NEW YORK -- MLS commissioner Don Garber can breathe a little easier than he did a year ago at this time. He doesn't have to deal with the labor strife that preceded the 2010 MLS season; that headache is left for his old pal Roger Goodell, the NFL commissioner whom Garber used to work with back when his game was football, not fútbol.
Twelve years into his tenure, the 53-year-old Garber is looking forward to the start of the 2011 MLS season when Los Angeles meets Seattle on Tuesday (ESPN, ESPN Deportes, 9:30 p.m. ET). There are plenty of storylines to mark the new campaign: expansion outfits in Portland and Vancouver, raising the league's total to an all-time-high 18 teams; an increase in the number of playoff teams from eight to 10; and Charlie Davies' first MLS season, to say nothing of what may be David Beckham's last.
On Thursday, I spent an hour in Garber's plush corner office at MLS HQ, learning firsthand how much he has fallen for his iPad ("It has changed the way I consume information," he said) and how MLS' raised global profile has clogged his international travel schedule more than ever before.
In the course of our interview, Garber touched on a number of topics, including how to spread Pacific Northwest soccer passion to the rest of the league; the positives and negatives of tying Kansas City's new stadium to Lance Armstrong; the league's thinking behind expanding the playoffs; his views on the New York Cosmos and his continued hopes to attract the investment of the Wilpon family; and the age-old question of whether MLS owners would ever consider promotion and relegation.
Here's our discussion, edited for length and clarity:
SI.com: One of the best stories of the season in MLS is going to be the soccer-mad Pacific Northwest with the additions of Portland and Vancouver to Seattle. Portland-Seattle instantly becomes the league's best rivalry. Why is that the case? And how do you carry the passion from that rivalry to the rest of the league?
Garber: There's no question the Portland-Vancouver-Seattle rivalries create a cauldron of excitement that I hope we can use as a test market for what future rivalry opportunities can be. I get asked probably more than anything: Why is MLS so successful in Seattle? And why can't we replicate that in other markets? There's no easy answer. In many ways, Seattle was a perfect storm of factors. I think that will be taken to a higher level with Portland and Vancouver [joining the league].
We've worked hard to fuel that excitement with the away supporters program and the Cascadia Summit that took place last weekend. Certainly if it works in the Pacific Northwest, we should be able to create the same thing in the I-95 corridor and in the Midwest with Kansas City and Chicago and Denver and Columbus.
SI.com: I would not have predicted a few years ago that one of MLS' most ambitious ownership groups would end up being in Kansas City. Could you provide some insight on what has happened there?
Garber: Success in any market is driven by three things: a passionate, committed ownership group; a market that believes in the game and has a history of supporting the game; and a good facility plan. It's fair to say of those three factors, we've always had committed ownership [in Kansas City]. We haven't had, until now, a good facility plan. And the market hasn't deeply rallied around the club. The Kansas City ownership is local. They're young tech guys. They're engaged in sports through medical record-keeping and have a deal with FIFA. And they are building one of the most innovative stadiums in our league. For the first time I think we've been able to connect the three dots [there].
SI.com: The big Kansas City announcement this week was the stadium connection with Livestrong, Lance Armstrong's group. What are the positives of being so closely associated with that, and what are the potential worries, considering Armstrong is the focus of a federal grand jury inquiry right now?
Garber: Let me start by saying that it didn't surprise me that [owners] Robb Heineman and Cliff Illig came to me with the idea of teaming up with Livestrong. They're outside-the-box thinkers, very creative and looking to expand Sporting Kansas City to be bigger than just a soccer team. The Livestrong tie will allow them to do that. If anything should happen with Lance that tarnishes his reputation in any way, then Sporting Kansas City has the ability to address that in their relationship with Livestrong. But I have a lot of respect for Lance, who he is and what he's done. A tremendous amount, having lost my parents and my closest friend to cancer. This team has used the power of MLS to try to make some positive change. I think that's a good thing.
SI.com: One of the big MLS changes this season is the move from eight to 10 teams in the playoffs. Doesn't that make the regular season even less meaningful if more truly mediocre teams are making the playoffs?
