Q&A (Part II) with Commissioner Garber: New-era owners, scheduling, TV, Chivas & more
KANSAS CITY, Mo. – In this second half of SI.com’s conversation with MLS commissioner Don Garber, the league’s steward discusses the owners’ relationship with the union and each other, the scheduling quandary, his own quirks as a soccer fan, his most significant memory, success and failure since taking over in 1999 and how the league “didn’t get it right” with Chivas USA.
Garber was speaking from his hotel suite in Kansas City two days before the MLS Cup final.
(In case you missed last week’s first part, you can read it here)
SI: The CBA expires at the end of next year. There was nearly a work stoppage in 2010. It was tough. How contentious do you expect negotiations to be?
GARBER: We have a great relationship with MLS Players’ Union. They’ve done a good job for their players over the past five years. [Union executive director] Bob Foose is in regular contact with us, as is [general counsel] Jon Newman. Eddie Pope [the Hall of Fame defender who now works as the union’s director of player relations] has been engaged now for five years and they’ve certainly grown and evolved as the league has grown.
All labor discussions, whether it’s in sports or any other organized labor-management discussion, are difficult. This one will be difficult, but we’re both committed to growing the league and ensuring that Major League Soccer continues to thrive, and that will ultimately benefit the players. We’ll sit down in the next couple of months and start the process.
SI: Is there any interest or appetite among the board of governors for a significant raise in the salary budget? I imagine the union is going to want more money for the rank and file.
GARBER: I’m not going to talk about that now! It’s too premature to talk about anything related to negotiations.
SI: Flávio da Silva [Orlando City] and Anthony Precourt [Columbus Crew] have recently bought into the league and represent a new sort of MLS owner. They’re younger, ambitious, they weren’t around during the tough days of contraction and they’re going to want a return on their investment on and off the field. They’ve spent a lot of money to be here. You have Manchester City coming in. There may be owners now who have a different view on patient, slow growth than others. How much is the dynamic around the board of governors’ table going to change as the old guard becomes diluted?
GARBER: I don’t look at it that way. I get asked a lot, “What’s the one thing that has really driven the recent increased stability and success of the league?” It isn’t the expansion of the league from a geographic sense, as much as it is the addition of such great, young, committed sports industrialists who are committed to soccer. They’re diversifying the way we think around the board table and they’re going to take this league forward into the next generation.
We used to sit around, [MLS president and deputy commissioner] Mark Abbott and I, in 2001 and 2002, and say, “We know we’ll have made it when some young internet start-up guy sells his company and says, ‘The first thing I want to do is buy a soccer team.’” And that started actually happening, although it wasn’t an internet entrepreneur, when [Seattle Sounders owner] Joe Roth approached us and said, “Hey, I just sold my company and I’ve always wanted to own an MLS team. Can we sit down and talk?”
That’s happening more and more now. We’re getting people who are calling us up, grew up with the game and have made a lot of money and they’re looking to get involved in pro sports. There are a lot of choices to make and their choice is a potential opportunity in MLS. It’s a very positive development. It is not at all about diluting the founders as much as it’s supporting the original vision of those founders and then evolving it as we have a new generation of people coming in.
SI: You don’t see any schism developing between owners who want to spend more and owners who want to spend less?
GARBER: No. Why, do you think Anthony Precourt wants to spend more than Phil Anschutz does?
SI: I don’t know, but Precourt paid more than $60 million to be in the league and others paid $6 million, so you can imagine a guy like that operating on a different timeline, being a bit more ambitious.
GARBER: Every owner that I’ve seen in my 30 years [in pro sports], they all have the same goal in mind. They want to make a difference. They really believe in the sport, in this case Major League Soccer. They want to create a legacy in their community or something that can help establish some contribution to something bigger than themselves, and they’d like not to lose money. Those are the things that drive Major League Soccer.
SI: To your point, we know of at least a couple of occasions where these owners agreed to spend their money to help out a rival. They said, “Let’s use league money to help get Clint Dempsey,” even though Seattle was the beneficiary.
GARBER: It speaks to the core of what Major League Soccer is all about. Most people don’t talk about this. They are competitors on the field and they’re partners off the field and that, at times, is a struggle for fans who don’t quite understand how a group of owners could come together and fund a transcendent opportunity like Clint Dempsey coming back to the league.
Because [owners] are thinking about the long term. They’re trying to not just focus on winning each weekend, even though that is their focus when it comes to the game that’s played that weekend. They’re trying to build a sport in America against all sorts of odds, against failure in the past, major competition form here and abroad, and that requires a unique approach to going about and running the business.
The league is not at all focused on the success or failure of an individual club until it becomes traumatic or impactful on everybody else. It is about growing the sport, making the league more popular, figuring out ways we can service our fans in new and interesting ways, managing new technology and doing things that leagues do, which is empowering our clubs to be better, provide them with services so they can be smarter and more effective. But at the end of the day it’s about growth and opportunity, not anything more than that.