Q&A (Part II) with Commissioner Garber: New-era owners, scheduling, TV, Chivas & more
SI: Is there any interest or pressure from TV networks to switch the schedule [from the current calendar year format to the fall-to-spring calendar used in Europe]?
GARBER: That’s a good question. I don’t think the pressure from networks is any different from the pressure from fans and folks who are trying to find a better schedule where we have fewer conflicts, where we have a better opportunity for our teams to have more consistency, where we’re honoring FIFA breaks and other windows, where we’re supporting CONCACAF and the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, and where perhaps we have the playoffs at a time when it’s less crowded.
Our broadcast partners love the game and follow it like fans and are no different than the fans who are lighting up social media and saying, “Change the schedule.” We looked at it really hard this year, harder then ever before, and we are struggling with what would be required to make change and whether the benefits of the change outweigh the enormous challenges.
SI: How many clubs would vote right now to switch?
GARBER: I don’t know the answer to that because we’re not at that point. It’s not even remotely close to a vote. What it is, is a very spirited debate.
SI: The clubs that would be willing to go for it, what’s their argument for a change?
GARBER: Some of them are in warm markets and some of them are in cold markets. They believe long term, if you want to be authentic, if you want to be one of the top leagues in the world, you likely have to align with the rest of the world. It might open up our transfer windows to be more productive. It might allow us to have a better playoff format and less clutter this time of the year, when we’re competing with the most popular sports.
SI: Does FIFA still want you to do it?
GARBER: There was a time when it became a subject for FIFA, and it was around the time we were bidding for the  World Cup. Russia had made the change as part of their bid [for 2018] and if we had gotten the World Cup we might have made the change as part of our World Cup bidding process. But we were certainly not ready then. I don’t think we’re ready now. It is more a “when” than “if,” but I have no idea when that “when” is.
SI: Will Sunil Gulati being on the [FIFA] Executive Committee have an impact on MLS or on developing the game in the U.S.?
GARBER: Sunil and I speak multiple times a day. He’s one of my closest friends, and without Sunil’s support Major League Soccer isn’t what it is today. Not just for what he did in helping to found it, but what he does every day to be a good partner with us. We’ve got a great, integrated relationship with [the U.S. Soccer Federation] to grow the game. We’re making a $20 million investment annually in player development. That’s a good thing.
SI: So around $1 million per team…
GARBER: Generally. Some are spending more than others. That’s a good thing for U.S. Soccer. We’re helping to create a passionate, knowledgeable fan base. Many of those fans, when they’re not rooting for their [MLS] team, are U.S. national team fans. We’re building facilities, privately and publicly, spending north of $2 billion on buildings that are great places to host U.S. Soccer matches. So all of those things are good for U.S Soccer. Sunil being on the Executive Committee is going to be important for us as we hope to have more and more influence in international soccer.
SI: Any chance you’ll bid to host the Club World Cup?
GARBER: We haven’t thought about that.
SI: In March, you said about Chivas USA, “Let’s give them some time. If we’re here in June or July and we’re having the same issues that we’re talking about right now, this might be a different conversation.”
GARBER: We were having problems in June and July and our conversations with them heated up. They’re not pleased with the performance with the team on or off the field, and neither is the league and we’re working on trying to find a solution. I can’t talk specifically about what that solution is, but I believe we’ll have a plan in place to try to turn that club around. It was a far bigger challenge than anybody hoped it would be, in so many different ways.
SI: Do you think that brand can ever work?
GARBER: I don’t know the answer to that sitting here today. But I certainly feel a little different about it today than I did in 2005.
SI: In past interviews I’ve finished up with questions about you and your personal perspective on the game. So I’d like to do that again. How much longer do you want to be commissioner? Will you retire as the commissioner of MLS?
GARBER: Certainly the job’s not done, so I hope to do it for several more years. How many years, I don’t know. I think we’re at a real inflection point with a lot of key things that need to get resolved in the next couple of years – new CBA, new television agreements, a round of three new teams, maybe four new teams. A lot of work to do.
SI: A lot of us get obsessed with certain non-essential trappings of the game. I get worked up over team names and logos, for example. Others get into TV commentators, analytics, history, new shoes and equipment, referees or whatever. What’s your soccer nerd obsession?
GARBER: I would say broadcasters are high on the list. I watch a lot of soccer. My wife and I watch more soccer than any other program. She’s become a huge fan. I didn’t grow up a soccer fan and I don’t think I do it because of my job. I’ve really become a fan. I wake up on the weekends and watch games and I watch tons of MLS games….
SI: Which commentators do you like?
GARBER: I’m not going to say! But I will say that at times, there’s a view that the American soccer fan needs to be told far more than I like to be spoken to when I’m watching. When I watch games from overseas, I like knowing who has the ball and what they’re doing with it. Not what they had for lunch and where they grew up.
SI: But it’s supposed to be about creating context and storylines, right?
GARBER: My personal view, there’s a place for storylines in halftime shows and pregame shows and the sort of shoulder programming we hope to get done either digitally or with our broadcast partners. It’s called the “beautiful game” because of the game itself, not because of what people do to try to tell us about it. That is a pretty big pet peeve.
[Abbott has entered the suite]
Mark, am I always calling you up and yelling at you about this?
ABBOTT: You are, every day and in every way.
GARBER: I also think we can do a better job with some of our camera angles. I came out of the media and marketing world. I’m an entertainment guy. I spend a lot of time watching our broadcasts. I think our broadcasters are doing a great job. They’re spending a ton of money … We go through a process when we’re doing stadiums. We have a broadcast manual and our guys are coming in and literally placing cameras and looking at how many seats are in front. How many seats are behind it? We have standards, broadcast standards, as to where each camera angle should be. It’s a big fight.