You've got to give MLS Commissioner Don Garber some props: Not many executives of a niche league can rankle or stand up to uber-organizations like AC Milan and the New York Yankees.
In the first case, Garber and AEG president Tim Leiweke extracted far more money out of Milan and David Beckham than either wanted to pay for his extended loan, and perhaps, permanent move. Last week, Garber set the figure at $10 million, without specifying the sources or the mechanisms of said payment. Milan has supposedly paid about $4 million to extend the loan and accepted a smaller percentage of revenues this year's exhibition tour as well, but that won't add up to $10 million, so somebody has to pay up.
Since the terms of Beckham's contract were changed to force a buyout of his MLS deal in October rather than an opt-out clause that previously existed, the renegotiated arrangement tilts control of Beckham's rights away from him and to MLS. If he doesn't buy out his contact to cut a new deal with Milan or another club, MLS retains his rights, and can do what it wants with him.
"We asked for $10 million, we got our $10 million," said Garber to the BBC. "We don't know where it's coming from, either. He can't get paid from Milan. Milan could pay us. He could pay them."
All of those scenarios are possible, but more on them later. Garber also riled up the Yankees last week by simply stating the obvious, without any particular malice, about how tough economic times are trimming attendances at sporting events across the board. Hardly headline stuff, but in making his comments Garber chose, figuratively, to tug on Superman's cape.
Garber spoke to the sports editors of The Associated Press last Thursday in New York and noted the empty seats at Yankee Stadium and Citi Field, the new home for the Mets, since the baseball season began. "It's incomprehensible that you watch a game, and there will be front-row seats empty," Garber said.
Yes, the Yanks are sensitive to opening an opulent facility in tough economic times and falling far short of filling it. Still, team president Randy Levine's riposte was personal as well as pointed. "Don Garber discussing Yankee attendance must be a joke," Levine told the AP. "We draw more people in a year than his entire league does in a year. If he ever gets Major League Soccer into the same time zone as the Yankees, we might take him seriously."
And then: "Hey Don, worry about Beckham, not the Yankees. Even he wants out of your league."
Garber clarified his remarks thusly: "When I mentioned the New York Yankees yesterday , my comments were part of a larger assertion that all businesses -- even the most successful sports entities -- are experiencing some impact from the economic downturn. The Yankees are one of the world's strongest sports brands and the context of my comments about a few empty seats at Yankee Stadium was to illustrate the economic challenges we are all facing."
Levine did have his figures correct. MLS attendances last year totaled 3.5 million. The Yankees drew 4.3 million in the last season at the old Yankee Stadium. Both entities will struggle to match those numbers this year, especially with Beckham -- a powerful draw at the gate regardless of his play -- missing nearly two-thirds of the league games.
In fighting for control of a very valuable asset, MLS demonstrated once again that despite its limitations and flaws, it intends to succeed as a business, domestically and internationally, as well as a sports league. It has also showed some admirable fortitude by not knuckling under to Beckham and Milan.
"The international soccer community continues to underestimate the resolve of Major League Soccer," said Garber in an interview last month. "That's OK, because going under the radar was a good strategy and in many ways we'll stay with that strategy. We very much believe that David made a commitment and we were going to hold him to that commitment, just like we did Shalrie Joseph and Taylor Twellman and some of the other players. As a contracted MLS player, David is really no different in that."
Of course, Beckham is light years from those players or any others the league has employed, and cutting his own deal to join Milan tainted the league's image. But now, he has to buy his way out, and will he be so eager to do so in case Milan doesn't want to reimburse him for the buyout and may not be so eager to sign him next winter? Usually, when a player buys out his contract, he has a suitor waiting to pay him back as a condition of his new deal.
"I can understand how he feels, how his game has resurged to want to stay in Milan," said Garber. "He wants to set a number of records with the English national team and I respect that, and if I had to make the decision again today I'd do it again. But these things happen in the sports business and you have to adapt to changing situations. We've stuck to our guns and I believe we've got a resolution that is good for the league, and I believe it's very good for David Beckham. It was a good resolution of a difficult situation."
And it was good business.