Thursday, January 11, 2018

I Listened to Don Garber So You Don't Have To by Jake Steinberg

I Listened to Don Garber So You Don’t Have To

It’s cliché but true to suggest that you shouldn’t assume malice when incompetence is more likely. But sometimes you hear something so wrong-headed that you’d prefer it to be disingenuous. I finally got around to listening to DonGarber’s appearance on the Men In Blazers Podcast  and if these are his honest arguments in opposition to #ProRelForUSA, than soccer in this country has bigger issues than I would like to admit.

Let’s start with his first statement, which amounts to a denial of personal responsibility.

Don Garber: I don't think [promotion and relegation is] inevitable and I don't think it's got anything to do with me, Roger.

We know it’s not inevitable, that’s why some of us spend our time and energy fighting for it. Please don’t insult our intelligence: it might not be your decision entirely, but in addition to your position with MLS you serve on the board of USSF, the governing body of the sport in the US. As a member of the board of the organization that determines leagues’ divisional sanctioning, whether closed leagues are given divisional sanctions certainly has something to do with you. And you clearly have some influence over the game generally. If you oppose pro/rel, fine, happy to disagree with you. But let’s not start off by pretending you don’t share some of the blame for us not having it.

DG: It's got to do with whether or not you can continue to have owners and municipalities and sponsors and broadcasters invest in a league without knowing ultimately what teams are going to be in that league.

There’s a logical fallacy called a special pleading. It relies on asserting that there is something unique about a situation without substantiating why that situation is unique. It’s endemic to criticisms of pro/rel in the United States. In virtually every other country, owners, sponsors, broadcasters, and municipalities invest in leagues without knowing who will be in the league the next year. Why is the United States different? In addition, pro/rel provides more guidance for new investors. Teams start at the bottom, and garner investment as they prove themselves, rather than requiring huge start-up costs in unproven markets. To use the most pressing example, Austin, we don’t really know if MLS will succeed there. We have some limited data points about teams (the Aztex, UT-Austin) and market research. In a pro/rel universe, a low-level team can demonstrate it merits top-flight investment, rather than investors just risking it upfront. And don’t even get me started on the dishonesty embedded in that mention of municipalities.

DG: So in today's world the L.A. galaxy would be relegated down to the USL. Their designated players would they be sold would they go to Louisville or would they go to Cincinnati? And we have contract with those players they're members of a union. We have salary caps that are contingent upon our agreement with the union.

Look, anytime you hear someone putatively advocating on behalf of a group they are ordinarily adverse to, your bullshit detector should be going off. Don Garber doesn’t speak for the players’ union. The players’ union doesn’t want Don Garber speaking for them. The players can voice their own concerns, and not for nothing, but to the extent we have any data on this, players have usually supported pro/rel.

This also assumes that the salary cap MLS has put in place is a good thing. I’m not going to get into that much here, but Mr. Garber needs to show his work. Teams in danger of relegation everywhere in the world structure their contracts to reflect that reality. Why are US clubs different? Why are we supposed to be protecting the owners at the expense of players?

I’ll also note that earlier in this podcast, Garber derided Columbus’s attendance for being the worst in the league. But it’s a tragedy if some players wind up in Cincinnati? What is he talking about?

DG: It's not about Don Garber and a handful of owners deciding that there's no promotion relegation.

That’s true. It would be easier if you folks got behind it, but you’re not the ultimate decision-makers. We’re supposed to have an independent federation that holds leagues accountable, MLS attempts to influence the federation that notwithstanding.

DG: It requires a total change of Major League Soccer as it exists today. Which has done a reasonably good job and I think you'd acknowledge of building a viable professional league that millions and millions of fans can get excited about.

You’re right. It does require a total change in MLS. It would be a change for the better. And sure, MLS has done “a reasonably good job.” Time for it to do better. An MLS team is still yet to win the CONCACAF Champions League, lagging behind LigaMX. While MLS is important, it is not preordained to be the the top-flight league in the US, nor is the whole of soccer in the United States.

