LOS ANGELES -- "This place looks like Don Draper's apartment in Mad Men." That was my first reaction upon stepping into MLS commissioner Don Garber's penthouse hotel suite at the Hyatt Century Plaza here for our annual talk on the league ahead of the MLS Cup final between Los Angeles and Houston on Saturday (4:30 p.m. ET, ESPN, TeleFutura).
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:
SI.com: You've set a public goal for MLS to be one of the world's top soccer leagues by 2022. What are the biggest ways in which the league has advanced toward that goal in the past year?
Garber: When we were bidding for the World Cup, we went to the MLS board and asked them to financially support the bid, and laid out a plan by which we thought if we could win the World Cup bid, here are the ways MLS could benefit by it. At that point we established a goal to say we ought to be able to be one of the top leagues in the world if we have the World Cup. Then we lost it and went back home and licked our wounds a bit. But rather than crawl under a rock, we said let's be men about this and have the same goal, and then we doubled down strategically to say let's do everything we can to put a plan in place to be able to stand toe-to-toe with the rest of the leagues.
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.
SI.com: This is David Beckham's last game in MLS on Saturday. What has the league learned about how to deal with -- and not to deal with -- a star of Beckham's stature?
Garber: I think we've learned a lot about how to manage a star of David's stature over the last five years. With David the lessons learned were probably a bit different than perhaps other Designated Players in the league, because with all of his global appeal and superstar status he actually is a regular guy. He cared about his teammates, he was good in the locker room, he was very engaged in the community. He did not want to sit in the different section of the airplane than anybody else. If they were going to fly first class he wanted others to fly up there with him. So many of the perceived challenges didn't really exist.
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.
SI.com: Landon Donovan says this could be his last game, too, even though his Galaxy contract runs through the end of next season. Do you think Donovan will play with the Galaxy in 2013?
Garber: I certainly hope so. That's a question for Landon and Tim [Leiweke, AEG president] and Bruce [Arena, Galaxy coach and GM]. But being out here and being with Landon today at the MLS Works [charity] event, it's clear to me what an incredibly special guy he is, not just as this American soccer hero, but he's also got a presence and leadership skills that are underrated. When Landon got up to speak at this event, he got the biggest cheer of anybody, from the mayor to Tim Leiweke to Don Garber and anybody else. Landon's a special guy, and I hope he's in this league for a very long time.
SI.com: In this final you have the teams with the eighth- and ninth-best records during the regular season. The top two regular-season teams, one and two, have only met in the final three times, and not once since 2003. Wouldn't it be possible to reward the top regular-season teams more in the playoffs so that the lower seeds have a higher hill to climb to reach the final than they currently do?
Garber: I think the answer to that is yes. There's no reason why we couldn't have a system like that. But the statistics are a little lopsided, because you have Houston and L.A., who've been in four and seven finals. There's not enough real data to get statistics that can drive decision-making. The answer to the question is we certainly could and probably should look at making it harder for lower-seeded teams to be able to make the championship game. But there is something to be said about playoff teams, playoff coaching, hardened successful systems where those teams that need to win somehow always figure out a way to do that. That itself is a positive story.
SI.com: Goal-line technology is finally set to debut in a couple weeks at the FIFA Club World Cup. When does MLS start using goal-line technology?
Garber: I read an article today on the BBC website on the two competing systems and that FIFA might look at licensing others, and the issue is clearly the cost and two different technologies. MLS is investing deeply in officiating. I saw a presentation from [MLS officiating czar] Peter Walton yesterday that we'll give at our board meeting on Friday to update our owners on the investments that we're making and the procedures we're putting into place on the new plan we have with U.S. Soccer and the CSA to try to improve the quality of our officials similar to how we're trying to improve the quality of our players.
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.
SI.com: You mean replay for things on the field other than goal-line calls?
Garber: Beyond goal-line technology. I know that's anathema to the rest of the world and the powers that be, but it just seems to me that we live here in a country where you win or lose based on what happens on the field as opposed to what might potentially be an error by a third party, that being the officials. I have no ability to achieve that within MLS, but I think it would be smart for the soccer community to look at it.
SI.com: What are the chances of goal-line technology being in place for the start of the 2013 season?
SI.com: One of the big stories this year was the MLS Disciplinary Committee taking a much bigger role in retro-punishments. What's your assessment of how that worked?
Garber: We're making a presentation [to owners] on it here. The league has always had an active role in reviewing plays after the fact and disciplining players for overly physical or violent play or actions that we believed though missed by the officials warranted discipline. Early in the league's history that was somewhat controversial. Our owners, the players themselves, the MLSPU and the league office have come together and created a program that I believe works very effectively. The numbers of plays that have been reviewed this year have gone down significantly from years past because players now know that just because it's not seen by the official it doesn't mean they're going to get away with it.
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.
SI.com: So you're saying we're beyond speculating whether the Disciplinary Committee has had an impact. You know it?
Garber: We know it. We have the statistics. We're changing behavior.
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.
SI.com: Speaking of officiating, I had an MLS owner tell me recently there's a cooling-off period when owners are not supposed to contact you about refereeing after a game. What is that cooling-off period, and how low is your tolerance for people criticizing MLS refereeing?
Garber: Well, there is a very specific 24-hour rule where we are requiring that team ownership, staff and coaches not contact the commissioner or Nelson Rodriguez, our head of operations and competition, in the heat of the moment. We think that's just smart. Frankly, having a 24-hour rule for any emotional issue is a smart plan to put in place.