Garber: Well, we have a dual challenge. The first is to make our regular season more meaningful. And the second is to make our playoffs more meaningful. In order to do that, we need more games, more memorable competition in our playoffs. And we need to deliver more excitement at the local level through knockout competition, which the playoff games will provide us with. So the evaluation was by adding an additional two teams, does that negatively impact the value of the regular season more than it provides value to our playoffs, which we believe we desperately need? Our evaluation was we need to make our playoffs more valuable.
I know there has been lots of talk about this among our fan base. I'm convinced it will do both, that our regular season won't be diminished by having play-in games. We went through an exhaustive process trying to come up with a format that we believe makes sense. We believe it will. We can't just cater to the loudest voices who have this view that our sole purpose is to have a valuable regular season. Our purpose is to have a valuable competition, and that includes having playoffs that are more meaningful. Because we don't have a single table. We do not have a Champions League that the top four qualify for and the second four qualify for Europa League and the rest are fighting for promotion and relegation, and every game counts because you want to fit into one of those three categories. So we have to find ways we can achieve a variety of objectives.
SI.com: Connected to what New York coach Hans Backe said recently about prioritizing the Supporters Shield over MLS Cup, maybe some of the confusion is the term "MLS Cup Playoffs." Are they more American-style playoffs, where a few teams qualify from the regular season? Or is it a cup competition where you have every team involved from the start? I get the sense Backe thinks it's more about a cup competition and you think it's more about traditional American-style playoffs.
Garber: I believe the latter to be true. So one of the things we have looked at is having a regular-season competition and then having a full cup competition at the end of the season. That might be something we can further investigate going forward. We know that this year we have a balanced schedule, and the format we have created is a fair competition in that every team will play each other home and away. We more than likely won't have a balanced schedule next year and may have to evaluate the whole system. We'll do it a lot earlier for 2012 than we did for 2011.
SI.com: You announced recently that the MLS Cup final will continue to take place at pre-set sites rather than at the home of the higher-seeded finalist. What was the thought process behind that decision?
Garber: I'd like to get to the point where our MLS Cup is in the home of the team that earns the right to host it, as opposed to a neutral site. That's a goal we hope to achieve. We were not able to get to that point this year for a variety of reasons, not least that we're still struggling with stadium availability in many markets and weather. We dodged a bullet hosting a Champions League game in Salt Lake in the first week of March. I shudder thinking about what would happen if we had that with MLS Cup. Most of our fans don't accept how much time we spend thinking through all these issues. While the pundits believe the easiest answer is the one that appears to be the most logical, the factors that go into each decision are varied and complicated, and we have to prepare for all scenarios. We don't live in a perfect world by any stretch.
SI.com: The only group publicly aiming to be the 20th MLS team is the New York Cosmos.
SI.com: They've hired Eric Cantona, Pelé and Cobi Jones, among others. What are their chances?
Garber: I have a lot of respect for what [Cosmos CEO] Paul Kemsley and his partners have done to relaunch the Cosmos brand. They'll be the first to say to realize their goals, they need an MLS team, and we've been in detailed discussions with them to see whether or not that's something that can come to fruition. Before we can do that we need a stadium plan, which we don't have at this point, though we're making progress with the City of New York, which is supporting us on trying to find a suitable location. There are others much less public than the Cosmos who continue to express interest. Sometime by the end of the year we'll have a better sense as to where we're going with the 20th team. But I'm committed to trying to finalize a deal so it can be here in New York.
SI.com: The Wilpons are in dire financial straits these days with creditors demanding as much as a billion dollars after the Madoff affair. Now they're trying to sell part of the Mets. The Wilpons have to be out of the running for the 20th MLS team in New York and any stadium at this point, right?
Garber: They're not. We remain in discussions with them. I spent almost a day with them this past weekend. They continue to have interest in MLS, and they also have a pretty darn good stadium site. I have a lot of respect for Fred and Jeff Wilpon, and I think there's more to that story that's still to be told. They are good people and real sportsmen. I hope they're able to solve whatever their short-term issues are. But everything with MLS is long term. I'm sure they'll get through their issues, and our decision here is going to be one for a generation. We've got to be sure we've got the right owner for the long term.
