Q&A (Part I) with Commissioner Garber: A small-market final, expansion, NYCFC & more
KANSAS CITY, Mo. – On Thursday afternoon, two days prior to the 18th MLS Cup final that is to be contested by Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake, MLS commissioner Don Garber sat down with SI.com for a lengthy conversation concerning the state and future of the league.
In this first installment, Garber expanded on his remarks in Tuesday’s State of the League address to discuss the league’s responsibility to its fans and the public, Saturday’s final between small-market clubs, MLS’ ambitious expansion initiative and the next steps for NYCFC:
SI: It’s freezing and gray outside. There’s snow on the ground. Are you rethinking that non-neutral site MLS Cup at all?
GARBER: This is what we intended to do, which was to reward the home fans and the home club with the benefit, the dream, of hosting the final, because they earned it. Yeah, the weather is going to be cold. But the stadium will be packed.
SI: You took questions from both reporters and fans following your “state of the league” address on Tuesday, which is commendable. But if this league is one of the world’s biggest in 2022 as you intend, will you still answer questions from fans in that kind of open environment? Is there a point at which trying to create that sort of relationship becomes impossible?
GARBER: I don’t know that I’ll be here in 2022, but I think the sports business has changed. Really the advent of social media and the emergence of every fan as a blogger and journalist in their own right, you have to shift the way you operate, and to me, those questions from fans were as important as the questions from the media. When I looked at the TV screens when I’m sitting up on the stage and whether the person was a Portland Timbers fan or a reporter from The Oregonian, to me they’re both entitled to express their views and ask questions about things that are important to them.
SI: I wonder about how that relationship with fans and their wish for greater transparency relates to stadiums, which have really driven the league’s growth. A lot of these stadiums are, at least in part, publicly financed…
GARBER: Not enough of them!
SI: Well, OK! Orlando is getting public money. Sporting KC used public money. Erick Thohir, a billionaire, is asking for help from the D.C. government, all while reports are surfacing that there’s discontent in Denver and Chicago about the lack of development around those stadiums or the debt that’s been incurred. There’s still too much empty land around Red Bull Arena. Is MLS a good investment for cities? What do you owe fans in return when public money is spent on a stadium?
GARBER: It is, without doubt, a good investment. The front page of [The Kansas City Star] today is just covered with excitement with Sporting Kansas City being in the MLS Cup. It’s taken over Salt Lake City. Today we were at a charitable event at Ronald McDonald House creating an environment for kids with cancer.
There’s no question that MLS teams, just the same as any other sports team, provides value to the community. When you have the right facility, it enables the team to be successful so it can compete. Hopefully it can be economically viable and therefore it can do all the great things it does to empower, excite and motivate a community.
The issue I read about in the article today [from Bloomberg News] is premature. To say that those buildings don’t make economic sense after they’ve been around four or five years, after a funding program that has a 25 or 30 term to it, isn’t good news, but I don’t think it’s the whole story…
I believe wholeheartedly that public support for facilities makes economic sense in terms of new jobs, in terms of improving the lives of people in the community and providing a good return on the public’s investment. It takes time. You can’t look at it at phase one. Frankly, I thought that was an unfair article.