Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber said he can envision big ways in which data and technology could impact his league for fans — whether the players and their union are going to always be onboard remains to be seen.
Garber spoke Wednesday during a wide-ranging “fireside chat” at the GeekWire Sports Tech Summit at Safeco Field in Seattle. He touched on questions surrounding ways to enhance fan engagement and analyze player performance through technology.
“How do we get that data, get it up on ESPN or Fox and grow our television ratings, because we’ve got to grow our audience,” Garber said, when relaying the story of how important data analytics became during contract negotiations with players.
“I want to know, and Landon Donovan doesn’t agree with me on this, that when he’s standing over that ball and he’s in the MLS Cup final, and his heart is racing and he’s got a penalty kick, I want to be able to show on air what’s happening. And when he hits it, what does it look like, and when he misses it, what does it look like.”
Garber’s interest in a player’s heart rate and which players may be cooler under pressure is all about growing the fan base he said. He added, “I can assure you, our players and their union want nothing of that. So that’s not gonna happen anytime soon.”
Just a block away from the stadium where the Seattle Sounders FC play to a rabid, young and tech-savvy fanbase, Garber acknowledged that MLS is not “kings of the game” but rather participants in a “global product.”
He said it’s important to pay respect to “the beautiful game” by knowing how to separate the desire to add enhancements to the viewing experience while recognizing that the game’s simplicity is important for many.
But beyond having the most skilled players, there is a belief that the teams that do the best job of embracing technology put themselves in a better position to win championships.
“In a league like ours, parity-based systems, everybody, for the most part, has the same tools,” Garber said. “So those that are smarter win.”
How fans at the stadium or at home can “win” while viewing a match will evolve as well. If Garber had one piece of technology he could add to transform the fan experience, he said it would be “fun,” as he touched on the hysteria around Pokémon Go and augmented reality.
“Just to be fun for a second, how could we use altered reality to have somebody watch a game and be able to have things that we could push to them that would matter to them,” Garber said, adding that it’s all about getting the viewer to stay with a broadcast that doesn’t feature a lot of scoring.
Garber also spoke about what place video review will have in the game and how GPS trackers worn by officials help the League monitor what kind of job those officials are doing and determine whether they should keep doing it.
And he touched on the future of sports and media and whether a social media platform like YouTube or a streaming service such as Netflix or Amazon will be sports broadcast desitination in the near future.
Tuesday night, Garber attended the Summit welcome party at The Ninety in downtown Seattle where he said technology is “part of the DNA” of MLS.
He said that it’s crucial for the MLS to embrace new technology, particularly as it grows its following in the U.S. and competes for mindshare against larger leagues like the NBA and NFL.
Garber, 58, has had a lengthy career in the sports industry in a variety of roles. He was named MLS commissioner on Aug. 4, 1999, after spending 16 years with the National Football League.
In his 17 years in the top job, Garber has helped to build a strong foundation for professional soccer in the United States and Canada. MLS has added 20 new investors, expanding and diversifying the League’s ownership group, and the competitive landscape has changed dramatically with 13 new expansion teams.
Garber has also led the effort to develop soccer-specific stadiums for MLS teams. Fifteen stadiums have been built during his tenure, and two more have been renovated with soccer in mind.