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SBD/July 25, 2012/Leagues and Governing Bodies
Don Garber Discusses MLS' Successes, Ongoing Challenges Ahead Of All-Star Game
Published July 25, 2012
Q: Is converting soccer fans to MLS fans still one of the league’s biggest challenges?
Garber: It continues to be one of our key strategic items. We have made progress there. … We have to tell the story that MLS is a league on the rise, with great players and beautiful facilities.
Q: What about when a franchise has a bump in the road, like the Montreal Impact just did when it moved into its new stadium and realized it had to lower its ticket prices? Does the MLS office get involved?
Garber: They scaled their building a bit wrong when they moved in. Rather than hide behind a decision that needed to be changed, (Owner) Joey Saputo sat back and said, “I’m going to change it.” … I’ve got no concerns about Montreal at all.
Q: Viewership is up significantly from a year ago, but are you frustrated that the ratings on NBC Sports Network and ESPN for MLS are still low?
Garber: The worst thing that could ever happen to us is that we think we’ve cracked the code and all of a sudden soccer is going to be competitive with the NFL and MLB. That’s not going to happen in the near term. It doesn’t need to for us to be successful (SPORTSBUSINESS JOURNAL, 7/23 issue).
GOTTA WEAR SHADES: SPORTING NEWS’ Brian Straus wrote the ASG “is a testament to the sport’s growth" under Garber. While Garber’s “dream of a ‘soccer nation’ is more tangible than ever before, complications certainly remain." With "more clubs, stadiums, investors, big-name players and visibility than ever before, these are relatively sunny days" for MLS. Straus also caught up with Garber before the ASG. Below is an excerpt from the Q&A.
Q: What sort of reception did you get when you attended the UEFA Champions League final in Munich? What do European soccer administrators and officials want to ask you about MLS?
Garber: The intrigue and respect that the other pro football leagues have for MLS is significant. They love our system. It’s our model. The fact that we have revenue sharing. We have reasonable cost controls. We have a real strategic way of thinking as owners, collectively. It’s a very commercially-oriented focus. It’s the American pro sports thing. In this country, we really get how to operate and manage pro sports leagues in a way that builds for the common good. That’s not something that exists in the other leagues.
Q: With all the metrics improving, with revenue up and with the new TV contract, what do you anticipate will be the major issues when collective bargaining begins again in 2014?
Garber: The league still isn’t operating financially as well as we’d like. … The total investment in the league is well more than $2 billion today, and nobody’s gotten any return on their money. So when we talk about improvement on gate and television and revenues, that’s good. But we’ve got a long way to go before we’re feeling like we’re just sitting around dividing up the spoils.
Q: Now that there are new investors with D.C. United, what club currently represents your biggest worry?
Garber: I worry about every club. I worry about the ones that are successful as much as I worry about the ones that are challenging. … I’ve got to spend my time ensuring the league is healthy overall and not getting too excited about success in a handful of markets and too distracted by the challenges in others. We have, like all leagues, markets that we’d like to see perform better. Chivas (USA) is an example of that. We have MLS staff in those offices working closely with them to try to improve that situation.
Q: Are you nervous at all that there’s an element of the fan culture that could start to cross that line at some point or that might be looking up to some of the more unsavory elements we see overseas in pursuit of authenticity? What can the league do to shape the culture in the right way?
Garber: The emerging supporters culture has been a big driver of the success MLS has today. It’s been a great point of differentiation between us and the other pro sports leagues in this country. … It amazes me, in a quintessentially American way, how organized and responsible the leadership is of our various supporters groups. So if we have an issue, we meet with those leaders and we say, “We’ve got a problem that you need to address.”
Q: So there’s no broader trend or issue that’s concerning you at the moment?
Garber: [Crowd vulgarity] is just infuriating to me. It’s just so uncreative and ridiculous, and we need to stop it. Our broadcast partners don’t like it. When vulgarity is going over the air, it’s an issue with the FCC and we’ve got to stop it. (Revolution president) Brian Bilello stopped it in New England, and I really appreciated what the Midnight Riders did. … They need to stop it in New York, and they need to stop it in a handful of other markets. And if they don’t stop it, we’re going to have to find a way to eradicate it from our game (SPORTINGNEWS.com, 7/21).