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SBD Global/January 4, 2013/Leagues and Governing Bodies

MLS Commissioner Garber Responds To Blatter's Criticism, Says League Isn't Struggling

MLS Commissioner Don Garber has responded to FIFA President Sepp Blatter's criticism of the U.S. league.
Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber responded to criticism of the U.S-based football league by FIFA President Sepp Blatter by inviting Blatter to attend an MLS match. Blatter has only attended the 1996 All-Star Game, and Garber issued a formal invite to any of the nine matches of First Kick weekend on March 2-3 or for any game during the upcoming '13 season. Garber said, "If he were to come to a game -- whether it be in Seattle, Portland, Toronto, L.A., Philadelphia, New York or any of our MLS markets -- I think he would be very pleasantly surprised to see the passion that exists in our fan base and the high level of soccer IQ that exists in our fan base (MLS). GRANTLAND's Brian Phillips wrote, "what bugged MLS fans about this was pretty much what bugs everybody Blatter decides to distraction-troll; at 76, the dude simply plays with an impossibly well-crafted blend of cluelessness and malice. He's the Johnnie Walker Blue of grandfatherly, passive-aggressive smack talk. You never know whether he's misinterpreting facts because he's unacquainted with them or because he's working some Big Lie-type long con and it suits him to deny a trend. So, for instance, if he doesn't know that MLS is now the third-ranking American pro sport in terms of live attendance, or that it has recently signed personal-best sponsorship and TV deals totaling $230M, or that it's well along in its successful long-term program of stadium-infrastructure improvement -- that's maddening, because he's the president of FIFA and he should know stuff" (GRANTLAND, 1/3).

FIRING BACK: In N.Y, Andrew Das reported Garber has fired back at Blatter, saying that he was "surprised by recent criticism of the league." Garber said, "We still have a lot of work to do -- we understand and accept that. But arguably there’s probably not another sports league in the world that has achieved as much as we have in the last 20 years." Garber said, "I know that the president believes in American soccer and believes in the league. Sometimes I think these things happen when you’re not here for a while. When you’re not here or travel much to the U.S., it’s hard to fully understand what the sports market is like here. When you’re not living and breathing the North American sport market, it is easy to believe MLS is being lost in some of the noise." Das noted while it is "not known if Blatter has seen an MLS regular-season or playoff game, a league official said his attendance at one would be a first" (N.Y. TIMES, 1/3). Garber said, "I really don’t believe the president believes we are struggling. I don’t think anybody in the pro sports community would describe us that way. In no way are we struggling, but we are less than 20 years old; we haven’t gone through a full generational term." He continued, "MLS, in a short period of time, has made great progress. But we have not been around for 100 years like (some) other (U.S.) leagues and certainly like the European soccer leagues, and as such, our development is appropriate to where we are from an age perspective" (WASHINGTON POST, 1/2).

STANDING UP FOR ITSELF
: Garber said he did not think Blatter's comments "hurt" the league, but noted it is "important to stand up and say that Major League Soccer -- while we have a lot of work to do -- is now thriving and making an impact." Garber downplayed whether Blatter's comments "would hurt MLS with potential multinational sponsors." He said, "The sports industry has enormous respect for us. Our corporate sponsorship base continues to grow. Our relationships with municipal governments providing support for soccer stadium development is at an all-time high. Investment in our league is at an all-time high and in some ways the envy of soccer leagues around the world." SI.com's Grant Wahl wrote it was "clear that Garber was trying to stay positive about MLS without opening verbal fire on Blatter." But he "didn't exactly offer a ringing endorsement of the FIFA president." Meanwhile, Garber Tuesday "canceled his plans to attend the FIFA Ballon d'Or ceremony in Zurich next week -- he has been a regular at the event in previous years -- and will instead be on hand next Monday at Soccer Night in Newtown" (SI, 1/2).
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