LOS ANGELES -- MLS commissioner Don Garber is a busy man, especially in the days before Sunday's MLS Cup final between Los Angeles and Houston (9 p.m. ET, ESPN, Galavisión). But Garber always finds a way to make time for a one-on-one conversation with SI.com about the league during MLS Cup weekend.
On Friday, Garber and I had a wide-ranging conversation whose topics included the landmarks of the 2011 season, his reaction to Fox winning the World Cup TV rights, Sepp Blatter's recent comments, MLS's support for players who decide to come out, the impact of the prospective sale of a portion of MLS's marketing arm and the possibility that some MLS teams will play each other three times next season while some may not meet each other at all.
There's a lot to digest here, but it's worth the time if you're a soccer fan. Let's dive in:
2011 was arguably the best year in the history of the league on all measures: the respect for the league here and abroad, our attendance and TV ratings, our new deal with NBC, a continually improving quality of play, massive popularity in the expansion markets. It's been a very good year.
He doesn't think about legacies, he doesn't look for attention. He's not doing any of this for a pat on the back. But every soccer fan in North America, if they ever happen to have the chance to meet him should walk over to him and say thank you.
I think it's the beginning of a new era for soccer programming in the United States. Think of the possibilities for how many more shoulder programs we can have and lifestyle programs and MLS behind the scenes and studio shows and highlight shows. All of these things are good for MLS, and the value of soccer programming has just grown exponentially. We bought the World Cup '02 and '06 rights [with SUM] for $40 million in 2001, and they were sold for $500 million on the English-language side for '18 and '22. That's pretty amazing.
We're not saying we're going to be the English Premier League or La Liga. We just want to be viewed like those leagues are viewed in the minds of not just the soccer fan but the sports business community. We set that goal before the World Cup bid was made and lost, and I think it would have been weak for us to walk away from that vision just because the World Cup won't be here 10 years from now.
That said, we believe we've got a lot of work to do to evolve the way our officials are assessed and managed and trained and scheduled so that we can make their jobs easier and develop the officiating corps in North America in the same way we've been developing soccer players. Our federation is committed to working closely with us, and we're great partners in this area like we are in many other areas. They recognize there's enormous scrutiny on the league and criticism about their officials, and while I understand the restrictions that exist in the world of soccer in terms of what role the professional league can play versus what the NHL and MLB and NBA and the NFL can do, we're going to try to evolve our partnership with the federation so we can ultimately get better. It's a big initiative and one that will require a lot of financial resources, both on our part and the federation's part. I think we'll be on a good path. I'm very excited about it.
But something needs to happen there. I'd like to see fans come together there like they did in Philly and Portland and almost any market across this country and really bang their fists and start screaming loudly at their political leaders that their team and this league in this sport deserves better. How about Occupy RFK?
It would require 38 games that will require our teams to travel 20, 30, 40 and 50,000 miles across two countries. Requiring more play on FIFA dates, playing earlier in March and later in the fall pushing into December. All things which affect the quality of our games. What we're focused on is having a quality competition, not just being balanced because that's what they do in the Premier League. We want to be a North American dialect for the world's game. At some time we'll get to the point where the people who are fans in the U.S. and Canada will embrace our identity and believe in this league because it's in their home and not think it has to be like England.
I speak to [former MLS deputy commissioner and now Arsenal chief executive] Ivan Gazidis. He is home at night on almost every single game that Arsenal plays throughout the Premier League season. He is having dinner with his family. This concept of a conference-based schedule is going to be a requirement when we have 20 teams. So we want to get on it now. We're asking for our fans' support. We're making this decision because we believe it's best for the competition. It will create an environment that will make our league better, our games more competitive and raise the quality of our play. And we will have to sacrifice a connection to what happens in England. It's time to get over it.