Q&A with Don Garber (cont.)
SI.com: I hate to pick on New York, but that organization still hasn't won a trophy in the 16 years of this league. Some odd things happened this year with a team that had one of the two highest payrolls in the league. What's up with New York?
Garber: It's hard for me to comment on that. I spend a lot of time with [general manager] Erik Solér, and I'm very supportive of their new chief business officer Chris Heck. New York is a tough market. It's difficult to break through in that market, though I do think that team has far more awareness and credibility than MLS has ever had in the New York metro area. Their team is going to require some time to gel, and I think as a relatively new ownership group will have to continue to evolve to understand the MLS system. But I believe in Red Bull New York, and from the time I spent with [Red Bull founder] Dietrich Mateschitz and their technical and business staff, they're capable guys. The fans and media want instant success, and I look at it over a more mid- to long-term time frame.
SI.com: How big is your new officiating initiative going to be?
Garber: I don't know if the description should be "big." I will say our officials are better than people give us credit for. I'm not saying that because I have to, it's because we review every game. There will be calls that cause broadcasters to carry on and scream and yell, and we with the benefit of video review know that the majority of them are correct. Now soccer's a game that's imperfect, in my view unfortunately so, and therefore you're not going to get every call right, and not every performance is going to be perfect.
That said, we believe we've got a lot of work to do to evolve the way our officials are assessed and managed and trained and scheduled so that we can make their jobs easier and develop the officiating corps in North America in the same way we've been developing soccer players. Our federation is committed to working closely with us, and we're great partners in this area like we are in many other areas. They recognize there's enormous scrutiny on the league and criticism about their officials, and while I understand the restrictions that exist in the world of soccer in terms of what role the professional league can play versus what the NHL and MLB and NBA and the NFL can do, we're going to try to evolve our partnership with the federation so we can ultimately get better. It's a big initiative and one that will require a lot of financial resources, both on our part and the federation's part. I think we'll be on a good path. I'm very excited about it.
SI.com: How close are we to goal-line technology or instant replay being used or tested in MLS?
Garber: I'd love to be able to do it tomorrow, but it's not my call or the league's call. It'd driven by FIFA and folks in Scotland [IFAB] that make these decisions. I think that's unfortunate. I think the game needs to evolve. It's very difficult with technology today, which provides a fan the opportunity to see a replay from a TV broadcast while their sitting in the stadium, and have the sense as to whether the call was right or wrong, and not give in my opinion the official the same tools. I get the fact the powers that be in the sport don't agree with me and think I'm just a Yank that doesn't understand the game, but I hope we can be part of pushing the envelope here. I think as the dust settles with some of the things that have been going on with FIFA and CONCACAF that perhaps we can start pushing some initiatives. I don't have much confidence we'll be able to break through to the powers to allow us to test some new technology, but I think it would be good for our fans, our league and for the sport if we were able to do so.
SI.com: What are the chances of D.C. United playing in Washington D.C. in 2012?
Garber: Very strong. Very strong. I think my comments were misconstrued as if we're trying to move the team. That couldn't be further from the truth. We need to find a stadium solution there, and the folks we're trying to work with don't seem to understand how unfair it is for D.C. United's ownership and their fans and players to be playing in a substandard stadium with a ridiculous deal that doesn't even provide them with in my opinion the basics that teams and players and fans deserve. That said, Kevin Payne and Will Chang are working hard to try and find some solutions, whether they're a better deal with RFK Stadium or a stadium project in D.C. or a stadium project somewhere in the area.
But something needs to happen there. I'd like to see fans come together there like they did in Philly and Portland and almost any market across this country and really bang their fists and start screaming loudly at their political leaders that their team and this league in this sport deserves better. How about Occupy RFK?
SI.com: Are you OK with the possibility of New York and Los Angeles only meeting once in the regular season next year?
Garber: If we end up with a schedule that's conference-based, it would have to require that certain teams would only play each other once and their fans might not be able to see that team at home. But we have to build a league that has a schedule and format that works, that creates compelling competition that's fair and is going to drive TV ratings and create real relevance in local markets. And while New York and LA is a great TV property and an important matchup for our fans, we can't set a schedule around trying to achieve that. Because that matchup could be two years from now New York and Philly. Then it's not an issue. It could be L.A. and Chivas or Seattle and Portland, and then it's not an issue. We are trying to create a format that will drive more opportunities for fans to see that must-have game at home that doesn't require it to be New York and L.A.
SI.com: Is it possible you may have some teams not playing each other at all in the regular season next year?
Garber: Yeah. Just by the fact it'll be unbalanced. That's possible.
SI.com: That sounds like a bummer.
Garber: But this goes back to: The amount of vitriol and nastiness that I get from core fans on this issue doesn't surprise me because I love the passion. But as a passionate fan I would hope they'd understand what we're trying to achieve, which is a league that's more popular, more valuable and that growing attendance and TV ratings. Just to have a balanced schedule for its own sake, to be like the English Premier League and affect the quality of our competition and the opportunity to grow our fan base doesn't make sense to me.
It would require 38 games that will require our teams to travel 20, 30, 40 and 50,000 miles across two countries. Requiring more play on FIFA dates, playing earlier in March and later in the fall pushing into December. All things which affect the quality of our games. What we're focused on is having a quality competition, not just being balanced because that's what they do in the Premier League. We want to be a North American dialect for the world's game. At some time we'll get to the point where the people who are fans in the U.S. and Canada will embrace our identity and believe in this league because it's in their home and not think it has to be like England.
I speak to [former MLS deputy commissioner and now Arsenal chief executive] Ivan Gazidis. He is home at night on almost every single game that Arsenal plays throughout the Premier League season. He is having dinner with his family. This concept of a conference-based schedule is going to be a requirement when we have 20 teams. So we want to get on it now. We're asking for our fans' support. We're making this decision because we believe it's best for the competition. It will create an environment that will make our league better, our games more competitive and raise the quality of our play. And we will have to sacrifice a connection to what happens in England. It's time to get over it.
SI.com: NBC Sports/Versus starts broadcasting MLS games in 2012. What should fans be excited about?
Garber: We haven't gotten yet into a lot of detail with them. There have been production meetings. They're deeply engaged in finalizing their production team and their on-air talent. They're working hard on their schedule and adding even more network games. I know the NBC folks well, and they are masters of the marriage between marketing, programming and production. I believe they'll do a terrific job. They're new to the sport, at least on the domestic side. I am empowered by their aggressive World Cup bid with Telemundo. I will say this: Fox has done a great job. This is not about not wanting to go forward with Fox because they were not worthy. They're doing an incredible job. We'll remain very close with them. I had lunch with the president of Fox Sports yesterday. It's more about at the time we made the decision, we believed that NBC would help get us to the next level. We look forward to starting a new relationship with them.