2019 Sports Business Awards: ‘Soccer has made it’
Don Garber knows how to throw a 20th anniversary party.
The commissioner of Major League Soccer started in this role in 1999 at a time when, Garber likes to say, the main question was “Will soccer make it in America?” Now overseeing a thriving league of 27 clubs with players representing 70 countries, Garber feels secure in saying, “Soccer has made it in our country.”
Garber repeated those words again last week at SBJ’s Sports Business Awards in New York as he accepted the trophy for Sports Executive of the Year. The award, which is presented last and ranks among the most prestigious of the 12th annual event, capped a night in which MLS flexed its still-evolving muscles.
Atlanta United, the MLS champion in only its second season, won Sports Team of the Year. The United’s home venue, Mercedes-Benz Stadium, was named Sports Facility of the Year in a period when it hosted the 2018 MLS All-Star Game and MLS Cup Final.
For Garber, who recently signed a five-year contract extension, it was the first time he’d won the award.
The awards evening served as validation not only of the massive transformation of the league and its financial growth, but also its flurry of recent accomplishments. Those range from the smashing debut of expansion clubs Atlanta United and LAFC, the opening of soccer-specific stadiums in Minnesota and Washington, D.C., and the continued interest from bidders for future spots in the league.
It also reflects on Garber’s growing stature in the global soccer community, as he played a key role in helping the joint U.S.-Canada-Mexico bid land the 2026 World Cup.
In his remarks on stage while accepting the award, Garber repeated the question that was so prevalent 20 years ago: Will soccer make it in America?
“We hear that all the time,” Garber said. “When I see what’s going on tonight with the award for Atlanta United, so many nominations and the wonderful job we’ve seen done with LAFC [which was nominated in the Sports Breakthrough of the Year category], that question has been answered.”
The success of MLS stretched over to its marquee franchise, the United, and its home, Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The stadium was recognized last year for its innovative fan-friendly pricing as the Sports Breakthrough of the Year and it returned last week to win Sports Facility of the Year.
Steve Cannon, chief executive of Arthur Blank’s AMB Group, said the United’s success — an MLS Cup championship and average attendance of 53,002 — goes back to the relationship the club has with the Atlanta community.
“It’s about making your backyard a better place,” Cannon said off stage. “The United is beloved in our community and they’ve done it in a span of two years, which isn’t easy. … You can’t bean-count your way to this. You have to invest in the community.”
Using sports as a platform to connect and repair communities was a prevalent message throughout the night. In fact, it’s become something of a Sports Business Awards tradition for the Lifetime Achievement Award winner to deliver a speech that outlines a theme for the night — such as in 2015 when Dick Ebersol spoke about the value of relationships.
Last week’s honoree, Tim Finchem, continued that theme when he called for more collaboration among competing organizations on programs designed to help the less fortunate.
“Players believe there is a reason to play this game, and that is to help people,” Finchem said.
The former PGA Tour commissioner referenced The First Tee, a 22-year-old organization created to introduce golf in lower-income areas. Finchem touted the group’s reach — it has 150 chapters and is in more than 8,000 schools.
“It’s 22 years old, and it’s made some progress,” Finchem said. “But the potential is so much greater.”
Current PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan introduced Finchem, describing him as a smart and selfless executive. In his intro, Monahan quoted golfer Jim Furyk, who said that Finchem is a “person who genuinely cares. … I think what most people miss is how great of a person he is.”
True to form, in his 10-minute acceptance speech, Finchem spent the first 75 percent heaping praise on others — from executives like Monahan, former U.S. Golf Association executive director David Fay, MLS executive Gary Stevenson and former PGA Tour Commissioner Deane Beman to players like Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, Byron Nelson, Arnold Palmer and Tiger Woods.
It’s that kind of night, Garber said as he closed the program with the final award, a night to celebrate accomplishments and cheer one another. Many of those cheers went in MLS’s direction last week.
“It hasn’t always been easy,” Garber said. “That’s one of the great things about working in our industry — you have to go through the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. … Failure and success aren’t ultimately final.”