Growing the game: Garber says MLS will have plan in 6 months to expand beyond 24 teams

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NEW YORK — Having committed to reach 24 teams by the end of the decade, Major League Soccer intends to develop additional expansion plans within six months.

MLS launched with 12 teams in 1996 and cut to 10 in 2002. There are 20 this year following the additions of New York City and Orlando, and the league already has announced Atlanta and a second Los Angeles team will start play in 2017, Minneapolis will join in 2018 and David Beckham will own a Miami team whose start date is uncertain.

"In the next six months, we've got to come together and develop a plan with our ownership to determine when we go further, because we will," MLS Commissioner Don Garber said Friday during a meeting with the Associated Press Sports Editors. "We will expand this league beyond 24 teams. It's not an if, it's a when."

MLS says cities expressing interest included Austin, Texas; Sacramento, California; St. Louis; and San Antonio; and to a lesser extent El Paso, Texas; Indianapolis; and Las Vegas.

Most first divisions around the world are 18 or 20 teams, and most have promotion and relegation from the lower leagues. Garber says the league is different because "our teams are not clubs, they're local businesses."

"I believe that we can expand and manage a league far larger than we are today without having to contemplate promotion and relegation," he said. "I will certainly tell you in the near term, and that near term is a long time from now, there's not going to be promotion and relegation. It makes absolutely no sense. There is not a developed secondary division. We have union agreements. We have national television deals. We have investors that have put in billions of dollars. It is not going to be something that could be managed in anytime soon."

While MLS announced a deal with Beckham for a Miami team in January 2014, no timetable has been set because of the lack of a stadium location.

"Miami will be in Major League Soccer by the end of the decade," is all Garber would specify.

"We had two mayors push us to waterfront locations, and then we were not able to finalize a deal on those sites," he added. "Now we've got to say: Are there other downtown urban locations that make might sense for us? And we believe there are several, and that's what we've been working on."

Garber said he expects an announcement on a stadium site for the second Los Angeles team within 30-45 days and said for the New York City team "we're recognizing it's probably going to take longer than we thought." Co-owned by the New York Yankees, NYCFC started play at Yankee Stadium.

"There hasn't been too much buzz about playing in Yankee Stadium or a baseball stadium yet," Garber said. "That will happen soon, after somebody trips on a divot perhaps and perhaps misses a ground ball, but we hope that doesn't happen."

In Minneapolis, the league opted to award an expansion team to a group that wants to build an open-air soccer stadium and turned down the Minnesota Vikings' owners.

"What could be better than having a group of successful sports guys, NFL guys, be unhappy that they haven't bought a soccer team?" Garber said. "We just wanted a downtown soccer stadium."

With new eight-year television contracts with ESPN, Fox and Univision and attendance growth, Garber said "we're riding a wave of shifting demographics and a country that is so dramatically different today than it even was when we launched 20 years ago."

"That millennial population from 18 to 24 and 24 to 35, their second favorite sport after the NFL is professional soccer." he said. "We need to have that not be professional soccer but to be Major League Soccer."

Still, revenue growth hasn't ended the league's financial losses.

"Where we need to be financially is to have a more valuable television product and be no different than the other leagues, whether it's the Premier League or the other American-based leagues, and have media be our primary revenue stream," Garber said. "Today our primary revenue is tickets, our secondary revenue is our stadium income and our third revenue is media. That needs to shift literally and be turned upside down."

Next week, MLS will announce new rules for its allocation order that determines which teams can sign international players, Garber said.

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