Major League Soccer has just kicked off its 15th season as America's top-flight soccer league -- and its 12th with former NFL executive Don Garber as the league's commissioner. Now that MLS has achieved labor peace with its players, agreeing on a new collective bargaining agreement to avert a strike, I sat down with Garber in his New York City office last week and had a wide-ranging conversation about what lies ahead.
Garber discussed a number of topics, including the new designated player rule, the World Cup, why he's working right now without a contract and Landon Donovan's future in the league. The commissioner also gave his first public comments about the disastrous launch of MLS's new league-run Web site and asked a provocative question: Is U.S. coach Bob Bradley biased against MLS players when making selections for the national team? Here is our conversation (edited for clarity):
SI.com: Now that the season has started and the new collective bargaining agreement is done, what's at the top of your priority list as the commissioner?
Garber: This is the beginning of a new era for Major League Soccer. It starts with what I believe is a more positive and productive relationship with our players that I think will lead to a better understanding of their needs, but also a mutual understanding and acceptance as to where MLS is and what we need to do together to build the league. The key priorities are very simple. It's ensuring that we are launching Philadelphia well and creating the same excitement and opportunity that exists in Toronto and Seattle. It's working closely with Vancouver and Portland to help them have a successful launch [in 2011]. It's finally having a bit of a bounce in the New York metropolitan area and ensuring that the Red Bulls can keep up the momentum they've had over the last couple weeks and continue to position Red Bull Arena as the crown jewel of stadiums its size in the world.
Our biggest marketing priority is to capitalize on the World Cup, both at the local level and league level, and working with our marketing partners and ESPN. And it's fair to say the continued management of the launch of MLSsoccer.com and getting more deeply engaged in the digital universe, connecting our fans to our Web site and to other applications that will come that will hopefully deliver value to them and create a business opportunity for us.
SI.com: The New York Red Bulls have an impressive new stadium and their success on the field is one of the stories of the season so far in the league. Is there any chance this club is finally getting things right?
Garber: I have said from the beginning that our fans need to give the Red Bulls a chance to find their way and to fully understand the MLS system. [Owner] Dietrich Mateschitz bought into the system and believes in it, but it's clearly more different for them than it would be for most of our other teams. The fact they have hired [Red Bull global sporting director] Dietmar Beiersdorfer, who is an experienced guy who's played the game, who's managed clubs in Europe, is a positive development. [General manager and sporting director] Erik Soler, who's been an active participant at our board level and is very bright, has been a player, an agent and a team owner. That's another positive development. Erik Stover, their managing director, is experienced, bright, focused. His head's down and he's trying to do everything he can to ensure that the team launches well from a business perspective.
The Red Bulls have created a formula that I believe will be more successful than any formula that's existed in the past. I am cautiously optimistic that we're really going to have a terrific, well-connected, successful team finally in the New York metropolitan area. Our fans would be surprised how much they think about the game, how much they understand the game, how focused they are on the game first, from the type of stadium they built, to their grass surface, to how they're marketing and presenting themselves, to how they're training, to how they're connecting in the community. This could turn out to be a very good model not just for them but potentially for other teams.
SI.com: The new designated player rule makes it easier for teams to sign big-name players for this league. There are six DPs in the league right now. How many do you think will be added right after the World Cup?
Garber: I can't put a number on that. I do believe that making it easier for clubs to sign DPs, both in terms of access to greater numbers and a lower charge against the salary budget, should be an incentive for more clubs to sign players. That's the goal of the rule change. But it needs to make sense. I thought [New England Revolution owner] Jonathan Kraft had some great comments in the Boston Globe. It needs to be the right place at the right time, connected properly in the community so that ultimately that player can drive quality on the field and create business value off the field. There aren't many players who can do that. We've had some great successes in David Beckham and Cuauhtemoc Blanco and Juan Pablo Angel, and we struggled with some other decisions that have been made. That's part of the dynamic of sports and that's why it's exciting, but I do still believe while there's more opportunity and more incentive, I am encouraging our owners to continue to be careful when they make these decisions.
SI.com: What are the chances that we see Thierry Henry in a New York Red Bulls jersey this season?
Garber: Listen, who could not love Thierry Henry and be excited about his passion for this country and his desire to someday play in our league? He is under contract today and it would be totally inappropriate for me to make any comments about what his future might be while he's still playing for a club [Barcelona] that I not only admire but am a fan and business partner of.
SI.com: Do you have any concerns about the new DP rule, that perhaps it increases the gap between the large- and small-market teams in MLS?
