KANSAS CITY, Mo. – On Thursday afternoon, two days prior to the 18th MLS Cup final that is to be contested by Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake, MLS commissioner Don Garber sat down with SI.com for a lengthy conversation concerning the state and future of the league.
In this first installment, Garber expanded on his remarks in Tuesday's State of the League address to discuss the league’s responsibility to its fans and the public, Saturday’s final between small-market clubs, MLS’ ambitious expansion initiative and the next steps for NYCFC:
SI: It’s freezing and gray outside. There’s snow on the ground. Are you rethinking that non-neutral site MLS Cup at all?
GARBER: This is what we intended to do, which was to reward the home fans and the home club with the benefit, the dream, of hosting the final, because they earned it. Yeah, the weather is going to be cold. But the stadium will be packed.
SI: You took questions from both reporters and fans following your “state of the league” address on Tuesday, which is commendable. But if this league is one of the world’s biggest in 2022 as you intend, will you still answer questions from fans in that kind of open environment? Is there a point at which trying to create that sort of relationship becomes impossible?
GARBER: I don’t know that I’ll be here in 2022, but I think the sports business has changed. Really the advent of social media and the emergence of every fan as a blogger and journalist in their own right, you have to shift the way you operate, and to me, those questions from fans were as important as the questions from the media. When I looked at the TV screens when I’m sitting up on the stage and whether the person was a Portland Timbers fan or a reporter from The Oregonian, to me they’re both entitled to express their views and ask questions about things that are important to them.
SI: I wonder about how that relationship with fans and their wish for greater transparency relates to stadiums, which have really driven the league’s growth. A lot of these stadiums are, at least in part, publicly financed...
GARBER: Not enough of them!
SI: Well, OK! Orlando is getting public money. Sporting KC used public money. Erick Thohir, a billionaire, is asking for help from the D.C. government, all while reports are surfacing that there’s discontent in Denver and Chicago about the lack of development around those stadiums or the debt that’s been incurred. There’s still too much empty land around Red Bull Arena. Is MLS a good investment for cities? What do you owe fans in return when public money is spent on a stadium?
GARBER: It is, without doubt, a good investment. The front page of [The Kansas City Star] today is just covered with excitement with Sporting Kansas City being in the MLS Cup. It’s taken over Salt Lake City. Today we were at a charitable event at Ronald McDonald House creating an environment for kids with cancer.
There’s no question that MLS teams, just the same as any other sports team, provides value to the community. When you have the right facility, it enables the team to be successful so it can compete. Hopefully it can be economically viable and therefore it can do all the great things it does to empower, excite and motivate a community.
The issue I read about in the article today [from Bloomberg News] is premature. To say that those buildings don’t make economic sense after they’ve been around four or five years, after a funding program that has a 25 or 30 term to it, isn’t good news, but I don’t think it’s the whole story…
I believe wholeheartedly that public support for facilities makes economic sense in terms of new jobs, in terms of improving the lives of people in the community and providing a good return on the public’s investment. It takes time. You can’t look at it at phase one. Frankly, I thought that was an unfair article.
SI: There’s been talk during the build-up to Saturday’s game that the league must be disappointed that two of its smallest markets are represented in the final. I’d think on some level, the league would be happy that two deserving, well-run clubs are playing for the title. After all, when it launched MLS decided its competition would reward savvy teams rather than financial largesse.
Do you want your most marketable teams to do well, or can the teams that do well be the most marketable? And as more money comes into this league and owners and teams get more ambitious, will the likelihood of a small-market final decrease?
GARBER: I won’t talk about what’s going to happen in the future. Let me talk about what’s going on now. We have a basic tenet. It’s one of the core values of Major League Soccer – that we want every fan in every market to believe if their team is smart, if their players are focused and committed and stay healthy, they all have an equal opportunity to win MLS Cup. The team that does best wins, regardless of market size and regardless of the financial capacity of the owner. It is what sets us apart from other soccer leagues around the world.
When we have two small-market teams like Salt Lake and Kansas City, for us to think for one minute that that is not good for Major League Soccer would be violating one of the core equities that it was founded on.
Now, it makes a good story to talk about whether the league likes it or doesn’t like it. I can guarantee you I’m really happy for [RSL owner] Dell Loy Hansen and really happy for [SKC owners] Cliff Illig and Neal Patterson and their fans are pumped up and their players are pumped up. They’ve earned it and they have the right to be here. If the larger markets don’t like it, they’ve got to find a way to beat them.
