July 19 – Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber insists the rise of the cash-rich Saudi Pro League won’t threaten the MLS’s potential expansion into emerging viewing markets.
The Saudis have lured the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema in recent months and has been flexing its financial muscle in an attempt to grow the game. In recent days, former Liverpool star Roberto Firmino has also jumped on the Saudi train with a free transfer to Al-Ahli but Garber says all the global attention doesn’t concern him.
“I remember we were that league and everybody was saying, ‘What’s happening in America with Major League Soccer?’ And then what impact did that have on the rest of the world,” Garber said.
Earlier this week Lionel Messi was unveiled at Inter Miami, ushering in an era of renewed focus on the American game with the US slated to host the 2024 Copa America, the 2025 Club World Cup and the 2026 World Cup.
It’s a massive boost and Garber says he’s not at all worried by the sudden clout of the Saudi league.
“I’m not threatened by that at all. I’ve seen it happen with China, and I wasn’t concerned about that any more than I’m concerned about what’s happening in Saudi Arabia, it’s quite the opposite.”
Football in China however did not enjoy backing from the state. The Saudi Pro League is backed by the Public Investment Fund (PIF), the sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia and recently PIF took control of four top clubs in the league, effectively nationalising them.
The Saudi Pro League wants to be among the top 10 in global revenue generation by 2030.
Garber’s comments appear to have been sparked in part by Ronaldo having a dig at the MLS. After playing the first half of Al Nassr’s 5-0 preseason friendly defeat to La Liga side Celta Vigo in his native Portugal, Ronaldo declared that the MLS couldn’t compete with the Saudis, deliberately making his comments 24 hours after his great rival Messi chose to play in the United States.
“The Saudi league is better than MLS,” Ronaldo said. “Now all the players are coming here. In one year, more top players will come to Saudi Arabia.”
However, rather than seeing that as a threat, Garber believes that spreading the influence of the sport beyond Europe is a good thing.
“The fact that we can spread the power and influence of professional football around the world, I think, gives us all who are in emerging markets an opportunity,” said. Garber said. “I think there will be more opportunity for us to be very, very targeted to specific audiences, whether that’s in Portuguese or other languages.”
Messi is reportedly set to make $50-60 million a year with his contract running through until 2025, and Garber is hugely optimistic about the future.
“The league has significance, it’s got 30 teams, and it’s got a valuation of $15 billion,” Garber said. “Think about that, $15 billion, that’s the collective value of all of our teams. When I came in it was $250 million. So I don’t think that there’s any look back. It now is ‘What’s the future going to look like?’
“You have heard us say that we want MLS to be a league of choice, a league of choice for players, for fans, for partners, and ultimately for investors. When you have the best player of all time making Major League Soccer his league of choice, I think it’s a real testament as to where MLS is and where it’s going in the years ahead.”
“It’s just continuing to defy everyone’s expectations,” Garber added. “And at some point, five years from now or 10 years from now, there will be some player who is thinking about Major League Soccer because he saw the success and experience of Lionel Messi with Inter Miami.”
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