Garber: There are still restrictions, though. It's so early, but the beauty of the MLS single entity, which is why we fought and will continue to fight to keep it in place, is because you can create these rules and see how they work and adjust those rules if they don't, as opposed to having other forces drive you down a path that can lead you to disaster. So if we see that we created too much imbalance with this rule, we very simply cut it back. And that's not a decision one owner makes, it's a decision the collective makes. This whole dynamic is difficult to understand for our players and fans. We understand that, and we know why it is here today. At some point you've got to take responsibility and say, "Trust me." Our results have proven to be true, and we're here against all odds.
SI.com: There's a good chance this summer that European clubs will be wanting to make offers on Landon Donovan. How do you view that, and what price will you set on him?
Garber: With our new rules that's a decision that [Los Angeles executives] Tim Leiweke, Bruce Arena and AEG would make, not the league. The league has to approve it, but we're in a world today where since the vast majority of the transfer revenue goes back to the local club, that's their decision. We collectively have made a huge commitment to Landon. He is in many ways the poster boy for our league and the icon of American soccer. To have him in our league is extremely important, not just because of the quality of his play. Landon as well took a great last-minute leadership role in the CBA discussions. I think we're starting to see a guy that's not just performing as a leader on the field but has the capability to go to even higher levels off the field. I believe he's tremendously valuable to us, and I hope he's in this league until he retires.
SI.com: The World Cup is this summer, and there will be fewer MLS players on World Cup rosters, including the U.S. roster. Granted, a lot of the U.S. players got their starts in MLS before they went to Europe. Are you bothered at all that there aren't more World Cup players in your league?
Garber: It's very interesting. In our [CBA] discussions with the players in Washington, D.C., during some of our breaks we talked about that, and many of those players, particularly the leaders and veteran American players, believe they are as good as many of the players who are picked from overseas to play for the national team. So do I think there is a potential bias? I can't answer that. I've got a lot of respect for and would consider myself a friend of [U.S. coach] Bob Bradley. But today clearly there is an emphasis for him to pick players from Europe, and that's something that he believes will give him the best team on the field. I think many of our coaches and certainly we would feel there are many players in our league that can perform at the same level as some of the players he is selecting.
SI.com: Here's a question I've always had: MLS is still a growing league, but unlike the leagues in, say, Argentina and Brazil, MLS aspires to be one of the top leagues in the world someday. How is that process supposed to happen, this transition from a feeder league to a destination league?
Garber: I think it's the continued development of all aspects of who and what we are. It's a growing and committed fan base. It's the proper facilities, not just for games but for training. It's professionally run and well-respected, successful youth academies. It's having more popularity and more revenue and therefore being able to invest more in players at all levels. If all of those things happen, I have no doubt that this league will be able to rise to the upper echelons of pro soccer leagues in the world. I can't even begin to think of when that will be, but I believe it will ultimately happen.
There is no way any of our owners are thinking that they're looking to own a secondary professional sports league. They own NFL teams, NBA teams, baseball teams and hockey teams. They're not looking to own a secondary soccer league. They want to make this a primary, well-respected, dominant league. That's going to take careful planning, a focused strategy and time.
SI.com: How many decades are we talking about?
Garber: I have no idea.
SI.com: You mentioned recently that Seattle and Toronto were the only MLS teams that operated at a profit in 2009. If David Beckham had been with the Los Angeles Galaxy the whole season, would the Galaxy have been profitable?
Garber: Yeah. More than likely.
SI.com: So he's that big of an influence still?
Garber: Yeah. No question.
SI.com: AEG CEO Tim Leiweke also said the Galaxy do not expect to be profitable this year. In what areas does Beckham change things? It's not just attendance, right?
Garber: David's presence on the field affects all aspects of the Galaxy's business and the league's business. It's all fairly obvious, from ticket sales to sponsorship to merchandise. It's heartbreaking when a guy has a devastating injury and can't achieve his dreams. And I feel first for that, because David has been a great member of this league and he'll be a major part of our history. We certainly hope he comes back, and if he does we'll be able to benefit from that. We're hoping he gets healthy soon.
SI.com: MLS debuted its new Web site recently, and I got a lot of response from my readers who were extremely unhappy that it didn't provide some of the most basic information like scores and start times and had a lot of bugs. What happened, and what is the league doing about it?
