Media Rights, Sponsorship, Soccer, North America

Being the Don: Talking business with MLS commissioner Garber

When Don Garber took the reins as Major League Soccer commissioner in 1999, the league was in danger of folding. Nearly 20 years on, the 61-year-old has played a pivotal role in putting soccer in North America on the map, and is leading MLS down a golden path.

by Sam Carp
Being the Don: Talking business with MLS commissioner Garber

Major League Soccer’s (MLS) resurgence represents one of modern sport’s more unlikely comeback stories.

When the league set out its stall in 1993, a year before the United States first hosted the Fifa World Cup, it would be fair to say that it was founded in hope more than certainty.

Launched in a region that had previously tried and failed on several occasions to establish a profitable professional soccer organisation, MLS was being tasked with finding a place for itself in a mature sports market where football, basketball and baseball ruled the roost. There were also those who believed that a league based outside one of soccer’s fashionable hotbeds could never catch up with those that are built on decades of history and tradition.

For a short time, those doubts were justified. When Don Garber left his role with the National Football League (NFL) in 1999 to take over from Doug Logan as commissioner of MLS, the league was haemorrhaging money. Games were being played in front of empty NFL stadiums, while what were perceived as revolutionary rule deviations had failed to Americanise a sport that many in the US still looked down upon.

The organisation shipped an estimated US$250 million during its first five years and found itself on the brink of bankruptcy in 2001, when Garber summoned team owners to a crisis meeting in an attempt to rescue the league. It was during that meeting that Garber put plans in motion to transform MLS, starting with the 2002 formation of Soccer United Marketing (SUM), the league’s dedicated commercial arm, which was set up with the intention of bringing about long-term financial security.

Soon, soccer-specific stadiums were being built and major national TV contracts signed. Both preceded the introduction of the Designated Player Rule – or ‘the Beckham Rule’, as it was christened after being used to bring the English soccer heartthrob to the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2007 – which marked a move away from focusing solely on promoting American talent to enable teams to sign up to three marquee players outside the restrictions of their salary cap.  

Since then, MLS has only trended upwards under Garber’s guidance. The 2018 season was another record-breaking year for the league, delivering 26 million gross viewers across all US networks, marking a six per cent climb on 2017 and a 39 per cent increase over the past four years. Meanwhile, attendances are the highest they have ever been, with the average ticket revenue per game up nearly ten per cent in 2018 compared to the previous campaign.

In just under 20 years at the helm, Garber has fostered a data-driven, tech-focused environment that is enabling MLS to flourish. The league now holds forward-thinking broadcast deals with the likes of over-the-top (OTT) subscription services ESPN+ and DAZN, runs its own esports league, and boasts franchises valued by Forbes at an average of US$240 million.

MLS has also doubled in size over the past decade, adding three clubs in Canada, with FC Cincinnati set to bring the total number of teams up to 24 in 2019. In 2020, Nashville and David Beckham’s Inter Miami will join the fray, with Austin and one currently unannounced franchise set to complete Garber’s plans to expand the league to 28 teams. It is a growth story that recently earned the Queens, New York native a five-year contract extension until at least 2023.

A cool, modest operator, Garber is keen to champion “slow and steady growth”, but it’s an inescapable fact that MLS is now keeping pace with the fastest-evolving sports organisations around. This is soccer, but not quite as the rest of the world has come to know it.

Garber took the reins at MLS in 1999

How do you see the state of MLS on the back of its 23rd season?

MLS has had perhaps its best season ever. Our attendance revenue is at an all-time high, our television ratings have grown, we had two incredibly successful team launches and stadium launches, and we added some exciting new players like Wayne Rooney and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, but also a lot of great young players and stories that feed the success of our player development focus.

MLS is a growth story and will continue to be for many, many years. That’s unusual in the world of professional soccer - the rest of the leagues have been around since the beginning of time, and we here in the United States and Canada are just in our first full generation. So every year it continues to be a little bit better than the next, and we’re focused on slow and steady growth.

