On the new episode of the Planet Fútbol Podcast, MLS commissioner Don Garber joins SI.com for a conversation on a number of topics ahead of the start of the MLS season on March 2.
Garber recently signed a five-year extension to lengthen his stay as commissioner through the 2023 season, and there's plenty on the docket in the coming months and years, including expansion, a new collective bargaining agreement and a wide array of growth metrics to embrace as the league continues climbing toward its long-term goals.
You can listen to the full episode in the podcast console below and subscribe to and download the Planet Fútbol Podcast on iTunes. Garber is the latest guest on the show, which has recently featured Minnesota United's Collin Martin, MLS standouts Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Wayne Rooney and Bastian Schweinsteiger, USWNT star Julie Ertz, Bundesliga-based U.S. national team rising stars Josh Sargent and Tyler Adams, The Ringer's Bill Simmons, ESPN's Katie Nolan, former U.S. women's national team forward Abby Wambach and former U.S. men's forward Eddie Johnson.
Garber's interview accompanies his appearance on this week's episode SI TV's Planet Fútbol. You can watch the full show for more with the commissioner with a free trial here. Here are some of the standout segments from the podcast conversation:
On whether his new contract—which extends through the end of 2023—will be his last, and whether he is grooming a successor as commissioner:
“Five years is a long time, so I’ll worry about that several years in … I think succession is an important part of any effective corporate governance. I’ve got a lot of key folks that work closely with me on the commercial side in Gary Stevenson and on the sporting side with Mark Abbott and Todd Durbin. We continue to think about how do we all grow together, as we’ve all been around for a while … At the right time we’ll be able to effectively figure out a proper transition and succession. I think David Stern did a good job at it, Paul Tagliabue did a good job at it and Bud Selig did a good job at it. So I hope after 2023, when I’ll have been in the job 25 years, which is kind of crazy, it’s going to be important that somebody else at the right time is going to be able to lead the league into a new generation of growth.”
On how he tries to persuade other owners around the league to be as ambitious as Atlanta’s Arthur Blank:
“I’d say the vast majority of our owners have the exact same ambition.”
SI.com: “Nooooo, they don’t.”
Garber: “They really do. It’s delivered in different ways. Nobody is going to tell me that a market that has fewer fans—Kansas City, a small market. Cliff Illig’s and Peter Vermes’s ambition is identical to that of Arthur’s. Now what’s happened is a confluence of a number of incredibly powerful things that have come together that have created something for all of us, all of our owners look at it and say, this is an example of when it all works of what really could happen that could drive energy and drive a brand for Major League Soccer that’s really reverberating around the world. Now, not every owner is able to deliver that. Not every owner is selling 55,000 seats [per game as in Atlanta]. That itself is creating a unique dynamic we’ve never had to deal with before. Their revenue model is different. They’ve proven the point of investing in players like [Miguel] Almirón and being able to deliver an enormous profit on that. That’s not happened before.”
On whether he says to Stan Kroenke and the Krafts: “Come on guys” and points to Blank and Atlanta:
"'Come on, guys' is not going to change their perspective. I’ll talk more broadly. Every legacy market has got its own issues as it relates to sort of what the model was then and what our strategy was then. And what basically a new owner could take advantage of because all those guys invested for nearly 20 years in order to build the opportunity. Now Arthur Blank was not an original owner, and I would venture to say that if he came in in 1996 I’m not quite sure we’d have the Atlanta United that we have today. I love Arthur, and I think he will go down as one of the most important people in the [North American] history of this sport, because he showed everybody what it could be—in a market that most people in pro sports didn’t have a lot of faith in.”
On MLS expanding beyond 28 teams:
“I don’t know. We have an expansion committee. Jonathan Kraft chairs that committee. We’re going to get together in April and talk through 'how big should this league get?' What impact does that have on a wide variety of things? Our schedule and all the other things that go into having to manage a larger footprint. We don’t have a specific timetable on when team 28 will be picked.”
On the data research that MLS has done over the past four years to find out what fans in the North American market want from the league:
“Top line is, we’re in a global market, and the other [North American sports] leagues aren’t. So the NBA doesn’t have to do research on its player pool. It might have to research issues that fans have with things that might be happening among their player pool. Are teams tanking? Are there parity issues? But they’re the market. We’re not. We are part of a global market … The most important aspect of this is we need to be thinking about how do we grow our fan base? How do we get more people that are soccer fans to be fans of their local MLS team? What is it that they perceive about the current MLS product? And what do they want to see more of? What they’ve told us is they want to see us measured referentially against Mexico, for example. Rather than having a fan determine that the increase in quality is by how many goals are scored … they basically want to know the league is better compared to some reference point. And in order to know that, we needed to understand how big the market was. So that when we get into a product strategy meeting we’re not just having people yell at each other. We’re trying to say what do we need to do to take a share of X percent and grow it? That’s where TAM came out of. The fans are basically saying, we need you to be better, and how could we get better? We needed to sign a bunch of players that would improve the middle of our rosters … TAM came out of this research.”
On how the league’s apparent success in recent years will affect the negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement with the players, considering the current CBA ends at the end of this year:
“We’ve got a very good relationship with the union leadership … and I believe we have a good relationship with our player pool. When we meet with our players, they understand the overall direction of the league and what our opportunity is and what our challenges are. As we continue to invest more in facilities and our player pool and our academies, our aggregate losses continue to grow. It’s not trying to create any leverage in the discussion, it’s a fact.”
SI.com: “Are you going to play poorhouse on me again here?”
Garber: “We need to ensure, as I’ve said to them and as I’ve said publicly, that we are very strategic about how we go forward in all the different investments we need to make, including our investment in our CBA. Should we be improving charter travel? If you had a dollar to spend, are you going to spend it on things like that or spend it on expanding the salary cap? Where does strategic investment like Targeted Allocation Money fit in? What should we do with the Designated Player rule? … I’m confident we’ll have effective and I’m sure difficult discussions with our players union. I have faith in our players and their leadership. These things are never fun or easy. But we’ll collectively work hard to get an agreement that everybody feels good about.”