MLS commish Garber talks Portland-Seattle rivalry, future of league (cont.)
SI.com: David Beckham can sign a new pre-contract as soon as July 1. What are the chances that he extends his contract with Los Angeles?
Garber: That's a question for Bruce Arena and Tim Leiweke. I spoke to Bruce earlier today, and he said David's doing really well and a great guy in the locker room. He's expecting a good season from David. He's still a great player who's being sought after by the top clubs in the world, and he continues to be very popular. I hope he has a great year, and the Galaxy will determine what his future is. The more time I travel around the world and speak to people about MLS, the better I feel about the David Beckham experiment. He is a consummate professional. The only regret I have is we didn't have more of him. Because what we had was terrific.
SI.com: MLS' average rating on ESPN2 has been 0.2 for a long time.
Garber: A little more than that.
SI.com: OK, 0.2-something.
SI.com: OK. How do you move that rating?
Garber: Both MLS and ESPN are committed to growing our ratings this year, and there are a lot of things that we both need to do to achieve that goal. An effective schedule is the first part. Marketing and promotion is the second part. And MLS continues to engage with the soccer fan in this country. I think there are times when our fans look to ESPN as being responsible for driving our ratings. We are. And we need to have a product people believe in and effectively communicate that product to the soccer fan in America. That's what we hope to achieve this year.
SI.com: MLS recently signed a one-year extension with Fox Soccer Channel for less money reportedly than the league wanted. What's your sense of the deal?
Garber: We worked hard with Fox Soccer Channel to extend our last agreement on a multiyear basis. We were not able to reach agreement on terms as to what Fox would pay for those rights. We reached a one-year deal that we were very comfortable with financially that was [multiple times] higher than our previous deal. I'm pleased with the extension. It keeps us in our partnership with Fox, who has been a great partner. Yet it gives us the flexibility to see what kind of things we need to do together to extend it for a longer period of time. We'll either reach an agreement on a multiyear basis on terms that are acceptable to us both, or we won't. But I am very comfortable where we ended up. It was a positive development for us.
SI.com: I'm a fan of MLS' iPhone/iPad app. But like a lot of MLS fans I'm a Comcast subscriber, and I still can't get an HD signal for MLS broadcasts on FSC despite what they say on the screen. What is the league trying to do to change that? What can the league do?
Garber: We can't do much. I would encourage you to write a letter to Comcast to encourage them to put FSC on the HD sports tier. I believe over time FSC will be moved from SD to HD on all cable operators. But they're not there yet. I'm as frustrated by it as our ownership group is and as our fans are. Ultimately, the consumer demand will change that.
SI.com: Last year the CONMEBOL president said he was interested in adding MLS teams to the Copa Libertadores. You recently visited South America. Are you any closer to joining Libertadores?
Garber: We're not closer. And it's not as simple as CONMEBOL invites us. It's a CONCACAF/CONMEBOL issue. Today we're doing everything we can to make the CONCACAF Champions League more valuable and relevant in local markets. That being said, we'd love to continue to talk to whomever we need to about making that happen. But right now it's not happening anytime soon.
SI.com: What would be your advice to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell right now?
Garber: Roger really doesn't need my advice. He has the best and brightest people around him advising him on what steps he needs to reach an agreement with the union. I will say that we worked with [NFL labor mediator] George Cohen as our mediator too, and I found him to be very effective. I'm hopeful, as is everybody in the sports industry, that they reach an agreement. To all those who say, "Wouldn't it be good for MLS to have the NFL not play?" I say that's rubbish. Anything that's bad in sports is bad for everybody who's in the sports business, and I hope they reach an agreement soon.
SI.com: I know you can't have a favorite MLS club, but what's your favorite club soccer team globally?
Garber: I don't have a single club, but I will say that my appointment soccer television viewing generally includes Arsenal, Man U, Barcelona and Real Madrid. All of them have relationships either with me or the league. I watch the Champions League. The good thing about this job is you can watch soccer for a living. So there are few key Champions League matches that I miss. If I'm not out on a Saturday or Sunday morning, I'm watching the Premier League and La Liga matches. I love it. Rarely does a year go by where I'm not attending a game at the Bernabéu, the Nou Camp, the Emirates or Old Trafford.
SI.com: How important is it to MLS that Salt Lake makes a serious run at winning CONCACAF Champions League?
Garber: I think they've already made a serious run. The event I attended a couple weeks ago in Salt Lake was a special moment for the league. I spent the day there, and the match was well-promoted and had a higher awareness than any other Champions League match I had attended in the past. I had lunch with Dave Checketts yesterday and said to him, "You have really put something great together in Salt Lake." Because the attendance at that match and the passion of those fans showed it really has become a soccer town. And before 2005, the sport was nonexistent in the city. That proves to me if you have the right owner with the right marketing and operations with the right facility, any market can be a soccer city.
SI.com: Recently you were asked about the World Cup bid process by Brian Straus, and you said we have certain laws in this country that would have prohibited things that we might have heard being done by the other bidders from happening. Are you saying you think the Qatar bid may have broken U.S. laws if you attached U.S. laws to what they were doing?
Garber: No. What I was saying is that [U.S. Soccer president] Sunil Gulati and the rest of the World Cup bid committee set out from the beginning to run a campaign that would not just abide by the laws of this country but also abide by our own view of what we viewed was an ethical campaign. I'm not sure the same view is shared by many other bidders. That is what it is. I have no regrets. I think we did everything by the book as well as we could do it. I think we ran a smart campaign and were not in a position to influence any voter with anything other than the strength of our bid. I don't know about the validity of any of the claims that I've heard, but if any of them were true, they would have been in violation of U.S. law.
SI.com: Would MLS owners ever consider budging on allowing promotion and relegation? Could you ever envision MLS1 and MLS2 leagues with 20 teams each and promotion and relegation between them?
Garber: Life's a long time, and I don't know what this league or soccer in America will look like 20 or 50 years from now. What I will say is that at some point we're going to have to figure out a way to compete with the other professional sports leagues in this country. Today that's really not an objective, but we will have to find some real point of difference. And certainly promotion/relegation, which creates ongoing interest throughout the year, would be very exciting. I can't even contemplate that happening anytime soon. There is no stability in the second division today. MLS owners have been deeply invested in division one. To think they would go play in another lesser league because they finished last is so far from reality that it's hard to imagine when that will change. But the concept, I believe, is one of the real drivers of what makes international football so compelling. And I'd like to think we could find some way to have that level of excitement in our league.
SI.com: We've seen more controversy with referees in Champions League this week. What are your thoughts on officiating in MLS and the U.S. these days?
Garber: The league and U.S. Soccer are working closely together to try to do everything we can to raise the quality of refereeing in our league. I accept that there are officiating challenges at the highest levels, most recently in this week's Champions League matches. And I don't think the controversy will ever go away. But we've recognized along with the federation that we have to invest more deeply in the professional referee program. So U.S. Soccer has formed a professional referee department. That department has moved to New York and has four or five employees who are based in our offices, retired guys who are working as administrators to try to do everything they can to get closer to the league and ensure they're working hard to improve the overall professional program.
We've set up a command center in our MLS digital offices. That group will watch every game and be available on a moment's notice to address any issues that arise during the game. But more importantly, they'll be there to more deeply evaluate what's taking place on the field. That's a very positive development. I applaud [USSF general secretary] Dan Flynn for putting it together. This was their idea. They've invested the resources necessary to make it happen.