MLS Commissioner Don Garber: Soccer's Steward Sits Down With FanHouse
The league unveiled its 2011 playoff format, which will include 10 clubs rather than eight for the first time. It was an eagerly awaited announcement that, like a lot of what's handed down from the midtown Manhattan office, generated plenty of conflicting opinions.
At the focal point of all those decisions and subsequent conversations is Don Garber (above, right), the 53-year-old New York City native now entering his 12th full season as MLS commissioner.
He came to soccer late in life, but one could argue that he's had more influence on the fate of the global game in its final frontier than any other American. And as MLS continues to grow, with 18 teams planning to play this year and a 19th coming aboard in 2012, there are no signs his influence is on the wane.
On Wednesday afternoon, after 22 months covering soccer for FanHouse, I had the opportunity to spend about an hour in Garber's office. We examined the day's big news (and a favorite subject of ours), of course, but also looked back to the failed 2022 World Cup bid and discussed David Beckham, branding, ESPN, the challenges of creating a soccer nation and how much power the commissioner really has, among other things.
Thanks to MLS Executive VP Dan Courtemanche and Director of Communications Will Kuhns for setting up the interview, and thanks to our readers for supporting FanHouse's soccer coverage over the past two years.
And now, the Q&A:
THE PLAYOFF FORMAT AND DESERVING CHAMPIONS
FANHOUSE: What's the philosophy behind the new playoff format?
GARBER: It starts with the fact that we recognize that we're in a transition year. We're going to have 19 teams next year (2012). We will more than likely not have a balanced schedule. That's going to lead to probably a different format, one we're going to start working on immediately. We had a competition committee call the other day. We've begun a timetable for 2012 that will be much earlier.
FANHOUSE: And that format would be something more permanent?
GARBER: Our goal would be to have a long-term format in 2012. The objective in 2011 was to make a decision that we believe will at least emphasize the regular season more so than any of the other options that we looked it.
FANHOUSE: How does this format accomplish that?
GARBER: By rewarding the top finishers -- the Supporters Shield winner and the top finisher in the other conference -- with a game against a wild card team that had fewer points. Rather than keep those teams in the conference, having those teams regardless of conference play against the Supporters Shield winner and top finisher in the next conference. At the end of the day, we believe this format will prioritize the regular season.
We hear that a very core group of our fans believe very much that we should have a single table. I know you've written about this a lot.
FANHOUSE: My issue has been that the playoffs are too easy. They don't present a test. I love the idea of playoffs. But nobody ever questions the validity of the NBA or the Stanley Cup champion, or even the NFL champion, where the playoffs constitute 25% of the length of the regular season. Because the MLS playoffs are so short, and because there's no reward for regular season excellence, they're almost entirely random. They wind up producing a champion that doesn't have much resonance and that people question.
If people are questioning whether your champion is deserving, there's a problem.
GARBER: Take the Seahawks this year. What did they finish, 7-9? And could have been the Super Bowl champion. How's that any different?
FANHOUSE: I think when you have a sport (soccer) that's low scoring and can be decided by a sliver, by milliseconds and millimeters, individual results can be more fickle. I think the better team usually wins a football game. I think it's going to be almost impossible for a substandard team to win four consecutive NFL games against superior opposition. But in soccer, where the best team doesn't always win on the day, it's much easier for a substandard team to advance in an abbreviated format.
GARBER: Was Greece a deserving winner of Euro (2004)?
FANHOUSE: That may be apples and oranges because there was no regular season connected to the tournament.
GARBER: But still, you have a situation where a team, arguably not the best team in Europe ...
FANHOUSE: I think they were. I think they were deserving winners of that particular tournament.
GARBER: Because they played really well in the tournament.
FANHOUSE: What about what Hans Backe said the other day? You know the quotes I'm referring to. What does it say when the coach of a very high profile club basically says that the championship as currently constituted doesn't interest him? I can't conceive of an NFL or NBA coach saying something like that.
