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State of the League: Garber talks TV rights, diversity hiring, and more

As MLS Cup approaches this weekend, MLS commissioner Don Garber touched on many of the league’s points of interest, including an upcoming broadcast rights deal, youth development initiatives and the forthcoming inaugural season for expansion club Charlotte FC.

Garber also spoke about the league’s new diversity hiring rules, which were announced by the league Tuesday. Under the new guidelines, the finalist pool for open sporting positions must include two diverse candidates, with one of those candidates being black.

Garber also revealed in the call that the league is “making progress” on adding Las Vegas as the league’s 30th club. The league’s previous plans to add Sacramento have fallen through, and Garber acknowledged that Las Vegas is the new frontrunner to be added to the North American league.

On other topics, Garber spoke with confidence about Charlotte FC’s situation coming into the league for the 2022 season and addressed MLS’s growing image as a “selling league” with his comments on youth development programs.

Here is a look at what Garber revealed in his annual State of the League address Tuesday:

MLS TV Rights

The MLS joint deal with ESPN and FOX is set to expire at the end of the 2021 season, and Garber stated that he expects a new deal should be finalized in the first quarter of 2022.

Garber added that the broadcast deal will include all MLS games, in-and-out-of-market, with the new MLS NEXT Pro third-division league also available. With the current deal, matches shown on ESPN+ are blacked out in local markets.

“Our package will have every game, including our local games in the package,” Garber said. “Many years ago, we went to our clubs and said, all of your local deals need to expire by the end of the ’22 season.”

The league’s current TV deal is worth $75 million and has been in place since 2015.

Diversity in hiring practices

MLS has taken on many diversity initiatives since a nationwide reckoning on racial issues and relations prompted increased awareness and action last summer. The MLS diversity policy has been around since 2007, but the league announced an overhaul Tuesday.

The new rule will require finalist pools for sporting positions to include two minority candidates, and one of those candidates must be Black. The new policy also ensures equality in interview processes and implements a first-offense fine of $50,000, second-offense fine of $100,000 and third-offense fines of more than $100,000.

Garber said in Tuesday’s address that the league arrived at its new diversity policy with the leadership of Sola Winley, the league’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion vice president, and the Black Players for Change. SCORE, a group of 170 Black former MLS players, were also involved in the creation of the new rules.

Garber said the league has had a version of the NFL’s Rooney rule, a rule in which teams are required to interview at least one minority candidate, since 1997. He added that the diversity hiring practices have been updated appropriately.

“It needed evolution, particularly among the Black community,” Garber said. “We need to fill the pipeline with candidates. We’ve got work that we need to do there.”

NYCFC’s stadium search continues

New York City FC is set to play in the club’s first ever MLS Cup on Saturday, but the club’s stadium saga has continued to drag on through 2021.

Yankee Stadium in the Bronx has played host to NYCFC’s home matches since 2015 with Red Bull Arena also being used sparingly over the past two seasons. Garber had no news to share on any stadium developments, but stressed the difficulty of that task.

“We’ve got to get it right,” Garber said. “It’s not easy to build stadiums in large cities, and New York is the largest in our league. I’m confident in time they’ll be able to have a stadium of their own. I hope I am still commissioner at that time.”

Garber added that he was convinced NYCFC would have sold out Yankee Stadium if it was set to host MLS Cup. He said the stadium situation “continues to evolve,” and that he is confident City Football Group is working on it.

Charlotte FC set to join MLS

Charlotte FC will be the eighth new MLS team to join the league since 2016 and Garber admitted his confidence in club owner David Tepper’s vision for the franchise.

Bank of America Stadium, home of the NFL’s Carolina Panthers which is also owned by Tepper, will be the new home of Charlotte FC. The stadium will undergo renovations to accommodate soccer, and Garber was asked whether Bank of America Stadium could be a long-term home for the club.

“We are very proud of the soccer stadium that we’ve built. but in some markets we’ve been able to see great success with teams that are playing in large stadiums, as long as the MLS team owner is in control for that building.

Garber also said that season ticket sales for Charlotte FC are around the same level of Atlanta United’s 2017 season ticket sales. Atlanta United led the league in average attendance in 2021.

MLS as a “selling league”

One of the biggest revelations of the 2021 season was the influx of young talent to MLS. Players such as Tajon Buchanan, Ricardo Pepi, Sam Vines, Caden Clark, James Sands and many more delivered outstanding seasons. Buchanan and Vines earned transfers to European clubs while Pepi and Sands made breakthroughs with the U.S. men’s national team.

Garber said the league has grown in leaps and bounds with its youth development initiatives. The league has taken steps to improve youth facilities and academies in the past two years as well as implementing three U-22 roster spots that do not count against the salary cap.

However, Garber also clarified that MLS is still “buying more than we’re selling,” but that MLS teams are creating more value for young players than ever before. Garber said the league spent more money and bought more players in 2021 than it did in any of the previous five years.

Garber also addressed the idea that MLS had ever been a “retirement league” for aging European stars.

“I don’t think it should be in anybody’s mind, this idea of people coming to Major League Soccer broadly as a place to retire,” Garber said. “There’s always going to be players that are going to come the latter part of (their careers). I’m not worried about one or two players. It really is, where is our focus? And the focus is on bringing in young players to our new U-22 initiative, which is significant and brought in almost 40 players from around the world that are coming in and contributing to their clubs.”

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