It’s a very competitive market here. We’ve managed to establish our rightful place in the soccer landscape here, and will continue to invest in trying to be as good as we can be and to drive the growth of soccer in North America.

What’s been the key to that growth?

I think there have been a number of key milestones. The first was the owners who founded the league came up with a structure which is very unique, but one that allowed us to have the ability to manage our decisions in a way that were considered as part of the knowledge that we were brand new in a very mature soccer market - and a very mature professional sports market in the US and Canada.

It then progressed to this realisation that what you thought when you wrote the original plan was dated and irrelevant two years later, and we had the courage to be able to continue to evolve and deal with the shifting sands that were happening as the sport was continuing to get more popular and relevant, and as the soccer market became more knowledgeable. So we started as tenants in big NFL stadiums and then we came up with the concept of soccer stadiums, which were not part of the original plan.

So I would say if one is structure, two is the idea that we needed to start building soccer stadiums. You don’t really have to think about that when you have a Premier League team; you might renovate it, you might have to build a new one, but for the most part they’d been there for a really long time. But we’ve now opened up our 20th, and have spent billions of dollars to make that happen.

We have embraced technology and innovation since the league was founded. The structure of the league is innovative, and we are going to continue to do things driven by data and by analytics and by research and by taking risks.

We also realised that the soccer market was becoming more and more sophisticated, and we needed to be leading the thought process as to how to raise the overall value of soccer – first in the US and then throughout the US and Canada. That’s why we formed a marketing company that ultimately was a value to MLS, but as – if not more – importantly, it woke the world up to the fact that there are a lot of people here who really care about the game, and if we give them a good product, we give them a good schedule and if we respect the game, then there’s going to be a lot of value around for everybody.

It then moved from there to a constant evolution of how we thought about our rosters and the product on the field - from creating this concept of a designated player, to coming up with targeted ways that we were investing our revenues and resources to try and bring in impact players, to now deeply investing in youth development and empowering our teams to go out and develop young, valuable players like the rest of the world does.

The future has us continuing to grow and expand our league, and doing that very strategically. In the 70s and 80s the North American Soccer League (NASL) expanded so they could fund their operations. We have expanded so we can be strategic in how we think about geographic coverage, bringing in new markets, bringing in new fans, creating new rivalries, and doing that in a way that was very thoughtful - and you’re going to see more of that kind of energy in years to come.

Would it be fair to say that MLS no longer relies as heavily on the profile of its international stars like it might have done in the past?

I think at some point somebody’s going to look back on the last 25 years and dig into the evolution of our thinking about player strategy. We did research that drove our decision to have players outside of our salary budgets, this concept of a branded designated player. We needed to bring in players that people were seeing in the World Cup, they were using them in the Fifa video game, they were engaging with them on social media, and we needed to change our rules to be able to allow for that.

Now it’s about impact designated players. Our internal way of looking at it is: ‘how could that player make an impact?’ Josef Martinez is impactful to the success of Atlanta, while David Villa in New York has transformed the way people think about soccer in the metropolitan area, giving a strong competitor for the Red Bulls.

So our evolution is not based on just putting our finger in the wind and saying: ‘what would be fun?’ It’s based on – like I think every business decision should be – analytics, research, and ensuring that you’re making good decisions.

When you look at the success of your expansion franchises, does it ever surprise you how quickly people buy into those markets?

You know I think your readers - who are primarily an international audience - can’t understand this American concept of ‘expansion’ and ‘new teams’. All of a sudden, for example, one day you don’t have the Vegas Golden Knights in the National Hockey League (NHL), then they’re in the Stanley Cup Final and it is the talk of the town in a really important city for the US.

But that’s the way things are done here – I believe we can be successful in any new market because that’s how strong the soccer sporting culture is. That was not the case when MLS was launched in 1996; we’ve worked really hard and invested billions of dollars to create that soccer culture, so it doesn’t surprise me.

I think it continues to over-deliver a bit on how big and important it can be, but the fact that it’s successful is something I’ve always expected, and frankly I think whether it’s Nashville, Cincinnati or whatever our next markets will be, we’ll be really successful in those markets as well.