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.
SI.com: And that surprises you? Really?
Garber: The fact that doesn't surprise anybody is the point, because with all the criticism that our officials get, why would anybody want to be an official? Yet I think it's fair to say we don't have a game without having the guy in the center circle. So we as a league need to work much harder to eliminate all this dissent and negativity so we can have our PRO plan put into place and start doing this right from the bottom up. And I'm very confident we'll be able to achieve that. Peter Walton is smart. We've invested in our plan deeply, and I absolutely believe the changes will come, though it won't be overnight.
SI.com: Let's talk about expansion in New York and a stadium in Queens. The league has spent a lot of money lobbying for a stadium there. How did you get to be so high on Mayor Bloomberg's priority list?
Garber: This is important: We have not spent a lot of money in relation to what it costs to lobby big projects. We don't have the capacity to do that. We've used a lot of sweat and blood and the time of me and [MLS exec] Mark Abbott and a staffer named Brett Lashbrook working full-time to see this project through. Mayor Bloomberg is a global guy. I sit in press conferences with him and am shamed by the fact he can do it in English and Spanish.
Garber: (shakes head at interviewer) The mayor is well aware of how diverse New York City is, particularly Queens. He knows the importance and value that a second MLS team in New York can have in terms of generating jobs and other economic activity. The fact we want to do it in Queens, which needs a lot of economic development and has people from all over the world living within a goal kick of where the stadium site will be. It's easy to understand why he'd have it placed as one of his legacy projects.
SI.com: How close are we to a Queens stadium being a reality?
Garber: We're working tirelessly on this project and have a lot of work to do, but we are seeing daylight. We still have a number of areas that we have to get closer to completing, but we remain hopeful.
SI.com: Have you had any communication with the Wilpons about parking on their property nearby?
Garber: We have. And we have for quite some time. We have not been able to reach agreement. We're hopeful that we will. And we'll continue to work hard with them to try to reach a deal that makes sense for them.
SI.com: What's the status of potential bidders for that expansion team in NYC?
Garber: There are a number of potential bidders. We continue to reach out to the investment community to try to seek somebody who has the capacity to both buy the MLS expansion team and invest hundreds of millions of dollars in the stadium. There are very few people who can do that because it's a massive investment in MLS. I'm confident we'll reach an agreement and it'll be great owners who will be able to raise the profile of MLS here and abroad.
SI.com: Is the team bidding process ready to happen once the stadium is a done deal?
Garber: Without a stadium this project can't go forward. That being said, the league has been leading this effort. It would be good for the league not to be spending the amount of time that we are on this and hand it over to a committed investor. So we'll continue working on parallel paths.
SI.com: Let's switch to you for a second. How much longer does your contract run?
Garber: 2014? Is that it? You know you've been working in the job a long time when you don't even know the term of your contract.
SI.com: Do you foresee yourself signing another contract as commissioner?
Garber: I don't think my work is done. But this has been an enormously difficult and taxing job. Mostly personally. I had 125 days on the road last year, which is a lot of days away from the family. But the job has actually gotten more interesting the last year or two. In the early days we were so focused on ensuring our viability, you almost felt like a fireman running from brushfire to brushfire and didn't have an opportunity to really think about a mid-term plan, let alone a long-term plan. Now we've put a number of things in place that gives us the opportunity to take a step back.
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.
SI.com: Do you eventually want to be an owner or investor in this league?
Garber: No. I am an operator. I don't have the financial capacity to be an owner (laughs), and I think I am far more effective trying to think about how do we take this league to the next level? And how do we ensure every day that we're operating it efficiently and effectively? I think of myself as a player-coach. I get my hands dirty and travel all over the place and do everything I can to help our department heads. I try to spend as much time as I can listening to our fans and understand what's motivating them and making them happy or angry.
SI.com: How do you get TV ratings higher?
Garber: I don't think there's a single answer to that. The good news is our ratings are growing, albeit off a small base. We feel good about our ratings on ESPN and NBC, two great partners who are producing our games at the same level of quality that they produce the NFL or any other program. The production values in MLS are increasingly high, and that's something we're proud of.
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.
SI.com: When do you start negotiations for a new TV deal?
Garber: Very soon. It's premature to talk about how it'll play out. But the discussions will start pretty soon.
SI.com: Are there any other important things on your mind that we haven't talked about?
Garber: One of the key drivers of the increasing popularity of MLS is the growth of the supporters movement. It used to be that the Screaming Eagles [of D.C. United fandom] were the only supporters who created this dramatic picture of European- and South American-style environments in RFK Stadium with bouncing seats and waving flags. That's the norm in MLS today. There's a dynamic with young people, 18 to 35 years old, that now believe in their club that was connected to the game either as a fan of European soccer or as a player and now is translating all that into a very committed passion for a local MLS team.
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.
SI.com: That's also of a piece with the statement the league made this year by giving three-game suspensions to Houston's Colin Clark and Seattle's Marc Burch for homophobic slurs on the playing field.
Garber: We launched the "Don't Cross the Line" campaign with Landon and DeRo [Dwayne De Rosario] and [Kyle] Beckerman and others. We strongly believe that MLS should have a zero-tolerance policy for a wide variety of behavioral issues that we think don't represent our league, our sport and our country properly. If we're going to be making those statements publicly and discipline our players when they're crossing the line, we certainly can't have our fans cross the line.