Q&A with MLS' Don Garber (cont.)
SI.com: Here's a question I've always had: MLS is still a growing league, but unlike the leagues in, say, Argentina and Brazil, MLS aspires to be one of the top leagues in the world someday. How is that process supposed to happen, this transition from a feeder league to a destination league?
Garber: I think it's the continued development of all aspects of who and what we are. It's a growing and committed fan base. It's the proper facilities, not just for games but for training. It's professionally run and well-respected, successful youth academies. It's having more popularity and more revenue and therefore being able to invest more in players at all levels. If all of those things happen, I have no doubt that this league will be able to rise to the upper echelons of pro soccer leagues in the world. I can't even begin to think of when that will be, but I believe it will ultimately happen.
There is no way any of our owners are thinking that they're looking to own a secondary professional sports league. They own NFL teams, NBA teams, baseball teams and hockey teams. They're not looking to own a secondary soccer league. They want to make this a primary, well-respected, dominant league. That's going to take careful planning, a focused strategy and time.
SI.com: How many decades are we talking about?
Garber: I have no idea.
SI.com: You mentioned recently that Seattle and Toronto were the only MLS teams that operated at a profit in 2009. If David Beckham had been with the Los Angeles Galaxy the whole season, would the Galaxy have been profitable?
Garber: Yeah. More than likely.
SI.com: So he's that big of an influence still?
Garber: Yeah. No question.
SI.com: AEG CEO Tim Leiweke also said the Galaxy do not expect to be profitable this year. In what areas does Beckham change things? It's not just attendance, right?
Garber: David's presence on the field affects all aspects of the Galaxy's business and the league's business. It's all fairly obvious, from ticket sales to sponsorship to merchandise. It's heartbreaking when a guy has a devastating injury and can't achieve his dreams. And I feel first for that, because David has been a great member of this league and he'll be a major part of our history. We certainly hope he comes back, and if he does we'll be able to benefit from that. We're hoping he gets healthy soon.
SI.com: MLS debuted its new Web site recently, and I got a lot of response from my readers who were extremely unhappy that it didn't provide some of the most basic information like scores and start times and had a lot of bugs. What happened, and what is the league doing about it?
Garber: Our goal is to deliver the best soccer Web site in North America, and I believe that ultimately we will do that. It's a difficult process to switch from seven years of having your entire digital infrastructure managed by somebody else, supported by a handful of editorial people here in this office. So when we made the decision to make the switch, we took on a big task, and we were up to it. The challenges of the launch were all related to one very specific thing. We had a code that was developed that was managing a plethora of data streams that were coming in from hundreds of different places going down a single pipe coded and then sent out to the entire Web site. Five minutes after the site launched, that code got a bug and is broken. And it's still broken today.
So all of the issues relate to one very simple technical glitch. It had been tested in Beta, it had worked, we had spent countless months with professional people managing this in concert with us to get it right. And unfortunately we suffered a catastrophic technical glitch. So everything from statistics to highlights to scores to the times being off, everything was related to that one single issue. The guy who created that program has been fired. My guess is he would probably have a difficult time getting a job doing the same thing for someone in our business again, because it has been so devastating to us and to our fans over the last couple weeks.
But it will get fixed. Now the data is being fed manually, which you can imagine is a massive undertaking involving hundreds of people. But I still believe in our approach. I am committed to the design. I don't want to just create another version of MLSnet.com. If we were going to do that, we would have stayed with BAM [the previous platform] and the system that we had. We provide our teams with an opportunity to have an open platform, so they now have been required to hire local staff, to hire local digital directors, to find information digitally and editorially. And when it works it will be a far better system than what we had, and I believe it will be a system that will work for our fans.
You can imagine how engaged I have been the last couple weeks. I'm terribly frustrated, embarrassed, angry, and can say only to our fans: I apologize for where we are today. Stick with us, because we're going to get it right, and it'll ultimately deliver more value than anything we've been able to deliver in the past.
I've read every fan blog. I've read all the comments. We are processing all the information that's coming in from the public and responding to it as candidly and as frequently as we can. I've read many comments asking why did we launch it if it wasn't ready? It was ready. It worked when we turned the switch on, and five minutes later if we turn the switch off we would have had no Web site for two weeks. There was no way to go back to the old one. We don't own it, we don't have that technology. Another company was our back office, and once we made the switch from the BAM platform it was over. And we started building months and months ago this system on our own. We had nothing to go back to. Now if we knew we'd be in this position now, would we have found some parallel process to manage? Of course. That's the lesson learned.
SI.com: You said one person has lost their job over this. Will any more?
Garber: The person who created the code, he's no longer working with our project. I've heard all sorts of questions and comments about heads needing to roll. I run a large company. The answer to solving problems is not rolling heads. The answer is get it right, figure out what's the best way to manage this going forward, see if the systems we have in place are proper, that the technology is right. And we will continue to analyze as we have even if we didn't have this issue. For anybody who has ever run a business, the last think you do is start firing people when you have problems. That's the worst kind of leader in crises. The best kind of leaders in crises are empowering those people who are devastated by where they are to try to give them the opportunity to lift up, solve their problems and be able to use this as a learning experience so it doesn't happen again.
SI.com: If D.C. United continues to have issues finding a stadium plan in D.C., what are you going to do?
Garber: We are going to continue to fight the fight as hard as we can to get D.C. an appropriate facility. To think that what was and probably is one of the most valuable brands in MLS and arguably one of the most recognizable sports teams in the Mid-Atlantic states, to have them in the situation where they are now is inexcusable and unacceptable. We have teams that are starting as expansion teams and a few years later are moving in to brand-new buildings. So I continue to talk with [United honchos] Will Chang and Kevin Payne and try to work with them to figure out a solution beyond just continuing to play at RFK.
SI.com: Leiweke had been quoted last year saying your new contract as commissioner wouldn't be done until a new CBA deal was reached. What is the status of your contract situation with MLS?
Garber: We mutually agreed that to finalize a contract in the middle of CBA negotiations was just the wrong thing to do. It was the wrong statement to our players and a misuse of our mutual time. I wanted to be thinking of nothing else other than getting a great CBA for our owners and for the players. So I had agreed to put that process aside, and now we will be talking about the renewal of the agreement. And I'm fully supportive of that.
SI.com: So you're working without a contract right now?
Garber: Yes. And I'm comfortable with that. I had proposed to Tim that it made no sense for us because of timing to take our time, the board's time and my time to focus on a contract renewal while we were going through one of the most important negotiations in the history of the league. I was confident we were going to get a good deal done, and I trust our owners, having been their commissioner for 10 years, that now the agreement has been signed we'll sit down and negotiate a deal that will be good for me and good for the board.
SI.com: Do you plan on continuing to be the commissioner?
Garber: I certainly hope so.