TORONTO — MLS commissioner Don Garber addressed the Columbus Crew's potential relocation to Austin, Texas, during his annual State of the League address Friday, saying the "ball is in the city's court" after the two sides arrived at a standstill.
Crew owner Anthony Precourt announced in October that he is considering moving the team for the 2019 campaign unless the club is able to build a new stadium in downtown Columbus. Although Crew ownership met with Columbus officials last month, Garber said negotiations were stalled because of the city's unwillingness to accept concurrent talks with Austin.
"Like every professional sports league we never want to relocate a team," Garber said. "Ownership remains very interested, as they have stated from the very beginning in the process, in exchanging ideas with the mayor of Columbus and with other city leaders in ways to address the challenges that have prevented the Crew from succeeding in Major League Soccer.
"But the mayor and city leaders have said to us they will only engage in those discussions if the club's ownership discontinues any ongoing discussions in the city of Austin, and that's just not possible at this point. So the ball in the city's court."
The specter of relocation has prompted a movement of support for the Crew from local fans and spectators across the league, with the campaign spearheaded on social media by the #SaveTheCrew hashtag.
While Garber expressed sympathy for Crew supporters and acknowledged the club could ultimately stay in Columbus, he cited disappointing business metrics for the franchise — one of the 10 original MLS teams — when justifying the league's support for potential relocation.
"If they're able to address some of the concerns we've been experiencing in that city for many years, it's conceivable that the team could stay," Garber said. "It's traumatic when an owner and a league is willing is move a team. ... But you need to be in a situation where you can be viable. We have new teams coming in that are deeply connecting with the community at dramatically more commercial revenue, higher fan bases, all of the measures that matter.
"What we've been experiencing in Columbus for many years, and we've been somewhat quiet about this, is it's among the lowest teams — 20 out of 22 — in every measure that matters across sports. Average ticket price, average attendance, average revenue, local television ratings, their local television deal — every aspect that is going to determine if a team is going to be viable."
Garber 'confident' in Beckham's Miami team
Garber also discussed David Beckham's long-gestating expansion bid in Miami, expressing confidence that the proposed club will find an additional local owner and clear a path to building a soccer-specific stadium.
MLS tentatively announced Miami as an expansion side in 2014, with the franchise to be confirmed upon finalizing stadium plans. Although Garber offered hope in August that a formal confirmation would come "perhaps by the end of the summer," the process was delayed by a lawsuit accusing Miami-Dade County of improperly selling land to Beckham's group. That lawsuit was dismissed in October, however, and Garber said Friday that the appeal was denied last week.
The commissioner did acknowledge that Miami — currently envisioned as the 24th MLS club, following Los Angeles FC's introduction as team No. 23 next year — could be pushed down the line. (MLS is set to announce two expansion teams later this month from finalists Sacramento, Nashville, Cincinnati and Detroit.)
But Garber believes the introduction of a South Florida-based owner should pave the road to finally getting Beckham's Miami side on the field.
"It is the most complicated in any market that we've experienced, at least in my 18 years," Garber said. "We've been working hard on trying to find a local owner for David Beckham. I feel confident that that will come together, so I continue to say that we want Miami in the league. It's a large market, a gateway city. There are a lot of values to us having a team down there and I'm very confident that we'll get something done."
NYCFC, Revolution 'will have a stadium'
New York City FC and the New England Revolution have endured their own searches for a soccer-specific stadium, with Garber expressing optimism that both franchises will eventually find new homes.
The Revolution continue to share oversized Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts, with the New England Patriots, while NYCFC had to play two home matches at alternate venues this fall because of scheduling conflicts at Yankee Stadium.
"[NYCFC] is going to continue to work hard on that," Garber said. "I think if we were going to look at this situation today, and New York City was going to come in as team 25 or 26 or 27 or 28, we would require there to be a stadium finalized at that time.
"You go through a lot of trial and tribulation, but we will have a stadium and I believe we will have a stadium in Boston as well."
USA World Cup failure 'going to be a positive'
The U.S. national team's failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup has triggered plenty of soul-searching among high-ranking officials in the American soccer community, and Garber said Friday he thinks the setback will ultimately evolve into a positive.
"I understand why people are upset," Garber said. "I think that there's been a lot of attempts to try to attribute blame, as if there's one switch that you can pull and all of sudden it changes. I think this process, which has been traumatic to the system, has us all taking a step back and recognizing that we were all experiencing the momentum, we were kind of beginning to think we had cracked the code.
"When you have things that set you back it allows strong people to work within, reach out outside your own insular group and try to get better so it doesn't happen again. So after the initial challenge here, I actually think this is going to be a positive, at least on the men's side, for U.S. Soccer and even for the league."
MLS increases targeted allocation money
MLS on Friday announced an update to the league's rules for targeted allocation money, which can be used to subsidize the salaries of players whose cap charge is more than the maximum of $480,625.
While teams in 2018 and 2019 will again receive $1.2 million in TAM from the league, MLS will now allow clubs to spend up to $2.8 million of their own money in additional TAM — creating a further advantage for franchises willing to splash the cash.
Garber, though, was quick to note the system can be adjusted if it sees small market clubs fall too far behind.
"The great thing is if we find it too imbalanced we just simply change it," Garber said.