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  • From his introduction to a ribbon cutting: MLS highlights under Don Garber

    August 1999

    MLS names Don Garber as its new commissioner, replacing Doug Logan. Garber had been NFL senior vice president and managing director of NFL International.

    Adolfo Valencia of the MetroStars
    celebrates after scoring a goal
    during a 2001 match.

    November 1999

    ESPN2 and ABC will combine to televise 28 MLS games over 19 consecutive Saturdays in 2000.

    November 2001

    AEG assumes operating rights to the New York/New Jersey MetroStars, becoming the investor-operator of five MLS teams.

    January 2002

    The league acquires the English-language rights to the 2002 and 2006 men’s FIFA World Cups, and the 2003 Women’s World Cup.

    The Tampa Bay Mutiny and Miami Fusion cease operations.

    March 2002

    Soccer United Marketing is formed as a subsidiary to manage sales, service and broadcast production for MLS and its English-language World Cup properties.

    April 2003

    Four-year deal with Fox Sports International includes at least 25 nationally televised regular-season games and at least eight playoff games per season on Fox Sports World and Fox Sports en Español, extending the league’s broadcasts to Latin America and the Middle East.

    Signs three-year agreement with HDNet to broadcast live HDTV coverage.

    Chivas USA fans cheer on the team
    during a May 2005 match against
    Real Salt Lake.

    July 2004

    League awards its 12th franchise to Dave Checketts and Salt Lake City for a $10 million expansion fee.

    August 2004

    Expansion Chivas USA announces plans to share the Los Angeles Galaxy’s Home Depot Center.

    November 2004

    Adidas signs a 10-year deal, estimated at $150 million, to become the league’s official athletic sponsor and licensed-product supplier.

    The league signs its first collective-bargaining agreement with players.

    October 2005

    Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment is awarded an expansion franchise in Toronto to begin play in 2007.

    December 2005

    AEG relocates the San Jose Earthquakes to Houston.

    July 2006

    A five-year, $11 million programming deal with Fox Soccer Channel includes rights to select MLS, international friendly and U.S. men’s and women’s national team matches.

    August 2006

    Reaches eight-year multimedia rights agreement, for a reported $7 million to $8 million annually, with the ESPN family of networks.

    September 2006

    Signs eight-year, nearly $80 million, broadcast deal with Univision.

    November 2006

    Real Salt Lake becomes the first MLS team to sell a jersey sponsorship.

    January 2007

    MLS and Mexico’s Primera Division create SuperLiga, a tournament among four clubs from each of the leagues.

    David Beckham announces plans to join the Los Angeles Galaxy.

    July 2007

    The league announces the return of the San Jose Earthquakes, beginning play as an expansion team in 2008.

    Real Salt Lake takes the wraps off the
    seventh soccer-specific stadium
    for MLS teams.

    November 2007

    Introduces expansion club Seattle Sounders FC to begin play in 2009.

    February 2008

    Awards an expansion franchise to Philadelphia to begin play in 2010.

    July 2008

    Announces plans to add two teams by 2011, which would bring the league total to 18 teams.

    October 2008

    The $115 million Rio Tinto Stadium, home of Real Salt Lake, opens as the seventh soccer-specific stadium for MLS teams.

    — Compiled by Brandon McClung

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  • Going to work with Don Garber

    Here’s a look at a recent Tuesday for the MLS commissioner:

    7:45 a.m.

    Garber meets owner and executive committee member Dave Checketts for breakfast in New York at Pershing Square. The two talk about league financial matters, expansion and the 2009 MLS All-Star Game in Salt Lake City. By 9:30 a.m. Garber is in the MLS offices in Manhattan.

    9:45 a.m.

    Nelson Rodriguez, MLS senior vice president of strategic business development, and Evan Dabby, director of fan operations, meet Garber in the league’s conference room to discuss a fan code of conduct policy that Dabby has crafted. Before the meeting begins, Garber comments on how cold it is in the room. He walks over to the temperature gauge on the wall, pops off its protective cover and dials up the heat. As he does it, he says, “You’re not supposed to do this, but I know how to jerry-rig this thing.”

    Garber returns and takes a seat at the head of the conference table. A black notebook and his BlackBerry Pearl sit beside him on the table as he reviews a sheet of paper with a fan code of conduct and listens to Dabby explain it.

    “We need to do a few things here,” Garber says. “One is reduce (the size) of the fan code of conduct. Two is: How are we going to market it and disseminate it? We can promote it and get a player as a spokesperson and maybe integrate some PSA component on the Web site. More importantly to me right now is how we’re going to address the streamer policy issue (that became a problem in Columbus last year when fans started throwing streamers onto the field). That needs to get out to clubs prior to the season.”

    Garber asks Dabby and Rodriguez to set up a meeting with the marketing department.

    10:05 a.m.

    Garber’s secretary interrupts and says that Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment Chairman Larry Tannenbaum is on the phone. The commissioner gets up to take the call, which touches on the latest on David Beckham and an upcoming executive committee meeting. After 17 minutes, Garber returns and continues the fan meeting.

