[MLS] In the second installment of an extensive interview with Don Garber, the MLS commissioner talks about the league’s presence in the global soccer marketplace, the prospects for Montreal in 2012, and the group that has revived the Cosmos. ...
SOCCER AMERICA: The lagging state of the economy could trigger some dramatic results in the upcoming elections. Could this affect the American sports marketplace in general, and MLS in particular?
DON GARBER: I don’t the election will impact our league, per se. We operate as a business within the American economy, and anything that goes on with the American business environment is going to have an effect on all sports leagues, Major League Soccer included.
It has much more to do with the state of soccer in America and the position that Major League Soccer has in the overall sports market in the U.S. and Canada, both as it exists with the other major leagues and how it exists with the other soccer competitions. We’re very mindful of the challenges that everyone is facing, but I’m not sure that is the most meaningful impact on where we are today.
SA: You were in London earlier this month for the Leaders in Football conference, which you’ve attended in the past. How do soccer executives from other countries view MLS and its business operations?
GARBER: The overall awareness and respect for our league continues to grow. It’s probably growing faster outside the United States than it is with the soccer fan here in the U.S., which is interesting. Our league is respected by clubs and leagues and federations and confederations around the world.
Our executives are asked to speak at conferences all around the world, our system is one that is intriguing to many soccer leagues, not that they’re necessarily willing to switch their system to ours, but the approach that we’ve taken to ensure that we can make strategic decisions that can drive the overall, long-term growth of the league, as opposed to looking to short-term success.
SA: How significant are the Red Bulls and the rave reviews of their new stadium as far as foreign perspective is concerned?
GARBER: Clearly when [Thierry] Henry and [Rafael] Marquez were signed it brought our awareness even further. The success of the Red Bulls and the opening of Red Bull Arena took our credibility to even higher levels. As long as the American soccer movement continues to grow, and our league continues to expand and become more meaningful, we will have a greater opportunity to grow our fan base and our business abroad.
SA: There’s a great wave of momentum with the expansion success of Toronto, Philadelphia and Seattle; San Jose is making progress on its stadium project; and the outlook is good for Vancouver and Portland when they join up next year. Still, that’s a very rapid pace of growth, six new teams in five seasons. Why the rush for Montreal in 2012?
GARBER: I just think there’s an opportunity of we’d like to take advantage of and deliver the highest possible level of soccer to their fans. They’ve earned it and the fans have been supporting that club for many years and in many ways, that team operates like a First Division club today. I’m not sure what the benefit is of waiting. There’s no down side. The benefits far outweigh any issues. They would have liked to come in next year.
SA: When you say ‘they’ve earned it,’ can you be more specific?
GARBER: I think they’re a well-managed and very popular soccer team. When I was there I met with the Premier of Quebec. You could walk down the street and Joey Saputo was recognized by fans and non-fans alike. The team is deeply ingrained into the community. They’re going to receive a fairly smooth process of public funds to renovate that stadium, which is a lot smoother than a lot of the processes we went through with because that team is an important part of the sporting culture in the province and in the city.
SA: Do you anticipate any objection from FIFA, which every so often reminds the world it prefers leagues don’t grow beyond 18 teams?
GARBER: I don’t think so and I don’t think that’s the first thing they say about professional soccer. They’re speaking more, as it relates to us, adhering to the traditional schedule, and promotion and relegation.
SA: There’s not any action expected in those areas any time soon, I assume.
GARBER: Not any time soon.
SA: Regarding a 20th team, will anything significant happen or will the field be narrowed in the next few months?
GARBER:I don’t think anything will happen in the next few months. I’ve been consistent with you and will communicate the same to the board that our view is that it would be great for us to have that 20th team in New York and be a local rival to the Red Bulls, and we’re working hard trying to achieve that.
SA: There’s a lot of buzz coming out of the offices of the Cosmos, which are talking about joining MLS and amassing funding for a stadium. That’s a lot of noise from a team that doesn’t really exist.
GARBER: Well, I wouldn’t say that it doesn’t exist. They’re a very impressive group of guys who understand the sport and are very committed and passionate about the legacy that was left behind with the Cosmos brand, and have a view of how they can translate that legacy into something that can be very hip and relevant to today’s sports fan, whether it’s here or abroad.
That’s a unique approach and I think they’ve done a very good job with their plan but they’ve said that in order to really capture the opportunity they hope to launch it as an MLS club in New York. We’ve talked to them about that, very preliminarily, and will continue to have those discussions, but there’s really nothing more to add to that. But they’re a very impressive bunch of guys.
(Read the first installment of the Don Garber interview HERE.)