Thursday November 19th, 2009

SEATTLE -- The Los Angeles Galaxy meet Real Salt Lake in the 14th MLS Cup final here on Sunday (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN, Galavisión), and I started the day off by meeting MLS commissioner Don Garber for breakfast in his hotel suite. The 52-year-old Garber, a former NFL executive, has been the MLS commish since 1999 and is widely expected to sign a contract extension in the next few weeks.

Our discussion addressed a number of topics, including his views on using instant replay in soccer officiating (in the wake of the controversy in Wednesday's World Cup Ireland-France World Cup qualifier), the MLS salary cap, Landon Donovan's future in MLS, a move to a single table, consensus-building with MLS owners, and his thoughts on my book, The Beckham Experiment. The following conversation has been edited for space and clarity: In light of the Thierry Henry uncalled hand ball in France-Ireland on Wednesday, do you think MLS and soccer should use instant replay in officiating?

Garber: At the risk of offending all those people who are the most influential in the sport, as an American sports fan who likes the fact that bad calls can get reversed, I would be a proponent of instant replay. I understand that's an inflammatory statement, but as a personal observer, I believe the right thing should happen on the field. It seems to me that the result of a sporting event generally should a result of what actually happened on the field as opposed to having a call missed. Would you be willing to let MLS be a league where FIFA tests instant replay?

Garber: Listen, I don't think that instant replay is happening anytime soon in soccer, globally or in MLS. That last comment was more personally than me speaking as the commissioner of MLS. But I do think there are things we should look at as a sport, and I'd be willing to be the test market for some of those programs. Such as?

Garber: A goal-line official. Additional officials on the field. Those would be two examples. Or technology that FIFA and Adidas have tested with the ball to figure out whether it has crossed the goal line. You got the league's best-ever rating on ESPN2 last week for the L.A.-Houston conference final. You've got David Beckham and Donovan in the MLS Cup final. What kind of ratings are you expecting?

Garber: The first half-hour of [the L.A.-Houston game] finished with a 1.4 rating, which is four times our weekly rating. The stadium lights went out, and obviously it was a West Coast game that finished at 3 in the morning on the East Coast, so we didn't expect to keep a rating at that level. But the fact that we could attract 1.7 million people to an MLS game is remarkable and a statement as to where MLS is today. There are soccer fans out there, and if you give them a great matchup and promote it well and schedule it right, people will come out and watch this game. That was proven with the final rating, which was almost a 0.6.

It certainly helps to have two of your biggest stars in the game, and it's going to be fantastic to have David and Landon in our MLS Cup final against a small-market team that, in many ways, has proven to be one of the better teams in MLS today. I'm smart enough not to make any predictions because you never know where it will end up, but our ratings have grown on ESPN and Fox, and I think that's a positive sign and an indication of the popularity of MLS. Here we are in Seattle, which is the league's success story of the year and probably Soccer City USA at this point. What makes this place so special for the sport?

Garber: You know you're in a true soccer hotbed when there are two stories about MLS on the front page of the Seattle Times this morning, four days before our championship game. There were so many factors that played into why the Sounders were such a success: the Sonics leaving and the pent-up demand over the last 14 years in a market that really cares about the game. We effectively seeded the market with MLS and international exhibition games, and we have a perfect ownership partnership.

[Sounders majority owner] Joe Roth is a Hollywood guy who coached his kids, [minority owner] Adrian Hanauer has years of professional soccer experience and the Seahawks are one of the best-managed professional sports teams. This is a team that's relevant, that matters in the community and that had a great strategic business plan that they executed very well. It raised the bar for what our other teams could hopefully achieve in time. It's fair to say you have a vision for MLS. Where do you see this league 10 years from now?

Garber: We've worked hard over the last 14 years to achieve stability and to ensure that we would remain in business and have a viable operation. Looking forward, we're able to move past this focus on ensuring that we're here tomorrow to get focused on what tomorrow should look like. That tomorrow will be a far more relevant league on the national level but certainly on the local level, with a better execution on how we market our teams and a deeper relationship with the local soccer community.

