[INTERVIEW] The Commissioner of Major League Soccer has much on his mind, including the first MLS Cup to be played in Canada next month, two expansion teams preparing to start play in what looks to be a very busy 2011, and what can be done to ease the burden of travel for teams playing in competitions beyond league matches. In this first installment of an interview with Soccer America, Don Garber discussed myriad issues. ...
(Garber deferred comment on some competitive aspects, such as expansion of roster sizes and player development, which are slated for extensive discussion during the week of MLS Cup.)
SOCCER AMERICA: You were in Toronto Tuesday to start up the publicity for MLS Cup, right after owner-operator Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment (MLSE) backtracked on another increase of ticket prices and held “Town Hall’ meetings with its fans. Where does the situation stand?
DON GARBER: MLSE made that decision to raise prices and they did this in July, they were in sixth place [overall] and hadn’t been knocked out of Concacaf, and were having some success at home. They made an announcement, it turned out not to be the right one, and they corrected it quickly.
The good thing that came out of it is that they listened to their fans and recognized they made a bad decision, and they changed it. Good for them. I think it’s a positive, not a negative.
SA: Do you think this will blow over quickly with MLSE’s change of plans or will it adversely affect ticket sales and attendance for MLS Cup?
GARBER: I certainly hope not. Those are two questions; one is will it pass? I believe it will, because I think Toronto, as part of this process, gets closer to its fans and probably communicates with them more regularly and probably goes through a more interactive process when they make decisions. And I’m certainly hopeful it has no affect on MLS Cup sales.
SA: Before they launched as expansion teams, Seattle and Philadelphia executives and staff members were in contact with their counterparts in Toronto to research their methods and hear their ideas in many areas, including the interaction with fan groups. Has TFC lost touch with its most ardent fans?
GARBER: The close communication that Philadelphia and Seattle have with their fans is based on the close communication that Toronto has had with their fans since the beginning. They just got a bit disconnected and have had four years’ lack of success on the field.
[Director of business operations] Paul Beirne, before the team was launched, was dealing with the Red Patch Boys. They were involved with the branding and where the stadium would be. He’s had discussions with the supporters’ group on a regular basis, so this is something that didn’t just happen, not at all.
Maybe it’s not so much that they were disconnected but they misread the situation that was bubbling up among their most avid fans. That’s probably a better way of saying it.
SA: With Vancouver and Portland joining next season to increase the number of teams to 18, you’ve announced each team will play 34 games but that the schedule may not be balanced. What goes into deciding how the schedule will be formatted?
GARBER: There’s two approaches by which one can address the schedule. One is a balanced schedule by which we ensure every team plays each other. That has a certain value, certainly to core fans, and I think it has a lot of value to coaches and technical directors, who think perhaps it’s the fairest way to determine which team is the best in the league.
Another approach is to have an unbalanced schedule and we’re looking at a wide range of ideas to assure that we can grow the overall relevance of our clubs in their local market. One way we believe we can do that is by having more rivalries, and by rivalry I mean a game that’s of great importance to you because it’s against a team that’s nearby or one that there’s a long historic connection with.
Another support of the rivalry approach is that you get an increased chance of a truly memorable moment. That could be put forth on a more regular basis.
SA: You’ve talked in the past about a Northwest rivalry and how Philadelphia has natural rivals within reasonable driving distance for fans. How is this tied into the travel some teams have to undergo for league games and outside competitions, and is this also a matter of costs?
GARBER: We have some issues with travel and the size of our continent. An unbalanced schedule with a conference alignment gives us some flexibility with that.
Now that we have Champions’ League and Open Cup, travel has become a big issue, affecting the health and fitness of our players. It has nothing to do with expense. It has to do with putting our best game forward.
SA: What do you mean by that?
GARBER: We’ve made a major commitment to the Champions League, and we want that tournament to get better, more popular, have people pay more attention to it, and hopefully have our teams be more successful in it.
SA: By adding more league games, the schedule for 2011 could be more congested than it was this year if MLS teams continue to play in the U.S. Open Cup and SuperLiga as well as the Concacaf Champions’ League and various friendlies.
GARBER: The schedule is very congested and certainly the Concacaf Champions’ League adds to that congestion, because of the logistics of it: midweek during our season, traveling great distances. Columbus and Real Salt Lake traveled 30,000-40,000 miles this year … Manchester United traveled 17,000 miles, including their Champions League travel, Pachuca 17,000, and they’ve won the Champions’ League in the past couple of years. So you’ve got lots of issues to consider.
SA: Except for Seattle and Toronto, which draw great crowds for most games, teams don’t get good crowds for the Concacaf games. Is this a function of the particular markets or convincing fans in certain markets of the tournament’s importance?
GARBER: That’s an entirely different issue. Seattle is in a completely different state than most of our clubs, Toronto as well. The issue I’m talking about is: What can we do to make our teams as competitive as possible in the Champions’ League, and hopefully, winning it? One of the things you’d be looking at is how to not make them competitively disadvantaged when they go into that tournament.
That tournament will become a lot more relevant if one of our teams is in Abu Dhabi or Japan and playing in the final against Manchester United, Chelsea, Barcelona, Real Madrid or Milan.
SA: So could there be major changes in how the league operates next season?
GARBER: I don’t know if I can say there will be major changes. I will say that our competition committee is discussing this with our ownership group, and we’re looking at a number of things.
SA: Might there be a realignment into three divisions to facilitate more rivalry games, and perhaps an increase in the number of playoff teams?
GARBER: [Realignment] is certainly one of the things we’re looking at, though that shouldn’t be a headline by any means. We do look at the single-table concept, we’re looking at our playoff format, we’re looking at our conferences and if we re-align, we want to make sure we do that in the right way. We look at the calendar. We look at everything.