    “Tell me about this fan bill of rights,” Garber says. “I thought this was a good thing for (AFL Commissioner David) Baker and their league.”

    “It’s not so much you can’t do this, but when you come here you can expect this, special treatment,” Dabby said.

    “I like this,” Garber says, “but I’d like to come up with a different name.”

    He encourages Dabby to come up with a new name and a way to communicate the idea with fans.

    10:30 a.m.

    Rodriguez presents a new idea for MLS postseason branding, structure and format.

    10:37 a.m.

    Garber returns to his corner office to take a quick call with AEG’s Tim Leiweke to get the latest update on Beckham and ongoing negotiations with AC Milan. The office is a beige carpeted room that looks south down 5th Avenue. Garber’s desk sits in the farthest corner from the door overlooking the street. The other half of the office features two tan couches facing each other and two orange leather chairs, all arranged around a glass coffee table.

    When the call ends, Todd Durbin (MLS senior vice president), Joe Machnik (assistantto the commissioner, on-field competition), Alfonso Mondelo (director of player programs), and MLS President Mark Abbott trickle in for a competition meeting. An intern named Matt Mead, who has been working for the league for two years, joins the meeting at Garber’s request. He has recently taken a job with UEFA in Switzerland , and Garber wants to see him before he goes.

    The meeting begins with an update on Houston Dynamo player Kei Kamara, who reportedly verbally threatened a group of referees in a parking lot after a recent game.

    “Did the official write it up?” Garber asks.

    “Yes,” Machnik says.

    Machnik recommends a multigame suspension and a meeting with Kamara and Nick Garcia, a San Jose Earthquakes player who continues to conflict with Kamara on the field. Garber asks the group to set up a call for him with the players.

    11:15 a.m.

    Machnik and Mondelo exit. Durbin stays and updates Garber on collective-bargaining agreement negotiations.

    11:24 a.m.

    SUM President Doug Quinn and Geoff Hayes, SUM vice president of special events, meet with Garber about MLS Cup and the MLS All-Star Game. Hayes updates the commissioner on a series of La Liga clubs that Real Salt Lake has been in negotiations with to play the MLS all-star team at the 2009 All-Star Game.

    11:34 a.m.

    Garber walks down the hall to see David Downs, the head of U.S. Soccer’s bid committee for the 2018 or 2022 World Cup. Downs shows him the office space where the bid committee will be set up.

    11:41 a.m.

    Garber meets with Paul Mott, MLS head of team services. As the two talk, Garber sits on the couch and eats a blueberry Dannon yogurt. Mott updates Garber on his recent trip to see the New York Red Bulls’ new stadium in Harrison, N.J. He also talks to Garber about hiring one more person for the team services group, and they run through a series of potential hires.

    12:03 p.m.

    Garber takes a break from meetings to catch up on e-mail and have another call with Tannenbaum.

    12:30 p.m.

    Kathy Carter, SUM executive vice president, and Marco Liceaga, creative director, update Garber on marketing plans for First Kick 2009, the league’s weeklong series of season-opening games. Four pages into a 21-page marketing plan, Garber’s secretary interrupts to let him know Checketts is on the line. Garber excuses himself for the call and talks with Checketts about MLS expansion in St. Louis.

    The meeting resumes 15 minutes later when Garber returns. Liceaga reviews a series of efforts including online advertising and TV promotions. As he talks through the plan, he rubs his forehead.

    “So here’s a Don thing,” he says, looking at a series of logos for the promotion. “The yellow kicker (image) on the white — why would we make a logo that somebody can’t see?”

    “We’ve been using it some …” Liceaga says.

    “We shouldn’t distribute anything out to the clubs with a white knockout, right?” Garber asks. “You can’t see it. In blue, it looks great.”

    Garber asks Carter and Liceaga for an update on the league’s initiative to reach out to soccer publications to promote MLS. He encourages the marketing team to develop a similar college program for clubs to use. He wants to see one like the Celtics have in Boston where they sell discounted tickets at local colleges like Tufts University, where his daughter is in school.

    1:20 p.m.

    Garber heads to lunch with Abbott, Dan Courtemanche, director of communications, and a reporter at his favorite local Chinese spot, Evergreen, a half block from the office. The hostess greets him by his first name when he walks in and asks how many to seat. Garber orders for the table and an hour later heads back to the office to finish the day.

    — Compiled by Tripp Mickle

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  • How Don Garber helped MLS get its game on

    The look of disappointment on Don Garber’s face is familiar. It’s the look anyone wears when someone they’re counting on lets them down. A friend, a sibling, a role model, anyone, really. For Garber, it’s an athlete.

    Ask him about David Beckham and Garber’s brow furrows, his eyes narrow and his mouth tightens. Searching for an answer on a recent March morning, the look of disappointment forms and he literally tries to shake it. His shoulders roll back in three short whips and his blue Zegna suit jacket slips off and collapses on the couch behind him.

    “It’s out of character,” Garber says of Beckham’s push to stay in Milan. “It’s out of character.”

