15 Years of The Don: Under Garber, MLS stayed afloat, has taken strides
NEW YORK CITY — Now that he has been in the job for 15 years, MLS commissioner Don Garber can finally laugh about the reaction that met his appointment in 1999.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” he says in his office above Fifth Avenue, which is designed like an Apple store, all clean lines and crisp white tones.
Garber recalls his own heart pounding on the way to his introduction, flush with the excitement that came with leading his own sports league after spending 16 years as an NFL executive. He recalls thinking how energized the U.S. soccer community would be to have an experienced, progressive new leader who’d cut his teeth in the world’s most successful sports league.
Then reality hit like a blistering free kick to the privates.
Long-time soccer journalists grilled him at his press conference like he was an outsider, an alien. “One headline was NFL’S GARBER: THE WRONG MAN FOR THE JOB,” says Garber, now 57, a smile creasing his face. “I’m a pretty easy-going guy with a good sense of humor, but I walked away from that press conference and said, ‘Man, what on earth did I get myself into?’ And by the way, I said that to myself for several years after that, which I’ve never said to anybody.”
Garber remembers Doug Logan, the man he replaced, stopping to speak to him as Logan literally walked out of the office for the last time.
“Young man,” Logan told him, as only Logan could, “now you’re going to know what it’s like to be in this crazy business where I have worked for three years. I have put in enough time that if I were a nuclear engineer I could have worked on a massive engineering project. But having spent the same amount of time in soccer, nobody has any respect for me at all.”
Much has changed 15 years later as MLS prepares for its 19th championship game when the LA Galaxy meets the New England Revolution on Sunday in Carson, California (3 p.m. ET, ESPN, UniMas). During Garber’s tenure, MLS has gone from having 10 teams to 20 next season. Average attendance has risen from a low of 13,756 to a record 19,151 in 2014. The league has gone from having one soccer-specific stadium to 14. Expansion fees for new teams have skyrocketed from $5 million to $110 million.
TV ratings remain low, probably the league’s biggest remaining challenge, but MLS and U.S. Soccer recently signed a new eight-year, $720 million deal with Fox Sports, ESPN and Univision. Not for nothing, was Garber rewarded with a new five-year contract of his own earlier this year that pays him an annual base salary of $5 million, according to a league source, with the opportunity to earn more as part of a long-term incentive bonus.
“He’s had 15 tremendous years,” says Robert Kraft, the owner of the New England Revolution and Patriots, who nominated Garber to be the MLS commissioner in 1999 after getting to know him in the NFL. “We know how critical commissioners are in these different sports leagues. I think back to when we were paying to get games on TV, and now we have a lucrative contract. We’re a league of 20 teams going to 22 in 2017 [with Atlanta and Los Angeles FC] and then to 24.”
“Probably the most important thing we’ve seen in the last 10 to 15 years in the NFL is having your own stadiums specific to your task,” continues Kraft, who says New England is pursuing its own soccer stadium in Boston. “So many NFL teams had baseball/football stadiums, and we built solely football stadiums. Now to see these soccer stadiums, it’s a tremendous commitment from the ownership groups of hundreds of millions of dollars. That’s a credit to the confidence we have in Don and what he’s done to grow the sport.”
Larry Tanenbaum, the chairman of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, which owns Toronto FC, sees the going rate for MLS expansion teams (the $110 million paid by LAFC) and thinks it will ultimately be viewed as a drop in the bucket.
“There’s still a lot of upside,” he says. “I think you’ll probably call me in five years and say, ‘You’re selling franchises at $300 and $400 million now.’ It’s hugely exciting, and I give Don full credit for making this happen.”
MLS still has a ways to go, of course. As negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement heat up with the MLS Players Union, Garber not surprisingly claims MLS teams are still losing significant amounts of money, income that isn’t being fully offset by the success of Soccer United Marketing, the company started by the league’s owners to market non-MLS soccer games in the United States.
“[SUM] is a profitable company, but not profitable enough to overcome what is well north of $100 million in annual enterprise losses,” Garber says. “Of the things that do keep me up at night, I have great concerns as to how we’ll eliminate losses in a number of markets without having an influx in revenues that for the most part are locked in for the next eight years.”
