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MLS president Mark Abbott on Apple, future expansion, and calling time on 30 years with the league

As the author of the organisation’s first business plan in 1993, Major League Soccer (MLS) president Mark Abbott is uniquely placed to discuss the evolution of the men’s professional game in North America. As he prepares to call time on nearly 30 years with the competition, Abbott reflects on how MLS has changed in that time and what the future holds for the league.

4 November 2022 Sam Carp

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Major League Soccer (MLS) might have undergone significant change over the last 30 years, but there has always been one constant.

Now president of North America’s premier soccer competition, Mark Abbott was MLS’s first employee when it was founded in 1993 and was the architect of the competition’s original business plan. Since then, the 58-year-old has held various roles at the league, including senior vice president of business affairs, before taking up his current position in 2013.

Speaking to SportsPro now, Abbott says that while the business plan has significantly evolved, the basic concepts “remain in place”.

“We’re business partners off the field, competitors on the field, and the structure that codifies that allows us to react to changes in the marketplace,” he explains. “We see changes at any given time, but the fact that we have this structure and the way it works, that hasn’t changed. That’s one of the foundational things.”

This season will be Abbott’s last with MLS after it was revealed in November last year that he will be stepping down from his post at the end of 2022. Abbott is departing the organisation as it prepares for a pivotal few years, a period which will see it embark on a new ten-year global media rights partnership with Apple before the Fifa World Cup arrives in the US for a second time in 2026.

Ahead of this weekend’s MLS Cup final between Los Angeles FC and the Philadelphia Union, SportsPro picks out some of the highlights from a conversation with Abbott at the Leaders sports business conference in September.

MLS president Mark Abbott speaking at a press conference in 2015

Abbott on… MLS franchise valuations

One thing guaranteed to get the sports industry talking on an annual basis is the growth in MLS franchise valuations.

According to Sportico, which released its most recent ranking of MLS team values at the end of September, a club in North America’s top flight is now worth US$582 million on average, representing a 55 per cent increase compared to 2021. At US$900 million, LAFC are the most valuable MLS club, followed by their cross-city rivals the Galaxy and Atlanta United.

Perhaps most intriguing, though, is that the average revenue for MLS clubs is US$57 million, meaning the average team value is 10.2 times more than the amount of money the franchises are bringing in on an annual basis.

It makes an interesting point of comparison with England’s Premier League, the richest domestic soccer competition in the world, where even middling clubs like Newcastle United and Southampton have recently sold for markedly less than the value of the average MLS franchise – despite generating significantly more in annual revenue.

Abbott believes that the rising valuations in MLS – as well as the profile of the individuals investing in the teams – is testament to the growth trajectory of the league. But the fact that MLS is a closed competition where clubs don’t face the threat of relegation is undoubtedly one of the biggest drivers of value for investors.

“I think it shows the interest that very serious people have in our league and their belief in not only what we’ve achieved, which is significant, but our continued growth trajectory,” Abbott says. “It’s a mix of both. When you look at the people who have chosen to get involved with our league, it’s the very top of our industry, so I think it’s really validating that they’ve chosen to invest here, and that they see what’s happening with soccer in America and Canada. I think the valuations reflect that.”

MLS continues to attract high-profile investors, including former England captain David Beckham

Abbott on… Apple’s global streaming deal

Announced in June, Apple’s deal with MLS marked the technology company’s most significant sports media rights investment to date.

Starting from next season and running until the end of the 2032 campaign, the agreement means that the Apple TV app will become the only place to watch every game, which fans will be able to access by subscribing to a new, dedicated MLS streaming service. It was widely reported that the contract is worth US$250 million per year to MLS, marking a decent uplift on the annual US$90 million it receives from its expiring agreements with ESPN, Fox and Univision.

“I think it’s huge,” Abbott says of the deal. “Our fanbase is young, digitally native, that’s where they consume now. So to be where they are, with the leading company in this area, is something that’s really significant for us.

“The second thing is to be able to be incorporated into their ecosystem. Things like Apple News will allow us to reach people and deepen connections with people that we’re already connected with in a way that I think would be difficult to do with another company. So there’s a financial aspect, but it’s really building the fanbase and deepening the connection with the fanbase.”

There’s a commitment to have something that is appropriate to what the Apple platform is in the minds of consumers, to have top-level production. So I think that’s going to be an advantage.

Mark Abbott, President, Major League Soccer

Still, though, the deal has split opinion. Interestingly, the 2022 regular season has delivered the best audiences on ESPN and ABC since 2007 but, for the most part, MLS viewership on linear television has stagnated in recent years. That has prompted some onlookers to question the decision to go behind another paywall on a less familiar platform, especially in the build-up to a home World Cup.

Abbott, however, sees it differently, highlighting that some games will be available for free.

“There’s a direct-to-consumer aspect of it, but then there’s also matches that will be available on Apple TV+ in front of the wall. And in the early years, there’ll be some linear distribution also.

“So I think that it’s going to reach more people than any platform that we’ve had in the past. Everybody can connect to this on any device that they have. So I think that while I’ve read those [criticisms], I actually think the opposite is true. I think the broader distribution [will be] reaching more people than we’ve been [reaching] with the way that we’ve been managing our packages to date.”

While the value of the deal is an improvement on the previous arrangement, its duration could also be seen as prohibitive in allowing MLS to cash in on any post-World Cup boom in popularity. Teams will also not be able to negotiate local TV deals anymore and the league will be producing the games itself, which will generate additional costs.

Subscription revenues should help offset those costs but it remains a significant undertaking for a league to go it alone without the expertise of a traditional broadcaster.