    Garber runs through a series of excuses. He explains how carefully Simon Fuller and CAA manage Beckham. How they can’t control it when the midfielder comes out of practice and 50 media people are waiting to feast on his words. But even after the excuses, Beckham’s behavior comes back to one thing.

    “It’s just out of character.”

    It wasn’t always like this. There was a time when Major League Soccer didn’t rate internationally. A time when Garber might pick up the phone, call AC Milan, FC Barcelona or another international giant and not only have to introduce himself but add, “You know, Major League Soccer. The league in the United States.”

    When he was named commissioner 10 years ago, the soccer press didn’t think he would last 10 months. He had no soccer background, attendance was in decline, two teams in Florida were on the verge of contraction, and the four-year-old league was hardly acknowledged in the national sports landscape.

    Now, here he is a decade later in a corner office in Manhattan overlooking a staff twice as large as the one he started with, fretting over the behavior of the world’s most recognizable soccer player. The league now boasts 15 teams, expansion fees worth more than $30 million, a handful of international soccer stars, and collects broadcast fees from ESPN, Fox Soccer Channel and Univision.

    Not bad for a boy from Bayside, Queens, a kid with a degree from SUNY Oneonta, a PR man whose specialty in spin made his early days at the NFL tough, and a young marketer who tried to take America’s game to the world before trying to bring the world’s game to America.

    “You have to give him great kudos for surviving 10 years and for the league being in much better position than it was in five years ago, 10 years ago and 15 years ago,” said Doug Logan, Garber’s predecessor in the job and the current CEO of USA Track & Field. “This is a league that’s defied critics and come a long way, and it’s a tribute to his leadership.”

    Real Salt Lake owner Dave Checketts, who has worked with NBA Commissioner David Stern and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, said that in many ways, Garber’s job is much harder than any other sports commissioner.

    “He’s constantly selling and building his league,” Checketts said, “and he’s done a really nice job of navigating those waters.”

    Garber’s ability to defy critics and bring the league to where it is today is as much a reflection of his leadership style as it is of his personality and experiences. He made up for what he lacked in a career compass by being smart, hardworking, optimistic and unshakably affable. Whether it was standing up to a bully in eighth grade or a billionaire in the MLS boardroom, courting a new ownership group, or contributing to a team ticket sales meeting, he has demonstrated an unwavering self-assurance and democratic approach to people that has driven his ascent to the global soccer stage. And for him, it all comes down to character.

    Kid from Queens

    Garber grew up in Queens during the 1960s and ’70s at a time when the borough was considered pure middle-class America — a place of ethnic and social diversity where children of German, Irish and Jewish families all met after school in a neighborhood courtyard to play football, basketball and baseball. Fathers worked for the local delicatessen, fire department or police department, or drove a delivery truck.

    Garber grew up in a second generation, Jewish family. His mother’s parents were socialists from Russia, and his father’s were Orthodox Jews from Poland. His mother worked as a nursery school teacher and his father as an accountant.

    From his mother, Frances, Garber learned to stand up for what he believed in and to treat everyone equally. She was a liberal activist who joined peaceful demonstrations against the Vietnam War. Garber once followed suit, ditching school in seventh grade to join an anti-war march in New York City.

    MLS Chairman Stuart Subotnick introduces
    Garber as commissioner in 1999.

    From his father, Allan, a staunch Republican, Garber learned the value of hard work and discipline. His father encouraged him to get a job pumping gas at Barney’s Gulf. The job paid Garber enough to buy his first car, a 1967 Dodge Dart.

    The neighborhood itself taught Garber how to balance getting along with others and fending for himself. When a friend of his in eighth grade started picking on a kid at school named Nick Clemente, who was from Garber’s neighborhood, Garber told his friend to stop. Instead, the friend continued. A shoving match broke out between Garber and the friend that ended with the two in detention and suspended.

    “He wasn’t afraid to stand up to others, and he could make friends with anybody,” said Gary Stern, one of Garber’s childhood friends who witnessed the exchange.

    After high school, Garber left Queens and followed his older brother to school at the State University of New York-Oneonta. He taught skiing, tended bar at Black Oak Tavern and served as senior class president. He graduated with degrees in journalism and business and plans to go into public relations.

    It was working in PR that he got his first major sports opportunity. He was working for Burson-Marsteller on its media and marketing business ahead of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles when he went to a sponsorship pitch from NFL Properties executives Rick Dudley and Jim Schwebel. When he got back to the office afterward, his phone rang. It was Schwebel and Dudley, calling to see if he would be interested in working for NFL Properties.

    Arlen Kantarian, who interviewed and hired Garber for the job, said, “Even back then I saw instantly he was one of the most determined, tirelessly optimistic and, more than anything, incredibly likable guys.”

    Sell, sell, sell

    NFL Properties in the 1980s was the Wild West of the sports business. It was a freewheeling environment, typified by tight bonds, hard work, a cavalier sense that anything was possible, and nicknames. Lots of nicknames. Jim Schwebel was Schwebs. Jim Connelly was JC. Rick Dudley was Duds. And Don Garber was Dondy.

    “It was the last refuge for the unemployable,” said John Bello, who ran the division.