I don't mean the youth-soccer community. I mean those fans that really care about the game, that might have grown up with the sport, and we need to get them to embrace our local teams. Not enough of them are doing that. There are still far more soccer fans in this country than there are MLS fans. If I had to say, "What's the one thing we could achieve over the next decade?" it's that most of the people who care about the game care about MLS. How has MLS done during the economic downturn?

Garber: Like all businesses around the world, we suffered. And it was painful to go through the deepest recession that I've ever experienced. But we survived, and that's an indication of the stability of MLS. We took it on the chin in our sponsorship business. Our attendance was down 2 percent, certainly not something that was alarming, but something that we would have preferred to grow. But we got through it and we're able to now reassess our business and think about what our future will be like. The collective bargaining agreement between MLS and the players union expires Jan. 31. For the next CBA, the salary cap has to go up significantly, doesn't it?

Garber: The only way the salary cap could go up would be in the context of a renewed CBA. And there's no doubt in anyone's mind that in order to grow the popularity of this league we need to improve our quality, we need to have more star players. But we first have to get through what will be a very difficult negotiation with our players. Until we're through with that it's improper to even comment about what our spending would be. How much of a priority moving forward is it for MLS to keep the best U.S. players?

Garber: I think it needs to be more of a priority. The challenge we have there is many players can go overseas and make much more money than we're able to pay them today. Not enough of those young American players are that attractive to the audience in that people aren't necessarily coming to our games to see some of these younger players. But if you look at a vision of 10 or 20 years from now, I'd like this league to be where the best American players are and some of the most popular international stars are in this country. MLS won't have Beckham or Cuauhtémoc Blanco in the league for most of 2010. Will comparable star power come in to replace them?

Garber: I can't say that today because that process hasn't started. I certainly hope that some of our teams go out and sign Designated Players in the offseason. They've proven to be willing to do that. I'm looking forward to both Beckham and Blanco coming back after the World Cup, and hopefully there will be some other players of that ilk coming into the league. The marquee U.S. player is Donovan. He's in the final on Sunday here going for his fourth ring. He might want to leave the league in the offseason. What have you learned about Donovan as a player and person, and do you think he'll be back in 2010?

Garber: I certainly hope Landon is a big part of the future of MLS for the rest of his career. He has matured as a person and as a player in ways where I think he is unquestionably the best American player in our history, and I think he has the potential to be one of the most important players in MLS' history. Landon's a special guy. Next year, MLS has announced that every team will play each other twice in a 30-game regular season. The conference affiliations have already been rendered useless by New York and Salt Lake winning the opposite conference titles the past two years. Why not just drop the conference affiliations altogether and have a 16-team table next year?

Garber: If there's one consistent question I get from every reporter and fan, it's the single table. But then we don't have the two games like we had last week. You can't have a playoff where you're crowning a real conference champion and have the ability for a team to celebrate winning that trophy -- in my opinion -- unless you have conferences which are traditionally a big part of American sports.

Seeing [Real Salt Lake's] Kyle Beckerman standing on that stage with the two owners on the field nearly teary-eyed and taking that trophy back to Salt Lake and having a celebration is a good moment. The league needs good moments. We need to have those special times where teams can celebrate even if they don't win the final. Conferences give us the ability to do that. We now have six championships that our teams can win: the U.S. Open Cup, the MLS Cup, the CONCACAF Champions League, the Western Conference, the Eastern Conference and SuperLiga. So it's all about giving a trophy?

Garber: It's not about giving a trophy. It's about that memorable moment that will always be a part of their history. Also, we're still at the point where we're trying to create rivalries. The best way to create rivalries is to have memorable competition among regional teams. I will assure you that when I'm bounced out as commissioner, which will happen inevitably at some point, the new commissioner will come in and get rid of the conferences just like I got rid of the shootout and other things. This is clearly "a Don thing." It's your job as commissioner to get MLS owners on the same page as a single-entity business. Some of your ownership group heads, like Tim Leiweke and Roth, seem like they want the league to spend more to grow more, while at the other end you have owners like the Krafts and Hunts who are known for being very conservative in their spending. Do you find it harder than ever to get them to reach a consensus?

