Don Garber Q & A
Commissioner, are you where you expected to be after ten years in the job?
When I first took this job, I thought it might be just about turning the lights on and all of a sudden soccer would get in a position to explode. Over the last decade I have realized that there is tremendous potential for this sport but still enormous challenges – we work on those challenges every day and I am really empowered by how big the opportunity is. But I don’t believe that even in 1999 that I expected that the sport would be as popular as it is today – the games that have taken place over the last few weeks of this summer, I think, are almost unprecedented in American sport. We have had several million people at soccer matches – many were MLS matches, many were international matches against MLS clubs.
We had 93,000 on Saturday night at the Rose Bowl which is the largest crowd in the United States since the 1994 World Cup. In many ways the sport has grown in ways I never believed it could have. But we do recognize that for MLS to benefit from the popularity of the sport we really need to work hard at converting all of these soccer fans into being very committed MLS fans – that is a process that is ongoing and I think will continue to take a long time.
The crowd that stood out for me, although it was not the biggest one, was the 70,000 plus in Baltimore for a friendly. The challenge is obvious I suppose, how do you attract in people like that to MLS? How do you get people without a local affinity to an MLS team to watch the league on television?
This may sound like Commissioner-speak but the largest crowds this summer have included MLS teams – this very interested soccer audience is not just interested in seeing two teams play an exhibition and then go home. They are also interested in seeing those teams play against MLS clubs. There will probably be around 70,000 for Seattle against Barcelona on Wednesday and at the press conference with the Barca coach there was talk about how this would be the first game (on Barca’s tour) where the large majority of the fans will be dressed in green and cheering on the home team – and the Barca coach thought that was great. That just shows that when things get put together the right way, the formula does work.
That formula is working in Seattle, we have a perfect storm here of very passionate fans, deeply committed MLS fans, the Sounders matter in this market, they are very relevant and more relevant than any international club. It is part of the process of working hard on that conversion, having the right brand, having the right facility and the right players on the field.
Let’s take the case though of the 30 year old guy who went out to that game in Baltimore, he watches international soccer on television and sometimes MLS, he had a great time at that game, he goes home, he hasn’t got a team in Baltimore. With your expansion plan being step-by-step, how do you expand the game into those areas where there is obviously a huge appetite for the game?
A better analogy would be a market like Florida or Atlanta. In Baltimore there are lots of DC United fans and I would venture to say that ten years ago before DC United became a very popular club there is no way that we would have had a sold out game like the one in Baltimore.
There are many, many markets where the sport is popular and we don’t have teams – I think you have hit the nail on the head, it is a combination of effective television and grassroots marketing and have a team that is active outside their local market and becomes a regional team similar in the way to how perhaps what Juventus has been able to do, what Manchester United is, so many fans outside of Manchester.
But we have to build the local following strong and deep until we really can worry about how we can get people where we don’t have teams to be very, very committed. That being said we have a US national team that is able to give fans outside of MLS markets a team to root for – and the league will expand and I believe that in time we will have many, many more cities like the other leagues do. I believe wholeheartedly that these international games offer a chance of teams a chance to make some extra money and can create some excitement in a given market but ultimately at the end of the day soccer is about a local tribal connection with a team that you are passionate about in your neighborhood – that is what makes soccer or football different from any other sport in the world.
Our teams need to build from that local core out and go from being very popular in their cities, to very popular in their state to being very popular in their region and when that happens we can create a national following and create what we have been calling a Soccer Nation in America but that is a process that is going to take many, many, many years.
It has been fascinating to follow Seattle this year from afar how successfully things have gone – there seems to have been a different marketing approach, perhaps helped by the fact that the Sounders existed before they joined MLS. What can Philadelphia and Portland and other expansion teams in the future learn from the Seattle experience?
We have had a bit of a perfect storm – it started with the fact that people were frustrated with their basketball team which eventually moved to Oklahoma, there was a pent up demand for the game, we played a number of international games there to get people excited. Then you have an owner Joe Roth and Adrian Hanauer, – who understood the game and believed in what the game could be and not what people told them it could not be. We also had owners that wanted a very authentic soccer brand….you have people wearing scarves even when it is 100 degrees, they have very active fan groups. It all came together to create the environment we have.