    Shortly after Garber joined the staff in 1984, Bello hosted a dinner meeting in Montauk, N.Y. Dinner hadn’t even begun when Garber, who favored three-piece suits, started talking about categories the NFL should fill and people it should hire. “He was trying to run the show from day one,” Bello recalled. “Clearly, that didn’t sit well.”

    While working at the NFL, Garber’s
    colleagues pushed him to prove
    his ability to sell.

    Bello said he was already predisposed not to like Garber because he came out of public relations. Now he would pound his new hire for the next five years. The message was clear: Sales isn’t about form; it’s about substance. And money is the only substance that mattered.

    The group had big fold-over sales bags, like Fuller Brush salesmen. Bello once went by Garber’s office and saw the young salesman sitting there.

    “What are you doing here?” he asked.

    “Working, John,” Garber said.

    “No. You’re not supposed to be here,” Bello said. “You’re supposed to be out there selling.”

    “I got you,” Garber said, laughing.

    “No. I’m not kidding,” Bello said, grabbing Garber by the arm and pushing him out with his bag in his hand.

    For all the pressure Bello put on Garber, the young salesman earned Bello’s respect by being “tenacious, smart and savvy,” Bello said. When NFL Properties decided to keep Schwebel as its only sponsorship sales executive in 1991, Garber put a plan together to create an event marketing, TV programming and grassroots event division. At the heart of it was the concept of NFL Experience, an interactive theme park where fans could gather and sponsors could tie their brands to the league.

    “He was a natural for that role because he’s a big thinker and a creative guy,” said Dudley, now CEO of Octagon. “He took something that had been ad hoc and captured the public attention to an even greater degree.”

    Building on the previous year’s Super Bowl Town Square idea in Tampa, Garber developed a more ambitious concept for the 1992 Super Bowl in Minneapolis. Schwebel signed Coca-Cola and American Express as partners, the league charged $12 for tickets, and the event drew 100,000 fans. Most importantly, the concept garnered attention from then-league Commissioner Paul Tagliabue.

    When Tagliabue decided to centralize the NFL’s international business under one division some three years later, he asked Garber, then 37, to take the job. “He was a very creative guy in presenting the NFL, producing and structuring a win-win relationship with partners and fans,” Tagliabue said. “He had a great work ethic.”

    The NFL’s international business was considered by many at the time to be a black hole, and several of Garber’s colleagues questioned why he would take the job. But Garber, who had been kidded by his NFL Properties colleagues for being a cost, not profit, center, compared the opportunity to “manna from heaven.” He told co-worker Mark Holtzman at the time, “I don’t want to be an event guy all my life. I need P&L experience.”

    Garber proved himself in NFL International. He developed an organization that started as five employees in New York into a global operation with more than 130 people working from offices in six countries. Revenue grew 250 percent and profit increased 400 percent under his direction.

    The numbers caught the attention of Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots and a member of the league’s international committee. During a cocktail reception at an NFL owners meeting some four years later, Kraft caught Garber and asked him what he knew about soccer.

    “Not a lot,” Garber said.

    “We’re about to change that,” Kraft said, and took Garber to talk to Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt about taking a job as commissioner of Major League Soccer.

    Turning on the lights

    Standing in front of the banner, gripping a soccer ball alongside MLS board chairman Stuart Subotnick in 1999, Garber could only grin. The guy who had been ready to tell Bello who to hire and what categories to chase more than a decade ago was now in a position to do exactly that.

    And all he could think was: How hard could it be? Granted, he didn’t know anything about soccer, but he saw potential in the sport. To him, MLS was no different than a dark room that needed someone to switch on the lights.

    Garber realized how hard it was his second day on the job. He woke up that morning expecting to read clips about a guy who left the NFL to turn around soccer. Instead, the press torched him. The Los Angeles Times headline said it all: “Garber as MLS Commissioner a Bad Choice in Any Language.”

    “I got the sense that maybe this was going to be a bigger task than I thought it would be,” Garber said recently.

    Within two years, he asked owners to not only contract the league by two teams but also kick in $50 million to secure the World Cup broadcast rights for 2002 and 2006. The rights were used to create Soccer United Marketing, an agency designed to manage rights to international soccer games and broadcasts in the U.S., and the entire episode is characterized as critical to the league’s survival.

    “The creation of SUM, to date, was really a visionary way of looking at this league and business and doing something that was one plus one equals three,” said Jonathan Kraft, a member of the MLS executive board.

    Garber helps the Columbus Crew
    celebrate the team’s 2008
    MLS Cup victory.

    The experience both strengthened and later tested Garber’s resolve. Shortly after SUM’s inception, the league’s strongest ownership group challenged the venture. AEG, which owned six teams at the time, hired an outside consultant who signed an agreement with the Mexican national soccer team to represent the team for tours and marketing in the U.S. The very concept of it conflicted with the idea of SUM, which was designed to represent international soccer teams in the U.S., and the Kraft and Hunt ownership groups opposed it.

