Chatting with the Don of MLS
SEATTLE -- As Tuesday's First Kick match between Seattle and Los Angeles beckoned, MLS commissioner Don Garber was ensconced in an expansive suite at a hotel in downtown Seattle. It was barely big enough to contain the optimism he exuded about the league.
This isn't a case of false confidence either. The addition of expansion teams in Portland and Vancouver has created as much, if not more preseason excitement than any year in recent memory. And with measures in place to encourage attacking football, the expectation is that the quality of play in MLS is set to climb further.
But a commissioner's work is never done, and the 53-year-old executive still has some problem areas to occupy his thoughts. The league's television ratings remain a point of concern, but even that is dwarfed by the biggest concern of all: How to convert the legion of soccer fans in the United States into MLS fans during a period of unprecedented viewing options. That challenge, as well as others, were among the topics he was kind enough to discuss with ESPN.com as the 2011 regular season begins.
ESPN: There is a lot of buzz surrounding the additions of Portland and Vancouver. But what about older franchises like Colorado and Dallas that have good teams, soccer-specific stadiums, yet are struggling at the gate? Are you concerned that in some markets the league's economic blueprint hasn't translated into bigger crowds?
Don Garber: I believe Colorado's attendance will grow this year and Dallas' attendance will grow this year. Much of that is because some of the older teams are recognizing that sometimes you have to hunker down and work a little harder, and perhaps create new unique marketing strategies and get focused on improving the quality of the team and in those cases they've been able to do [that]. And in Dallas, in particular, they've hired one of the most experienced sports executives [Doug Quinn] in the business, and that's delivering results already.
So I don't think it's about an economic blueprint being challenged. I just think that any time the new kid on the block comes to town, it's always special. And the more established clubs have to continue to reinvent themselves and be re-energized because the newer clubs have proven that people really do care about this game, and if you give them a product that they want to see, in the right environment, with some unique and creative marketing efforts, you can be successful.
Another point, too -- the expansion teams haven't been successful just because they're new. They've been working hard to do some really creative marketing programs, putting together a strong and focused front-office staff, and worked hard on getting the product on the field right and attractive to the fans. So I think those are the lessons that the older teams are paying attention to.
ESPN: The Designated Player rule is now heading into its fifth season. What are your thoughts on the rule and its impact on the league?
DG: The Designated Player rule was a great development in the history of Major League Soccer. People will look back on our league, and see that rule as being one of the key decisions that our owners made to take this sport to a higher level. And [we did] it in an environment that doesn't upset the economic stability and viability of the league. Whether it's David Beckham or Thierry Henry, or Cuauhtemoc Blanco, some of these players have been important drivers of the value that our league has both here and abroad.
I think we'll continue to evolve it and evaluate how it's been working for us, and how to ensure that we incentivize and motivate clubs to sign Designated Players without being too penalized with the [salary] cap charge, but at the same time not look at that rule as a way to expand our spending at a time when we're still being careful about our economics.
ESPN: The rule has had some noticeable successes, but it also seems as though very few of the Designated Players have performed well on the field. Do you feel like teams are doing an adequate amount of due diligence when it comes to their recruitment?
DG: I don't agree that very few of them have performed well on the field. Blanco is an example as is Juan Pablo Angel. Certainly, I still believe that David Beckham has performed well, and I'll continue to believe that. It's too early to talk about the impact that Henry and [Rafa] Marquez. They've only been around for a half year. But I think most cases, and I'd have to look at the percentages, the rule has worked well both in driving increased awareness and excitement for the league, but also for those teams that have signed those players. In many cases, they've performed well.
From a board perspective, the Designated Player is still more about players that will move the needle [to] drive attendance and television ratings, and was conceived less about giving an owner the opportunity to spend more money to be better. The best decisions are when that player can do both, and Blanco would be an example of that.
ESPN: But I could also point to examples like Luis Angel Landin and Denilson. And it seems like a lot of the players now being signed to DP contracts are not household names. I'm thinking of players like Eric Hassli in Vancouver, Branko Boskovic in D.C., Mista [who has since departed] in Toronto.