GARBER: Neither can I. I have a lot of respect for Hans. One of the beauties and the challenges we have in Major League Soccer is that we have coaches coming from other cultures, other countries, from playing in leagues that play in different formats, etc. The beauty of that is that it creates a diversity of thought and a unique environment that can't really be replicated in other leagues in this country. The challenge is having someone like Hans embrace the system that he has been employed to support.
I read that and I kind of scratched my head a little bit. I accept it. But i don't know whether the fans in New York agree with that. I'm not quite sure if the guys he's working with and for agree with that. But I accept it and I have a lot of respect for Hans. I don't call him up and say "What the heck are you saying?" He's entitled to his opinion.
FANHOUSE: What was the thinking behind adding four games to the regular season? That makes instituting the longer, more challenging playoff format that I'm advocating more difficult and it compresses the window into which you can fit the CONCACAF Champions League, U.S. Open Cup and other events like SuperLiga. If you're not going to have a balanced schedule anyway once you add the 19th team, why give yourself the headache?
GARBER: We have a slightly longer season. We may or may not have SuperLiga going forward. That's a decision we'll make shortly. There was very little schedule congestion caused by the additional games. We believed it was time for us to extend our season. We have a very short season. We have some players who believe they need to play elsewhere to stay in shape, to come back in form for the MLS regular season. We continue to look at conforming with the international calendar. The way to start on that is, we've got to have a longer season. The best way to have a longer season is to have more games.
(NOTE: Garber was referring to the rhythms of the international game and the lengths of league seasons around the world, not the project to study the implementation of a European fall-to-spring season, which MLS has abandoned.)
GROWING THE SPORT IN AMERICA, CHANGING IT AROUND THE WORLD
FANHOUSE: It seems like ESPN, which does so much to shape the opinions of sports fans in this country, continues to give the league short shrift in its promotion and on SportsCenter. I know you ask them for more. What do they say in response?
GARBER: They say SportsCenter is independent of the programming group and its value to the sports industry is its role in shaping opinion about sports. And it's done that earning the respect of sports fans and media for almost a generation. As such, we need to earn a position of editorial support. I believe we have earned a lot more than we've been getting from ESPN. We're not saying "Cover us because you're a partner of ours." We're saying, "Cover us because people care about Major League Soccer and want more information, and they're probably more interested in Rafa Márquez's first goal, a 30-yard bomb for the Red Bulls, than they are in a highlight from a secondary European league."
The decisions that are made there (SportsCenter) are not made by John Skipper (ESPN senior VP and GM). This sport can't have a bigger supporter and stronger cheerleader than John Skipper. They're made by editorial guys who are looking at video, the coordinating producer, who's making a decision. We hope, and have been pushing, to have those decisions made in a way where it doesn't jeopardize any journalistic credibility but at the same time supports ESPN's commitment to the game in this country. They are deeply committed to it -- to the league, the (U.S. Soccer) Federation, to the World Cup. The way to create more of a soccer nation in this country isn't necessarily to have more fans of the Danish league. It's to have more fans of Major League Soccer, and we work hard with them to try and achieve that.
FANHOUSE: In terms of creating a soccer nation, obviously the World Cup bid occupied a lot of your energy, your time, perhaps resources. First, how much did the bid, the whole process, cost the league and SUM?
GARBER: Millions of dollars. Many many millions of dollars in financial support, resources, the time commitment.
FANHOUSE: It's difficult to avoid daydreaming about what else could have been accomplished with that money.
GARBER: Yes, but I'd do the same thing again, and maybe we would have provided more. I don't regret anything that we've done, whether it was the financial contributions that we made, whether it was the office space we provided, the time our staff spent. We made a commitment to do something that we believe really would have accelerated the rate of growth of soccer in our country. And I'd do the same thing again.