    In a meeting at the league offices, Garber had to stand up to billionaire Phil Anschutz and AEG CEO Tim Leiweke and tell them they couldn’t keep the deal with the Mexican team. Leiweke pushed back and, according to those present, yelled at Garber, but the commissioner held his ground. Infuriated, Anschutz and Leiweke stood up and walked out of the meeting. It was a key moment for Garber, and one of the first in which he showed the kind of strong-willed executive he could be. It’s a trait that many of his owners admire.

    “He’s willing to lay his body over the tracks when one of the owners is pushing for something that may not help the league as a whole,” Checketts said.

    As the MLS board has evolved, so has Garber. The ownership group is now up to 14 owners from three, and the issues are much more difficult. During a salary cap debate at one of the first expanded board meetings in 2007, a faction of owners favored a modest increase in the cap to $2.3 million while another faction favored pushing it beyond $2.5 million per team. Garber built consensus around the $2.3 million cap.

    “He’s gotten the group to move in the interest of the whole enterprise by being well-prepared and a good salesman,” said Chivas USA CEO Shawn Hunter.

    In some MLS circles, Garber is fond of telling a story from his early days at the NFL. He once complained to his boss, Kantarian, that his secretary was difficult. Garber was being dismissive of her when Kantarian cut him off and said that if he had to choose between his secretary and Garber, he would choose his secretary any day of the week.

    The exchange grounded Garber, who described himself as young and cocky at the time, former MLS Deputy Commissioner Ivan Gazidis said. Gazidis added, “It defines who he is. He has this sense that everyone is equal and deserves the same respect.”

    For that reason, Garber is just as comfortable today in the boardroom with billionaires as he is in a ticket sales breakout during a team marketing summit. Even when he dabbles in the minutiae, team executives say, it’s not to offer criticism but instead to offer big-picture guidance and ask: How can the league help? And when he offers to help, he means it.

    Colorado Rapids Managing Director Jeff Plush remembers getting a call from Garber en route to the Pittsburgh airport shortly after a meeting with Dick’s Sporting Goods executives. Garber said he had discussed Dick’s getting involved in the sport in a grassroots way and mentioned Colorado’s new soccer stadium and surrounding youth fields. Plush called Dick’s immediately and a few months later signed a 15-year naming-rights deal worth $2 million annually.

    Plush, who also has worked for NHL and NBA teams, said, “That’s a little rare to have a commissioner who’s willing to roll up his sleeves and help.”

    Twists and turns

    Seated on his office couch with his right foot tucked under his leg, Garber talks about Beckham again, but this time the look of disappointment disappears from his face. It’s a day after the Los Angeles Galaxy and AC Milan completed a deal under which Beckham will stay with the Italian club until the end of the European soccer season and then return to the Galaxy in July for the rest of the 2009 season.

    Garber says he has no regrets on David
    Beckham’s signing with the league.

    With the saga resolved, Garber’s remembering the good times — the four-hour dinner in Madrid with David and Victoria Beckham, the day the global star was signed, and his first press conference in Los Angeles. The crowd showered Garber with boos that day when he tried to speak Spanish, but that’s not what stood out in his mind. He remembers standing off to the side and watching Beckham after the press conference ended. A row of 50 members of the media waited for him, and Beckham answered every reporter’s question.

    “That’s when I knew we had a tiger by the tail,” Garber says, emphasizing his statement with the outstretched hands an angler uses to illustrate the size of a trout he once caught.

    As he reflects on Beckham’s time with the league, Garber has no regrets about signing the international star.

    “The ultimate story hasn’t been written,” he says. “He’ll be coming back. He is clearly a guy who put us on the global sports radar screen. That’s a positive. Even if it had a controversial twist or turn, I’m not so sure that’s a bad thing.”

    As Garber explains, developing a business is not a straight-line process. It’s full of twists and turns, contractions and expansions, and stars coming and going. “The beauty about soccer is that’s the way the game is played,” Garber says. “It’s not a linear sport. You’re not running down the court like you are in basketball. The game is circuitous.”

    In that way the sport is as much like business as it is like Garber’s career. Only a circuitous path could bring a boy from Queens to Oneonta and from the NFL to MLS. And only a circuitous path could lead him into a second decade at its helm.

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  • Lalas challenges league to prove itself to world

    Alexi Lalas has been making headlines in soccer throughout his life. He did it as a player on the U.S. national team that beat Colombia in the 1994 World Cup and as a general manager and president of the Los Angeles Galaxy when the team signed David Beckham in 2007. This season the outspoken redhead will be making headlines for ESPN as one of the network’s studio analysts. He recently took time to share his thoughts with SportsBusiness Journal reporter Tripp Mickle.

    What is your take on the David Beckham situation and how it has played out?
    LALAS: I love entertainment, and this is pure unadulterated, cotton-candy entertainment. While I recognize that it’s become kind of a soap opera, people are still talking about the Galaxy and MLS, and in the bigger picture that’s a good thing.

    Was bringing Beckham to MLS a net positive or net negative for the league?
    LALAS: Anyone who says the David Beckham experiment was a failure is delusional. Of course it could have gone better on the field, but the impact he’s had and the impact that will be felt later on is immense.

    Lalas participates in a celebrity soccer
    game last year at Home Depot Center.