Certainly we want to learn from the success and have the owner, general manager and marketing manger working with some of our other teams to give them the blueprint to success – and lastly, this team is connected to the Seahawks which is one of the best run pro sports teams in America, they understand the market, they have deep roots in the community, good relationships at a civic and political level and you put all that together and stir it up and you have this great success. Some of those elements just might never come together in another market you just have to try and get as many of them as you can.
Philadelphia does seem to have that grassroots buzz about it though doesn’t it with the Sons of Ben fan group but in terms of further expansion, we seem to becoming to the end of the cycle?
In the foreseeable future I can certainly envisage adding a 19th team and then a 20th team inside the next five years, I would agree that we are at the end of this period of time and that period of time could almost last a generation.
Is Montreal in a very strong position?
A very strong position yes.
Are you entirely comfortable with having three teams in Canada?
Absolutely. That is a soccer country already. In Montreal, Vancouver and Toronto –we have had great success in Toronto and expect the same in Montreal and Vancouver. This is a country with great roots back to countries where soccer is very important, particularly England and Italy. Everyone talks about Seattle but perhaps forget that Toronto is one of the most successful teams in pro sports – they have waiting lists for (season) tickets, every game is sold out.
Montreal is another team from USL (United Soccer Leagues) coming into MLS. How do you envisage the relationship with USL? Do you see it as a feeding area for MLS in the future?
I’m not quite sure about that. USL is going through some transition on their own and clearly our league came on the scene when the USL’s predecessors were already in place. In many markets, Montreal, Vancouver, Seattle and Toronto they have had some success and when they are successful they come into MLS. I am not sure what the future holds for that league or our relationship with it. I do believe that we can only all benefit from a strong minor league and a strong connection between it and the major league in this country. I look forward to seeing how that progresses in the years ahead.
Conversely, when we look at MLS in the international arena, how do you feel when you see someone like (U.S striker) Kenny Cooper going to play in the German second division? For him personally, people can see benefits for him – but for MLS’s stature in America, by losing so many players from the national team, is there a way that can be slowed down, is that an aim? Are you concerned about that?
Clearly you want a league where the best players in America can play. Currently the best player in the country, Landon Donovan, is in the league. But we have to educate the fan base that players leave leagues all the time. The Argentine league is consistently selling players to Europe but people are still fans of River Plate and Boca Juniors, so we have got to get to the point where the sports world understands that dynamic but we have also to arrive to the point where we can have the kind of league that can afford to keep the players that we want to keep and have the kind of environment that will help them develop as players. Again that is something that I think will work in time.
Does that involve at some stage having a readjustment of the salary cap?
Our strategy in terms of what we need to do overall is all part of the business model for the league and our ability to support our strategic initiatives financially. At this point there are players that we can’t afford to keep in the league because they can get paid much more somewhere else and they may or may not have economic value to us. When they do have economic value, we keep them.
I don’t see we would be in a position to adjust our salary cap just to keep someone like Kenny Cooper in the league but I would love to have a league where our revenue base is much larger so that we can really be in a position to be in a position to keep a player that we want to keep.
The flip side, in terms of attracting higher quality players from abroad. There are some that talk about expanding the Designated Player – having more clubs using the DP or allowing two per team and so on. Is that something that is a long way down the road or that MLS could look at quite soon?
We are going through union negotiations and all of these decisions are going to be part of our ongoing negotiations with our players to determine what the entire system will be like in a way that makes sense for both of us. Clearly we want to have a league that is more attractive to our current fans and soccer fans that are not yet MLS fans. Until we get through our union negotiations it is premature to discuss what that might look like.
In a nutshell how would you describe the financial health of MLS?
I would say cautiously optimistic about where we are financially. Clearly the economy hasn’t been helpful to us or any business – we feel that this business still requires massive investment on an ownership part to achieve our goals. We are not where we want to be financially but we are committed to do what we need to have a great soccer league and also a viable business for our ownership.
Could the World Cup next year be a tipping point for MLS?
Without doubt, every big event seems to help the sport – whether it be the Euros or the Champions League final, the US run in the Confederation Cup or even the ‘Summer of Soccer’ matches. It seems that every time there is a focus on soccer that MLS seems to win.
Lastly, I’ll get shot by my friends in Miami if I don’t ask this – are you interested in bringing an MLS franchise to South Florida? Is anyone interested in doing it?
We need a team south of DC. Where that is and when that comes we don’t know today – but I have always said it is a ‘when’ not an ‘if’. I don’t know when that ‘when’ is though.