DG: I think part of the challenge is we're in the sports business. Teams are going to be rewarded when they make good decisions and penalized when they make bad decisions. The league is not weighing in to influence the decisions that clubs make as it relates to Designated Players. Certainly, there have been some signings that teams would prefer, in retrospect, that they didn't make. That's sports, and that allows for fans to chatter and media to criticize and others to speculate, but I think that's a positive, not a negative.
ESPN: So you're not concerned that maybe teams are straying away from the original spirit of the Designated Player rule?
DG: I would say that if we start seeing that the rule is being stretched to not be what it was intended to do, then from a broad global perspective, we'll have to evaluate how we address that. But on an isolated basis, I don't believe the league office should be dictating to the clubs whether they should nor should not sign a player. If we start seeing teams using the rule in a way that wasn't intended, then we'll have to address it.
ESPN: Do you ever see a point where that Designated Player money might be spent to keep guys like Juan Agudelo and Andy Najar in MLS as opposed to having them go overseas?
DG: I think it's very important to ensure that the very best players, either from our academies or young players that we're bringing through the draft, stay in MLS. We've got to continue to look at our system to ensure that as we're more successful in player development that we're able to keep those players. What that mechanism is today I can't tell you. But ultimately, I do think it's important to keep the best young players in the league. Certainly, we're spending a lot of time and money developing those players. It would be a shame if we were not be able to capitalize on them when they're really in the prime of their careers.
ESPN: David Beckham has either been away on loan or injured for significant chunks of time that he's been contracted to play in MLS. Has the deal been everything you hoped it would be?
DG: I'm not quite sure I knew what it would be when we signed him, other than create tremendous excitement for the league, and explode our awareness, and even our credibility, both here and abroad. And it's done that.
ESPN: How do you measure that?
DG: By the level of respect that the international football community has for MLS, because they are able to see all of the developments in the league. And also we have somebody like [Beckham] who is being chased by Tottenham and is playing for the L.A. Galaxy. I continue to scratch my head when people question where David Beckham is in his career. He had a top EPL side challenging for the Champions League trying to sign [him]. He's good enough for Tottenham. Why isn't he good enough for MLS? It's one of those things that astounds me. Would I prefer that he not go out on loan during that time? Of course I would. That's not something we're shy about telling David or saying publicly. But it was part of our need to address the fact that we have a schedule that is very different from the rest of the world players.
ESPN: Fair enough, but a lot of times through his actions, it seems as though Beckham has not given the league the requisite amount of respect. It appears as though he's treated MLS as an afterthought and put his international aspirations far ahead of his obligations to the Galaxy.
DG: I don't think that takes away his commitment to us. It does make it unique and at times challenging. But I've never questioned his commitment. I've spent time talking to him and talking to his management. He is committed to MLS. He just doesn't want to sit on the beach. So the media and the pundits and the fans question that desire to play overseas during the offseason as a lack of commitment. But it could also be looked at as a deeper commitment. Now the injury certainly made the whole thing unfortunate, but had he not been injured I'm not sure anybody would be looking at it quite the way they do today.
ESPN: But he did move the goalposts in the one instance when he was loaned to Milan [in 2009] and then it was extended, which cut into the MLS regular season?
DG: That's true. That was related to the World Cup, and we agreed to that. I'm not sure we'd make the same decision again. But if you think about all the things that people question about what he's done during his time here, it's taken on a larger-than-life debate, and a lot of that has to do with the fact that we extended the loan and then he got hurt.
ESPN: Has the experience with Beckham -- and the time he's missed due to international duty -- caused the league to shy away from going after other current European internationals because of the logistics involved?
DG: No. It really hasn't. I think that the quality of the play in the league continues to improve. I don't think any international player questions the quality of MLS. Most of them go back home and say 'It's a whole lot better than people think. It's a whole lot tougher.' There's a higher level of respect among the international player community than there is in many ways with the American fan of international soccer, which is an interesting dynamic that we have to manage through.
ESPN: How do you capture that mindshare?