    If you were commissioner, what’s the first thing you would change?
    LALAS: I’ve been in a unique position to see a lot of numbers involved. The knee-jerk reaction is to say, increase the salary cap. That would certainly have an effect on the quality we could field out there. I’m also realistic about what the league can bear. One other thing … is to schedule our league to shut down during international fixture dates. That message is important not just to MLS fans but the world.

    What’s the most important thing for MLS to do next?
    LALAS: The next thing is to work on our credibility internationally. It goes hand in hand with our salary cap and the quality of players we bring in. To achieve the status we want, we have to meet teams internationally in competitive formats. The CONCACAF Champions League had one MLS team and two USL teams in the final eight. Hats off to the USL, but that’s embarrassing for MLS. I’ve heard the excuses and they’re valid, but it’s time to put up or shut up. You’ve got to win and you have to make that a priority.

    What does the league need to do to bolster attendance?
    LALAS: We live in a country that’s always expecting the moon. The reality is we compete against the majority of leagues around the world and we’re better than a lot of them in attendance. Something we started off with, and have gone away from, is this concept that when we started out it was a Barney show. We have to have an element for the kids, but there’s a generation of fans who grew up with MLS who want to go and have a beer and take a date. It doesn’t have to be a bar, but it doesn’t have to have a PG-13 feel.

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  • Leaving time to fish

    Don Garber admits he’s not a morning person. He rarely rises before dawn and he usually gets into the office around 9 or 9:30 a.m. His energy increases as the day goes on, and he doesn’t leave the office until around 7 or 7:30 p.m.

    On his way home, he often squeezes in calls to owners like Joe Roth, who says he feels like every conversation, “no matter how important,” always occurs as Garber is headed for the tunnel between New York and his home in New Jersey. Once home, Garber spends time with his wife and 17-year old son before capping off the day with work and e-mail until midnight.

    Despite the demands of the job, Garber tries to make time for other things. On a recent weekend, he capped off a daylong trip to Philadelphia with FC Barcelona CEO Joan LaPorta by meeting his wife, brother, sister and respective spouses in New York’s meatpacking district for dinner.

    That Sunday, he visited the New York Botanical Gardens in the Bronx with his wife and then drove to a farm he and several friends own in western New Jersey. They have a fly-fishing club on the farm and Garber, an avid angler, tries to fish for trout there at least once a week.

    “He has unbelievable energy,” said his wife, Betsy. “He’s always on the go.”

    — Tripp Mickle

    For an hour-by-hour look at a recent work day for Garber, click here.

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  • MLS issues to watch

    A proposed stadium is the centerpiece of
    the new MLS team in Philadelphia.
    Ivan Gazidis watches an Arsenal match
    in December at Emirates Stadium.

    Philadelphia 2010

    MLS Philadelphia CEO Nick Sakiewicz insists the league’s future in the market is strong, but many are watching the ownership group in Philly to see how the economy’s unraveling will affect the club. One of the club’s investors, Jay Sugarman, has seen his 2.1 million shares of his iStar Financial company plummet over the last year, costing him more than $61 million. It hasn’t affected the club to date, but MLS observers wonder if it will as the recession continues.

    Losing Ivan

    Over his decade-plus service to MLS, Ivan Gazidis became the league’s go-to voice on soccer issues. He provided the league’s position on international soccer and defined its position on player development. In many ways, he became the league’s conscience for all things soccer. His departure to take over as CEO of Arsenal leaves the league with a void that it will try to fill with an array of people including Todd Durbin and Nelson Rodriguez.

    Club services

    The club services department the league established in 2007 will be leaned on heavily this year as the combination of the economy and waning interest in David Beckham threatens ticket sales across the league. Headed by Paul Mott, the division is looking to hire one more employee and increase its interaction with MLS teams.

    Juan Pablo Angel

    Designated player rule

    The rule that brought David Beckham, Cuauhtemoc Blanco and Juan Pablo Angel to the league comes up for review after this season and extending it in its current form is no sure thing. Passed in 2006 to allow each club to sign one player outside the MLS salary cap restrictions, the rule has a spotty track record. Proponents might point to the tickets Beckham helped sell while detractors might point to the complete failure of Denilson with FC Dallas or the mixed results of Marcelo Gallardo with D.C. United.

    Labor talks

    For all the pain the economy could cause MLS at the gate, it definitely will help the league’s leverage as it sits down to negotiate a new collective-bargaining agreement with the MLS Players Union. The current agreement expires in January 2010, and the union will be challenged in its effort to increase the minimum salary, secure free agency for members, and improve licensing royalties.

    — Tripp Mickle

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  • Other teams to watch

    Columbus Crew

    Hunt Sports Group entered discussions about a potential sale of the team last year, but talks died even as the Crew increased its value with a championship season. A buyer may be tough to find in this economy, but the possibility remains that the Hunts might sell if one comes forward.

    New York Red Bulls

    As the club heads into its last season in the Meadowlands, its new stadium under construction in Harrison, N.J., is already generating buzz in MLS circles. How the team leverages that buzz for new ticket sales and corporate sponsorships will be critical to its future in the New York market.

