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Don Garber Speaks on MLS Expansion, Apple TV, & Signing a Bored Ape

During MLS All-Star week, the commissioner gave his thoughts on adding new teams, the fledgling MLS Next Pro league, and the new media rights deal with Apple TV.

At a new pitch unveiling at the Mt. Airy Boys & Girl Club in St. Paul during Major League Soccer All-Star week in Minnesota on Tuesday, MLS Commissioner Don Garber had plenty of thoughts on league expansion, its new MLS Next Pro reserve league, and its upcoming 10-year media rights deal with Apple TV that kicks off in 2023.

As St. Louis gets ready to join the league next season as its 29th franchise, the consensus was that MLS would add one more expansion team by 2026 and cap things at an even 30.

“We said all along that we wanted to be a 30-team league,” Garber told reporters. “But as we continue to see more and more interest around cities across the US and Canada, we are contemplating expanding beyond 30 to 32. We’re also playing in the largest market across two countries, across multiple time zones, so we think it’s appropriate to continue to expand thoughtfully.”

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That 30-32 team range, he continued, is where the NFL, MLB, NBA, and NHL are at, though it’s worth noting that MLS is aready world’s largest first-division soccer league team-for-team. Taking this into account, is there going to be a point where MLS has to cap its top-flight membership and stop at 30 or 32?

“I think the answer to that is yes,” the commissioner said. “At some point, schedule makeup and the geography of laying out a proper competitive format requires you to have a limitation. It’s hard to imagine how you can go beyond that within the same structure that we have today. Is there a time at some point in the league’s future where you can have a different structure to our competition? Perhaps, but not as [it’s] structured today.”

Of course, Don Garber said there’s no timetable on when a different sort of structure would need to be enacted — if ever.

They got next

While in Minnesota, MLS is also celebrating the first year of its new reserve team league, MLS Next Pro, which hosts an All-Star game of its own Wednesday at Minnesota United’s training ground in the suburb of Blaine. All but one of Next Pro’s 21 teams are directly tied to existing MLS clubs and are making the move from USL, with the independent Rochester New York FC being the exception.

Garber said the plan is to have more independent clubs in the future as MLS Next Pro plans to “mirror” the first division.

“We believe the sport is based on the pyramid of our youth academies up through our second teams to the first teams,” Garber added. “That’s what makes soccer and football work internationally.”

Bigger bites from a bigger Apple

What really helps make soccer and football work internationally, however, is the sort of gargantuan domestic and international television and media rights deal that brings a major jolt of guaranteed revenue to the world’s top teams, leagues, and governing bodies. Right on cue, the 10-year, $2.5 billion deal MLS signed with Apple will bring every MLS, MLS Next Pro, and CONCACAF Leagues Cup match to Apple TV as part of a new subscription streaming package that begins in 2023 in English and Spanish (and notably doesn’t feature any local blackout restrictions).

Garber claimed that 85% of the league’s fans were streaming soccer matches already, a higher rate than in any other professional sport. With that in mind, making this Apple TV move, which notably replaces broadcasts on familiar regional sports networks, wasn’t such a big leap.

“We want to go where our fans are,” Garber said. “We want to expand our global reach right now. We have domestic broadcasters. We have broadcasters in Canada. We have broadcasters that we sell through a syndication relationship overseas. Next year, we’ll have every one of our games stream to 800 million devices around the world without having to buy multiple subscriptions.”

As Major League Baseball gets set to play its second Field of Dreams Game on Thursday, Garber echoed the namesake film’s “if you build it, they will come” ethos for further popularizing MLS abroad through the Apple partnership — one that could soon be replicated by other major North American sports leagues in some form or fashion.

“We’re playing the global game here in our country, and we don’t yet have a global audience,” Garber said. “The best way to do that is to engage with the leader in streaming content, [the] largest, most innovative company in the world.”

NFTs & NYC

MLS made some interesting waves last week after reaching a deal with Get Engaged, the owner of Bored Ape No. 6045, to sign the NFT character to a professional contract and named him “Striker.”

“These are the kinds of things that we want to take risks on,” Garber said, “and if we don’t, we’re missing the opportunity.”

Finally, the defending MLS Cup champions NYCFC have been playing at very not-good-for-soccer venue Yankee Stadium since the club’s initial announcement in 2013. Reports surfaced late last month that New York City Mayor Eric Adams was expected to support a 25,000-seat soccer-specific stadium in Queens near the New York Mets’ Citi Field and the US Open tennis grounds that could be ready by 2025.

“I can’t comment much on that,” Garber concluded, “but I’m hopeful that they can continue to engage with the city and get something to move forward.”

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