Group Created with Sketch.
Volume 21 No. 1
  • Created with Sketch.
  • Created with Sketch.
  • Created with Sketch.

Growing MLS hangs on to underdog mentality

These nights, Don Garber sleeps more peacefully. “A lot better than I had in the past,” he said.

Garber’s relaxed demeanor during a recent conversation in his New York office was a bit of a surprise, considering the timing. The AT&T MLS All-Star Game at PPL Park in Chester, Pa., on Wednesday approached, and the league-touted Summer of Soccer, a schedule of 77 matches over 29 days, was in full swing.

But Garber, now in his 13th year as MLS commissioner, does not fret as much as in years past. Some of the reasons for that can be seen by considering MLS’s standing now compared with 10 years ago, when the league’s Soccer United Marketing group was just getting its start.

In 2002, MLS had 10 franchises run by a total of three ownership groups. This year, MLS has 19 franchises and 17 ownership groups. Ten years ago, there was only one soccer-specific stadium in the league. Today, there are 14.

Television ratings are up, as well. On ESPN/ESPN2, MLS has seen a 12 percent increase from last year, to 345,000 viewers on average — a best-ever average to date for the networks for the league. And after averaging 68,000 viewers a year ago on former partner Fox Soccer, MLS is up 62 percent to 110,000 viewers this season on the more widely distributed NBC Sports Network.

The league also is trending up at the gate, with its average per-game attendance on pace to surpass the record set in 2011.

Considering that number on a global stage parallels much of MLS’s overall standing: While MLS is ahead of top leagues in France and China, there’s still clear room for growth.

Garber, 54, refuses to spin his league’s popularity in comparison to the global powers. He embraces the position of underdog and his unofficial role as the U.S. ambassador for soccer. He points to the Summer of Soccer campaign: Between July 18 and Aug. 15, 45 regular-season MLS games and 32 matches featuring international clubs will be played, including games at Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park and Sun Life Stadium in Miami.

Garber is pushing MLS to become one of the world’s top soccer leagues by 2022.
Photo by: ANDY MEAD / MLS
“The goal has never been just to sell Major League Soccer,” Garber said, “but soccer itself in North America.”

As Garber discussed, work remains to reach his goal of MLS being one of the world’s top soccer leagues in 2022.

What’s your reaction when a big moment happens for EPL, like the last day of this past regular season with all the fanfare surrounding Manchester City and Manchester United? It got a lot of attention in the U.S.

GARBER: Anything happening in the sport of soccer that creates special moments, whether it’s with us or any of the other leagues or federations, is a positive for Major League Soccer. We’re committed to growing the popularity of the game and our teams every day. Euro Cup and World Cup are only every four years; we’re here every day. I’m absolutely convinced that anything that grows the sport benefits MLS.

Is converting soccer fans to MLS fans still one of the league’s biggest challenges?

GARBER: Without a doubt it continues to be one of our key strategic items. We have made progress there. We made a deeper commitment when we hired [former NFL marketer] Howard Handler as CMO and gave him the resources to hire a staff on the analytics, research and brand-marketing side. We have to tell the story that MLS is a league on the rise, with great players and beautiful facilities.

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: We are actively involved as support for our franchises, but we didn’t have to in the case with Montreal. The most successful businesspeople take big, bold risks and then, if they are wrong about a decision, make changes and not worry about the perception of the mistake. Montreal has been incredibly successful; the Impact is second in the league in attendance. 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.

You mentioned telling the MLS story. Like all leagues, you have your own media to do some of that storytelling, but would you agree that day-to-day coverage of teams is still lacking in many markets?

GARBER: Part of the life of a soccer fan is that you never believe the general sports market cares enough about soccer. I believe that’s changed dramatically over the last few years. Young people growing up with the game, and who are exposed to media in the global context, get soccer. Those people are growing up, getting jobs, working in the media and corporate America, and they’re helping to expand the influence of the sport culturally. I think that’s translating to the media — perhaps not in New York, where you have 11 teams to compete with. As the traditional media moves to the digital world, there’s more soccer coverage via the Internet. That’s OK, because we know our fans are often going first to a variety of blogs and websites to get their soccer news.

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: Look, I will never position that MLS — even with some recent success — is done. We’ve still got a lot of work to do. We remain a league on the rise, an emerging league in this country. As long as we continue to move in the right direction, we will be fine. 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. We just need to grow our attendance and ratings, drive more revenue to our clubs, and have people care about our players and our teams. As long as we’re growing those metrics, we’ll be fine.

Was it a setback for MLS that Fox Soccer, which is not one of your broadcast partners, won the rights to the 2014 FIFA World Cup?

GARBER: Couldn’t be further from the truth. We are committed to the concept that the more people are engaged in soccer, the better it is for MLS. We have a close relationship with Fox. They are doing a fantastic job with the Premier League, and I’m sure they’ll do a terrific job with the World Cup. [Fox Sports Chairman] David Hill is one of the industry’s most visionary pioneers. To have a guy like that say, “Soccer is good for me, and I’m going to bid a massive amount of money for the World Cup” is incredibly positive news. What could possibly be bad about that?

Who are your most trusted advisers in the industry?

GARBER: [MLS President] Mark Abbott remains a vital consigliere to me and we spend a great deal of time together, talking about the league and the challenges we face. I also have close relationships with our owners. I’ve got a great executive committee and speak regularly with them, whether it’s Robert Kraft or Tim Leiweke or Joe Roth or Larry Tanenbaum of MLSE.

You set a goal of making MLS one of global soccer’s top leagues by 2022. Why 2022, and do you feel you’re on schedule?

GARBER: It was part of our bid in 2010 for the World Cup in 2022. ... We had a great committee with Bill Clinton, Michael Bloomberg, Bob Iger, Henry Kissinger — no shortage of visionaries to help in that bid. We stated our goal was to have MLS be one of the world’s top leagues by 2022, but we lost the bid.

We thought, “OK, now what?” What we decided was, rather than lick our wounds, let’s pop right back up and reaffirm our goal. We want to be one of the top soccer leagues in the world within 10 years. We will do that by continuing to improve our quality of play, the passion of our fans, the relevance of our teams in their markets, and the value of our enterprise. We believe we can achieve it.

SportsBusiness Daily assistant managing editor Austin Karp contributed to this report.