Garber: Our goal is to deliver the best soccer Web site in North America, and I believe that ultimately we will do that. It's a difficult process to switch from seven years of having your entire digital infrastructure managed by somebody else, supported by a handful of editorial people here in this office. So when we made the decision to make the switch, we took on a big task, and we were up to it. The challenges of the launch were all related to one very specific thing. We had a code that was developed that was managing a plethora of data streams that were coming in from hundreds of different places going down a single pipe coded and then sent out to the entire Web site. Five minutes after the site launched, that code got a bug and is broken. And it's still broken today.
So all of the issues relate to one very simple technical glitch. It had been tested in Beta, it had worked, we had spent countless months with professional people managing this in concert with us to get it right. And unfortunately we suffered a catastrophic technical glitch. So everything from statistics to highlights to scores to the times being off, everything was related to that one single issue. The guy who created that program has been fired. My guess is he would probably have a difficult time getting a job doing the same thing for someone in our business again, because it has been so devastating to us and to our fans over the last couple weeks.
But it will get fixed. Now the data is being fed manually, which you can imagine is a massive undertaking involving hundreds of people. But I still believe in our approach. I am committed to the design. I don't want to just create another version of MLSnet.com. If we were going to do that, we would have stayed with BAM [the previous platform] and the system that we had. We provide our teams with an opportunity to have an open platform, so they now have been required to hire local staff, to hire local digital directors, to find information digitally and editorially. And when it works it will be a far better system than what we had, and I believe it will be a system that will work for our fans.
You can imagine how engaged I have been the last couple weeks. I'm terribly frustrated, embarrassed, angry, and can say only to our fans: I apologize for where we are today. Stick with us, because we're going to get it right, and it'll ultimately deliver more value than anything we've been able to deliver in the past.
I've read every fan blog. I've read all the comments. We are processing all the information that's coming in from the public and responding to it as candidly and as frequently as we can. I've read many comments asking why did we launch it if it wasn't ready? It was ready. It worked when we turned the switch on, and five minutes later if we turn the switch off we would have had no Web site for two weeks. There was no way to go back to the old one. We don't own it, we don't have that technology. Another company was our back office, and once we made the switch from the BAM platform it was over. And we started building months and months ago this system on our own. We had nothing to go back to. Now if we knew we'd be in this position now, would we have found some parallel process to manage? Of course. That's the lesson learned.
SI.com: You said one person has lost their job over this. Will any more?
Garber: The person who created the code, he's no longer working with our project. I've heard all sorts of questions and comments about heads needing to roll. I run a large company. The answer to solving problems is not rolling heads. The answer is get it right, figure out what's the best way to manage this going forward, see if the systems we have in place are proper, that the technology is right. And we will continue to analyze as we have even if we didn't have this issue. For anybody who has ever run a business, the last think you do is start firing people when you have problems. That's the worst kind of leader in crises. The best kind of leaders in crises are empowering those people who are devastated by where they are to try to give them the opportunity to lift up, solve their problems and be able to use this as a learning experience so it doesn't happen again.
SI.com: If D.C. United continues to have issues finding a stadium plan in D.C., what are you going to do?
Garber: We are going to continue to fight the fight as hard as we can to get D.C. an appropriate facility. To think that what was and probably is one of the most valuable brands in MLS and arguably one of the most recognizable sports teams in the Mid-Atlantic states, to have them in the situation where they are now is inexcusable and unacceptable. We have teams that are starting as expansion teams and a few years later are moving in to brand-new buildings. So I continue to talk with [United honchos] Will Chang and Kevin Payne and try to work with them to figure out a solution beyond just continuing to play at RFK.
SI.com:Leiweke had been quoted last year saying your new contract as commissioner wouldn't be done until a new CBA deal was reached. What is the status of your contract situation with MLS?
Garber: We mutually agreed that to finalize a contract in the middle of CBA negotiations was just the wrong thing to do. It was the wrong statement to our players and a misuse of our mutual time. I wanted to be thinking of nothing else other than getting a great CBA for our owners and for the players. So I had agreed to put that process aside, and now we will be talking about the renewal of the agreement. And I'm fully supportive of that.
SI.com: So you're working without a contract right now?
Garber: Yes. And I'm comfortable with that. I had proposed to Tim that it made no sense for us because of timing to take our time, the board's time and my time to focus on a contract renewal while we were going through one of the most important negotiations in the history of the league. I was confident we were going to get a good deal done, and I trust our owners, having been their commissioner for 10 years, that now the agreement has been signed we'll sit down and negotiate a deal that will be good for me and good for the board.
SI.com: Do you plan on continuing to be the commissioner?
Garber: I certainly hope so.