    Los Angeles Galaxy

    Life without David Beckham looks like a reality after the 2009 season for MLS’s most valuable club. How will the team prepare for his departure and remain relevant in a market where star power sells? Will it sign another star player? Will it improve the team’s performance by going in another direction?

    — Tripp Mickle

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  • Sounders already making noise in Seattle

    When the Seattle SuperSonics abandoned the Pacific Northwest for Oklahoma City, it left a gaping hole in the hearts of Seattle sports fans.

    Now, there’s a new kid in town ready to replace the Sonics — the Seattle Sounders FC of Major League Soccer.

    Despite the yearlong recession, the Sounders have attracted marquee sponsors and sold nearly 20,000 season tickets for the team’s inaugural campaign at Qwest Field.

    “The reaction in town has been absolutely fantastic and our staff is very enthused, engaged and invested in (the Sounders),” said Gary Wright, senior vice president of business operations at the new MLS franchise.

    Sounders players celebrate a goal
    against the Vancouver Whitecaps
    during a training game at Qwest
    Field on Feb. 22.

    The Sounders have built serious buzz despite 2008 being one of the biggest downers in Seattle’s sports history. Not only did the Sonics leave, but the Mariners finished last in the American League West, the University of Washington Huskies football team lost every game it played, and the Seahawks finished a disappointing 4-12. However, the Sounders organization wasn’t built overnight. It took some major victories in the sponsorship arena to generate the excitement that has captured the hearts of the city’s soccer fans.

    Hollywood movie mogul Joe Roth is majority owner of the Sounders and he is joined by co-owners Vulcan Sports & Entertainment (a company controlled by Seahawks owner Paul Allen), comedian Drew Carey, and Adrian Hanauer, who is also the team’s general manager.

    The team’s first major score was landing software giant Microsoft as a sponsor in a deal sources valued at $20 million over five years. Microsoft has been a minor sponsor in sports for years and already had relationships with the Mariners and Seahawks before the Sounders came along last year.

    “From a national and league perspective, this is our first major sponsorship,” said John Rodman, senior product manager at Microsoft’s Entertainment and Devices Division, home of the Xbox 360 video game console.

    Rodman said the existing relationship between Microsoft and the Seahawks laid the groundwork for the sponsorship with the Sounders. The new team offers Microsoft a chance to reach fans of a global sport.

    “Just in terms of Microsoft’s composition as a company, we have employees all over the world and 39,000 employees here in Washington made up of ethnicities from all corners of the globe,” he said. “There’s a tremendous amount of energy from our employees around our involvement in a sport that so many of them are passionate about.”

    Microsoft indeed is thinking global and the Sounders represent a chance for the company to enhance its cachet as a major sports video game brand among a very important audience, 18- to 34-year-old men, Rodman said.

    Comedian co-owner
    Drew Carey drove the
    idea for an alliance of
    fans who can vote on
    whether to retain the
    team’s general manager.

    Microsoft’s sponsorship with the team is multifaceted. The Xbox 360 logo appears on the team’s jerseys, the console is the official video game system of MLS, the home field has been named the Xbox Pitch at Qwest Field, there will be more Xbox 360 kiosks installed at the stadium where fans can play video games, and the upper bowl, which will be tarped off during Sounders games, will bear the Xbox 360 logo.

    That the Sounders landed Microsoft as a sponsor during a recession says something about the franchise, said Dan Rascher, president of Oakland-based sports business consulting firm Sports Economics and an associate professor in the sports management program at the University of San Francisco.

    “Everyone always goes to Microsoft for naming rights, but they’re always a minor sponsor,” Rascher said. “To me, having Xbox 360 on the jersey is a big thing. And it’s smart that they’re using Xbox 360 because 18- to 34-year-old men don’t care about Windows, they care about video games.”

    The Sounders also have developed a unique marketing tool — a membership association, or fan club, called the Alliance, which operates under the “democracy in sports” mantra. Not only has the team gotten fans involved by letting them name the team the Sounders, it also allowed fans to name the membership association. All season-ticket holders are automatically members and non-season-ticket holders can become members for a $125 fee.

    The Alliance has a host of powers not seen anywhere else in American sports. Every four years, the association’s members can vote out the Sounders’ general manager. The association also has a say in game presentation and even team play.

    The Alliance’s sponsor is Liberty Sports Group, owner of Fox Sports Network Northwest, which airs nearly all Mariners games. FSN Northwest is the title sponsor of the Alliance and also televises and produces all Sounders games, which will be televised on a local NBC affiliate. The team’s games will also be replayed on FSN Northwest.

    “Many of the Sounders games will be played at the same time as Mariners games,” said Mark Shuken, president and CEO of Liberty Sports Group. “They’ll be replayed on FSN after Mariners games are over. We’ve got a huge Mariners audience that we think will flow into the Sounders after Mariners games.”

    All told, the Sounders have about 30 sponsorships, including deals with Symetra Financial, grocery chain QFC, telecom giant Qwest Communications, Seattle-based medical group Virginia Mason and Seattle-based beverage maker Jones Soda.

