[INTERVIEW] In this final installment of an extensive interview with MLS Commissioner Don Garber, he talks about the relationship and rivalry between American teams and their counterparts in Mexico, the league’s economic status, and experimentation with goal-line officials and possible impact of technology.
(As in the first two installments, Garber deferred comment on competitive matters such as roster sizes, which will be discussed by the Board of Governors during the week leading up to MLS Cup later this month.)
SOCCER AMERICA: The SuperLiga was created in 2007 to intensify the rivalry between the U.S. and Mexico by matching their clubs in a competition exclusive to those leagues. Yet there seem to be as many friendlies involving MLS teams and Mexican clubs as before and the Concacaf Champions’ League also features MLS teams playing their Mexican counterparts. What is the future of SuperLiga and will it be back next year?
DON GARBER: I don’t know the answer to that. I would say that I expect it to continue, but what we need to do is take a look at all of our aspects of competition schedule, including SuperLiga, to ensure that it’s the best one for us to continue to provide the highest level of excitement for our fans.
SA: The Mexican teams, even those not quite in the top tier, have resources and are part of a deeply ingrained soccer culture not likely to be duplicated here any time soon, if ever. How can you compete?
GARBER: I think it can be duplicated here. That league has been around a hundred years, it’s celebrating its centennial this year. In many ways it’s like comparing us to baseball. I don’t know where this league will be a hundred years from now but I expect we’ll be bigger, better, stronger, and more relevant and more important to what could be 400 million Americans by that time.
We are close to the Mexican federation both on the club side and the federation side. I went down to the opening of the new Guadalajara stadium and I met with maybe a dozen of their First Division team owners. We talk a lot about our league and they ask a lot of questions about our league. They certainly spend more money than we do because they’re the only game in town in Mexico for the most part, so they capture a lot more revenue than we’re able to.
SA: With the MLS expanding rapidly since 2005, have the demographics of its audiences changed significantly?
GARBER: It hasn’t changed much. It continues to be a quaint mix of Anglo, Hispanic and other ethnic groups. It’s getting younger and it’s also getting a bit more male because of the growth of supporters’ sections, which is very positive as to what advertisers and broadcasters are looking for. I think we have one of the youngest audiences on ESPN.
SA: The teams that draw well for league matches, Toronto and Seattle being the most dramatic examples, also attract good crowds for the other competitions. Most teams struggle to get decent crowds for Concacaf games, Open Cup, etc. How does attendance for those games factor into your plans?
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.
SA: On the business side, how many teams will turn a profit this season?
GARBER: I say this every time I talk to you: We have a lot of teams that are performing very well financially, and there are others that aren’t. But some of them that aren’t, it isn’t because they aren’t driving revenue, it might be that they have different goals and objectives.
SA: I recall that when RSL and Chivas USA came into the league five years ago a lot of questions were asked about the league’s stability and its survival. The economic outlook is still rather grim, so what is the league’s standing financially?
GARBER: Financially, this league is healthy and while our revenues don’t rival that of the major leagues in this country, we are very stable and we’ve got some really great shining lights and we’ve got some teams that continue to be challenged. Overall, we feel pretty good about the economic condition of our league and the sport in this country.
SA: At the start of the season you expressed a lot of exasperation about being paid lip service when scouting stadium possibilities for D.C. United. Has that impasse changed at all?
GARBER: Listen, I think it’s a shame that a team that has been such an important part of the sporting culture in Washington, D.C., can’t get the civic backing it needs to solve its stadium issues. Ownership has been hanging in there; [owner] Will Chang is very committed and we’re doing what we can to resolve the stadium situation. It’s unfortunate that they are where they are. Nothing has changed but it’s certainly not for a lack of trying. [President] Kevin Payne and Will Chang continue to look at possibilities in the District and outside the District.
This is a team that really matters in that community.
SA: As a former employee of the NFL, a league that has officials on the field wired up and cameras all over the place and replay tents, it must drive you crazy that FIFA has stubbornly resisted technological innovations. What’s your stand on this subject as an NFL guy?
GARBER: I’m now a soccer guy more than I am an NFL guy. What I will say is I am very familiar and deeply engaged with the world of American sports. As a fan, I like the fact that the right result happens if there’s a mistake made by an official, whether it’s in tennis, or golf -- remember the replay used at the U.S. Open -- whether it’s replay used in the NFL or Major League Baseball. I believe fans deserve, and I say this as an American sports fan, and are conditioned by the knowledge that the right thing happens on the field.
I respect the fact that human error is part of the game and there is an officiating constituency that is an important element within the overall soccer/football community, and you can’t just change the rules because it works in tennis. That being said, if we could move closer to providing officials with the tools that our modern age can provide them with and could help them do a better job, I think we should be accepting of that. But we certainly aren’t going to do anything that isn’t aligned with FIFA’s views on the issues.
SA: Does MLS plan to use goal-line officials, as approved by FIFA, in matches next season?
GARBER: Logistically speaking, are there six officials you can take to all these games? It’s tough to get four. That wasn’t something we were able to act on but that’s not because we don’t believe in it. It’s something I would hope we can address the following year.
We had an opportunity to do that for next year because FIFA asked each confederation to get behind having one league experiment with it in 2011. We’re not able to enact that for 2011 but if it’s successful in Mexico, where they are planning to do it I believe, we’d be very supportive of that.
SA: Getting back to technological aids, you would be in favor of using them.
GARBER: We very much support anything we can to improve the officiating of our game. We’re working with our federation on a number of specific programs that we’ll be able to announce after the end of the season. Overall, I would be very much in favor of looking at technology of any kind to assist the officials in doing their job.
If FIFA allows leagues to implement technology into officiating I would be a very big supporter of that.
SA: Landon Donovan didn’t leave MLS after the World Cup, but offers could be forthcoming during the offseason or further down the road. Is this still a matter where the ultimate decision, and the price, lies with the club’s ownership group, AEG, and not the Board of Governors?
GARBER: It is and it always was. The Board of Governors has never had any approval rights over what a club does in regards to signing a player.