FANHOUSE: But when you read about Qatar building soccer academies or stadiums in countries represented on the FIFA executive committee, among other things, do you ask yourself whether you campaigned the right way, or whether you even knew what the rules of the game really were?
GARBER: We politicked the only way we could, which was to run a very fair and transparent campaign that was extolling the benefits of the World Cup coming to the United States and the tremendous progress that we've achieved over the last couple of decades, along with the benefit to the global soccer community should we get it again.
At no time, and I want to really be strong about this, did we ever consider doing any of the things that we might have heard about being done by other bidders. It's not the way Sunil (Gulati) wanted to run the campaign. It's not the way that I, as the leader of this league and SUM, would have agreed to participate in it, and it's not the way the World Cup organizing committee would have agreed to. We have certain laws in this country that would have prohibited that from happening, and it's not the way we operate. I would rather lose doing what we did than win if we were forced to do the things that might have been necessary to win.
FANHOUSE: So was there any silver lining or benefit that resulted from the effort?
GARBER: I think the benefit is that it brought the league even closer to (U.S. Soccer) than we'd ever been before. It got us to President Clinton and Bob Iger (President and CEO of Disney), so many other influential people. Spike Lee has become a big fan and supporter. Donna Shalala (former U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, now the president of the University of Miami). There were so many key relationships created as a result.
FANHOUSE: As you maintained throughout the bid process, this country has a lot to offer because of its size, its wealth, demographics and growing interest in the sport. Is there anything that MLS and U.S. Soccer, with that leverage and momentum, can do to influence change in the way the sport is run and governed globally?
GARBER: I think about that a lot. Sunil and I, and Carlos Cordeiro, who was the vice chairman (of the U.S. bid), have talked about that. Sitting where I sit today, I can't think of what we could do to change that institution. We don't have a seat at the table. CONCACAF is represented, but the Federation and the league obviously isn't. The U.S. is one of only 200-plus countries (in FIFA). We all have the same vote. I don't know what it is that we could do to really affect any change and whether that change would really make a difference.
DAVID BECKHAM, WINNING HEARTS AND MINDS
FANHOUSE: Are you satisfied with David Beckham's commitment to MLS?
GARBER: I believe the David Beckham signing will be viewed as one of the historic milestones in MLS history. He elevated the exposure and credibility of this league in ways that we would not have been able to do at that time without a signing of that magnitude. Financially it was a deal that made sense for us. Our television ratings grew when David was playing for the Galaxy. The anticipation and excitement around the league, the media attention, all escalated. It's hard for anybody to argue that it wasn't a good signing and an important thing for the development of the league. That's not commissioner's speak. That's fact.
Does it disappoint me that he trains with Tottenham (after the Galaxy opened preseason camp)? Yes it does. Was I supportive of his desire to play for Milan on loan so he could prepare for the World Cup? I wasn't pleased with it. But we did it to support a guy who was important to the league and someone who had made an important commitment to us. In retrospect, would we make the same decision? I don't know. But certainly, on balance, this was a very successful signing and something that I think will go down in our history as a real important part of driving the league's success. It's inarguable.
Most players are keeping in shape and are on vacation during the offseason, whether it's in Major League Soccer or any other league. That's the way our contracts are structured. He wants to train and stay in shape. That's not a bad thing. It's only something that I believe becomes a challenge for us when that training impacts his role for the team that has him under contract, the L.A. Galaxy. AEG allowed him to train, the owner of the team allowed it, and said, "You've got to get back when it's time to get down to business."
FANHOUSE: Do you expect him to invoke his option to become an MLS owner?
GARBER: I would assume that when he's done playing he will act on his option, and we look forward to working with him on that.
FANHOUSE: You've committed to adding a 20th team (Montreal joins as the 19th in 2012). Are you willing to put off other prospective cities and investors in order to ensure that the 20th team is in New York?
