SBD/May 26, 2011/Events and Attractions

Garber Sits For Interview To Conclude First Day Of Franchises & Facilities Conference

Garber talks about growth of MLS, TV ratings during one-on-one sit-down

MLS Commissioner Don Garber sat down for a one-on-one interview yesterday afternoon to close out the first day of the AT&T Sports Franchises and Facilities conference, hosted by SBJ/SBD.

Q: Next year MLS will welcome a team in Montreal, which is the league’s 19th club. You have publicly said you support growth. What markets appear best for growth?
Garber: We are focused on New York. It’s a big market. The Cosmos have a great legacy and they have a great soccer history that so far the Red Bulls have not been able to tap into. For the most part Red Bulls fans come from New Jersey. The challenge for [the Cosmos] is to build a stadium, and as we all know New York City is not the easiest place to build. And we’ve put a high price on the 20th team. In 2007 we were asking around $7 million, and last year [teams] sold for $40 million. This could be in the $75 to $100 million [range].

Q: Is the Wilpon family still a viable option for MLS given their recent negative press?
Garber: We have talked with [the Wilpons] about MLS. They have a good situation when it comes to stadiums in the site around Citi Field. Willets Point is one of the largest pieces of undeveloped property in New York.

Q: It’s the elephant in the room. I have to ask you about television ratings. The league has had growth in attendance but in TV it has been relatively flat for the last three years. How do you grow those numbers?
Garber: I had lunch with [an NHL friend] and we spoke about their deal with NBC and Versus, and talked about our situation as a challenge and an opportunity. We have to convert those fans who are part of the global game. We are similar to the NHL; however they are not competing with Russian hockey like we are competing with the Premier League. We need a product to convert those fans, and we do it by having good stories in local markets and better promotion. You think about what has driven hockey, it was strong local teams that had great local TV deals and passionate supporters. The soccer audience is big. Chelsea versus Manchester United had 550,000 viewers this year.

Q: Kansas City will open a soccer specific stadium this year that is branded with the Livestrong brand. Are you worried that the brand may receive negative press given the [recent doping allegations against Lance Armstrong]?
Garber: It is a beautiful facility, one of our best. Think of a Midwest version of Red Bull Arena. The ownership is great, they are young, technical-minded guys. They think differently. I think Livestrong was an innovative deal, and with the brand’s recognition in the cancer fight, I think they can do well with that. Clearly they will have something to manage if something does happen with Lance Armstrong. We are hopeful they won’t have to.

Q: Will they have the ability to revisit the [naming rights deal] if there is an issue with Armstrong?
Garber: Yes. I hope they don’t. Lance Armstrong has been a great story for Americans.

Q: You worked at the NFL for 16 years, and you worked alongside Roger Goodell. Did you ever envision him becoming the next commissioner?
Garber: I didn't think it would be him. He was a guy of few words and even in his mid 20's I don't think any of us thought he would be in that role. But 10 years later I think it became very apparent that [Goodell] could do it. He had great relationships with all of the owners and he really understood the brand. And he's very well spoken.

Q: How would you describe your leadership style?
Garber: I'm a walk-around-the-office type of guy. I try to be very accessible. I encourage taking risks. I remember at other jobs feeling like you were always looking over your shoulder, and that is not my style. To me, you can't win in this game or get to where you want to be by being pulled there. You have to be pushed there.

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