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I'm Sorry, Sacramento, Don Garber Can't Be With You... Right Now

In a memorable episode of How I Met Your Mother, entitled "Hooked," there is a cliché score of sappy music that plays anytime a character is about to utter a phrase similar the headline of this piece. If you know the show as intimately as I do, it shouldn't take long to roll the clips back in your mind. Some will likely picture Lily speaking to a teacup pig. Most straight males are going straight for Carrie Underwood's cameo. For those of you who aren't as familiar, the premise is an easy one to grasp. It is a worn-out plot (both on television and in real life): An infatuated person is strung along because a protagonist can't bear to have a tough conversation. 

He or she never intends to reciprocate any feelings that are above platonic. But each keeps the possibility of a romantic future on the table nevertheless. Timing is the easy scapegoat, hence the "right now" kicker. Darn these present circumstances that prevent this love from being fully expressed. Ultimately, the character does not want the relationship dynamic to change for one of three reasons. They either a) enjoy exploiting perks that stem from the other person remaining "on the hook"; b) have a soft spot that won't allow them to crush another's spirits; or c) aren't 100% satisfied with what they have, so all bets are hedged with a collection of fall-back options.

Now, to the best of my knowledge, no major TV network ran a rerun of this HIMYM episode (or any comparable soap opera) this past Saturday night. So if you happened to catch that signature sound, buried beneath lines of overemotional dialogue, you must have been watching MLS Cup 2018. At halftime of Major League Soccer's finale, Don Garber "right now'd" the fine people of Sacramento, Phoenix, Detroit, Charlotte, Las Vegas, and San Diego — as those syrupy strings played in the background

Okay, maybe I exaggerate. But Garber's message — to a near-record audience of 1.56 million viewers — sure felt like he was securing each expansion hopeful firmly to his hook. 

As for the reasoning, it was d) all of the above. 

It has been well documented — as far back as April of 2015 — that Major League Soccer desired growth to 28 clubs and then to stop. And that finish line was a mere months away from being reached, with bids being awarded to Austin, Texas and another city by next summer. Yet, this weekend, Garber suggested he'd like to extend the race. Apropos to nothing, he decided to bring 30+ into the expansion discussion. First, at Friday's State of the League address, and once more during the telecast of MLS Cup on Saturday. It's as if Garber tried to sneak "more than 28" in without anyone noticing. You all know that thing I have been adamant about for nearly four years? Yeah, I changed my mind. Next question.   

The whole ordeal seemed unnecessary at best. Why get hopes up when the concept currently has no traction? No wheels are even close to being set in motion. Up until that point, the league's board of governors hadn't been made aware further expansion is being considered. Franchise number 24 is still in the process of filling out its roster. The timing came off reckless, and the lack of details appeared to purposely create speculation hysteria. This close to shutting the door for good, we're now leaving it indefinitely ajar? It doesn't make sense. There had to be a reason Garber would say "there is no doubt in my mind that we could support having more than 28 teams." 

He might not be wrong. And it is just one man's opinion on American interest levels. But publicly announcing what amounts to a hunch — while several panic-stricken expansion candidates were tuned in — was callous. The sound bytes will undoubtedly be misconstrued by markets whose odds for bid number 28 are slipping away. No one in Sacramento or Phoenix is going to remember the lines where he backed off, stating "we're going to have to decide if we want to." That cat is already out of the bag. It's now a click-bait headline that supporters are going to hold Garber to like a promise. 

I, for one, believe this revelation was brilliantly calculated. Whether it amounts to anything or not is irrelevant. He knew exactly what he was saying. Theoretical expansion — light on the concrete proof or quantifiable dates — is vague enough to defend against future hate mail and vitriol-laced Tweets. Stringing Sacramento along is legacy preservation; certainly not a stupid move. 

I'm also a fan of FOX Sport's Rob Stone, who routinely anchors the (on-location) studio show before, during the break, and after the league title game. He covers two of the greatest sports on the planet — college football and soccer — and juggles the concurrent seasons exceptionally well. In this context, my partiality is because he and I were clearly on the same page in terms of the commissioner's bombshell flip flop. 28 teams and a 2022 retirement took a hard right turn this weekend.

