Friday November 19th, 2010

TORONTO -- The 15th MLS Cup final takes place here on Sunday between Dallas and Colorado (ESPN, 8:30 p.m. ET), and on Friday morning I sat down with MLS commissioner Don Garber for what has become an annual one-on-one chat about the league and soccer in America. Here's our conversation (edited for length and clarity): Your cup final is this weekend. We're almost at the end of 2010, which has been a big year for soccer in America. When you look back at how you experienced 2010, what are the moments that you'll remember?

Garber: Clearly this was the best year for soccer in America in my tenure [since 1999]. Kicking off with a brand new team in Philadelphia in a beautiful new stadium with the Vice-President of the United States coming out to the opening game. The opening of Red Bull Arena, which has exceeded my expectations of what an MLS stadium can be. Leaving for South Africa and our team literally waking up this country to the sport, particularly after Landon Donovan's goal against Algeria. Bill Clinton coming out and celebrating along with millions of people in this country. Landon and Edson Buddle and others coming back and the league being able to ride a bit of the World Cup wave. And then leading into great playoffs for us and two teams that have never won the championship in the final. If we continue to have years like this for the sport and for MLS, it will be a very positive thing for all of us. You've got two teams in the final, Dallas and Colorado, that have been good on the field this season but have had trouble over the years drawing fans locally. How much could reaching the final help those teams?

Garber: Teams need special moments, things that establish a new history. For both of these teams, their trip to the championship will provide that. Both already are ahead of their season-ticket sales from where they were last year. The media coverage in both markets has been terrific. The crowd in Denver for the championship game was one of the best crowds in their history. One of the challenges that we have in MLS is that we still are in the early phase of our life span, and teams don't have enough of these special moments that create these lasting memories and rally an entire community around the club. This Cup should be able to do that for both Dallas and Denver. I would expect both of them to have better results at the gate next year. This is the 15th MLS Cup final, which is an accomplishment. My personal feeling is there should be Roman numerals in MLS Cup XV, Super Bowl-style, to remind people that this league has been around a while. What do you think?

Garber: I love the Roman numeral idea. Unlike everybody else in the industry, we don't look at the 15th Cup as an accomplishment because we always knew we'd have one -- and a 20th and a 25th and a 50th. But part of what we have been thinking about from a marketing perspective is to start celebrating a bit more what we are and what we've been able to achieve. I think [Roman numerals in the MLS Cup final name] is a great idea. We should do that. Why not? This is the fourth season of the designated player (DP) in the league, and this will be the fourth straight season a team without a DP will win the MLS Cup final. Do you think the DP rule needs further tinkering to make sure teams that take a risk and put their money out there aren't punished on the field?

Garber: There's a view among some people that you're at a competitive disadvantage by signing designated players. I don't believe that to be true. Remember, you could have three maximum-salary players who are not Designated Players who in essence would provide your team with the same budget structure as a team like New York that has three designated players. I think it's more how those players fit into your team dynamic. Are those players there year-round, or are they leaving for national-team duty? Many of our designated players have been injured. In the case of New York, they came halfway through the year so it's hard to look at that as a case study. The beauty of the designated player rule is it forces teams to make decisions. And within our structure, which many people think is too restrictive, this rule provides more opportunity to be penalized if you make a bad decision and rewarded for making a good decision. Dec. 2 is a big day for soccer in the United States. FIFA is choosing the hosts for World Cups 2018 and 2022. What do you think the U.S.' chances are to land 2022?

Garber: I think we should have a great chance of bringing the World Cup back to the United States. We're working very hard as a bid committee and as a country to make that happen. Sunil Gulati [the U.S. Soccer president and bid chair] has been working his whole life to get to this moment and has great relationships with FIFA and the Executive Committee and has been fully focused for some time. [With[ the addition of Bill Clinton and the other members of our board, from Phil Anschutz to Robert Kraft to Arnold Schwarzenegger and Michael Bloomberg, I believe we have all the elements from a political perspective in place and perhaps have learned some lessons from the missteps of the Chicago Olympic bid.

We also have a country that loves this game. Our whole brand positioning of The Game in the U.S. is a validation of how far this country has come as a soccer nation. We have the best facilities in the world. It's obviously a huge commercial market. It's a great place for people to visit. I sit on the board, but it's my personal view that I hope we're able to bring it home. It's in the best interest of the sport if we're able to get the World Cup back. And should we do that it gives us a 12-year runway to build this sport even further, to capitalize on the momentum we already have and take it to the next level in every way: from fan, player and facility development to marketing, branding and promotion. There are very few things that we can do that can build the sport over the next 12 years as much winning the bid to host the World Cup. Will you be in Zurich for the announcement?

