Q&A with MLS commish Don Garber
For Major League Soccer, the last several years have witnessed an almost unprecedented stream of good news. The league has grown to 19 teams, with the expansion Montreal Impact coming on board this season. Since 2006, attendance is up 15 percent despite a difficult economy, and the emergence of a true supporters' culture has helped create a priceless amount of buzz around the league's teams. And MLS continues to produce quality young players such as Brek Shea, Juan Agudelo, and Geoff Cameron.
But the hard work needed to continue such progress is never done, and that especially holds true for MLS Commissioner Don Garber. When asked what keeps him up at night, he simply responds with, "Everything," whether it's the goal of placing a second team in the New York metropolitan area, mining additional sources of revenue, or the persistent calls to change the league's calendar.
Garber was kind enough to take time with ESPN.com via telephone to discuss these issues and more.
ESPN: Over the years, the percentage of minutes logged by American and Canadian players has steadily decreased. [Note: Updated 2011 numbers can be found here.] Some of this is due to expansion and the desire to maintain a high level of play. But is there any concern at league level that too many minutes are being given to foreigners and not enough to domestic players?
DG: No, I don't think there's a concern at all. Clearly, MLS continues to be a real driver of the success of the national team. That, I think, is directly related to the overall development that the league has provided to the American player. So it's not always just the number of minutes played, it's the increase and improvement in training environments, it's the increase in the overall quality of play, and so many other factors that I think everyone in the U.S. soccer community agrees is almost directly related to the continued growth and success of MLS. I haven't heard that from Bruce Arena, Jurgen Klinsmann, Sunil Gulati, or anybody else associated with the U.S. game, people who have been involved with it for many years.
ESPN: So when New York fields a starting lineup that has only two domestic players, that's not a sign that maybe things are tilting too far in one direction, or maybe some of the recent rule changes that have taken place in terms of younger designated players are weighting things too much in favor of foreigners?
DG: I don't think so. And frankly, when those issues exist in England, it's because the English national team is not performing well. The U.S. national team continues to perform better, whether it's New York with the success of Juan Agudelo, or in Dallas with the success of Brek Shea. I don't think anyone could argue that there haven't been incredible contributions made by this league to the development of the American player and the success of the U.S. national team. I don't agree with that at all.
ESPN: But a guy like Agudelo is having a hard time getting on the field in New York, even though he's still contributing to the national team.
DG: That may not be related to the roster. That may be related to the coach's view of Juan's ability to contribute to the club, and so many other things. Not one media person, not one technical person, has raised the issue that our rosters are being geared like they are in England. That's not something that is on anybody's radar screen right now. Look at where we're investing in youth academies and the reserve league, $10 million, all that are very, very focused almost exclusively on developing young players. The number of job opportunities; we've spent almost $800 million on player salaries in the last ten years. There's nobody that would really argue that the league isn't doing its job in developing players. I don't even know if you're arguing that.
ESPN: I'm not arguing that. I'm just trying to think proactively and ask: Is this trending too far in one direction, and might it cause problems down the road? And is the league worried that this might cause problems down the road?
DG: Right now, it's not a concern of ours at all because we see a continued success of the U.S. national team, and the shared view in the soccer community that the league is a key driver of that success. In time, if a negative exists, we have the ability to address it at that time. That's not something that anybody at any level of the game believes is an issue.
ESPN: One interesting aspect of the league over the years has been how teams could find success regardless of whether or not they dipped into the designated player waters. Last year the top five teams in the overall standings all had DPs. Is there any concern that MLS is morphing into a league of haves and have-nots where you have to spend that designated player money in order to be competitive?
DG: The best way I can answer that is that you need a lot more data to start evaluating trends. We've had one team win our championship with a designated player since it's been enacted in 2007, that's the L.A. Galaxy. We have a long way to go before we are even in a position to evaluate a trend whether teams have a competitive advantage by utilizing the rule.