That said, Garber adds, MLS is here to stay, and he holds fast to his public goal of becoming one of the world’s top soccer leagues by 2022. It’s a far cry from Garber’s third year as commissioner, in 2001, when MLS underwent a complete reorganization (which led to the contraction of teams in Miami and Tampa Bay) and the fate of the league hung in the balance.
“There were times,” he says, “when we left a meeting and said, ‘Boy, this just isn’t going to work. Get your resume together.’”
KEY MOMENTS IN MLS GROWTH
In December 2001, Garber and Mark Abbott, now MLS’s deputy commissioner, made a presentation to league owners outlining the options of a league that was flat-lining. Plan A—staying the course—outlined losing hundreds of millions more dollars, which they thought wasn’t a tenable option for saving the league. Plan B involved folding any league-operated teams that couldn’t find an owner, creating SUM and buying the English-language World Cup TV rights for the United States market, for which SUM would sell the advertising.
Garber was asking the owners to double-down on soccer. Some, like Stuart Subotnick (MetroStars) and Ken Horowitz (Miami), got out. Phil Anschutz, the Kraft family and the Hunt family bought in. Anschutz owned six MLS teams at one point, while the Hunts owned three and the Krafts two. SUM would become a legitimate profitable company. It saved the league.
“If not for that, there’s no MLS,” says Garber. “We had to figure out a way to capture the opportunity of the growing soccer market, which is moving faster than the growth of MLS, and the revenues that we’ve been able to achieve there have been able to support the ongoing losses in MLS. That phenomenon has been a key pillar of our sustainability.”
Looking back on his 15 years, Garber says that reorganization was one of several key moments during his tenure. The others:
• Changing league rules
Within months of taking over as commissioner in ’99, Garber dropped the postgame shootout that was being used to break ties and got rid of the countdown clock that was being used to time games. Says Garber, “It seemed shockingly absurd that we were involved in the beautiful game, the most popular sport in the world, and our rules were saying, ‘Us crazy Yanks, we’re going to try to launch a league but the fan will never get it.’”
• Landon Donovan chooses MLS
After not establishing himself in Germany, Donovan, the young U.S. star, moved to MLS on loan in 2001 and ended up staying in the league, becoming its all-time leader in goals and assists ahead of his retirement after Sunday’s final.
“As we’re celebrating his legacy, I don’t think Landon gets enough credit for everything that he did through that belief in MLS to say, 'This league is OK,'” Garber says. “While some criticized that decision, in time it will be looked at as one of the key decisions in the formation of the league.”
• Crew Stadium and the Home Depot Center
While the NASL never left any infrastructure in terms of soccer-specific stadiums, MLS made it a priority beginning with stadiums for Columbus (in 1998) and LA (in 2003). Many more followed.
“That permanent foundation gives you an indicator of the substantial commitment that shows the community, the fan and the global soccer market that while our stadiums might be smaller, we’re no different from the NFL, the NBA and other leagues,” Garber says. “We have our own buildings.”
• MLS’ relationship with U.S. Soccer
To hear Garber say it, the ties between MLS and the U.S. Soccer Federation are something unique in the world of soccer, not least because of decisions made by U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati and general secretary Dan Flynn.
“Sunil and Dan had this view that as the governing body of the sport they would make commitments on the commercial side and on the competitive side to have MLS be the leader of the sport,” Garber says. “That’s not something that exists in other parts of the world. I believe that Sunil could have made a different decision when he came in as president [in 2006], and had he made that decision MLS isn’t what it is today. Because we are joined at the hip.”
• Pay TV deals in 2007
The deals with ESPN and Univision ensured that MLS would start receiving a rights fee for its games.
“We couldn’t exist if we didn’t get out of the business of buying our way onto TV,” Garber says. “No pro sports league could.”
• The Beckham Rule in 2007
Tim Leiweke’s push to sign David Beckham for LA led to the creation of the Designated Player rule, aka the Beckham Rule, under which the first player to sign a big-money contract was Beckham himself.