How important is it to have David Beckham back involved with MLS through his Miami franchise?

You know, in many ways, David never left. He spent almost ten years being involved in MLS from the time he came until he had his announcement last year. David’s not the person I think most of the world thinks he is, where he’s a celebrity thinking about fashion only or pop culture – he is a focused guy.

He has been laser-focused on trying to get this right in Miami, and the best example is that he was the design director on their name, on their logo, on their colours and on their uniform. We don’t have a lot of owners who dig in at that level, and David has dug in.

Now he’s going to transition from the brand identity to using that same level of energy and intellect on putting the right technical staff and strategy in place so that it is a product that will be attractive to a very diverse, soccer-knowledgeable fanbase in South Florida. 

David Beckham's long-delayed franchise, Inter Miami CF, is expected to begin play in 2020

Do you think a lot of MLS’s growth is a reflection of the way the league innovates off the pitch in terms of things like broadcasting, esports and a major focus on tech?

I can say this with modesty and perhaps have others around the world think that it is tinged with arrogance, but I truly say this with humility: after 34 years in the sports marketing business here in the US, I can say the centre of innovation in our industry is based here.

That’s because we have, in many ways, the centre of technology in Silicon Valley, and a lot of that has to do with our universities and the focus on engineering, technology, software development and computer engineering and the like. That focus has morphed into sports, because it doesn’t matter what you do, everybody loves sports.

So we have embraced technology and innovation since the league was founded. The structure of the league is innovative, and we are going to continue to do things driven by data and by analytics and by research and by taking risks. We’ve been under the radar so we can take some of those risks – we’re the first professional league to have VAR and we’re going to continue to lead and innovate in that space. We’re looking at how we’re using technology and data collection with our players so that we could use that information to be biometric information, to be able to better train our players, but also to engage our players in new and interesting ways.

Nobody ever thought that MLS would succeed, let alone thrive.

I just hope that the governance of the sport can continue to see that innovation is going to drive fan growth and fan engagement, and that means breaking some of the old rules that have been part of the institution of the game. I’ve been impressed with [Fifa president] Gianni Infantino and the approach that he’s been taking. He’s a young guy, he did some really cool, innovative things at Uefa, and I’ve found everyone that we’ve been dealing with there to be really open to new ideas.

I don’t know why we’re not yet putting microphones on our pitch, and why we’re not using teeny small cameras on our pitch, in our goals and using robotics to allow our game broadcasts to be more engaging so that we can compete with a lot of the things that are going on around the world that we’re fighting against to get our fans to connect with us more and more – not just in MLS, but in the game of global soccer.

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Garber is a busy man. As well as confirming two new expansion franchises, 2018 saw MLS partner with Liga MX, the top tier of soccer in Mexico, to usher in the first edition of the Campeones Cup, while the league found owners to save the Columbus Crew and ironed out a new play-off format to be rolled out from next season.

Garber is also a man in demand. The 61-year-old is taking time to speak to SportsPro during a hectic day of interviews and appearances at Soccerex USA in Miami, where he has been appearing alongside the likes of United States Soccer Federation (USSF) president Carlos Cordeiro and Concacaf president Victor Montagliani. The trio have spent the day being quizzed on a range of topics relating to soccer in North America, not least the hosting of the 2026 Fifa World Cup.

When the sport’s flagship international tournament makes its way to the US, Canada and Mexico in just over seven years’ time, it will mark the 30th anniversary of MLS’s inaugural season. Much has changed since the San Jose Clash defeated DC United in the league’s first ever game in 1996, but one thing Garber believes hasn’t altered is the perception of soccer in North America among fans and officials outside the region. For him, the 2026 World Cup will be the watershed moment that changes that.  

“Think about where our region was a couple of years ago and where it is now,” Garber tells a captivated audience during his Soccerex panel session at Marlins Park. “I’ve always thought that we were always subject to being outside of having the influence of the rest of the world – people don’t really understand the value of the rising tide of what’s happening here in the Concacaf region.

