Garber talks MLS' future, Beckham, goal-line technology, more
LOS ANGELES -- "This place looks like Don Draper's apartment in
The venerable old hotel is decked out for the final, which will be David Beckham's last game in MLS, among other things. Garber, in his 14th year as commissioner, was gracious enough to sit down for 90 minutes on Wednesday and talk about a host of topics that are well worth taking the time to read about if you're an MLS fan. This is always one of my favorite interviews of the year, so let's dive in:
So we've described it as four or five key objectives. The first is how would we define whether or not we've achieved it? It's one thing to have a goal, it's another to figure out when the 10 years are up are you there? So we'll define whether we've achieved that goal based on the quality of play in the league: Is that quality comparable with the rest of the other leagues? The passion of our fans: Do we have a fan base that rivals the fan bases in England or Spain or Italy or Brazil or Argentina? The relevance of our clubs: Are our teams from top to bottom important in their communities?
And the value of our enterprise: It would be easy to go out and get owners who'd want to create an FC Barcelona or Man United or New York Yankees in MLS. There are certainly enough people who could do that. But that would do to MLS what's happened in the rest of the world, which is creating a real economic instability which most people in sports think is bad for the industry. So we want to achieve those three other goals but at the same time have an enterprise that is valuable for all. Because that value will create stability and long-term viability.
This year has been more about articulating the strategic vision. What we're putting into place are the things we need to do in those four areas to ensure we're on the right track over the next 10 years. So at the start of next season we can talk about what the tactics are that we hope to embark on over the next number of years. This year, 2012, was about year one, get the strategic plan in place and get alignment on that plan. Then years two through 10 we'll be executing on that plan. At some point I'll show you the plan, because it's pretty cool. And the strategic process if pretty cool, too, how it starts with vision and goes down to strategy, breaks out on players and marketing and comes together with Soccer United Marketing. It's Harvard Business School-type stuff.
I think if there was one thing at the time we should have done differently, it was agreeing to the loans [of Beckham to AC Milan], which I believe hurt David's credibility with the local fans here. It wore him out, and it ultimately led to a critical Achilles injury. In retrospect now, I think that added to the story, because it wasn't just about him being here for five years and then leaving. There was intrigue, there was drama, a wide variety of things that happened around the David experience that were difficult or challenging while we were going through them but in retrospect I think added to the hugeness of the story.
But it's a long-term proposition. Technology in my view should play a role there. I see no reason why we wouldn't continue to look at goal-line technology and find ways if it's affordable to utilize it within the league. At a half-million dollars a system for the handful of times it would be utilized, it's hard to imagine that's a good investment rather than perhaps putting money into other things that might truly improve the quality of our play. But I do believe pricing will come down with more competitors eventually licensed, and we'll continue to moderate it.
I would say if I were king [of world soccer] I would be an advocate for instant replay.
They also know how important the safety of our players is to us as well as to their clubs, and therefore we'll do whatever we can to ensure our players are kept safe on the field, regardless of whether or not the official catches it. And we believe that our players are role models every day. Tens of millions of people are watching our games, and we want our players to lead by example. The best way to eliminate that kind of behavior is to provide carrots and sticks.
This is not an initiative that was created by the commissioner's office and pushed down to the players with the support of ownership. This came down from ownership with the support of our coaches to have a more attractive style of play. And we believe the disciplinary process has been working, with the union as our partner. They have the right to appeal. The number of appeals has gone down, too. This was a great year for the disciplinary process.
I fully accept there's a view among most MLS supporters that the officiating isn't good enough, and like all things it can improve, and with the creating of PRO and hiring Peter Walton I believe that will. I think our officials need to be brave enough, as they have been in other sports, to sort of step up at times and say, hey, I made a mistake. It would humanize them more and put them in a position to be just like anybody else, not to be perceived as having to be perfect, because none of us are.
I do believe there's a level of hysteria that's created that bubbled up from a variety of areas that creates an air of negativity that's not entirely deserved. In many cases it starts with our coaches, who are at times overly emotional on the sidelines and arguing throughout the game. That negative energy is transferred to their players, who then argue with the officials on the field. That's picked up by the fans, who are screaming on every call right or wrong. And unfortunately in many cases it's picked up by our broadcasters, and in many cases it's unwarranted.
An interesting tidbit is several years ago we had an initiative that's still in place to work on having MLS players further their careers in the sport in a wide variety of areas. It's one of the things I'm most proud of. We've had over a dozen players become head coaches. There's no shortage of technical directors. We've offered our players the opportunity to participate in a referee career training program. And not one player has volunteered.
I think we have a great organization. The dividing up of Ivan [Gazidis]'s job [as deputy commissioner] into two spots with Todd Durbin running players and Nelson Rodriguez running competition has I think taken the whole sporting side to a much higher level. We've brought in a chief marketing officer who's very experienced, Howard Handler, who has a great vision we'll be launching soon on our rebranding of the league and tapping into the real supporters culture that exists.
We are running full speed ahead at SUM with a private equity partner in Providence who's giving us a whole new level of strategic thinking and opportunity, particularly in the media space. The ownership group continues to expand and the new guys coming in have the same passion that the founders have and in many ways a renewed energy that's very empowering. Our television deals are up in a couple years, our CBA is up in a couple years and it seems like there are a number of exciting things going on.
We need to grow scale. We need to get more people to pay attention to our league nationally. To achieve that we need to continue to invest in our player pool and have the kind of players that people care about, have the style of play on the field that will be exciting to people, have the right environments with our stadiums that will look good on TV, have the right schedule with our broadcast partners and on-air promotion from those partners, and hopefully have the ability to break though a very cluttered marketplace.
I believe our programming is very valuable and that we'll have multiple bidders on our TV rights when they come up in 2014, and end up with great partnerships [here he emphasized the plural] with broadcasters who are getting more and more committed to the game.
If you were to ask me what's the big difference between MLS today and MLS five years ago, it's the supporters movement. Now with that movement come challenges. There's a lot of thinking that we need to have in partnership with our clubs and our supporters leaders to ensure that our stadium environments are appropriate for everyone, not just for several thousand [hardcore] supporters. I continue to get frustrated and disappointed with the YSA [You Suck A------] chants.
I was sitting on the sidelines at a San Jose game with [coach] Frank Yallop's wife when supporters were using profanity against the Galaxy and Josh Saunders, and she turned to me and apologized and said she and Frank were trying to work with supporters to eliminate that. I was sitting in an on-field box next to a young family, and the dad turned around to me and said, do you think Commissioner this is the right kind of language for my 8-, 12- and 15-year-old kids? And I could say nothing other than no. We've got to try to find a way to correct that. It wouldn't be tolerated in any other stadium in any other sport -- and frankly not tolerated in most European countries, either.
We've got to pick our battles, and this is something we have to find a way to solve. I hope we can do something in partnership with the supporter leaders. The times I've spent with the leaders of various groups have been some of my best times in MLS, because these are the folks that are really leading the movement and helping to paint a very different picture for our league than exists in any other sport. I hope they can understand that when broadcast partners, fans and sponsors object to foul language it's not something that we can turn a blind eye to. We have to address it.