KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Expansion is coming to Major League Soccer. The only questions facing the league’s board are how many teams, where to locate them and when to bring them into the fold.
Commissioner Don Garber told The Associated Press in a wide-ranging interview Monday that the league’s owners plan to discuss expansion “in great detail” during a meeting Wednesday.
The MLS will play Italian club AS Roma in its annual All-Star game that night.
At the moment, the league is focused on adding a second team in New York. But with David Beckham holding an ownership option and several cities expressing interest in a franchise, the league could shoot past the 20-team mark within the next few years.
“The league is going to expand. It’s not an ‘if,’ but a ‘when,’ and it’s a ‘how many,”’ Garber said. “There’s lots of interest among many, many different markets, so we’ll get pretty focused on establishing something firmer in the next few months.”
There was a time when an ownership group could spend less than $10 million on a franchise, but those days are over. Surging attendance, modest but consistent television growth and even the recent success of the U.S. national team have made the MLS a hot property.
It cost English club Manchester City and its partner, the New York Yankees, an expansion fee of $100 million to launch New York City FC, which will begin play in 2015.
Other cities that have expressed interest in a team, or have lower-tier franchises who want to join MLS, include Atlanta, Sacramento, Orlando and the Twin Cities.
Meanwhile, Beckham has been linked to businessman Marcelo Claure, who owns Bolivian team Club Bolivar. The two appear interested in Miami, where Claure’s wireless company Brightstar Corp. is based, and Beckham has said he plans to reveal his MLS intentions in the next few months.
“The overall growth of the sport has been so dramatic over the last number of years by almost any measure,” Garber said. “Whether it’s the league or the national team or the women’s game, all the developments are sort of proving the fact that we’re a soccer nation.”
Expansion isn’t the only issue for Major League Soccer, however.
—The league’s TV deals with ESPN, NBC and Univision expire after the 2014 season, and Garber said discussions will begin early this fall on the next round of contracts.
ESPN has broadcast MLS games since 2006, while NBC took over for Fox Soccer last season with a package that includes putting the majority of its games on NBC Sports Network.
Univision joined up as a Spanish-language broadcaster this season.
“We’ve very confident we have a strong television property,” said Garber, pointing toward overall growth in viewership the past two seasons. “We have great partners and there are many broadcasters that are really bullish on the sport, and I think it’s a good time to be in the business of selling sports television rights. There’s a lot of energy behind the sport.”
—Garber said progress on new stadiums for San Jose and D.C. United are good signs for the league, and he’s confident a soccer-specific stadium will be built for New England.
The Earthquakes broke ground on their new stadium last October and expect to move into it next year. D.C. United announced formal plans for its facility just last week.
“Years ago, nobody ever said we’d develop stadiums in what I would call the more difficult markets,” Garber said, “and over time I think we’ll achieve all our new stadium goals, including in New England. We do look at this as a long-term project.”
—As MLS continues to mature, Garber said it’s critical that teams begin to develop youth academies to produce the next generation of stars, rather than rely on aging players from Europe and elsewhere to stir up interest in the league.
Garber pointed to Sporting Kansas City, which is hosting this year’s All-Star game, as an example of one franchise that has already begun to sprout homegrown talent.
“There are a lot of paths to achieve our goal of being one of the top leagues in the world in the next 10 years, and it’s not just the signing of international players,” he said. “It’s really with the development of the American and Canadian players, and that starts with the development of the youth academics. Here in Kansas City, it certainly has proven to be true.”
Garber said the U.S. national team, which beat Panama on Sunday to win the CONCACAF Gold Cup, is further evidence that MLS is succeeding in producing the next line of stars.
“When I look at their recent success in the Gold Cup, with a core of MLS players, it just proves the point that we’re right on track,” Garber said. “We’re developing a broad interest in the sport among fans, but also really doing well on the field. I think without doubt, if it wasn’t for Major League Soccer, the national team wouldn’t be what it is today.”