GARBER: We have been very focused on our 20th team being in New York. We're not close to being done with that. But it still remains our goal, and therefore the other markets that we remain in discussion with will come in as team 21 or beyond.
FANHOUSE: You talked about what Beckham's signing did for the league, and there's no doubt that his arrival paved the way for the likes of Thierry Henry and Rafa Márquez ...
GARBER: He's been active in helping that happen. You should know that. He's been active in talking to Thierry and telling him what a great experience it's been for him and his family, and how important Thierry could be to help take this league to an even higher level.
FANHOUSE: In terms of getting to that higher level, in terms of credibility and your goal to make this league globally relevant, would you rather bring a player like Kaká to MLS? Or would you rather see Real Salt Lake win the CONCACAF Champions League? Which would do more for the league's prestige and development?
GARBER: Both are important. We need to win the hearts and minds of soccer fans in this region, North America, who are engaged with Major League Soccer but in many cases are more committed to international soccer. Winning the CONCACAF Champions League would help prove our view that we can stand toe-to-toe with other clubs in our region and, who by the way, play attractive soccer, have some great players, have good buildings and facilities and are worthy of the interest of people who are following the Premier League and other leagues around the world.
At the same time, signing a player like Kaká or Messi, that you hope someday to be able to do, gives us some of the value that David Beckham brought us, which is getting beyond the soccer fan and getting into the broader sports community and even the cultural community. That's what David helped do for us.
They're dual goals. It's hard to say which one is more important. I'd have to say both are important.
FANHOUSE: That pursuit of the hearts and minds of fans who may prefer foreign leagues brings the Sporting Kansas City rebrand to mind. When a club chooses a name like that, or Real or FC or any of the names copied from European traditions, is it sending a message that Americans should look abroad for relevance and validation?
GARBER: The clubs are recognizing that they need to be locally connected, relevant sports teams playing the world's game. Part of that is how they brand and position themselves. The move to international branding is not something that I think diminishes their value as American sports teams. I'm totally okay with that. In fact, I'd rather have names like FC Dallas than the "Burn". I'm not sure what a "Dallas Burn" is. When we think of brands, does it resonate as a soccer brand? If it could be the name of a lacrosse team or a college sports team and it doesn't really resonate? Than I struggle as to how effective that brand can be.
CEO, CONSENSUS BUILDER, FAN, "SOCCER GUY"
FANHOUSE: Your name is attached to pretty much everything MLS does, and a lot of writers and fans seem to believe that you are the driving force behind every decision made. You're the head coach, the quarterback, the president and the principal rolled into one. How are decisions made here, and how much power do you actually have? You're not an investor in this league, so it's hard for me to imagine that you have more say than Phil Anschutz, Stan Kroenke and the guys with the money. How does it work?
GARBER: It's a good question and I actually think about that now and again. I'd like to think of my role as temporary. Commissioners come and go, and hopefully at the end of your tenure you've made an impact, and the time period you were a steward of the league is positive. You will go through trials and tribulations and key decisions that hopefully when you're done you can look back and say that the league is in better shape today than when you started.
I accept that there will be as many people who disagree with a decision as will support it. While we hope to have unanimity around our board table, it's impractical with 18 owners (Hunt Sports Group owns both Dallas and Columbus) to have everyone on the same page. I accept that coaches and technical directors, particularly in our sport, will think that the guys in New York don't know what the heck they're doing.
Major League Soccer is a corporation. It's an LLC. So while the league operates no differently than any other league, for the most part, I'm the CEO of the company and I answer to a board of directors. That's no different than Roger Goodell, or Gary Bettman or David Stern, who answer to their board of governors.
The process starts with, I need to create consensus. I need to marshal all the different points of view on any issue. Whether it's an issue about a television contract or an issue about the formation of (Soccer United Marketing), or the folding of teams, our playoff format or our salary budgets, I need to take all the information that exists and all the opinions that exist, many of them differing, and try to move it to the middle to create consensus. In some cases everybody's happy at the board level. In some cases the majority of the people are happy.