    Said Rascher: “I think the Sounders really have it figured out.”

    Jeff Meisner is a writer in Seattle.

    Print | Tags: In-Depth
  • Sounders already making noise in Seattle

    When the Seattle SuperSonics abandoned the Pacific Northwest for Oklahoma City, it left a gaping hole in the hearts of Seattle sports fans.

    Now, there’s a new kid in town ready to replace the Sonics — the Seattle Sounders FC of Major League Soccer.

    Despite the yearlong recession, the Sounders have attracted marquee sponsors and sold nearly 20,000 season tickets for the team’s inaugural campaign at Qwest Field.

    “The reaction in town has been absolutely fantastic and our staff is very enthused, engaged and invested in (the Sounders),” said Gary Wright, senior vice president of business operations at the new MLS franchise.

    Sounders players celebrate a goal
    against the Vancouver Whitecaps
    during a training game at Qwest
    Field on Feb. 22.

    The Sounders have built serious buzz despite 2008 being one of the biggest downers in Seattle’s sports history. Not only did the Sonics leave, but the Mariners finished last in the American League West, the University of Washington Huskies football team lost every game it played, and the Seahawks finished a disappointing 4-12. However, the Sounders organization wasn’t built overnight. It took some major victories in the sponsorship arena to generate the excitement that has captured the hearts of the city’s soccer fans.

    Hollywood movie mogul Joe Roth is majority owner of the Sounders and he is joined by co-owners Vulcan Sports & Entertainment (a company controlled by Seahawks owner Paul Allen), comedian Drew Carey, and Adrian Hanauer, who is also the team’s general manager.

    The team’s first major score was landing software giant Microsoft as a sponsor in a deal sources valued at $20 million over five years. Microsoft has been a minor sponsor in sports for years and already had relationships with the Mariners and Seahawks before the Sounders came along last year.

    “From a national and league perspective, this is our first major sponsorship,” said John Rodman, senior product manager at Microsoft’s Entertainment and Devices Division, home of the Xbox 360 video game console.

    Rodman said the existing relationship between Microsoft and the Seahawks laid the groundwork for the sponsorship with the Sounders. The new team offers Microsoft a chance to reach fans of a global sport.

    “Just in terms of Microsoft’s composition as a company, we have employees all over the world and 39,000 employees here in Washington made up of ethnicities from all corners of the globe,” he said. “There’s a tremendous amount of energy from our employees around our involvement in a sport that so many of them are passionate about.”

    Microsoft indeed is thinking global and the Sounders represent a chance for the company to enhance its cachet as a major sports video game brand among a very important audience, 18- to 34-year-old men, Rodman said.

    Comedian co-owner
    Drew Carey drove the
    idea for an alliance of
    fans who can vote on
    whether to retain the
    team’s general manager.

    Microsoft’s sponsorship with the team is multifaceted. The Xbox 360 logo appears on the team’s jerseys, the console is the official video game system of MLS, the home field has been named the Xbox Pitch at Qwest Field, there will be more Xbox 360 kiosks installed at the stadium where fans can play video games, and the upper bowl, which will be tarped off during Sounders games, will bear the Xbox 360 logo.

    That the Sounders landed Microsoft as a sponsor during a recession says something about the franchise, said Dan Rascher, president of Oakland-based sports business consulting firm Sports Economics and an associate professor in the sports management program at the University of San Francisco.

    “Everyone always goes to Microsoft for naming rights, but they’re always a minor sponsor,” Rascher said. “To me, having Xbox 360 on the jersey is a big thing. And it’s smart that they’re using Xbox 360 because 18- to 34-year-old men don’t care about Windows, they care about video games.”

    The Sounders also have developed a unique marketing tool — a membership association, or fan club, called the Alliance, which operates under the “democracy in sports” mantra. Not only has the team gotten fans involved by letting them name the team the Sounders, it also allowed fans to name the membership association. All season-ticket holders are automatically members and non-season-ticket holders can become members for a $125 fee.

    The Alliance has a host of powers not seen anywhere else in American sports. Every four years, the association’s members can vote out the Sounders’ general manager. The association also has a say in game presentation and even team play.

    The Alliance’s sponsor is Liberty Sports Group, owner of Fox Sports Network Northwest, which airs nearly all Mariners games. FSN Northwest is the title sponsor of the Alliance and also televises and produces all Sounders games, which will be televised on a local NBC affiliate. The team’s games will also be replayed on FSN Northwest.

    “Many of the Sounders games will be played at the same time as Mariners games,” said Mark Shuken, president and CEO of Liberty Sports Group. “They’ll be replayed on FSN after Mariners games are over. We’ve got a huge Mariners audience that we think will flow into the Sounders after Mariners games.”

    All told, the Sounders have about 30 sponsorships, including deals with Symetra Financial, grocery chain QFC, telecom giant Qwest Communications, Seattle-based medical group Virginia Mason and Seattle-based beverage maker Jones Soda.

    Said Rascher: “I think the Sounders really have it figured out.”

    Jeff Meisner is a writer in Seattle.

    Print | Tags: In-Depth
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