Garber: Absolutely. I've been working on the presentation. I spend a lot of my time on it. I've been traveling around the world with Sunil and Carlos Cordeiro [the vice-chair of the bid]. It's important. The league has a lot to benefit from, so we're actively involved. I'll break the news now: MLS and Soccer United Marketing are making a nearly $2 million donation to the World Cup bid committee. It will be the largest single financial donation to the World Cup bid. You've got an MLS Board of Governors meeting this weekend. What's the most likely setup for conference alignment and the playoffs in 2011?

Garber: We're spending more time than ever before looking at our competitive format. We have more teams coming in next year and another team the year after that. Clearly our playoff system didn't work the way we would have hoped this year, and I don't want to replicate that again. We'd like to find a solution to having two teams from the West playing in the Eastern final. We're also continuing our focus on making the regular season more valuable. So how do you incentivize clubs through their performance in the regular season to be better-positioned in the playoffs? We've got enormous scheduling issues next year because CONCACAF's new World Cup qualifying format is going to put more qualifiers in the middle of our season, some potentially in the middle of our playoffs. So we've got some big issues.

I can't really give you any specifics for 2011 yet because we still haven't finalized our own thinking as to where it's going to come out. We're focused on ensuring that we have a compelling playoff format that's logical and that is exciting for our fans, teams and broadcasters, and a regular season that feeds into the playoff system in a way that is logical and important. CONMEBOL has said the door is open for MLS teams to join the Copa Libertadores. What's your stance, and when's the earliest it could happen?

Garber: We're very appreciative of their interest. We haven't had discussions with them about it yet. We'll meet with them at some point and see if it makes sense to do that. I can't comment on the likelihood yet. You had Kansas City drop the Wizards name this week and re-brand itself as Sporting Kansas City. The public reaction so far has been mixed. What's your reaction?

Garber: People in our sport are going to be shocked when they spend more time with the ownership group in Kansas City. This is an example of what's going on behind the scenes to drive the growth of MLS. It's a bunch of young guys that understand the game, supported by Cliff Illig and his partners at Cerner, a tech software company that is deeply embedded in the community. So the marriage of local ownership with some really smart local guys who know the game is a dream ownership group. They're building a stadium that will blow people away with how sophisticated, smart, fan-friendly and just how cool it is. It's special.

What OnGoal has done is recognize that their goal is to be not just a soccer team in that market to pattern themselves after what FC Barcelona and Real Madrid have done and create a true sporting club. That's why they re-branded. They could have a lacrosse team, a minor league soccer team and independent sporting programs. They might even invest in other sporting endeavors. And putting that under an umbrella, Sporting Kansas City, gives them more impact in the market. There will always be traditionalists who don't like name changes or might not agree with the brand positioning. For me this is a strategic move that is a brilliant step by OnGoal to make their team more important in the community. The Colorado Rapids are in the final for the first time since Stan Kroenke became the teams owner. Do you expect Stan to be here this weekend, and what's your sense of his commitment to MLS?

Garber: Stan is doing everything he can to make it here this weekend. I sat with him at the first-round playoff game in Denver, and he spent the entire game focusing on his team and really understands the game and is very passionate about his club. This man is very committed to MLS. He has a different approach in terms of his own profile than many other owners in pro sports do, but I never have had any concerns about his commitment to MLS. The guy privately funded one of our better facilities with 25 fields around it and now has extended his interests into Arsenal, which could only help us as we continue to get closer to the ownership there. Also with the connection of Ivan Gazidis [the former MLS deputy commissioner who's now Arsenal's chief executive], we've been able to tap into some things on the sporting side. So I feel very good about it. When you go abroad to things like the Leaders in Football conference in London, what do people overseas want to talk about with you regarding MLS?

Garber: They want to talk to me more now than they ever did before. More and more conferences, media people and people in and around the game are intrigued by what's going on here in this country. It starts with the fact that American soccer is more respected and the national team has helped that. The ratings around the World Cup and the size of the TV contracts for the World Cup have raised some eyebrows and boosted our credibility. With the designated player signings which have been impactful to us, from a commercial perspective, from a broadcast perspective, we're much more sought after at these meetings than in the past when we had to beg and borrow just to get in. MLS' TV deal with Fox Soccer Channel is up at the end of this year. What's the status of those talks and those with Versus?

Garber: We continue to be engaged deeply in conversations with Fox on the renewal of our agreement. I know we're hopeful we can renew it at terms that makes sense for us, and I'm sure Fox is thinking the same way. We'll continue to talk with them as long as we need to find out whether a deal that's right for both of us can get done. At the same time we'll continue to have conversations with others out of a responsibility to ensure that we're covering the market. David Beckham's contract ends at the end of 2011. Do you think he'll sign an extension?

