SBJ/20090316/SBJ In-Depth

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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