“We ought to be able to stand toe-to-toe with Conmebol and with Uefa and with the rest of the world, and the 2026 World Cup will be the moment to pull us there. It’s not just for MLS or for US soccer; it’s for the sport throughout these three countries.”

Looking ahead to the 2026 Fifa World Cup, do you think the decision to award the tournament to North America was a reflection of the growth of the sport here? How do you plan to capitalise on the event?

I’ve been thinking a bit about this. The 1994 World Cup came to the US before there was an MLS, before there was a women’s league, and before there were these international clubs camping out here every summer, playing exhibition games and opening offices as quickly as they can put a sign up on a piece of real estate. So I look at 2026 as not necessarily a reflection on what has happened over the last 25 years as much as this market now has become super valuable - and the soccer world everywhere has recognised that.

I think everybody who is here is able to take advantage of that if they’re smart, and I think the future is incredibly bright. Rarely do people have an opportunity to have eight years to have a defined moment, and we know where we’ll be and what our league will look like eight years from now.

I’m hoping the rest of the soccer world here – whether it’s the grassroots organisations, the women’s game, the adult rec leagues or anyone else – can take advantage of this enormous opportunity.

Mexican side Tigres UANL locked horns with Toronto FC in last year's inaugural edition of the Campeones Cup

The World Cup will obviously provide an opportunity to build on your relationship with the Mexican Football Federation and Liga MX, which manifested itself in 2018 with the inaugural Campeones Cup. How do you look back on the first edition of that event?

We have a great partnership with the Mexican Football Federation (FMF) and a close relationship with Liga MX that’s just starting, and I think the opportunities for our two leagues to work together in ways that are in accordance with the rules of international soccer are going to be great for our fans, our partners, our players and our respective cities.

Ultimately the first initiative was the Campeones Cup, which was a great event. It took place in Canada where there aren’t a lot of Liga MX fans, and yet we had a tremendous rating on Univision here in the US and I think you’ll see more things happening in the future.

Liga MX president Enrique Bonilla has already spoken about the potential of a joint North American league after 2026. Is that something you could see happening?

I think there’s a lot of great opportunities, whether it’s closer competitions between our two leagues, All-Star Games or training relationships. What the specifics are still need to be worked out, but I can’t imagine that there is not something very unique and special happening over the next eight years that will allow us to create more importance to the game in this region.

I look at 2026 as not necessarily a reflection on what has happened over the last 25 years as much as this market now has become super valuable - and the soccer world everywhere has recognised that.

Victor Montagliani has really stepped boldly and said: “hey, Concacaf is right sided”. It’s got itself in a good spot, it’s focused on its members – it’s got two large members in the USA and Mexico but lots of other countries that are doing really well – and I have great faith in what influence our region and the leagues within our region can have in the world of global football.

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When Garber speaks, it is with the authority of a man who has no intention of stepping aside any time soon. With four more expansion franchises still to be shepherded into the league and a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) set to be negotiated for 2020, this is a job Garber seems intent on seeing through to the end.

What comes after that remains to be seen, but when Garber does finally hang up his figurative boots, he’ll have left a robust legacy that not many could have foreseen when he first started, and one that will provide a sound platform for his eventual successor to build upon.

Garber signed a five-year contract extension in February to remain at the helm of MLS until at least 2023

What do you look back on as your proudest achievement at MLS and what do you want to achieve going forward?

I’d say surviving. I don’t think about that question a lot because I’m still doing it, but nobody ever thought that MLS would succeed, let alone thrive, and we’ve got a very strong foundation in place in communities throughout North America that give me enormous pride.

MLS is a growth story and will continue to be for many, many years.

When I go to a game in Toronto, Atlanta, Kansas City – pick the market – and I see avid, rabid fans who boo the commissioner, I put my thumbs up and say, “man, people really care.” They’re so passionate about their clubs and their players, and what you really want to create if you’re in the business of launching leagues is relevance and fan connection. Our teams are relevant and our fans really care about their clubs, and that’s probably the thing that I am proudest of.

This article originally appeared in issue 104 of SportsPro Magazine. To find out more or to subscribe, click here.