FANHOUSE: Will you actually conduct a vote?
GARBER: It depends on what the issue is. On the playoff format, we presented at our last board meeting what we think our playoff structure will be. The board will vote on that and then send it back to the league to work with our competition committee to work out the details. That's what was just done over the last week or so.
Anything that affects competition, or how we operate competitively as a business, are decisions that in essence are made by the board. But like any CEO, the commissioner is driving strategy, making recommendations, hopefully selling what the league office believes is the right approach. Creating consensus amongst either a committee or the broader board and then getting to the final decisions.
I'm the public face of the league. It's hard to have 18 individual people be the public face of the league collectively. In all sports there is a person sitting at the head of the table who's going to get the credit or the criticism. Sepp Blatter isn't making the decision on Qatar. That's made by the executive committee. But who are they attacking now? They're not attacking those 23 guys, they're attacking the president of FIFA.
Each owner has a different role. Some are more active than others. All of them are interested. All of them are engaged. All are very focused on their local teams, and many are very active at the strategic level.
FANHOUSE: As far as you being the face of the league, or the target, I've noticed that you often make comments reminding everyone that you're not a "soccer guy" or that you haven't been involved in the sport as long as others. But you've been doing this for a dozen years and have been to as many games as anyone at this point. You've been immersed. So at what point do you become a "soccer guy"? When should your opinions about the sport start to matter to "soccer people"? Are you a soccer fan?
GARBER: I've never told anyone this story: I had a week or so where (former commissioner) Doug Logan and I overlapped before he left. I could remember the last day, he said to me, "I've been doing this for four years. I could have gotten a nuclear engineering degree and piloted a nuclear sub (in that time), and nobody would have questioned my qualifications. But after four years, nobody thinks that I'm a soccer guy. You should always remember that there's a core group of people who will never look at you like they see themselves, because of where they came from."
That doesn't mean they'd be good commissioners. It's just the perception that soccer people have about who truly understands the game. I obviously have gone to more games than I can count. I'm on a FIFA committee. I'm (U.S. Soccer) pro council chair. I'm on the Federation board and (U.S. Soccer) Foundation board, and have been spending 24 hours a day for the last 11 years running this league.
It is unimportant to me whether or not others look at me as a "soccer guy". What's important to me is that I'm respected by the MLS board as being a good visionary leader for the sport, whether I have the trust and loyalty of my staff, whether the coaches and technical directors believe that the league is stewarded in the right direction and that we're making the right decisions as it relates to the game, and whether or not history will prove that I've been a good commissioner.
FANHOUSE: Do you enjoy the sport now? Do you enjoy watching soccer?
GARBER: I love the game, and I didn't know that I would when I took the job. I don't necessarily believe it's a requirement. I didn't come into it with a deep history and connection with it. Are there times when I wish that 25-30 years ago, that I was a fan of the NASL or that I played in high school? Sure, because it would've given me a perspective. Not because it would have given me the trust or respect of others, but because it would give me a perspective that perhaps is different than someone who came in later in life.
When I was working for the NFL, I never really was a passionate football fan. I grew up in Queens. I went to Jets games as a kid. I've been to 15 Super Bowls. I was working in the game and in many ways it sucked out some of my passion as a sports fan. Today, I get more joy watching a great MLS game, or putting on a USA hat and watching the national team play, or the thrill of going to the opening of one of our expansion teams or the opening of Red Bull Arena in ways I never got before in any other sport. I love watching the Champions League on TV and Saturday morning international football, and do so as a fan.
This job is so encompassing, there's an intoxication that happens with this sport that I think doesn't happen with other sports. I think that's why it's the "beautiful game." It fortunately exists in me in ways that allows me to make decisions that hopefully take the sport to a higher level. I'm thankful for that, because that's not necessarily a given. It also gives the job more purpose, because there is the element of this being a cause.