Q&A (Part I) with Commissioner Garber: A small-market final, expansion, NYCFC & more
SI: There’s been talk during the build-up to Saturday’s game that the league must be disappointed that two of its smallest markets are represented in the final. I’d think on some level, the league would be happy that two deserving, well-run clubs are playing for the title. After all, when it launched MLS decided its competition would reward savvy teams rather than financial largesse.
Do you want your most marketable teams to do well, or can the teams that do well be the most marketable? And as more money comes into this league and owners and teams get more ambitious, will the likelihood of a small-market final decrease?
GARBER: I won’t talk about what’s going to happen in the future. Let me talk about what’s going on now. We have a basic tenet. It’s one of the core values of Major League Soccer – that we want every fan in every market to believe if their team is smart, if their players are focused and committed and stay healthy, they all have an equal opportunity to win MLS Cup. The team that does best wins, regardless of market size and regardless of the financial capacity of the owner. It is what sets us apart from other soccer leagues around the world.
When we have two small-market teams like Salt Lake and Kansas City, for us to think for one minute that that is not good for Major League Soccer would be violating one of the core equities that it was founded on.
Now, it makes a good story to talk about whether the league likes it or doesn’t like it. I can guarantee you I’m really happy for [RSL owner] Dell Loy Hansen and really happy for [SKC owners] Cliff Illig and Neal Patterson and their fans are pumped up and their players are pumped up. They’ve earned it and they have the right to be here. If the larger markets don’t like it, they’ve got to find a way to beat them.
SI: I once asked you whether the Sporting KC model could be applied to other markets, and you said you didn’t think so, because every city is different and every owner faces different challenges. So, what is it about Miami and Atlanta that makes you think they’ll be successful MLS markets? They are notoriously fickle sports towns, even for the more traditional and entrenched sports, and there doesn’t seem to be a lot of confidence out there that MLS can go mainstream in the Southeast.
GARBER: Any market that has the commitment of a strong, passionate owner who believes in Major League Soccer and the sport of soccer in North America, and has a smart facility plan that is centrally located to transit and hopefully an urban core, and is run well with a great short, mid and long-term strategic plan, will be successful.
SI: Isn’t that more likely to happen in a smaller city like Portland or Salt Lake?
GARBER: I don’t believe it. It is harder in larger markets because there’s more competition. And in Kansas City and in Salt Lake and in Portland there’s certainly less competition than there is in New York or Chicago or Boston. But that being said, if have those three things – right owner, right facility, right plan – and you’re focused and really committed to excellence, you can make it in any market in this country.
The fact that we’ve been able to turn around Kansas City the way we have is evidence of that. Who’d have thought 20 years ago that Kansas City would be the soccer market that it’s become today? It’s become a real beacon of hope for what soccer can be in America.