DG: And by the way 3000 employees. 680 players. Five years ago this would be unthinkable.

So? Times change. MLS employees are only threatened to the extent that MLS can’t adopt to a pro/rel world. To say nothing of the fact that currently, lower-division teams operate on shoestring budgets, because they can’t move up, which limits the opportunities for them to drive interest in their clubs. What about the employment opportunities lost in the lower divisions? Players are certainly not threatened by a system likely to increase professionalism in soccer.

Look, I get that Don Garber represents the MLS, and is going to try to defend what he perceives as the interests of the MLS. That doesn’t make his arguments persuasive and it certainly doesn’t mean that his arguments carry any moral weight. Don Garber also serves on the USSF board, and even though his position as a professional council representative means he does, and should, represent MLS’s interests at the board level, board service generally comes with a responsibility to the greater mission of the organization, the promotion and health of soccer in the United States.

DG: So I understand there is a group of people who think it would be fun but this is about ensuring that soccer professionally could live for generations and the benefit is what? The final game would be exciting?

Ooh, a strawman! I was waiting for one of these. Yes, many of us think it would be fun. We also think it would be better for the game and would be the thing that would actually ensure that professional soccer would live for generations. What you appear to be concerned with is not the long-term viability of professional soccer in the US, but the continued control of professional soccer by the current MLS ownership contingent. I don’t care about that at all. And the last time I checked, sports were supposed to be fun.

Global soccer history shows that closed leagues are the leagues that fail, while open leagues tend to be sustainable and live for generations. Looking around the US Soccer landscape, MLS alone has lost multiple teams, had another move, and is about to see one of its most iconic clubs leave for another city. Meanwhile, it’s replaced those clubs largely with teams that proved themselves in lower-division leagues (Sounders, Timbers, Impact, Minnesota United) or by considering clubs in cities that have proven records of supporting lower-division teams (Sacramento, Cincinnati, Detroit). This doesn’t even address the many lower-division teams that have folded. Once again, Garber is relying on the argument that MLS is the whole of US club soccer, and even if we accept that dubious premise, his argument isn’t even right.

DG: Do they actually think that our teams are not trying hard? If they don't think that they're going to make MLS Cup?

No.I think the players are trying their hardest, but I’m not actually sure why, beyond professional pride. What incentive is there to win an end-of-season match between Colorado Rapids and DC United? Why shouldn’t players in those matches be more concerned with simply avoiding injury? This is without even addressing the evidence we have of tanking in other sports, since we have no reason to think it doesn’t or won’t happen in MLS if it remains a closed league.

DG: Do they think in the January or the summer window all of a sudden we're going to take apart our salary cap and a team that is in the bubble of the playoffs is all going to sudden spend 10 million dollars be exciting it's just not possible.

What are you babbling about now? Teams will build for a long-term future. The same way they do in virtually every other soccer league in the world. By the way, is this suggesting that teams in closed leagues don’t give up around the trade deadline? I’m pretty sure they do that in every closed league.

DG: But no it is not at all about my personal point of view Roger it's not just about our own point of view. It's about a structure.

This is true but meaningless. Of course it’s about a structure. We think there is a better structure that ought to be implemented.

-Jake Steinberg is the chairperson of San Francisco City FC's members' board. His work on soccer has also appeared on The Economist's Game Theory blog. He sporadically tweets, mostly about SF City but occasionally about basketball, law, and his dog under the handle @SFJoachim.


  1. "This is without even addressing the evidence we have of tanking in other sports, since we have no reason to think it doesn’t or won’t happen in MLS if it remains a closed league."

    I think the big difference between MLS and other American sports is that, while MLS is a closed league, it operates in a global market but is not the premier league in its respective sport. Other American sports leagues encourage tanking through negative reinforcement via a draft system. With academies and a global labor market, there is no incentive to tank.

    1. You get extra GAM, TAM, move up the allocation order, and higher draft picks in MLS. There are incentives to tank.

      The draft isn't just as important as it is in other sports in the United States.