SI.com: Speaking of which, where is the Cosmos' financial backing coming from? The word I hear is the Middle East.
Garber: You'll have to get that answer from them. Certainly we wouldn't be in discussions with them if we didn't think they had the ability to purchase the team and pay what will be a record-setting expansion fee and also fund the construction of a stadium, which will require a significant amount of money.
SI.com: What is the current expansion fee price?
Garber: It's going to be a heck of a lot more than the last one, which was $40 million [for Montreal, which will debut in 2012].
SI.com: David Beckham can sign a new pre-contract as soon as July 1. What are the chances that he extends his contract with Los Angeles?
Garber: That's a question for Bruce Arena and Tim Leiweke. I spoke to Bruce earlier today, and he said David's doing really well and a great guy in the locker room. He's expecting a good season from David. He's still a great player who's being sought after by the top clubs in the world, and he continues to be very popular. I hope he has a great year, and the Galaxy will determine what his future is. The more time I travel around the world and speak to people about MLS, the better I feel about the David Beckham experiment. He is a consummate professional. The only regret I have is we didn't have more of him. Because what we had was terrific.
SI.com: MLS' average rating on ESPN2 has been 0.2 for a long time.
Garber: A little more than that.
SI.com: OK, 0.2-something.
SI.com: OK. How do you move that rating?
Garber: Both MLS and ESPN are committed to growing our ratings this year, and there are a lot of things that we both need to do to achieve that goal. An effective schedule is the first part. Marketing and promotion is the second part. And MLS continues to engage with the soccer fan in this country. I think there are times when our fans look to ESPN as being responsible for driving our ratings. We are. And we need to have a product people believe in and effectively communicate that product to the soccer fan in America. That's what we hope to achieve this year.
SI.com: MLS recently signed a one-year extension with Fox Soccer Channel for less money reportedly than the league wanted. What's your sense of the deal?
Garber: We worked hard with Fox Soccer Channel to extend our last agreement on a multiyear basis. We were not able to reach agreement on terms as to what Fox would pay for those rights. We reached a one-year deal that we were very comfortable with financially that was [multiple times] higher than our previous deal. I'm pleased with the extension. It keeps us in our partnership with Fox, who has been a great partner. Yet it gives us the flexibility to see what kind of things we need to do together to extend it for a longer period of time. We'll either reach an agreement on a multiyear basis on terms that are acceptable to us both, or we won't. But I am very comfortable where we ended up. It was a positive development for us.
SI.com: I'm a fan of MLS' iPhone/iPad app. But like a lot of MLS fans I'm a Comcast subscriber, and I still can't get an HD signal for MLS broadcasts on FSC despite what they say on the screen. What is the league trying to do to change that? What can the league do?
Garber: We can't do much. I would encourage you to write a letter to Comcast to encourage them to put FSC on the HD sports tier. I believe over time FSC will be moved from SD to HD on all cable operators. But they're not there yet. I'm as frustrated by it as our ownership group is and as our fans are. Ultimately, the consumer demand will change that.
SI.com: Last year the CONMEBOL president said he was interested in adding MLS teams to the Copa Libertadores. You recently visited South America. Are you any closer to joining Libertadores?
Garber: We're not closer. And it's not as simple as CONMEBOL invites us. It's a CONCACAF/CONMEBOL issue. Today we're doing everything we can to make the CONCACAF Champions League more valuable and relevant in local markets. That being said, we'd love to continue to talk to whomever we need to about making that happen. But right now it's not happening anytime soon.
SI.com: What would be your advice to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell right now?
Garber: Roger really doesn't need my advice. He has the best and brightest people around him advising him on what steps he needs to reach an agreement with the union. I will say that we worked with [NFL labor mediator] George Cohen as our mediator too, and I found him to be very effective. I'm hopeful, as is everybody in the sports industry, that they reach an agreement. To all those who say, "Wouldn't it be good for MLS to have the NFL not play?" I say that's rubbish. Anything that's bad in sports is bad for everybody who's in the sports business, and I hope they reach an agreement soon.