ESPN: In the early years of the league, MLS went out of its way to market itself to families and the youth soccer market. In recent years, we've seen the emergence of more hardcore supporters groups and those have become a significant part of the game-day atmosphere. How well can these two constituencies coexist? It sometimes seems as though they come at the game-day atmosphere from very different perspectives.
DG: I think it's a fair point that different fan groups approach the game-day experience differently. Certainly, one of the key elements that has made MLS so successful in the last couple of years is the development of a true supporters culture. Fortunately, that passionate environment has really helped elevate MLS into a very, very legitimate professional soccer league, not just here, but around the world. What we've seen is that the supporters' culture hasn't conflicted at all with those who might be coming from the youth market, or the general family environment. In many ways, it's almost the opposite. Fans can sit at the opposite end of the stadium and look at what is taking place over there, and feel that they are part of something very special without having to bang a drum, wave a flag, paint their face, and stand on their seat all game long.
We are very focused in ensuring that teams are mindful of the different experiences for each individual group. We do have, fortunately, really engaged communication with the supporters. They very much understand that their role is to help elevate the game-day experience for all, and it's not an insular experience that's just about them.
ESPN: The reason I ask is that there were some incidents last year -- I'm thinking of one in New England -- where stadium security came down hard on fans who were using what was deemed foul language.
DG: What I would say there is that I don't believe, as commissioner of this league, that any fan, regardless of what section they're sitting in, should be subjected to others who are using foul language. If there are organized chants using foul language in the NFL or the NBA, stadium operations folks [will] deal with that. We're going to deal with that in MLS as well. I don't think that's inconsistent with what the vast majority of supporters are looking for, and we're working with them to have them understand that there are certain standards and practices that our broadcast partners require, and there are just certain standards of good taste and civility that we're going to expect and, in many ways, demand from all fans. I don't think that's in conflict at all with being a passionate supporter. I really don't. I just think we need to make sure that supporters understand that you can really, really engage and create fan experience that is almost unparalleled in professional sports in our country without using vulgar language and using smoke bombs and the like that might be unsafe.
ESPN: It's interesting you mentioned smoke bombs, because Houston Dynamo fans have been hit with sanctions in terms of what they could bring in to opposition stadiums. That was a result of some incidents with smoke bombs that took place at the end of last year. Do you feel the hardcore supporters groups have done a good job of policing themselves to make sure that nothing extreme happens?
DG: I think the supporters groups are doing an incredible job of policing themselves. I go [out to] every market, some of them are just remarkable people; men and women of all ages who so believe in MLS and really get the role that they play in elevating the league, and the responsibility that they have to be role models and good leaders for other members of their groups. There are others who are less engaged and we've had to work with certain teams to make them aware that being a supporter is a responsibility and it's a great position to be in to create an environment that's incredibly passionate and special. But with that role comes an obligation to be good leaders and police themselves properly. We'd rather that they do it themselves than us have to get engaged with them to force them to do it.
ESPN: As much as everyone applauds those initiatives and that self-policing, how worried are you that there might be a major incident involving rival supporters?
DG: I think every pro sports league is always mindful of fan behavior, and it's not limited to soccer, and there's no shortage of fan issues in every professional sport. I think there's sensitivity to soccer because of the history of challenges years ago in Europe. I worry about lots of things. I don't think you can be an effective commissioner without worrying about all sorts of things happening. The best way to address and alleviate those concerns is to have good procedures in place to deal with them if they occur, but, more importantly, have really effective communication with people to help them understand what we expect of them, and in many ways even empower them with the responsibility of knowing that the future of the league, I believe, will very much be based on the effective growth of passionate supporters. If they really love our league, and want it to grow, then they'll take the responsibility of being very, very mindful of ensuring that they're behaving properly.
ESPN: How much progress has been made in the last year in terms of the league's economics?
DG: The league has certainly made great progress in the last number of years. Expansion has been very strategic and effective. Our newest teams are doing very well on and off the field. Even some of our legacy teams, like the L.A. Galaxy, are continuing to do well and growing their business off the field. As you know, the Galaxy have a great partnership with Herbalife and an unprecedented television deal with Time-Warner.