DG: It's one of the biggest challenges that we have. As the soccer market continues to grow, the number of people that follow the international game is growing faster in many ways than we expected it to. A lot of that has to do with the shrinking global community and the amount of access that fans have to European soccer on television, easy access through digital media, etc. It just means we have to get more focused. We have to accelerate our plan of how we invest in the quality of our games, and more deeply invest in player development, and all of the other things we're doing to accelerate our growth.
So far that's been working pretty well for us. We've made a financial commitment of many millions of dollars during the offseason to competition-related initiatives. That's probably something that we would have held off on a little bit if we didn't see the fact that the market is growing. Market growth is a good thing. I'd rather have the market growing and convert them to MLS fans than have them not care about the game at all. It's much easier to build a market than it is to create a market.
ESPN: You talked on last week's conference call about the initiatives the league has undertaken to protect attacking players and clamp down on rough play. That goal is commendable, but I think back to past FIFA initiatives that wanted to do the same thing and after some initial enforcement the play reverted back to where it was. How are you going to guard against that so that the initiative is sustained throughout the season?
DG: Good communication through the use of our command center, and the fact that we'll have the professional referee group in our offices, looking at every game, working closely with [executive vice president of competition, technical and game operations] Nelson Rodriguez, and the rest of our staff that oversees that aspect of our business. It's hard to talk about what will happen to an initiative before the initiative has started. Let's get through it. But it starts with the fact that the officials from the USSF and the CSA are committed to making sure that our games get better.
That said, the officials don't work for us. They work for the respective federations.
ESPN: But they are stakeholders.
DG: They are stakeholders in the sport in North America and in trying to drive its growth. Nobody wants to see persistent fouls and persistent infringement and attacking players constantly being pulled, clutched and thrown to the ground. That's just not good soccer. We need to be sure we're not just protecting a specific individual player, but we're protecting the concept of supporting entertaining, quality play.
ESPN: You're on record as stating that you would like the 20th team to be in New York. Why is putting an additional team in New York more important than expanding your national footprint?
DB: That's a good question. They're both priorities. The question is: What's the best action for us to take that will drive the overall popularity and interest in the sport in key parts of the country? Right now, I think we have an opportunity with that 20th team to create the kind of rivalry that we'll be experiencing in the Northwest, with three cities -- Seattle, Vancouver and Portland -- that will be close to each other. I'd like to replicate that in the Northeast corridor. That idea, if we can deliver on it, I think will give us a better chance to grow all of our measures, than just another team in another market. New York has got 13, 14 million people, lots of soccer fans. A rivalry with the Red Bulls will be invaluable, and having another team to create a rivalry with New England, Philadelphia or D.C. will also be valuable. That's what's driving that.
It doesn't take away anything from our interest in Atlanta, or our interest in Florida at some point. I do believe we need to be in the Southeast. We certainly need a team south of Washington, D.C. The question isn't if, it's when.
ESPN: I can't help but think back to Chivas USA and the rivalry they have with the Galaxy. And while those games are intense, Chivas has also really struggled to gain traction in that city. What's to stop the same thing from happening in New York?
DG: Hopefully we've learned some of the lessons of the challenges we've had with Chivas so that they're not replicated with a second team in New York. But I don't think the two are really analogous.
ESPN: Why not?
DG: The issues that we have with Chivas are related to things that have nothing to do with the fact that they are playing in Los Angeles. We have been struggling to get that brand to resonate in the Latino community, which was our intent at the start. I'm not sure it was the best decision to have them share a stadium. It's something that we continue to look at. It came at a time when the Galaxy was just starting to resonate and become a really important part of the sports landscape. I just think those issues aren't related in my mind.
ESPN: So you're not concerned that one of the New York teams might end up cannibalizing the other?
DG: I think it will be the opposite. I think the rivalry will enhance the brands of each team.
ESPN: You decided not to shift the MLS calendar to one that's more in line with the international calendar. The World Cup bid was part of what was driving that. Is that idea completely dead or is it up for discussion still?
DG: The idea of shifting to the winter calendar was never alive enough to die. It was an idea, and it was something that we were willing to investigate over time. My comments at the time were, "We haven't ruled out at some point looking more closely at a shift to the international calendar." I would say now that's less of a priority for us.
