Commissioner Don Garber: 'It's been a very good year' for MLS
MLS commissioner Don Garber said his league reached new heights in 2011
Garber said the MLS is now focused on landing a second New York-area team
Plus: Garber on Sepp Blatter, Fox's World Cup deal, David Testo and more
LOS ANGELES -- MLS commissioner Don Garber is a busy man, especially in the days before Sunday's MLS Cup final between Los Angeles and Houston (9 p.m. ET, ESPN, Galavisión). But Garber always finds a way to make time for a one-on-one conversation with SI.com about the league during MLS Cup weekend.
On Friday, Garber and I had a wide-ranging conversation whose topics included the landmarks of the 2011 season, his reaction to Fox winning the World Cup TV rights, Sepp Blatter's recent comments, MLS's support for players who decide to come out, the impact of the prospective sale of a portion of MLS's marketing arm and the possibility that some MLS teams will play each other three times next season while some may not meet each other at all.
There's a lot to digest here, but it's worth the time if you're a soccer fan. Let's dive in:
SI.com: We've sat down every year at MLS Cup for a while. Compared to when we were sitting here last year, what would you say is the league's biggest accomplishment in the past year?
Garber: The best accomplishment is that there's more than one. It isn't just about achieving attendance and ratings growth, it's the combination of so many different things that have come together that have raised the water overall water level for MLS. We have the highest number of reporters and international media attending our final. There's more media coverage, commercial activation and interest in our championship game than in any other Cup we've had. I will feel good about where we are when we're not asked: Has MLS finally made it? The sports and media community will accept that, and then we like other leagues will talk about individual accomplishments for the season that we've completed.
2011 was arguably the best year in the history of the league on all measures: the respect for the league here and abroad, our attendance and TV ratings, our new deal with NBC, a continually improving quality of play, massive popularity in the expansion markets. It's been a very good year.
SI.com: You could almost call this Phil Anschutz Week in some ways. He's an owner of both teams in the final. He built the stadium here. He built L.A. Live, which is hosting events around the game. And his name is on the championship trophy. We aren't going to hear from him this week, so I'll ask you: Can you put in perspective the impact Phil Anschutz has had on this league?
Garber: Phil is our George Halas. Without a doubt MLS and sport of soccer in America is not what it is today without the neverending commitment and belief that Phil Anschutz has in us and the sport. It sort of warms my heart to have a weekend where he can in his own way cherish all that he has contributed. The Home Depot Center set the stage for soccer stadiums in our country. The L.A. Galaxy as a global brand came out of his and Tim Leiweke's vision for creating a premier soccer team in America. The vision that he had for downtown L.A. that all of us are walking around taking for granted: This is the Las Vegas of Southern California. All of these have sort of come together, and I hope Phil has a smile on his face and a bounce in his step this weekend. Knowing him like I do, I don't believe he will. He will in his own quiet way take a step back and feel good about everything that he's done for the sport.
He doesn't think about legacies, he doesn't look for attention. He's not doing any of this for a pat on the back. But every soccer fan in North America, if they ever happen to have the chance to meet him should walk over to him and say thank you.
SI.com: I was floored when Fox won the English-language rights for World Cups '18 and '22 ahead of your current partners ESPN and NBC. Did it surprise you?
Garber: I was surprised. Pleasantly surprised, but surprised nonetheless. I think anytime a broadcaster makes massive financial commitments to broadcast the sport of soccer in America that's good for MLS and good for Soccer United Marketing because we own so many soccer content rights. I think ESPN's done a great job with the World Cup and helped drive a lot of the value that FIFA was able to achieve in the new Fox deal. But I believe wholeheartedly that the commitments that Fox and Telemundo [with Spanish-language rights] have made are good for us. We now have five players: Fox, ESPN, Telemundo, Univisión and NBC that are committed to the sport. More outlets for us to sell our rights, more potential partnerships on new programming.
I think it's the beginning of a new era for soccer programming in the United States. Think of the possibilities for how many more shoulder programs we can have and lifestyle programs and MLS behind the scenes and studio shows and highlight shows. All of these things are good for MLS, and the value of soccer programming has just grown exponentially. We bought the World Cup '02 and '06 rights [with SUM] for $40 million in 2001, and they were sold for $500 million on the English-language side for '18 and '22. That's pretty amazing.
SI.com: I was told that ESPN's bid for '18 and '22 included a stipulation that it would continue to support MLS, just like their previous bid did. Did Fox's bid include a stipulation that it would support MLS starting in 2015?
Garber: I don't know that there was ever a stipulation. I know we had conversations with ESPN, NBC, Telemundo and Fox about continuing the support for MLS and U.S. Soccer. I'm very confident either with the World Cup broadcaster or those that aren't broadcasting the World Cup, MLS and U.S. Soccer will have a very, very positive future on broadcast TV in the United States.
SI.com: There have been reports that you're about to sell 25 percent of SUM for up to $150 million to Providence Equity Partners. What are the chances of that happening -- and that the money could go back into investing in players?
Garber: We've never confirmed or denied that. But the fact there have been rumors of a private equity firm investing in SUM speaks to the increased value of soccer in North America. And should something like that happen, the distribution would certainly be used to help grow the game. Shortly we'll be able to comment on it more publicly.
SI.com: I don't know if you saw my proposal for how to restructure the MLS postseason, but what do you think of having a group stage in the MLS playoffs?
Garber: (Nods.) We've looked at every possible playoff iteration you could imagine. I read comments from our fans and media pundits, and they think the MLS office is sitting there with their head in the sand or their face in a computer and hasn't looked at every possible playoff format. Because we have. We have a number of objectives that need to be achieved. The format needs to fit in the broader schedule footprint. It needs to take into consideration what we're trying to achieve driving television and attendance revenue, taking into consideration stadium availability, our commitments to the U.S. Open Cup and CONCACAF, trying to take off for the FIFA dates and so many variables that requires us to have a full-time schedule czar and a consultant who works with a variety of computer models and algorithms to feed it in and come out with a format for the regular season and the playoffs that makes the most sense. I think our fans will see we've come up with a format that will work for us in 2012.
SI.com: There are questions about various potential owners for a second New York City-area team, and who might be here this weekend. Names like Curtis Martin, Seamus O'Brien, even Chuck Blazer. What can you say about those possibilities?
Garber: We remain focused on having the 20th MLS team in New York. We've got a full-time staff working on stadium projects. We've hired a number of consultants to help us with land-use issues and fast-tracking the process so we can get it done as soon as possible. We believe we have a number of sites that are viable, but it's perhaps the most difficult market in the world to develop a 13-acre sports project. The issue for us won't be finding a good owner. The issue is whether we'll have a stadium site that will work and provide the environment our fans have come to expect in the stadiums we have across MLS. There are a number of potential ownership groups, and a couple of them are here. But the challenge with this project is not about finding an owner, even with a record-setting expansion fee, even with the fact that the stadium will be very expensive to construct. The challenge is finalizing the stadium plan. And the league is taking the lead on that aspect of the project.
SI.com: So it's possible to do that without knowing who the owner is?
Garber: Yeah. That's how bullish we are that we'll find an owner. If we get the right stadium plan in place, ownership groups will line up at the door.