A sports league is only as strong as its owners and MLS has certainly become stronger and smarter over the past few months. Commissioner Don Garber deserves credit for landing successful leaders of both Real Salt Lake and Orlando City SC, two franchises that needed new, stable control and direction.
Landing David Blitzer, Ryan Smith, Dwyane Wade and Arctos Sports Partners to take over Real Salt Lake, Rio Tinto Stadium and related properties for a reported $400 million is a masterstroke by Garber, as he gets an all-star team that is in it for the right reasons. Don’t overlook what Blitzer brings to the table — he has a history and understanding of sports ownership and he’s one of the most well-liked owners I know in sports. From the 76ers, the Devils, Crystal Palace, now Real Salt Lake and soon to be the Guardians, he becomes one of the more connected and dialed-in owners across sports. He sees the tremendous opportunities that these sports assets possess, as well as the future value of them. What separates Blitzer from others is just the person he is — quality character and approachable. He doesn’t take himself too seriously and keeps a circle around him from all walks of life, which surely helps him stay grounded. I love pairing him with Utah native Smith, who in just a short period of time has shown himself to be a forward-thinking executive who truly believes in the powerful role a sports organization can play in a community. Smith has bold ambitions of using sports to amplify the business and lifestyle of Utah, and he’s successfully recruited Wade, who has taken all the right steps toward team ownership. Combine those three with the sound, strategic counsel of Arctos, Ian Charles and Doc O’Connor, and you could see Real Salt Lake becoming one of the leading organizations in MLS.
That move builds off Garber’s accomplishment last August when he brought on the Wilf family as the majority owners of Orlando City SC and the NWSL’s Orlando Pride. The family, which has owned the Vikings since 2005, has always been interested in MLS, as it first sought to own a team in the Twin Cities but lost out to Bill McGuire. It later became a minority owner in Nashville SC before becoming the lead owner in Orlando.
In two dynamic moves within six months, Garber secured financially savvy, well-resourced, capable operators who understand the sports business and the complexities of team ownership. He made two of the league’s weaker franchises stronger, all while the league negotiates a critical media rights deal. All business partners look at the stability and strength of a league’s ownership — and in a story that shouldn’t be overlooked — MLS has quickly become more compelling, more powerful and instantly more viable.
The Winter Olympics start in less than three weeks. You’re forgiven if you had no idea, because you’re not alone — the promotion has been almost nonexistent, and it even feels like NBC has backed down from its constant hype machine. Because of the challenges surrounding Beijing, this will be the first Olympic Games since 2008 that Sports Business Journal won’t be sending a reporter in person. The lack of enthusiasm is too bad, but understandable. There are just too many headwinds. Yes, there is timing. Sponsors have said they just couldn’t execute around Beijing, as they didn’t have enough runway to effectively plan, coming less than six months after Tokyo. Beyond the timing, the brands, and probably NBC, want to avoid the social, cultural and political headaches around China. Sponsors can’t win unless they are uncharacteristically willing to put principles over profit as WTA Chairman Steve Simon and the WTA are seemingly doing. The International Olympic Committee won’t help them navigate this, as it has a blind spot when it comes to China, viewing it as a financial lifeline, and the IOC is unwilling to take any public stance against them. So, my sense is the stakeholders know they just have to lay low and ride this one out while looking forward to the potential and promise of Paris. That will be the true test of whether the Olympic movement can move beyond two of the most challenging Olympic environments — Tokyo and Beijing — we’ve ever seen.
Erik Bacharach has joined SBJ as a staff reporter, primarily covering baseball. He is nearing completion of his master’s degree in sports management from Columbia University. He worked as the Titans beat writer for The Tennessean, where he covered the team’s run to the 2020 AFC championship game, the 2019 NFL draft in Nashville, and the first few seasons of the Mike Vrabel era in Tennessee. Before that, he covered Middle Tennessee State athletics and had stints covering high school sports for the Opelika-Auburn News and Newsday. Erik, a Long Island native, will be based in New York City and can be reached at email@example.com. Please drop him a note and introduce yourself.
Abraham Madkour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.