Garber: There's certainly much more debate as to what our future will look like as it relates to spending. There are a number of camps that exist within any league structure, and my role is to ensure that we can reach consensus on a plan going forward that makes sense for everybody. There are some within the league that believe spending isn't the solution to growing popularity, that the path to popularity and ultimately profitability is about continuing what has been the proper plan for the last number of years. This plan has worked, there is no doubt about it. MLS is still standing and growing and has hopefully a bright future ahead.

So the question is, when do you move from this plan into thinking that it's time perhaps to go and invest more in a wide variety of things? If there was a payoff and spending more money was a way to ensure that you would generate more profits, then I don't think anybody would argue with that plan. The issue here is that there has not been a relation with the exception of one or two moves between spending and even revenues, let alone profit. We're not at that point where there's a direct correlation between spending and profitability.

Those who believe that we're ready now to start thinking about increasing spending don't believe that it's something that will pay off in the short term. There's a view that perhaps it will pay off in the long term, and there's no guarantee that will happen whatsoever. My role is to ensure that we make good decisions. And this is important: At no point does any owner believe we should make any decisions about spending more money while we're in collective bargaining. It makes absolutely no sense to have anybody think we would be willing to do that. The Hunts and the Krafts have been with this league from the beginning. Do they have more influence than the newer owners, and is their conservative stance holding back this league from what it could be?

Garber: Absolutely not. There is still a one-team, one-vote approach here. When Robert Kraft speaks, people listen. When the Hunts speak, people listen. These are families that have been involved in the most successful sports in the history of sports [the NFL] and have proven to have great vision as to how to manage a professional sports league. Their influence hasn't waned whatsoever.

There are many new owners that are committed to the league and have seen some success, particularly recently, but we've all learned in the sports business that life's a long time. The Cosmos were pretty successful as well, and the NASL went out of business. I want everybody to know that some of the positive things that have gone on in the last 12 months aren't necessarily an indication of what our future will look like. It's an indication that we've had a good 12 months in a handful of markets.

We need to have that sustained for five years and 10 years and have that in all markets. Because we have a handful of teams that are really struggling. This can't be a league where three or four teams play against each other. We need 16 and 18 and potentially 20 teams that are all successful and viable in their markets, and we are simply not at that point now. In addition to that, it's taken hundreds of millions of dollars to even get to where we are now, and at some point, we need to ensure that this is a viable business that can turn a profit and have owners that aren't investing money because they think something might happen a decade or a generation from now. Then we'll be in a situation like other leagues have been in when someone raises their hand and says, "I can't do it anymore." What's the hardest part of your job?

Garber: The hardest part is constantly being in the mode of convincing people that soccer is worthy of their attention, whether that's the sports fan, broadcasters, media people, corporations or politicians. This is a great sport that has enormous potential and has this unbelievable quality of bringing people together as part of a global community. And how everybody in this country doesn't get that frustrates me, having been involved in sports for 30 years now. This is a very special, passionate, exciting sport, and I can't imagine why anybody would not believe in it. And the hardest part is continuing to fight and push and cajole and sell so many different constituents that we're worthy of their attention, their interest and their respect. Without being too self-conscious about it, I wanted to ask you what you thought of my book, The Beckham Experiment?

Garber: What drives the popularity of sports in America is this ongoing debate. It can be debate about the draft, about officiating, about player performance, about big and small markets, about parity. But it's that hot-stove talk, and soccer needs more of that. Your book took us off the sports pages and created a story in our league that grew our awareness and got people talking about us. It probably had an effect on the performance of the Galaxy, and it allowed the coach to come in and get into the locker room and get these guys working together. I think in many ways it was a bit of a coming-out for Donovan. I read it, recommended it to people and enjoyed it. In that case, thanks. Last question: A few days ago, you said you wouldn't be in this position in 10 or 15 years. How much longer do you see yourself in this job?

Garber: I certainly hope I can lead this sport for many more years. But boy, this is a tough job. I believe I have the toughest job in sports, because I've got the same issues every other commissioner has in promoting the sport, growing revenues, dealing with on- and off-the-field issues. But I'm doing it in soccer, which has its own challenges in this country. So it's fair to say I've gotten a little older than my 52 years. And that being said, I hope I can do it for a while longer.

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