Stone had the good fortune of sitting down with Garber, less than 24 hours after his initial comments. This halftime interview has now become an annual MLS Cup tradition. 2018's Q&A wasn't even 30 seconds old before the reporter subtly called the commissioner out; if not for hypocrisy outright, definitely for the offhand manner in which a dramatic change of heart was delivered. 

"Yesterday, though, for the first time, you hinted at 'Let's not stand [pat] at 28. We can expand.' Why... beyond 28?"

On its surface, it is extremely benign. Underneath, however, I could sense some "C'mon, man" disdain in his delivery. The "for the first time" wasn't essential to that particular question at all. But I believe Stone wanted it to be known that this new stance runs against the grain of everything he trumpeted for years. 

There sat a professional sports commissioner, on arguably the best day his North American league has ever produced (from a butts-in-the-seats and television exposure standpoint), and he was talking about more, more, more. You don't need more, Don. You need to bottle the magic of Saturday's atmosphere in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, with hopes you can allocate some of it in the already-established places that are failing.   

The vibe at the FOX Sports desk was that one man understands the Law of Diminishing Returns while the other does not. Then again, that other person might be as sly as a fox when it comes to the topic. Never bring expansion talk to a close and you're never the bad guy. Watch the video and judge for yourself.   

From 30,000 feet above, the tenor of Stone's question translates to: What the hell, bro? We are less than twelve months away from finality in this twenty-year process. And you wait until now to say we have to devote four or five more years speculating and covering it? You're toying with the hearts of your expansion bidders. 

To which, Garber — if being truly honest — would respond "Exactly." 

There's never been more excitement in MLS, yet most of the chatter in communities isn't about the matches on the field at all. People are crazed over the musical chairs being played by those on the outside. Cities want to win, almost forgetting what the prize is at the end. Oh, we actually have to go play in some soccer league now? Boring. Let's compete with other cities for something else. A second Amazon HQ, a hyperloop route, a shot at the World Cup or Olympics. Give us anything. We'll even take a political party's national convention or a stop on Nickelback's next tour. We don't care; we just want to host things and feel like a big deal. 

Keeping this external competition fresh in the news feed is good for business. 

Regardless of interpretation, Stone definitely threw the commissioner something with a little pace behind it. The question wasn't your typical lobbed softball, where Garber could lay back and dote on his darling clubs. He genuinely wanted to know the rationale behind bringing more into the equation. In Stone, it appears I may have a fellow believer that more isn't always better

Garber's fluff response was measured and expected. He turned the question sideways to play up the fact that he was in Atlanta during one of the city's crowning sports achievements. By the time he joined the set, the hometown favorites looked well on their way to a comfortable championship. Garber chose to ride that wave of "MLS is now Atlanta's world and we're just living in it" rhetoric.

At the end of the day, that brief camera time is meant to merely put a face with the name for the casual fans. It's akin to a red-carpet appearance belonging to an award show. Smile, wave, be gracious, and say some nice things about moments that occurred in the last 365 days. Garber is a champion of deflection in those types of pressers.

And I can't entirely blame him for that. Backed by ~70,000 United supporters and a 1-0 halftime lead, there was no reason to believe Portland could come back. Why get down to the nitty gritty — and talk specifics on corporate policy reform — during a ceremonious two-minute interview? 

Garber's direct response was: "I believe that MLS can succeed in any market." And within a reasonable socioeconomic threshold, I agree with this. Inherently, it isn't even news. Actions have voiced this belief for nearly three years now. You wouldn't have 12 cities still vying for two spots if there wasn't a favorable element to each bid. Under the right lens, all could be seen as the best option for team 27 or 28. But what is the definition of success in each of those markets — compared to the rest of the league? What is the right lens to use?

The league office would love for you to believe Atlanta United FC turned preconceived soccer notions upside down. Unfortunately, that narrative is only half true. Garber & Co. clearly thought it would do moderately well or they wouldn't have opened up shop in the first place. The plan was going to work anywhere with a population base that large, with an owner that rich. It is the degree of success that shattered all the expectations. 