SI: I once asked you whether the Sporting KC model could be applied to other markets, and you said you didn’t think so, because every city is different and every owner faces different challenges. So, what is it about Miami and Atlanta that makes you think they’ll be successful MLS markets? They are notoriously fickle sports towns, even for the more traditional and entrenched sports, and there doesn’t seem to be a lot of confidence out there that MLS can go mainstream in the Southeast.
GARBER: Any market that has the commitment of a strong, passionate owner who believes in Major League Soccer and the sport of soccer in North America, and has a smart facility plan that is centrally located to transit and hopefully an urban core, and is run well with a great short, mid and long-term strategic plan, will be successful.
SI: Isn’t that more likely to happen in a smaller city like Portland or Salt Lake?
GARBER: I don’t believe it. It is harder in larger markets because there’s more competition. And in Kansas City and in Salt Lake and in Portland there’s certainly less competition than there is in New York or Chicago or Boston. But that being said, if have those three things – right owner, right facility, right plan – and you’re focused and really committed to excellence, you can make it in any market in this country.
The fact that we’ve been able to turn around Kansas City the way we have is evidence of that. Who’d have thought 20 years ago that Kansas City would be the soccer market that it’s become today? It’s become a real beacon of hope for what soccer can be in America.
SI: How much of the league’s planned expansion is driven simply by the fact that you want to penetrate more large TV markets and that you want to collect expansion fee revenue? NYCFC, Orlando and Miami [with David Beckham's discounted buy-in] comes to around $200 million.
GARBER: Expansion drives a number of different values and benefits for Major League Soccer. The fees that come from the expansion team sale is last on the list.
SI: Where does that money go?
GARBER: It’s distributed to the owners, who are diluted by one share since we are a system of revenue sharing. If you have 19 people sharing in all national revenue and then you have 20…
SI: It doesn’t come out to that much money per owner. If you have $200 million divided by 20….
GARBER: It’s not that much money. It’s not nearly as much as what they’ll be diluted over time. So there is not any agenda to expand as a revenue stream whatsoever. I think it might have been for leagues in the past. I think it was one of the challenges in the original NASL. But it is not at all a driver of our strategy.
It is about expanding our geographic footprint, trying to have more and more people on a national level engaging in soccer generally and Major League Soccer specifically. It’s about diversity of thought around our board table and having more committed investors. It’s about more jobs for players and administrators and all those other things that make Major League Soccer more valuable.
SI: Speaking of footprint, where will NYCFC play in 2015?
GARBER: In a temporary facility, one that hasn’t been finalized yet.
SI: What are the options?
GARBER: A number of them. I can’t really go into any specifics. But they clearly have a number of different options.
SI: Why was a definitive stadium plan not a prerequisite for New York?
GARBER: It was, and then we were not able to finalize it in Queens. So they had a prerequisite and made a financial commitment to a soccer-specific stadium and that commitment will be the largest investment in a soccer stadium of any team in Major League Soccer. They are required to build a soccer stadium.
SI: The buzz is The Bronx…
GARBER: There are a number of different sites. There are multiple sites within The Bronx that they’re looking at. There are sites in Queens that they’re looking at. They’ll get it done. They are smart, focused, really a very, very capable sporting investor-operator group.
SI: They’re also very quiet. Orlando City is entering the league the same year and they’ve been everywhere. They’ve been public. They have a brand. I can’t tell you much about NYCFC and they’re kicking off at the same time. Is that a concern? Are they going to be playing catch-up? The next year is going to by quickly and they don’t seem to have much resonance or traction.
GARBER: I don’t know if it's resonance or traction that’s the issue. They’re not out in front of it quite as much as an existing [USL Pro] team like Orlando City. [NYCFC] have a good plan. They’re very capable. They do have a brand. I’m sure you saw the ad that they did with their players bouncing around New York City. They’re going to be good. They’re smart. [Manchester City CEO] Ferran Soriano is one of the best sports executives in any sport in any country…
Some people go quiet -- run silent, run deep. And when they’re ready to go, they go. When you’re running these things, everybody’s got a different approach, a different style. There isn’t one way to go about building a brand and building a business and sometimes the consumer – and you’d be a consumer because you’re a media consumer looking at the way things should be done – there isn’t just one way to do it. Part II can be seen here.