Garber: I don't know. I think David Beckham has been an incredibly important part of our league's history and continues to drive our popularity and the overall interest in our league. And this guy is a prince. After the conference final I'm standing on the stage and rest of the Galaxy team had gone into the locker room, and David Beckham by himself was standing outside the ropes waiting for the trophy to be presented to the Dallas team with his hands on his hips. He'd been injured in the game, and he was standing there wiped out waiting for the trophy to be presented. When it was presented, he clapped and then trotted into the locker room. I've never seen another athlete do that in my 30 years in sports. That's the side of David Beckham that most people don't see and the side that has been so impressive to me. Another L.A. player, Landon Donovan, says he's considering whether he wants to go on loan again during this MLS offseason. What's your opinion on that?

Garber: I love Landon and am probably closer to Landon than I am to any other player because I've known him for so long and he's such an important player for MLS. I certainly hope he doesn't do that, and I've been very clear with him on that. I respect whatever his wishes are, and that decision will be made between him and the L.A. Galaxy. The league has no right to make that decision -- it's a club and player decision -- but I hope we have all of Landon next year. He clearly is tired. And I feel for him, for what he had to go through in 2010, and hope he can recharge for 2011. I don't think Landon needs to prove anything to anybody. He's proved it. Part of what he perhaps thought he needed to do was prove he could do it in Europe. Well, he's done that and then some. I've heard talk that every team in MLS may have a shirt sponsor next season. Is that true?

Garber: Most teams will. A number of new deals are looking to get done. The move to all clubs to sell shirt sponsorship was for financial purposes but also for marketing, branding and credibility purposes. In my view every team should have a shirt sponsor, and if they don't they should be focused on it fully. But I don't know if every team will next season. The women's soccer league, WPS, is struggling, having dropped its championship team this week. Would MLS ever consider taking on the running of a women's league?

Garber: No. We've spent a lot of time over the last number of years working with both the WUSA and the WPS, and clearly it's disappointing that it doesn't seem to be able to capture the market. I believe perhaps more than most around our table and within the league office that women's soccer should be a viable commercial business. We've supported it at the SUM level for many years. Some of our owners have owned women's teams. It's disappointing to me as a federation board member that they're not able to make a go out of it. I don't know whether the model needs to be changed or whether there's another approach that both their league and the federation needs to take a look at, but I'm disappointed by it. This country needs professional women's sports leagues because I think it empowers young women. When I mentioned on Twitter last night that I was meeting with you, the majority of questions from my followers were the ones asking about promotion/relegation and a single table for MLS. Is it frustrating to deal with these same questions all the time?

Garber: It doesn't get frustrating because I think it's the same people that are asking those questions as opposed to the 4 million who come to MLS games. I do respect the views of the hard-core soccer fan. They've been one of the big drivers of the growth of MLS. We need to listen to them and understand what motivates them. That being said, the league needs a structure that will drive fan interest, be compelling for television and generate the revenues we need to continue having investment back into the league, and a single table will not do that in my opinion.

Could we have a single table that feeds into a playoff system? We'll continue to look at that, but I don't believe that its as important to our success as some soccer fans believe it is. They're married to the structure that exists in other parts of the world where there's promotion and relegation, where there's little competition from other sports, where teams are deeply embedded in the community, and we're just not at that point yet in this country.

Promotion/relegation is not happening anytime soon. It would be fun to look at a virtual promotion and relegation where we could really penalize those teams that finish at the bottom and incentivize those teams that finish at the top. That's counter to what has been our commitment to create parity. That parity structure has allowed Dallas and Colorado to get into the Cup final. I believe the fan of every team needs to believe that in the beginning of the season they can win a championship. And our system is structured to provide that. It's proven to be true. If Colorado wins, the team with the seventh-best record in the regular season, will win the title. In '09 Salt Lake won the title after having the eighth-best regular-season record. New York got to the final in '08 with the eighth-best regular-season record, and in '05 L.A. won the title after having the ninth-best record. Are you OK with that?

Garber: That's a good question. It's part of our thinking as we start thinking about new playoff formats. It's clear that we're not providing enough benefit to those clubs that finish the regular season with the highest record. Travel has something to do with that. How we handle seeding has something to do with that. And it's something we're looking to address. We've had home-and-home series where we've had the team with the higher seed play away for the first game. Perhaps that needs to change. There are a number of things we're looking at to ensure that if you finish the season with the best record, you have a real benefit in the playoffs. And right now I'm not sure that benefit is being provided enough.

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