The Deep South hasn't opened up a whole new map for Major League Soccer. It simply changed the way the league looks at the one they have. Teams 29, 30, and beyond would not come from outside the current expansion pool. Atlanta's prosperity doesn't necessarily have ramifications on where the league would like to grow, but may amend the preference order. 

A better, more insightful Garber quote would have been: "MLS has raised its predictive measure of success for those markets that were once labeled impenetrable or minor league." The previously overlooked will be reevaluated and given a higher grade. An Atlanta win is a subsequent boost in stock price for Charlotte (NASCAR country) and college sports towns like Louisville and Austin. 

That last city is notable because Austin's inclusion — as team 27 — now appears to be a foregone conclusion. It joins even though the proposal is undesirable to many and undeserving to most. Who knows? The self-proclaimed "weird" Texas capital just might be the next Atlanta; dropping jaws with record success despite middle-of-the-pack expectations. The league hopes to be this type of wrong again.   
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Not shown in the video clips, Garber's second pull quote on expansion from the weekend: "[Potential growth beyond 28 clubs] is in response to how much soccer the country can support." Frankly, that mindset is alarming to hear. Uncontrolled expansion cannot be the compass a commissioner bases all other navigational decisions off. Just because you can grow doesn't mean you should. If this thought process ruled the day, the NFL would be hovering around 40 franchises these days. There have to be dependent variables that portend a "fill it up as far as the tank will hold" mentality. 

Commissioners may hold a growth maximization plan loosely in their mission statement, but it has to be a lower priority than more important profitability factors. Yes, even with 40 owners to satisfy, the NFL would still be making good money. No, this is not be the only metric for calculating league success. Fans ultimately support organizations that function properly.  

The shear volume of logistics — required by a mega-league — would kill any semblance of homeostasis created by the league's competition committee. Plus, the quantity of bottom feeders would become a real issue. 39 NFL teams would fail to win the Super Bowl each and every year. 

With that comes even greater gaps in winning, spending, etc. More than today (with 32 teams) the have-nots would struggle to stay solvent when ticket revenue flatlines. Since commissioners technically work for the franchise owners, the number of unhappy bosses in that proverbial board room is tough to ignore. A larger empire is a more difficult empire to govern.  

In professional sports, it is my opinion that demand should outweigh the supply. The imbalance of franchises to viable cities creates market pressure that is actually a good thing for fans. We may all despise the perpetual threats of franchise relocation, but owners and local governments would defer spending capital on venue renovations or upgrades without these incentives/fears. Teams will begin to play their games in dilapidated venues. 

Look no further than the difference between the NFL and MLB. The former had a wealth of markets (Los Angeles, Las Vegas, et alia) open and ready to receive a displaced team. So, when places like San Diego, Oakland, and St. Louis failed to provide a facility above a certain quality standard, the jump was "easy." Flood the market and that mobility option disappears. If Los Angeles was awarded two expansion teams, and Las Vegas granted another, then it is fair to assume the Chargers, Raiders, and Rams would still be playing in their same status quo facilities — devoid of any major upgrades. The term "serviceable" is mighty relative. 

Without legitimate suitors, you end up with the current situations of the Oakland A's and Tampa Bay Rays. Major League Baseball simply doesn't have as many cities lining up at that window. And the reason is not due to any perceived drop in the sport's popularity. People still want baseball in their town. Too much, in fact. Within the last twenty years, most major American municipalities have poured a ton of money into a new Minor League Baseball field. This has actually prevented MLB expansion/relocation.  

At the height of the respective Oakland-Alameda Coliseum and Tropicana Field debacles, would MLB have loved to jump to Las Vegas, Charlotte, Nashville, or Portland? Of course. But each city had development of a new ballpark for their Triple-A club in the works. Nashville's First Tennessee Park opened in 2015 at a $91 million price tag; seating around 11,000 fans. Similar story in Charlotte: BB&T Park, 2014, $54M, capacity of 10,200. The new Las Vegas Park (naming rights forthcoming) will open its doors this April. It cost $150 million to build and also seats roughly 10,200. Portland ironically converted their historic multi-sport venue into a full-time soccer stadium specifically for Major League Soccer.   

It was never the right time (and still isn't) for a stadium developer to jump back in line at City Hall. None of these local governments would be willing to hand over an additional $350 million to build it all again, less than ten years later, but four times larger. 