But we are prioritizing expanding our calendar [to] start earlier in the spring and end later in the fall. We just have to. We have more teams, and we have more competitions to play in, and there just aren't enough dates for us to effectively create a calendar that works for our broadcast partners, for our teams, for our players, and for our various commitments to U.S. Soccer, CONCACAF and FIFA.
ESPN: I remember you saying once that MLS fans needed to "become agnostic about the weather." How much closer is the fan base getting to that point?
DG: Every once in a while I'm pleasantly surprised and thrilled with the resilience of our fan base. Three weeks ago in Salt Lake we had over 15,000 people coming out on a Tuesday night, it was 36 degrees, to watch a CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal. That was remarkable. I do believe that at some point, the fan support for our league will be such that it can push through more difficult weather challenges.
In New York, they come to a football game in December, they clear snow off the field, and nobody seems to have a problem with that because the teams are so deeply embedded in the sports culture in those communities. That's what we need to do with MLS. In Seattle, it's embedded. We have a bit of that in Toronto as well. The challenge for us is we're still new. The league is must-have in certain markets, but not must-have enough in other markets.
ESPN: How do you achieve that?
DG: Time, and clubs making deeper connections in the community, getting closer to their core fans and having them support their club through thick and thin, and having the casual fan look at that and say, "Hey, this must be important because the supporters are out there telling us so." Those are just a handful of the things we need to think about.
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ESPN: You mentioned in some previous interviews that raising the television ratings is the league's responsibility. Can you elaborate a little bit on how you plan to accomplish that?
DG: We certainly don't have a target in mind, but we believe that we have a product that will resonate more with the soccer fan today and tomorrow than it has in the past. I think that will deliver increased television ratings. That being said, there is more and more soccer competition every day. Our fans, their interest is constantly stretched across so many different alternatives. We've got to make sure we're marketing our destination programs better. We've hired a chief marketing officer to help us do that. To engage through social media with our fans to have them understand that supporting our league through television is a part of being a fan, as it is in other soccer leagues around the world. Working with our partners to better schedule and help us get the word out to their viewers. There are a wide variety of things that we're going to do. Thankfully, we have long-term commitments from our broadcast partners, ESPN and Univision. They're committed to us through thick and thin, and I'm greatly appreciative of that. We have a one-year deal with Fox that we're going to try to mutually ensure is good for both of us.
ESPN: What's your reaction to the fact that First Kick [was] on the same night as the CONCACAF Champions League game involving Real Salt Lake?
DG: It's the kind of thing we should try to avoid going forward. We have a great schedule with ESPN, it was the right time. The CONCACAF date was set before we set our schedule, and we should do everything we can to avoid that from happening in future years. We should assume that we're going to get through to the semis and have a game tonight. Last year on ESPN we were on a Thursday night. This year, for a variety of reasons, we were on a Tuesday night. It's not a perfect scenario, but our fans are going to get an opportunity to multitask as we know all of them love to do.
ESPN: A lot of attention was placed on the just-concluded contract negotiations with FSC. But what about the international market? What kind of traction has the league gotten on other continents in terms of television viewership?
DG: Quite a bit. We've been very active on the international front, and we've closed a number of deals in the last four or five weeks. The most important one is the one we're doing in Canada, with TSN. TSN is the ESPN of Canada, and it's a deal that will pay us rights fees to produce our games. They gave us a great schedule, and it's one that will be the beginning of raising the overall prominence of MLS and our Canadian clubs to a higher level.
ESPN: Can you talk in general terms about where most of the league's revenue comes from? Sponsors? Tickets sales? Television?
DG: It's all three. The majority of revenue is coming today from ticket sales, followed by commercial revenue, followed by broadcasting revenue. That's probably similar to where the NHL is. Each league has its own unique dynamic. Certainly there is a lot of television revenue in the NFL, and they have fewer games. But for us, this is what we expected. We knew that our business would be driven by the gate to start, and then it would evolve to be driven by television revenues. That's certainly something that we've got a long way to go to achieve, but it's going according to plan.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.