Posted: Thursday November 29, 2012 1:30PM ; Updated: Thursday November 29, 2012 5:34PM
Grant Wahl

Garber talks MLS future, more (cont.)

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Seattle Sounders
Fan bases like that in Seattle have helped MLS set new attendance records in recent years.
Ted S. Warren/AP Let's talk about expansion in New York and a stadium in Queens. The league has spent a lot of money lobbying for a stadium there. How did you get to be so high on Mayor Bloomberg's priority list?

Garber: This is important: We have not spent a lot of money in relation to what it costs to lobby big projects. We don't have the capacity to do that. We've used a lot of sweat and blood and the time of me and [MLS exec] Mark Abbott and a staffer named Brett Lashbrook working full-time to see this project through. Mayor Bloomberg is a global guy. I sit in press conferences with him and am shamed by the fact he can do it in English and Spanish. El Bloombito!

Garber: (shakes head at interviewer) The mayor is well aware of how diverse New York City is, particularly Queens. He knows the importance and value that a second MLS team in New York can have in terms of generating jobs and other economic activity. The fact we want to do it in Queens, which needs a lot of economic development and has people from all over the world living within a goal kick of where the stadium site will be. It's easy to understand why he'd have it placed as one of his legacy projects. How close are we to a Queens stadium being a reality?

Garber: We're working tirelessly on this project and have a lot of work to do, but we are seeing daylight. We still have a number of areas that we have to get closer to completing, but we remain hopeful. Have you had any communication with the Wilpons about parking on their property nearby?

Garber: We have. And we have for quite some time. We have not been able to reach agreement. We're hopeful that we will. And we'll continue to work hard with them to try to reach a deal that makes sense for them. What's the status of potential bidders for that expansion team in NYC?

Garber: There are a number of potential bidders. We continue to reach out to the investment community to try to seek somebody who has the capacity to both buy the MLS expansion team and invest hundreds of millions of dollars in the stadium. There are very few people who can do that because it's a massive investment in MLS. I'm confident we'll reach an agreement and it'll be great owners who will be able to raise the profile of MLS here and abroad. Is the team bidding process ready to happen once the stadium is a done deal?

Garber: Without a stadium this project can't go forward. That being said, the league has been leading this effort. It would be good for the league not to be spending the amount of time that we are on this and hand it over to a committed investor. So we'll continue working on parallel paths. Let's switch to you for a second. How much longer does your contract run?

Garber: 2014? Is that it? You know you've been working in the job a long time when you don't even know the term of your contract. Do you foresee yourself signing another contract as commissioner?

Garber: I don't think my work is done. But this has been an enormously difficult and taxing job. Mostly personally. I had 125 days on the road last year, which is a lot of days away from the family. But the job has actually gotten more interesting the last year or two. In the early days we were so focused on ensuring our viability, you almost felt like a fireman running from brushfire to brushfire and didn't have an opportunity to really think about a mid-term plan, let alone a long-term plan. Now we've put a number of things in place that gives us the opportunity to take a step back.

I think we have a great organization. The dividing up of Ivan [Gazidis]'s job [as deputy commissioner] into two spots with Todd Durbin running players and Nelson Rodriguez running competition has I think taken the whole sporting side to a much higher level. We've brought in a chief marketing officer who's very experienced, Howard Handler, who has a great vision we'll be launching soon on our rebranding of the league and tapping into the real supporters culture that exists.

We are running full speed ahead at SUM with a private equity partner in Providence who's giving us a whole new level of strategic thinking and opportunity, particularly in the media space. The ownership group continues to expand and the new guys coming in have the same passion that the founders have and in many ways a renewed energy that's very empowering. Our television deals are up in a couple years, our CBA is up in a couple years and it seems like there are a number of exciting things going on. Do you eventually want to be an owner or investor in this league?

Garber: No. I am an operator. I don't have the financial capacity to be an owner (laughs), and I think I am far more effective trying to think about how do we take this league to the next level? And how do we ensure every day that we're operating it efficiently and effectively? I think of myself as a player-coach. I get my hands dirty and travel all over the place and do everything I can to help our department heads. I try to spend as much time as I can listening to our fans and understand what's motivating them and making them happy or angry. How do you get TV ratings higher?

Garber: I don't think there's a single answer to that. The good news is our ratings are growing, albeit off a small base. We feel good about our ratings on ESPN and NBC, two great partners who are producing our games at the same level of quality that they produce the NFL or any other program. The production values in MLS are increasingly high, and that's something we're proud of.

We need to grow scale. We need to get more people to pay attention to our league nationally. To achieve that we need to continue to invest in our player pool and have the kind of players that people care about, have the style of play on the field that will be exciting to people, have the right environments with our stadiums that will look good on TV, have the right schedule with our broadcast partners and on-air promotion from those partners, and hopefully have the ability to break though a very cluttered marketplace.

I believe our programming is very valuable and that we'll have multiple bidders on our TV rights when they come up in 2014, and end up with great partnerships [here he emphasized the plural] with broadcasters who are getting more and more committed to the game. When do you start negotiations for a new TV deal?

Garber: Very soon. It's premature to talk about how it'll play out. But the discussions will start pretty soon. Are there any other important things on your mind that we haven't talked about?

Garber: One of the key drivers of the increasing popularity of MLS is the growth of the supporters movement. It used to be that the Screaming Eagles [of D.C. United fandom] were the only supporters who created this dramatic picture of European- and South American-style environments in RFK Stadium with bouncing seats and waving flags. That's the norm in MLS today. There's a dynamic with young people, 18 to 35 years old, that now believe in their club that was connected to the game either as a fan of European soccer or as a player and now is translating all that into a very committed passion for a local MLS team.

If you were to ask me what's the big difference between MLS today and MLS five years ago, it's the supporters movement. Now with that movement come challenges. There's a lot of thinking that we need to have in partnership with our clubs and our supporters leaders to ensure that our stadium environments are appropriate for everyone, not just for several thousand [hardcore] supporters. I continue to get frustrated and disappointed with the YSA [You Suck A------] chants.

I was sitting on the sidelines at a San Jose game with [coach] Frank Yallop's wife when supporters were using profanity against the Galaxy and Josh Saunders, and she turned to me and apologized and said she and Frank were trying to work with supporters to eliminate that. I was sitting in an on-field box next to a young family, and the dad turned around to me and said, do you think Commissioner this is the right kind of language for my 8-, 12- and 15-year-old kids? And I could say nothing other than no. We've got to try to find a way to correct that. It wouldn't be tolerated in any other stadium in any other sport -- and frankly not tolerated in most European countries, either.

We've got to pick our battles, and this is something we have to find a way to solve. I hope we can do something in partnership with the supporter leaders. The times I've spent with the leaders of various groups have been some of my best times in MLS, because these are the folks that are really leading the movement and helping to paint a very different picture for our league than exists in any other sport. I hope they can understand that when broadcast partners, fans and sponsors object to foul language it's not something that we can turn a blind eye to. We have to address it. That's also of a piece with the statement the league made this year by giving three-game suspensions to Houston's Colin Clark and Seattle's Marc Burch for homophobic slurs on the playing field.

Garber: We launched the "Don't Cross the Line" campaign with Landon and DeRo [Dwayne De Rosario] and [Kyle] Beckerman and others. We strongly believe that MLS should have a zero-tolerance policy for a wide variety of behavioral issues that we think don't represent our league, our sport and our country properly. If we're going to be making those statements publicly and discipline our players when they're crossing the line, we certainly can't have our fans cross the line.

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