SI.com: I know you can't have a favorite MLS club, but what's your favorite club soccer team globally?
Garber: I don't have a single club, but I will say that my appointment soccer television viewing generally includes Arsenal, Man U, Barcelona and Real Madrid. All of them have relationships either with me or the league. I watch the Champions League. The good thing about this job is you can watch soccer for a living. So there are few key Champions League matches that I miss. If I'm not out on a Saturday or Sunday morning, I'm watching the Premier League and La Liga matches. I love it. Rarely does a year go by where I'm not attending a game at the Bernabéu, the Nou Camp, the Emirates or Old Trafford.
SI.com: How important is it to MLS that Salt Lake makes a serious run at winning CONCACAF Champions League?
Garber: I think they've already made a serious run. The event I attended a couple weeks ago in Salt Lake was a special moment for the league. I spent the day there, and the match was well-promoted and had a higher awareness than any other Champions League match I had attended in the past. I had lunch with Dave Checketts yesterday and said to him, "You have really put something great together in Salt Lake." Because the attendance at that match and the passion of those fans showed it really has become a soccer town. And before 2005, the sport was nonexistent in the city. That proves to me if you have the right owner with the right marketing and operations with the right facility, any market can be a soccer city.
SI.com: Recently you were asked about the World Cup bid process by Brian Straus, and you said we have certain laws in this country that would have prohibited things that we might have heard being done by the other bidders from happening. Are you saying you think the Qatar bid may have broken U.S. laws if you attached U.S. laws to what they were doing?
Garber: No. What I was saying is that [U.S. Soccer president] Sunil Gulati and the rest of the World Cup bid committee set out from the beginning to run a campaign that would not just abide by the laws of this country but also abide by our own view of what we viewed was an ethical campaign. I'm not sure the same view is shared by many other bidders. That is what it is. I have no regrets. I think we did everything by the book as well as we could do it. I think we ran a smart campaign and were not in a position to influence any voter with anything other than the strength of our bid. I don't know about the validity of any of the claims that I've heard, but if any of them were true, they would have been in violation of U.S. law.
SI.com: Would MLS owners ever consider budging on allowing promotion and relegation? Could you ever envision MLS1 and MLS2 leagues with 20 teams each and promotion and relegation between them?
Garber: Life's a long time, and I don't know what this league or soccer in America will look like 20 or 50 years from now. What I will say is that at some point we're going to have to figure out a way to compete with the other professional sports leagues in this country. Today that's really not an objective, but we will have to find some real point of difference. And certainly promotion/relegation, which creates ongoing interest throughout the year, would be very exciting. I can't even contemplate that happening anytime soon. There is no stability in the second division today. MLS owners have been deeply invested in division one. To think they would go play in another lesser league because they finished last is so far from reality that it's hard to imagine when that will change. But the concept, I believe, is one of the real drivers of what makes international football so compelling. And I'd like to think we could find some way to have that level of excitement in our league.
SI.com: We've seen more controversy with referees in Champions League this week. What are your thoughts on officiating in MLS and the U.S. these days?
Garber: The league and U.S. Soccer are working closely together to try to do everything we can to raise the quality of refereeing in our league. I accept that there are officiating challenges at the highest levels, most recently in this week's Champions League matches. And I don't think the controversy will ever go away. But we've recognized along with the federation that we have to invest more deeply in the professional referee program. So U.S. Soccer has formed a professional referee department. That department has moved to New York and has four or five employees who are based in our offices, retired guys who are working as administrators to try to do everything they can to get closer to the league and ensure they're working hard to improve the overall professional program.
We've set up a command center in our MLS digital offices. That group will watch every game and be available on a moment's notice to address any issues that arise during the game. But more importantly, they'll be there to more deeply evaluate what's taking place on the field. That's a very positive development. I applaud [USSF general secretary] Dan Flynn for putting it together. This was their idea. They've invested the resources necessary to make it happen.