SBJ/November 26 - December 2, 2007/This Weeks News

Big year for MLS was more than Beckham

Two days after watching MLS Cup from the sidelines of RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C., Don Garber returned to his office with a spring in his step.

MLS had just completed a season that began with the sale of D.C. United for a record $35 million and the signing of one of the world’s most recognizable athletes in David Beckham. It culminated with record playoff attendance and the addition of another new franchise in Seattle, which as of last week had already sold 6,500 season tickets for 2009.

Garber had a lot to smile about as MLS closed the book on its 2007 season. He sat down to reflect on the year and the future of the league with SportsBusiness Journal staff writer Tripp Mickle.

MLS had an impressive year. What moments were the most stunning and will stick out in the future when you reflect on 2007?
Garber: The preseason buildup was key moment No. 1. The passing of the designated player rule and the signing of David Beckham gave us more attention than we’ve ever received here and abroad.

Key moment No. 2 was the Toronto phenomenon. We have yet to have a team that has sold out every game and captured the attention of an entire city. They have done that and then some.

The last part of it is … we really feel our broadcast partners have stepped it up. ESPN has … given us a terrific prime-time spot. Fox does an opening and closing show. We have our first Spanish-language broadcast partner since 1998, and Telefutura has embraced us the same way they embrace the Mexican league.

“We really feel our broadcast partners
have stepped it up,” Garber said.

And I could keep going. [Cuauhtemoc] Blanco. No one would have expected he would have played the way he did and catch the attention he did. I’m sure that will continue and show other teams that a designated player doesn’t have to be European or an international star, but can have value if they have specific ethnic appeal as Blanco does.

How do you feel about the future?
Garber: We in no way want anybody in the soccer and sports world to believe that one good year will lead soccer to take on the other major leagues because that’s not going to happen any time soon. We remain cautiously optimistic. Perhaps if we have this year for the next five years, we’ll think about it a little differently. We’ve had our challenges leading up to this and we certainly have some momentum, but we want to remind our staff, our players and our owners that we don’t want to derail what has been steady growth over these last few years by being too aggressive.

As for David Beckham, a lot of people see his ups and downs between injuries. Hindsight’s 20-20. Looking back, would you have done anything differently?
Garber: Not at all. When we are the league that we hope we can be, David Beckham will be part of the reason why we will be at that point. While this year it didn’t fully deliver on David’s hopes and desires and had frustrations for fans who hoped to see him in other cities, it’s a five-year relationship. … It’s way too early to judge the impact.

You’ve spoken extensively about Beckham’s benefits. One of the things that surprised me was the interest he inspired in potential investors like Joe Roth and Andrew Hauptman. Was that something that you anticipated?
Garber: David has brought attention to the league in every constituent that matters: potential investors, fans, municipalities, sponsors, the global soccer community, the television community.

Our hope both with potential cities, fans, sponsors, investors and whatnot is that there’s a foundation underneath that that will ultimately attract that investor to invest in the league, the municipality to invest in facilities and that fan to invest their avidity. It can’t just be about the appeal of a player or a specific team, but about sound fundamentals.

One of the things you highlighted during your press conference was the diversity of ownership you have acquired. It’s certainly been a strength, but what challenges has it also brought?
Garber: It’s certainly a different ownership board than it was a year ago. That’s a positive. It obviously doesn’t make my job any easier or the job of Mark Abbott and Ivan Gazidis any easier, but that’s not the point. The point is that you want to have owners who can contribute diversity of thought, diversity of perspective and diversity of opinion that hopefully will help move the league in a direction where we will be more successful.

TV ratings are still a 0.2. How much of a concern is that, and what are you doing to address it?
Garber: When I look at The Washington Post and see that one of the negatives for the league is that our television ratings are small, you know, that’s not an issue for us or ESPN. We are where we are today and we’re not where we’re going to be tomorrow. The question is how long will it take to do that. The fact that our regular ratings grew 20 percent, albeit off a small base, and our playoff ratings grew 80 percent, albeit off a small base, that’s growth. We’re growing off a small base, but we’re a young league with a lot of growth in front of us.

ESPN has to deal with us until 2014. Fox has to deal with us until 2010. Univision has to deal with us until 2014. We have a lot of years before our ratings really affect our business.

A lot of the rhetoric out of the league office around expansion was about the importance of soccer-specific stadiums for expansion franchises. Yet, with Seattle they’re going into a stadium they have an ownership interest in but is a football stadium. Why the shift?
Garber: It’s not a shift at all. The goal is to have a facility situation that works. You’ll never see anything from me at all that suggests that it has to be a soccer-specific stadium.

One of the keys for the league has been SUM’s ability to add properties like SuperLiga, PanPacific, Gold Cup and others. How can SUM continue to grow as it has in the past?
Garber: SUM has been a strong strategic driver of Major League Soccer. When we created SUM, its sole purpose was to support and deliver value to the league and our owners. It was never intended to be an entity unto itself. When we do international games, it’s great to have that additional revenue, but it’s more to help our teams sell season tickets and to package group sales and provide value to corporate partners. SUM will continue to expand its activity and continue to add value to our teams and owners. The mission statement for that company is to grow the overall commercial value of the sport of soccer in America. If the sport becomes more valuable, certainly our teams will rise in value. So far things are moving well with that company.

Finally, MLS had an exceptional year in terms of attention. How do you top that in 2008?
Garber: I don’t know (chuckling). Just keep plugging away. Just keep plugging away. I hope we’ll have some more designated players, some more expansion announcements and we’ll open Salt Lake’s new stadium next year. It’s going to be great.

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