AUSTIN, TX. — Count Don Garber among the folks who are looking forward to video assistant referee technology being used during Major League Soccer matches.
The MLS commissioner was in Austin, Texas on Saturday for a 1-on-1 fireside chat at SXSW, the annual conference that features a bevy of top sports leaders talking about how technology is changing their respective games.
Garber, interviewed on stage by Sports Illustrated writer Grant Wahl, voiced his support for the video assistant referees (VAR), which were tested during the preseason and will be used during actual games after the MLS All Star Game this August.
The technology consists of a human referee sitting in a booth alongside the pitch with access to video feeds from different angles; he or she will provide assistance to the head referee on four “game-changing” situations: Goals, penalty calls, direct red-card incidents and cases of mistaken identity.
In the preseason tests, Garber said out of the 20 or so plays that were reviewed by the new technology, about 20 percent had a dramatic impact on the game.
Garber noted that MLS simply needed to get with the times as it relates to how other leagues like the NFL and NBA use replay technology — he said fans “deserve” it.
“We have to adapt to the way the North American sports fan consumes their sports,” he said. “I believe the lack of technology was unfair to the fan.”
The league had to work with FIFA and IFAB, two soccer governing bodies that oversee some MLS rules, to implement VAR. MLS still won’t be able to show replays on the big-screen inside stadiums because of FIFA’s discretion. Garber said the system will “ultimately evolve” and “be like it is in other leagues.”
Garber added that it always frustrated him how global governing bodies “did not understand how technology allows the fan, the player, and our technical people to get better and yet we can’t use it in the games that actually make the experience better.”
The commissioner, who shared his support of technology at the GeekWire Sports Tech Summit last year, said he’s looking forward to other tech implementations like putting microphones on the field that pick up player chatter.
“Hopefully we can have more a lot more technology in the sport,” said Garber, who became MLS commissioner in 1999 after a 16-year stint with the NFL.
Garber also talked about MLS’ new streaming deal with Facebook; the potential of sports gambling in his league; and Twitter.
On the streaming deal:
“It came about proactively. Our TV broadcast rights and the ability for those broadcasters to stream games lives with FOX, ESPN, and Univision. We were in San Jose for the All Star Game last year and spent some time with Facebook and Dan Reed (head of sports partnerships, formerly worked for the NBA). All the leagues are trying to figure out how can we continue to have our games available on as many platforms as possible. We were able to find very unique way to extend Univision’s relationship with us and provide those games on Facebook in English language.
There will be 22 games and we’re the first league to have an extended package on Facebook. It gives us an opportunity to really see how all these new platforms can work for us — what will the quality of the broadcast be; will more people engage with Facebook than perhaps would engage, at least in this case, the SAP function on their traditional television or platform. It’s also a good way for Facebook to put their toe deeper in the water. As a sports league, we are in the business of selling our rights — it drives the economic engine of professional sports. As the cable model changes, as broadcasters start thinking about what their revenue models look like with how subscription and ad revenue come together or go apart, how platforms come into play — you have to be in the business.”
On his social media use (Garber’s Twitter handle is @thesoccerdon):
“The handle has nothing to do with the fact that I can probably recite every line from The Godfather. It was a creative way that our communications chief came up with and it’s been turned into this thing related to Tony Soprano. I actually do engage on Twitter more so than I engage on Facebook. It has been a good way to communicate directly to fans; somebody else decided it was a good way to communicate with all sorts of people in the country, so it’s proven to be true.
It’s a news source for me and allows me to get information quickly from places that I find important. It is a frustrating place to be public. I just saw a deeply, deeply anti-semetic meme that was posted on Twitter that was one of the more disgusting things you could ever see. That lives and still lives on Twitter. You have lots and lots of really bad things happening on Twitter. That’s not fun.
On legalization of sports gambling in the U.S.:
“We have a project going on now to really dig in deeply and understand it. I’ll be the third commissioner (along with NBA’s Adam Silver and MLB’s Rob Manfred) in and say I’m very open to understanding how we can get more engaged in this market in a way that I think if done properly, can be regulated and managed and controlled. I’ll join the chorus of saying it’s time to bring it out of the dark ages. We’re doing what we can to figure out how to manage that effectively.”