Last year was probably the best year in the history of our league. Our attendance grew; we're showing progress in television ratings. Our commercial business grew. We had 87 sellouts during the regular season. Those are all positive indicators. But we need to remind everybody, and certainly we think about it every day in the league office, that the league still only just completed its 16th year. We've had some success recently, but we've had a lot of growth in front of us and challenges that we need to face to make sure we continue the recent positive momentum we've had to date.
ESPN: What about some of the other legacy teams? Obviously the Galaxy are doing well, but I can remember we talked about Dallas and Colorado last year
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DG: Let me comment on that, because I think a lot has happened in the last year. Dallas hired a new CEO, and I think they doubled their season ticket base from a year prior. They're looking to sell out their opening game on First Kick. They had 9,000 to 10,000 people at the U-23 game [against Mexico]. I was at a U.S. Soccer board meeting, and they've been really pleased with how Dallas has been operating their stadium, how they've been managing their business. Kansas City is a legacy team and is one of our most popular teams, and is doing incredibly well off the field. What an unbelievable success story in Kansas City with the new stadium and a whole new energy in that marketing. We're really confident that the changes they've made in Denver, with the new business officer, and a new approach at Kroenke Sports, they're going to do much better than they have in the past. Many of our legacy teams have a nice bounce in their step, and I'm really pleased to see that. We've got a year in front of us to see how they all do, but I'm feeling pretty good about how things have gone in the offseason.
ESPN: Has there been much of a shift in terms of where the league's revenues come from? Is it still heavily reliant on ticket sales?
DG: There hasn't been much of a shift, although our commercial business, both nationally and locally, continues to grow. We're seeing some progress in local television, certainly in Los Angeles. There have been a number of good jersey sponsorship deals that we feel good about. But ticketing is still our primary revenue category. I think until the TV audience for MLS grows significantly, which we hope to see happen in the years to come, I think for the foreseeable future ticketing will be our primary revenue source. That's not necessarily a bad thing, by the way. I don't know what the statistics are, but certainly ticketing was a big driver of baseball up until recently, probably the last 10 years. I think ticketing was a really big driver in hockey up until their new television deal, which kicked in this year. So it's not unusual.
ESPN: You've got a lot of TV deals that are up for renewal in 2014. Is that when you anticipate seeing a moderate shift taking place?
DG: I don't think so. I think that would be too early to tell if that would change. I don't look at that as a core issue for us. Our core issue is driving revenues. Where those revenues come from is really immaterial. It's certainly a lot easier to have TV revenues than to go out and sell a ticket, but I think the NHL and the NBA were at 90 percent capacity in their arenas. So where were they going to go from a revenue perspective? They had to get into things like NBA China, and they had to dramatically -- in the NBA's case years ago -- get into the digital business. In hockey, they had to have a game changer, which I think they got with the NBC deal, because they're at such a high capacity. We're not at capacity in our stadiums yet. We still have a relatively low average ticket price. So we look at the business, and there are a wide variety of areas where we think we have a lot of growth in. Media is one of them, but certainly we're looking to continue to grow our fan base, our season ticket base, local media opportunities, and continuing to grow both locally and nationally on the sponsorship side.
ESPN: When we spoke last year, we talked about some initiatives to clamp down on rough play, and obviously there were several serious injuries to high-profile players. What is your assessment of how those initiatives worked, and how might you tweak things going forward to protect those players that everyone wants to watch?
DG: We had few, if any, serious injuries after the first 30 days of the league. We had a bunch of unfortunate situations to a number of really key players, including one really devastating injury to [Steve] Zakuani. But when you look at it across the whole league, you've got hundreds and hundreds of games. Overall, the violent play, there was a diminishment in violent hacks and rough play over the year. I think you'll see even more and more of those efforts going forward. It's interesting, we had two or three big issues, and that could drive your view as to what the whole year was. It just wasn't the case. We tracked this stuff down to the number of tackles, the number of red cards and the number of yellow cards. The incidence of those actually went down in 2011.