Since every major U.S. metro area has professional baseball, there is no downward pressure for Oakland, CA and St. Petersburg, FL to work out a plan. Knowing this, both have taken their sweet time on a resolution. Meanwhile, the rest of baseball is lapping them. In the span of the last 23 years, the Atlanta Braves have had three different big league ballparks. The Texas Rangers will soon move into a new facility, 26 years after doing the very same thing before. True, beggars can't be choosers. But these, my friend, are not beggars.   

Relocation animosity is often times misguided. Fans scream at the league for allowing such a thing, when their real issue lies with ownership and the local government bodies. Public enemy in St. Louis is Rams' owner Stan Kroenke. Art Modell (owner of the former Browns, now Ravens) is still that villain in Cleveland; although Ohio had Crew owner Anthony Precourt make a strong case for himself. Are the leagues culpable and complicit? Yes. Each is guilty of making a handful of unethical decisions to aid the process. But they are not the tip of the spear in these blame games. And the survival-of-the-fittest business model is not always without merit. 

Columbus would not be currently pushing a deal through on a new stadium if not for all this Precourt Sports Ventures (PSV) relocation talk. Good or bad, that pressure gets results.If Austin (and all others) already had a team, then MAPFRE Stadium would have continued on as the "good-enough" home of the Crew for the next twenty years. Is that the scenario that should occur? From an ecological/sustainability POV, unquestionably. But that isn't the reality of major sports as big business. There is this quirky consumer spending habit floating around out there: Fans don't like showing up to buildings that are falling apart around them. 

The truth is, professional sports have always desired to be a highly exclusive. Some places that want it can't have it. If franchises were divvied up to any community that expressed interest, the line outside the door would be ten times as long. If all you had to do was sign on the dotted line to receive a franchise, St. Louis would welcome an NFL team back tomorrow; don't pretend like they wouldn't. 

For this unique entertainment industry, a supply/demand imperfection is market equilibrium. Scarcity is essential to franchise maintaining their values; especially in a closed system where all are inflated by a consistent flow of expansion fees. Inclusion into Major League Soccer cannot become an "Expansion Process Participant" ribbon. But, if Garber really put his money where his mouth is — on providing as much soccer as America can stomach — then he'd allow all the competing bids to join. Call him on his hyperbolic bluff. 

If each has ownership groups that will pay it, and city councils that will pass it, is that not a literal representation of what our "big country" is willing to support? After Atlanta's attendance figures rolled in, there's no telling any left outside they can't make it. Franchises are not necessarily awarded in the order of soccer popularity they generate. So, why only two more? His newfound mega-league comments allude to a 36-team MLS someday.

That is so drastically at odds with the plan he consistently laid out for years that I cannot trust anything about expansion beyond 28 is real.    
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Inevitably, Garber is going to have to put the cut line out there somewhere. So why would he delay it? People were just now coming to grips with the fact that next spring would ultimately be the last decision made on the subject. 

Something clearly got to this man. There are a few theories as to why Garber would go on record saying that 30+ franchises is all of a sudden a possibility. 

Option 1: Shiny Object Theory. Saturday was undeniably amazing for Major League Soccer and the sport in this country as a whole. Beyond that, the entire season in Atlanta has been incredible. As Garber noted in his halftime interview, Arthur Blank's club had nine home matches draw more than 70,000 fans. 

But these results enabled an expansion addict. I fear the way in which Atlanta captured a title — two years into existence, spending large sums on foreign talent — gave Garber an unsustainable high. Every time we add a team, in two years, this is the buzz we can expect. This line of thinking certainly makes clubs like the Vancouver Whitecaps FC or Montreal Impact feel expendable. Once the freshest toy on the market; now a relic from a Christmas past, buried in the standings under a sea of newcomers. On and on. 

The issue is that someday the training wheels of expansion are going to have to come off. The league will need to be able to stay upright on its own.  

Option 2: It's a need-based decision, since expansion fees are as valuable as a fresh-water well is to a desert nation.  