“I don’t think it’s a challenge,” Abbott contends. “It’s a big job, and [MLS deputy commissioner] Gary [Stevenson] and his group are working around the clock on that. But I think there’s a commitment to have something that is appropriate to what the Apple platform is in the minds of consumers, to have top level production. So I think that’s going to be an advantage, not a disadvantage.”

Abbott on… future MLS expansion

Next season is expected to see St Louis City SC become MLS’s 29th team, which would leave just one place available under the league’s previously stated ambition to reach 30 franchises.

For a long time it had looked like that franchise slot would go to Las Vegas, a city that has welcomed a slew of professional sports clubs in recent years, including National Football League (NFL), National Hockey League (NHL) and Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) teams.

In January, it emerged that MLS had entered exclusive talks with Wes Edens and Nassef Sawiris, the co-owners of Premier League side Aston Villa, about bringing an expansion franchise to Sin City. However, it now appears that Vegas could face some competition from San Diego, where an investment group has reportedly been ‘regularly meeting’ with MLS and is expected to launch an expansion bid this month.

Speaking this week during his annual State of the League press conference, MLS commissioner Don Garber discussed the merits of the two cities and said the league aims to finalise its 30th team “sometime in the first half” of 2023. 

Abbott suggests that both markets are attractive to the league, although it is less clear if there would be room for two new franchises.

“I think that, clearly, we’re going to go to 30 [teams],” Abbott says. “Las Vegas is a market that we’re very focused on and we haven’t made plans to go beyond 30. There’s room in the United States, for sure, for other markets, and a market that we really like is San Diego. It’s got a great stadium opportunity, a dynamic market, we think it can be good. But we haven’t made the decision beyond 30 yet. I don’t see significant growth beyond where we are. If you look at where the other leagues in the US are, they’re in the 30 to 32 range.

“You can’t ever say what’s going to happen in the very long term, but in the medium term, clearly to 30. We’ll evaluate what next after we do that.”

Allegiant Stadium has previously hosted the Leagues Cup but could Las Vegas soon have a permanent MLS franchise?

Abbott on… the perception of the league

Ever since being established MLS has tried to shake off the idea that it is merely a retirement home for European soccer’s elite talent. And perhaps unfairly, the stereotype many casual fans in Europe associate with American soccer supporters is that which is portrayed in the hit Apple TV show Ted Lasso.

Former England captain David Beckham, now one of the owners of Inter Miami, was famously one of the first big names to ply his trade in MLS and has since been followed by the likes of Thierry Henry, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, David Villa, Wayne Rooney, Didier Drogba and Andrea Pirlo. More recently, Gareth Bale has joined LAFC and even Lionel Messi has this week been linked with a move to join Beckham in south Florida.

Abbott, though, believes the perception of the league is changing among both fans and players. He points out that the Seattle Sounders recently became the first team outside of Mexico to win the Concacaf Champions League.

“We are, with Mexico, the leading two leagues in our region, and that was an important objective for us,” Abbott says. “When you try to look at metrics outside of direct competition, which we don’t have against European leagues, some of the metrics you can look at is we expect to have 40 players playing in the World Cup this year. That ranks us sixth in the world.

“So clearly we have a high-level product. And I think that’s only going to continue to get better. We’re seeing the fruits of the development system that we started 15 years ago. It’s taken some years and investment, but we’re starting to see the fruits of that now.

“I think that there’s a changing perception of players when they’re coming to our league, but also what it means when you come when you’re 31 or 32. You’re still in a very productive phase of your career.”

Giorgio Chiellini (left) and Gareth Bale (centre) are two of the latest stars to trade Europe for North America

On the topic of Mexico, next season will mark the beginning of even closer collaboration between MLS and Liga MX with an expanded version of the Leagues Cup. Just four teams took part when the tournament debuted in 2019, but the 2023 edition will see both leagues pause for the month of August so that every club can take part in a World Cup-style format, with the top three sides qualifying for the Champions League.

Previous suggestions that Liga MX and MLS could one day merge to form a major North American competition appear to have subsided for now, but Abbott believes the introduction of a competitive, meaningful annual tournament will help to build what he describes as a “regional rivalry”.

“There’s nothing planned beyond what we’re doing now,” he continues. “But we have a great relationship with [Liga MX] and we know them so well. We have a common goal, which is to build our sport in our region and, as the two strongest leagues, to work together. I think Concacaf has figured out a club system that works really well. To integrate this into the Champions League I think is a significant step in terms of optimising club competition in our region.”

Abbott on… leaving MLS behind

Abbot asserts that the priority for MLS has always been to “be among the best leagues in the world”, something which the organisation measures in a variety of ways, including quality of competition, the strength of its fan culture and its enterprise value.

It hasn’t always been plain sailing. MLS lost an estimated US$250 million in its first five years and was on the brink of bankruptcy at the turn of the millennium. Now, with clubs selling for hundreds of millions of dollars and a new US$2.5 billion broadcast deal, it at least has a platform to continue to grow the game in North America.

To have seen what has happened over this period of time and to see the continued opportunity for growth, I couldn’t be more optimistic about what’s going to happen with our league.

Mark Abbott, President, Major League Soccer

With his 30-year stint at the league drawing to a close, Abbott won’t be part of that next chapter. But you get the impression he’ll be watching on with interest.

“It’s been an unbelievable opportunity to have been involved with something from the very start,” he reflects. “When you’re 28 years old, you can’t think of what something’s going to look like 30 years [later], it’s impossible to think of those timescales. But to have seen what has happened over this period of time and to see the continued opportunity for growth, I couldn’t be more optimistic about what’s going to happen with our league in, forget 30 years, the next five years.

“I’m immensely proud of that. And just grateful to have been given this opportunity to be part of it.

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