When Major League Soccer agreed upon its collective bargaining agreement in 2011, the number one issue discussed between the league and its players union revolved around drug testing rules.
The number one issue five years later in 2015? It was all about data.
MLS Commissioner Don Garber met with the media on Tuesday evening at the GeekWire Sports Tech Summit Welcome Party at The NINETY in downtown Seattle.
Garber, who will appear on stage during a fireside chat Wednesday at the Sports Tech Summit, revealed that as players and league representatives hashed out the most recent CBA, the highest-priority issue centered around medical data collection and information sharing.
“It was the first issue we dealt with,” said Garber, who became commissioner in 1999. “We are trying to find ways we can help our players be better, faster, and stronger; recuperate and train better; and give coaches more information to be able to help them put a better product on the field.”
Many MLS players wear devices both during games and practice that track a number of metrics. The Seattle Sounders, for example, use wearable GPS harnesses from Catapult Sports to track precisely how fast and for how long an athlete is moving around on the field. That information is important for a variety of reasons — for example, the data can help the team determine how an injured player can recover most effectively, or how hard he’s working on the field.
As a result, each player now has a wealth of data to their name, some of which can be valuable in terms assessing overall value and performance. It’s important for the league to manage how that information is used, particularly when a player changes teams. Garber called it a “huge priority.”
“It could be our biggest,” he noted.
Added Garber, on data collection: “Frankly, since [soccer] is a fairly simple game to play, the more data we can collect, the more effective we will be.”
On a broader level, Garber 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, where Garber worked for 16 years before heading up the MLS.
He noted that because the MLS has the youngest fan base of all the major leagues “from a consumer perspective,” it is focused on utilizing new technology to communicate with fans.
“Technology allows us to be smarter and allows us to communicate more effectively with a very young and increasingly-digital fan base,” he said. “It allows us to have a very large and expressive global communication mechanism.”
Garber said that the MLS, whose employees have an average age of 27, has more people working on the digital editorial and technical teams than any other department.
“Those are people dealing with fan data collection and analysis, marketing communications, technical data collection, media and broadcast technology,” he explained. “It’s our DNA and it’s going to become more and more part of the DNA of our industry.”
Garber also addressed a number of other soccer-related topics, including the debate over using turf fields, an expanded playoff system, and more. Check out The Seattle Times’ coverage for his additional comments.
Stay tuned to GeekWire for coverage of Garber’s fireside chat with GeekWire co-founder John Cook at Wednesday’s Sports Tech Summit.