS evolving in player development? Players such as Miguel Almiron and Alphonso Davies have moved from MLS to Europe, and you have promising young South American players, such as Cristian Pavon and Brian Rodriguez coming in.
MA: “I think what’s happening is, the league is becoming a more significant participant in the international market. And that involves two things: Players coming into the league and players at times leaving the league. I think Almiron was a great example, he’s a player that came and made a tremendous contribution, left to play in the Premier League for a significant transfer fee, which Atlanta then could reinvest right here to develop their roster.
“You can also see some international players coming in, who have an opportunity to play here and perhaps go on elsewhere, and ones who want to have their entire careers or the balance of the careers here. That’s part of the world of soccer. And what you’re just seeing is the natural evolution of us being more of a part of that.”
PSUSA: Is there anything the league is doing to encourage that globalization?
MA: “We made a decision to participate in the training compensation process. That was the result of a realization that we were investing tens of millions of dollars a year in player development. You need to be able to generate some revenue from that, and training compensation system is a way to do that. I think that’s been a step that we’ve taken this year which I think has been very productive.”
PSUSA: Anything else on the horizon? A fourth DP?
MA: (Laughs.) There’s no fourth DP coming.
PSUSA: Is there anything else the league might do to encourage development? I know there’s been discussion about transfer fees, and the amount that goes to clubs vs. what goes to the league. Any rethinking of that relationship?
MA: “The league is always looking at what we can do to create a set of incentives to lead to more, better and smarter investment. So, I don’t have any specifics to comment on today, but we always are looking at what we can do to be better.”
PSUSA: How do you feel about the new playoff format and compressed schedule.
MA: “What we wanted to do is play it between the two FIFA windows. Last year, and for many years, the November FIFA window has been in the middle of the playoffs, and we lost a lot of momentum. So part of it was to fit between the two windows. Part of it was that sometimes the second games were not compelling, based on what happened in the first game. And so we thought this format would be a more compelling format. It’s our first year, so obviously we’ll learn from it. But I’m excited about it.”
PSUSA: And you’ll stay with 14 teams making the playoffs, even with expansion and additional teams coming in?
MA: “Yes. We took a look at, and it’s a good range of percentages, even if you grow the league.”