MLS boss 'taking the first steps in a long process'
Updated: Sunday October 21, 2001 1:42 PM
By Ridge Mahoney, Soccer America
The signals for MLS at the end of Year 6 are, as usual, mixed. Attendance is up about 10 percent, no teams have folded or been moved, and the league's credibility got a boost when the U.S. qualified for the 2002 World Cup.
But no new investors have come into the league since 1998 and TV ratings are nothing sensational. Four days before MLS Cup 2001 and more than two years after he took the job, commissioner Don Garber assesses some of the critical issues facing the league.
SOCCER AMERICA: Are the playoffs making as big a splash as you would like?
DON GARBER: We continue to struggle with the playoff format and attracting the kind of attention we need in the postseason.
The games are great. The quarterfinals went to three games with one exception. The Game 3s were great games. There's a lot of media interest.
But the short time between Game 2 and Game 3 and the fact that at this time of the year stadium availability is so limited [that] we play so many games midweek is a real challenge for us.
The word is out there but it's still not part of the sports culture. It is attracting the attention of our fans but we still need to sell tickets.
To sell tickets you need time and proper planning and you need the availability of the right stadium at the right time.
SA: And the structure and nature of the playoffs work against the league on all three of those factors ...
DG: When we do have our own stadiums, when we've expanded our fan base we'll have more people coming to our games regardless of when they're played and regardless of how short the notice is. We're not there yet.
SA: Is the attendance increase a sign the league has reversed the downward trend?
DG: It's at good that we've improved attendance. We haven't done that since probably the third game of the 1996 season.
We're moving in the right direction but we can't think for a minute we don't have an enormous amount of work left to do. That's evidenced in places like Los Angeles. There are simply not enough fans for that team at this point.
With more fans comes more commercial viability, more interest in supporting the teams from municipalities and other political bodies, more eyeballs for broadcasters and sponsors. And on and on and on.
SA: Have the tasks and obstacles the league faces changed since you became commissioner?
DG: There's nothing that's changed in my view.
We need better scheduling, better media coverage, a better schedule on television.
We need to grow our fan base, to continue to improve on the credibility and authenticity of our league both with the soccer audience and the general sports audience.
We're taking the first steps in a long process. I'm not looking back at the year and thinking we can take a deep breath. We're not even close to that point.
Negotiating TV deals
SA: You're negotiating a new TV English-language TV package and the Spanish-language rights come up for renewal every year. Where are those discussions going?
DG: We're making a lot of progress there. I'm pleased where we are in that process and I'm excited about where it's going to wind up.
SA: What does the league need from your English-language package that it isn't getting?
DG: A regular schedule. That's what we need.
SA: Don't you have that now?
DG: We have a regular program, we don't have a regular schedule. I think our ratings would improve significantly if we didn't bounce from ESPN to ESPN2 to ESPN.
I'd like to do a multi-year deal on a particular day on a national package that's protected from regional exclusivity on a specific period of time.
It may not be 7 o'clock on a Saturday from April to October, but it could be 7 o'clock for a couple of months and 3 o'clock for a couple of months. We need to have a block of programming that's regularly scheduled. At this point we need that more than anything else.
SA: Where does MLS ExtraTime fit in your television strategy?
DG: Extra Time is not the driver of our programming on ESPN. It's a good program and a good package to have throughout the year but it's not something that's ratings-driven.
I'm worried less about when it airs than just having it on.
SA: The third game of the Galaxy-Metros series drew a 0.341 national rating on TV but a very small crowd at the Rose Bowl on a Saturday afternoon ...
DG: We intentionally scheduled that game for that reason. The decision was a good one. There was a lot of pressure to not play that game at 12:30 in the afternoon, to play it at night and schedule a different game for [television].
We had our highest rating of the year and one of our highest ratings ever on ESPN2.
I think we made the right decision and that should help us in our television negotiations.
SA: Could the package be moved from ABC/ESPN/ESPN2? You've talked to Fox and other systems like YankeesNets, Inc.?
DG: We're talking to a lot of people and have been talking to lots of people for many months now. We'll be in a position to announce something shortly.
SA: There still isn't much coverage of MLS on SportsCenter and in some newspapers ...
DG: I know we've improved. We track it. I think it will continue to improve slowly. We're not part of their regular schedule.
Our games get covered and if we have important games they get covered even more.
We still have to work them hard every day. If more of our fans were calling in and writing in and saying, "I'm not going to watch SportsCenter without soccer highlights" the sports editors who don't believe that enough people are clamoring for highlights would have to take a step back.
I think an example of improvement in MLS coverage and soccer coverage in general is the New York Times. We are regularly covered; we weren't a year and a half ago.
The Monday of the qualifier [against Honduras] in D.C., there was an MLS article, a WUSA article, and a national team article: A full page of soccer coverage.
SA: The Spanish-language rights have been with Telemundo for two seasons. Where do those talks stand?
DG: Our first priority was to finalize our network and cable package. Once that is done we can move along with our Spanish-language package.
Our sponsors value the inventory and there's an audience that has maintained itself over the last number of years.
SA: When is expansion going to happen and how has the climate changed with the terrorist attacks Sept. 11?
DG: Clearly it's a changing world. There isn't a business in America today that thinks about tomorrow the way it did in October, 2001 vs. early September 2001.
There's lots of things happening out there that will affect our decision on expansion. At the same time there's a lot of interest and we're going to work hard.
SA: The Milwaukee group has had their initial plan rejected and the prospect of a second team in New York looks remote at this point ...
DG: The New York area has massive infrastructure needs that must be addressed. At this point people can't even begin to think about that until they're finished digging out from under the rubble downtown.
No discussions are being held and I think it would be inappropriate to have them until the city has an idea of what its future is to be in areas far more important than stadiums.
Ridge Mahoney is a senior editor at Soccer America magazine.