Depending on the market, the going rate for a future expansion franchise could reach as high as $200 million. Typically, that fee gets broken into a ten-year installment plan, with the annual payment equally divided into the operating budget of the other clubs. If the league is capped at 28 franchises, 2032 would be the final year revenue from expansion exists. What will take its place to keep the franchise values at their current levels?

It suggests 30 might not be out of the question someday. If there's not a line item in the league's 2033 budget that has grown large enough to compensate for the disappearance of expansion fees, then Garber (or his successor) will open this process once again. 

Option 3: I refuse to believe this one, because it means Don Garber — or someone close to him — is not only in my audience, but is also in agreement with my take on 28 teams.

If you are reading, Mr. Garber, I want to reiterate something that gets muddled in my passion for this topic: I never said that you are stupid. Quite the contrary, in fact. You are a sharp businessman and great for the league. But 28 is stupid. And that is not debatable. 

This crux of this theory is that Garber recognizes the issues I brought to light and is attempting to push through the problems as quick as possible. Linger as long as you can at 27. Then, blow right past 28 to get to the safety of 30:
While this format does make for a more balanced schedule (three conferences of ten; 38 matches) it does still have its drawbacks. Rivals would play twice instead of the four times my pod system produces. The quantity of teams also exacerbates a watering down of the average on-field talent present in each match. 

Option 4: To me, this explanation is the most likely. Garber doesn't really want 30 and he's not going to implement 30. But he's also not fully prepared for the backlash of saying "no." The result is a door that has been cracked ever so slightly open. The light peaking through is there to provide some hope, but not much else. 

In one of my newer pieces, I documented how long I thought Garber would stew on the decision (and how difficult I think it will be). Again, I do not envy his position. It was fun while we were adding every year and he got to be Oprah: "You get an MLS team! You get an MLS team! Everybody gets an MLS team!" The job isn't as glamorous now that there are no more gifts to hand out. 

The commissioner is very aware of these circumstances at play. He knew he was on a path to breaking a lot of hearts. And, as a man that is staunchly against promotion and relegation, Garber understands that whenever it does shut, the intention is for it to stay closed for good. So, what's a guy to do?    

Right before the expansion clock hit triple zeros, Garber used this weekend to add more time to it. Kudos to him, honestly. If he didn't pull this stunt, those that idly watch an Austin jump from 12th place to first — in this most-recent race for bid 27 — would be driven to anger. Waking up to see a St. Louis or Phoenix, in that future article heading supporters thought was meant for their club, will push  over the top. 

Now, places not selected for big number 28 (in mid-2019) aren't as likely to revolt. Mild frustration, sure. But after the dust of obscenities settles, a sentiment of "There's still a vacancy for us" would offer some comfort

The objective from that point is simple: Keep as many as ten U.S. cities on the hook until the tenure as commissioner is over. That way the pristine legacy never tarnishes. Say it with me, Don: "We really want Major League Soccer to be in [enter city name], but we just can't... right now." 

Stall. Retire. Pass the buck to your predecessor. They can either bring in more or keep it at 28. #NotYourProblem. Roll credits on your time in office. Isn't this lifted directly from the modern politician's playbook?  
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If there truly is expansion to 30 clubs, we're talking anywhere between 2024 and 2028. Are the embers in places such as Sacramento strong enough to stay glowing for that long? They have already been waiting for what must feel like an eternity. 

That corny HIMYM episode does actually teach us all a valuable lesson. Sometimes in life, you have to learn to cut yourself free from the line. The infatuation isn't worth your time if the other person is never going to match those feelings. Go find someone that actively wants you back; rather than settles for you only when the situation is on their terms. 

At what point will the scorned MLS hopefuls wise up and do the same? With new products like NISA (National Independent Soccer Association) coming on the scene, they can potentially go be someone's first pick and not 30th. Win the USL twenty times and out-gross a third of Major League Soccer at the ticket window. That'll show everyone you're not a city to string along. 

P.S. - Yes, a grounds crew waters down the carcinogen crumb rubber pellets on the fake grass in that domed stadium. You can see the hoses scattered throughout the pitch in the still frame or video clip. Gotta love synthetic turf's maintenance-free sales pitch. The quality of the league will forever be as poor as the surfaces they provide the players. I have to leave now before sports played on garbage carpets gets me too upset. 

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