“David told the world it’s OK to come to MLS,” Garber says. “We went from one Designated Player to 40-plus today. If not for our ability to manage bringing in players outside the salary cap with continued youth development investment, MLS doesn’t grow.”
• Youth development
MLS academies are a work in progress, but Garber maintains they’re a key development in the league.
“We’re spending $30 million and have probably doubled that in infrastructure investments,” he says. “Now we have 50 homegrown players signed by MLS. Ten years ago it wasn’t on our radar screen.”
• Expansion to Canada
Toronto (2007) has been joined by Vancouver (2011) and Montreal (2012).
“We’re a North American league,” Garber says, “and our Canadian teams have passionate owners and fanbases.”
Since joining MLS in 2009, Seattle has been one of the most successful expansion stories in sports history, averaging in excess of 43,000 fans a game for years now.
“Seattle shocked everybody,” Garber says. “It showed the world there are big-time experiences here in MLS that are happening probably a decade or so before I thought they would.”
Seattle helped expansion happen in Portland and Vancouver, bringing their Cascadia Cup rivalry to MLS.
• Small-market success
Garber highlights what’s happened with Kansas City and Real Salt Lake.
“Kansas City is a great model,” he says. “They won our championship and have an incredibly respected ownership group and one of the top facilities in the world. The fact we could turn it around as quickly as we did in a small market shows that parity actually works. That’s now happening in Salt Lake, which has sold out 30-plus games and has a committed owner in Dell Loy Hansen. It’s a model team in MLS today.”
REGRETS ALONG THE WAY
Regrets? Garber has had a few in his 15 years as MLS commissioner, and when pressed he was willing to talk about some of them. To wit:
• Chivas USA
The club that intended to capture fans of its Guadalajara parent club folded last month after 10 troubled seasons.
“I got that wrong,” Garber says. “I’m sure there are many more misses, but I really got Chivas wrong. We thought there was a quick and easy way to capture the Hispanic soccer market, and the way to do that was to try to buy it with brand. And you need to earn it with on-field credibility and an in-stadium experience and by earning the respect of a soccer-knowledgable fanbase.”
• MLS’ lack of transparency
Fans and media are left scratching their heads when a player is traded for allocation money, simply because it’s not possible to analyze the trade when we don’t know how much allocation money was involved. Also, the Jermaine Jones blind draw saga drew deserved criticism for the way MLS allocated the player to New England instead of Chicago.
“I think we’re not transparent enough,” Garber says. “Our fanbase has grown, and our fans are demanding more transparency, and we need to figure out how to add that … I don’t believe the miss with [Jermaine Jones] was how he was allocated [in a blind draw]. I believe the miss was how we went about the process to determine it from a transparency perspective. Had I had MLSsoccer.com come to my home and film [the draw], I think the vast majority of the criticism would have gone away.”
Maybe. In the end, the league needs to be more open. The question is how much Garber will push for that.
• The Klinsmann kerfuffle
The most controversial MLS press conference of this year (or maybe any year) took place in October, when Garber teed off on U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann in a hastily called teleconference after Klinsmann had criticized the moves of Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey to MLS. After Garber had spent a few weeks thinking about the sometimes over-the-top broadsides he’d leveled at Klinsmann, he had this to say:
“I spent a lot of time after this thinking about it, and I would do it again in a heartbeat. I might have done it a little bit differently. I probably would have waited a little longer. I might have spoken to Jurgen prior. But I wouldn’t have changed the decision to go public and raise the issue, which I think is of critical importance … When I read those comments, I reacted very strongly because I believe my job is to defend the league until the day I’m no longer in this seat.”
“These things are going to happen. Let’s just all get back to the task at hand, which is to continue to get better every single day and be focused on what we need to do to have our league be more popular, to have our national team be better, and to have all the fans who love this game have an opportunity to cheer and celebrate.”
Garber adds that he’s looking forward to meeting up with Klinsmann personally this week around the MLS Cup final and starting to move forward.
As far as productive moves go, it’s not a bad way to start his 16th year in charge of MLS.