International growth potential and collective-bargaining agreements were recurring themes during Thursday’s opening sessions of the annual Associated Press Sports Editors commissioners meetings in New York.
In 90-minute question-and-answer roundtables at the Manhattan offices of Major League Soccer, the NBA and Major League Baseball, the commissioners of the three leagues expressed relief at leaving behind the financial challenges of 2009 and talked in glowing terms about the year at hand.

Friday’s final-day lineup includes sessions at the offices of ESPN, the NHL, the NFL and the NFL Players’ Association.

Having just crossed the i’s and dotted the t’s on a new CBA, Don Garber has big plans for soccer in 2010 – and not just Major League Soccer.

With MLS expansion franchises springing up last year in Seattle, this year in Philadelphia and next season in Portland and Vancouver, Canada – and negotiations ongoing to expand to Montreal, plus hopes of adding a second New York-area team “by the middle of the decade” — the MLS commissioner is focused on making the game “relevant” in the U.S.

MLS should get a major shot in the arm this summer with the World Cup in South Africa. For the first time, MLS will put its season on hold during portions of the global tournament.

“It didn’t make sense to compete with the most important thing going on in the game,” he said. “I think the World Cup ratings will shock everybody.”

Garber said the league is intimately involved in the U.S. bidding process for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. Bids for those editions must be submitted by May 14, with an announcement set for Dec. 2.

“We feel hopeful and optimistic about it,” he said.

Garber’s office is also negotiating to bring Manchester United to Houston for this summer’s MLS All-Star Game at Reliant Stadium. The tentative date for that event is July 28, after conclusion of the World Cup.

It’s all part of Garber’s mission to raise the profile of MLS here in the states and around the world. Average attendance at an assortment of MLS-vs.-international team matches last year rivaled that of NFL games in those cities, he said.

“Relevance is the No. 1 thing we’re trying to focus on,” he said. “Getting our teams connected in the community is No. 1 for us.”

Garber called the Sounders, who have sold 36,000 season tickets for games at Seattle’s Qwest Field, “the buzz team in that market” and a model for teams going forward. League-wide attendance was down “a couple of percentage points in 2009,” he admitted, but is up 20 percent so far this year.

On other topics, Garber:

* Spoke of moving into the southeastern U.S. market, possibly in Atlanta.

* Said lagging TV ratings “don’t concern us.” Spanish-language TV ratings, he noted, are growing.

* And cautioned against leaning too heavily on one name-brand player such as David Beckham, via the designate-player exemption, whereby that player does not count toward a team’s salary cap. “David Beckham helps, but you have to have a quality team that is not just about one player,” he said.

With the playoffs in full swing on the home front, commissioner David Stern spoke of opening offices in Africa and India – “two billion-plus markets” — and continuing to build its presence in China, Europe and elsewhere abroad.

Stern said NBA TV reaches 50 millions homes now, and along with, NBA League Pass, NBA League Pass Broadband and NBA Mobile gives the league an ever-greater global presence. He noted that the NBA is the No. 1 corporate site on Twitter, and lauded for recently posting its billionth streaming video highlight.

“We’re feeling pretty good about things,” he said.

Still, with labor uncertainty ahead, all is not rosy. Stern said the league lost $370 million last year under a collective bargaining agreement that “has not delivered the economic results we had hoped for.”

The NBA’s financial picture “bottomed out” in March 2009, he said, but “viewership is up,” and “here we are, one year later, and we’re only down less than 1 percent (in revenue), we hope.”

On other matters, Stern:

* Lauded the success of the D-League, calling it an effective minor league for the NBA.

* Said Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas will be back next season, having served his suspension for bringing weapons into the locker room. “We’re satisfied with the penalty served,” Stern said.

* Said adding a third team in the New York/New Jersey area “is up for the owners to decide.”

Coming off what he termed “a remarkably quiet offseason,” commissioner Bud Selig celebrated the labor peace that has reigned in Major League Baseball since the strike-shortened 1994 season.

Labeling work stoppages in 1972, ’76, ’80, ’81, ’85 and ’90 “brutal” to the health of the game, he’s overseeing an effort to “take this sport to the next level in ways we don’t even understand.” He reiterated a desire to eventually institute a true World Series, where the best team in MLB would face the top team from Japan.

Selig also spoke of nurturing the game at home, particularly in the inner cities, citing the recently opened urban academy in Houston as an example of MLB’s commitment in that arena.

“I feel very comfortable that we’re going to see an uptick in African-American participation,” he said.

Overall attendance so far is “down about 2 percent (or) 1.5,” this season, he said, but he offset that with a reminder that revenue sharing amounted to some $450 million.

He acknowledged that the current postseason format, whereby just eight teams advance to the playoffs, leaves certain clubs on the outside looking in, especially in more competitive divisions like the AL East. There’s been talk of altering the playoff format to by adding teams or making the first-round series best-of-seven affairs, but he wouldn’t endorse either change if it meant lengthening the season.

On other subjects, Selig:

* Assured the use of instant replay is unlikely to be expanded. “We’re pleased with it right where we are,” he said.

* Would like to see HGH testing instituted in the minors (“There, I can do it unilaterally”) as soon as possible. “No one hopes for a test for human growth hormone more than I do,” he said. “It needs to be banned.”

* And said “it’s a judgment call” when it comes to evaluating the career stats of Hall of Fame-eligible players who played during the so-called Steroids Era.