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.
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.
SI: I collect soccer scarves. I get a scarf from every game I go to. What’s your collection or your favorite soccer souvenir that you’ve acquired?
GARBER: I don’t have any souvenirs anymore, as commissioner. But when I lived over in Europe for a while [while working for the NFL], I traveled a lot and I used to buy balls – team-identified soccer balls. I’ve got a bunch of them in my house. I have old, antique balls in my house too, the old leather balls. But I’ve got way too much clutter in my house now. I’m downsizing. I’m on clutter probation.
SI: What’s the most memorable MLS moment, a game or goal, you’ve witnessed live?
GARBER: It was at the Portugal-U.S. game in Korea [at the 2002 World Cup]. It wasn’t an MLS moment. I’m smart enough not to say one of our teams, because than the Twittersphere will kill me. Anytime I say anything nice about a club, they kill me.
It was the U.S.-Portugal game. We won that game and I was sitting in better seats than Lamar Hunt. I was actually sitting next to [Abbott]. We looked up 15 rows behind us and there was Lamar Hunt with tears in his eyes. That was very memorable.
And I will say this. Almost every time we open up a new stadium, it kind of puts a little bit of a lump in my throat. Any time I’m in a stadium where I see massive groups of supporters, creating some of the images that they do, whether it’s in Portland or Seattle or D.C. or Philly or Vancouver or Toronto or wherever it might be, I kind of take a step back an say “Wow, this is pretty cool.”
SI: What soccer rule would you change? What would you change about the game?
GARBER: I can answer this one. I think about this a lot … I think we’ve got to work hard to eliminate all the clutching in the [penalty area]. We will look hard in the offseason at some of the pushing and shoving and clutching in the box.
It seems to me that some of the real dramatic moments that take place in a game are on corner kicks and we probably should work harder to clean up some of the clutching. The NHL had that issue in their game and they basically passed a rule and they eliminated it and goal scoring went up. While I love a 1-0 game as much as anybody else does, this is a game about dramatic moments and we should enforce the rules as the rules are meant to be enforced, which is that you can’t grab on and pull somebody down on a corner kick. That’s one of the things I would look hard to change going forward.
SI: Do you like the MLS logo? Don’t you think it’s kind of cheesy? That foot….
GARBER: Cheesy! [Laughs]. I think there are a lot of things that were created when the league was founded that were right for the time. Nobody expected the sport would evolve the way it has, right? It has embraced the international game in ways that nobody ever expected. Many of our teams have international brands and kits that are just much more aligned with the international standards. I think our logo probably could use a bit of evolution.
SI: What is your biggest success as commissioner?
GARBER: Expanding the ownership group.
GARBER: That’s a tough one. Whatever I say here’s just going to get me into trouble. I can’t wimp out here. “Failure” is probably not the right word, because it’s not a failure until it’s over, right?
ABBOTT: It was a challenge when we had to shut the teams down [Miami and Tampa Bay after the 2001 season] but that was part of an integrated plan to bring it back.
GARBER: Let’s call it a setback. That’s a good one. This will be provocative: We didn’t get it right, and still don’t have it right, with Chivas USA. My idea. It was my concept to get Vergara involved and expand his Guadalajara brand, and we didn’t execute it properly and I have told him that I take responsibility for that.
SI: You’re not the one firing coaches and team presidents every few months….
GARBER: It’s not a failure, because it’s not over yet. But I’m disappointed that we haven’t done better there.
SI: I think the idea of a team oriented toward the Latino market is a good one. But by slapping the Guadalajara crest on there, you wind up alienating half that potential fan base right away.
GARBER: I think it’s less that because I know people say that about Man City [and New York City FC]. It’s not about alienation. It was a good idea to have a Latino-themed and targeted team in L.A., which is a massive Hispanic market, and we have not executed it as well as it needed to be. We’ve had enough time. People should not blame Jorge Vergara. He’s a bright, passionate guy who loves this country and loves the game. This is hard business. It’s hard to be right and sometimes you get some momentum in the wrong direction and it can be a spiral that is hard to turn around.
SI: The [discrimination] lawsuit certainly doesn’t help the public perception.
GARBER: No question.
SI: You mentioned Man City. Is that relationship something you’re monitoring? You mentioned that video [of City players kicking a ball around NYC]. As fun as that video was, I had one friend say to me that it would’ve been so much better if they used local kids, or players from St. John’s and other schools. Vincent Kompany and Kun Agüero are awesome, but they’ve got no ties to New York. Where’s the line there?
GARBER: We have to be very mindful that we have a number of great things going on with the New York City team. It starts with very committed owners who really want Major League Soccer to succeed, with a strong rival for the Red Bulls and a CEO in Ferran Soriano, who is brilliant. When you put those things together, we have a pretty good formula for success. But we have to be careful that we don’t make the same mistakes that we made with Chivas Guadalajara and Chivas USA, and I’m convinced that all of us will be very mindful of it.