ESPN: With expansion, there's been some buzz surrounding Orlando and them possibly leapfrogging New York and becoming the 20th team.
DG: That's internet buzz. I was in Orlando, and it was a great visit. I have only terrific things to say about Phil Rawlins and the ownership group at Orlando City. They've got a really cool thing going on there and I was very impressed. But I really don't think at all that this is a matter of Orlando coming before New York. There are some other markets that have shown progress of late. The good news here is there is a lot of continued interest in expansion. Now we're going to continue to look at getting the right owner in the right market with the right stadium solution. We are very focused on New York. We might not get something done. That doesn't mean we're not going to continue to try. We are working very closely with the city of New York, and I can't say enough about how thankful I am that the city is so interested in soccer, and so interested in MLS that they've worked to support our efforts to find a stadium site. And if we're able to find a site, we'll have no issues getting an owner. But developing a stadium in the New York metropolitan area is very difficult. Perhaps the most difficult place just based on density and land availability in the country. But I still feel pretty good about trying to get something done there.
ESPN: What other new markets have started to come up? I know you were in Miami [recently].
DG: I believe we need to be in Florida. We certainly need to be south of Washington, D.C. I don't know when we'll be [in Florida], but it's hard to imagine the league's future without teams in this market. We've been very pleased with the success of some of the international friendlies that we've had here in the last 12 months. Barcelona and Chivas had 70,000 at Sun Life. We had 51,000 for Mexico and Colombia. These are games that never would have been so well attended years ago. I think that's an indication that Miami is embracing professional soccer in many more ways than they had in the past, and we're intrigued by that. Orlando came out of the blue. They had 11,000 people at [the USL PRO] final. They've got a great ownership group. They've got a number of potential stadium opportunities. That wasn't even on our radar screen a year ago.
I do believe that in the years to come we'll have more teams in our league. But I've been in this business for 30 years, and I've learned the lessons of NASL and other sports leagues in America. The only way we can really mess this whole thing up is to expand too quickly and go into the wrong markets. So we're going to continue to take our time and get it right.
I love listening to pundits -- who have no responsibility or obligation to manage our league -- demand changes [to the calendar] that could threaten the overall viability of MLS.” -- Don Garber
ESPN: How big do you think the league could get?
DG: I don't know, I really don't. There aren't many other leagues around the world that are above 18 or 20 [teams]. That seems to be the preferred size for Division One leagues. But we're the only country that's playing, that I know of, in a market of 350 million people across three time zones with dozens and dozens of cities that all have major league professional sports teams. I do think that there is an opportunity to have many more teams than we have now, but that's so far into the future that other than being interesting talk in an interview, it's not something we need to solve right now.
ESPN: The calls to switch the calendar keep coming. Is that even on the table at this point?
DG: No. It's not on the table. It will have to be at some time in the future, but I love listening to pundits -- who have no responsibility or obligation to manage our league -- demand changes that could threaten the overall viability of MLS. When we have a league that could play in rain, snow, sleet, or sunshine, and have a fan base that cares enough about their clubs to come out regardless of weather, then we'll be able to adjust to a schedule that will [be in sync] with the world calendar. But I keep hearing that the NFL has people coming out in the snow. I say, "Well, that's great. When we're the NFL, we can play in Montreal in February." But we're just not mature enough yet to do that. And I don't see the value in making those changes when the risk is to potentially threaten the overall viability of the league.
ESPN: So what's keeping you up at night?
DG: Everything. I don't think there's any sports commissioner that's not worried about everything, every day. If you're not, you're not doing your job. I continue to feel good about where we are, but I'm very focused on ensuring that nobody, at any level of MLS, thinks that we've cracked the code. This is still an emerging professional sport in America. Soccer is still not as embedded in the sports culture as it needs to be. We have got a lot of work to do. What makes me happy at night is that we're finally seeing this country turn into a soccer nation where people really care about the sport. I believe that passion will continue to grow, and that growth will drive even more opportunity for MLS.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN.com. He is also the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He can be reached at email@example.com.
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