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MLS: The Garber decade
by Ridge Mahoney, July 31st, 2009 12:39PM
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TAGS:  mls, soccer business


Since coming over from the National Football League in 1999, Don Garber has presided over a decade marked by turmoil and growth.

When he was hired to succeed Doug Logan as MLS commissioner in August 1999, many were skeptical that the reign of Don Garber would last very long.

By the end of that year, while Garber didn't doubt himself, he harbored a few second thoughts.

He'd underestimated not only the staggering task of selling a pro soccer league in a country where many predecessors had failed, but the severe splintering of what is referred to as the "soccer market."

"It was certainly far more fragmented than I thought possible," he said several years ago while looking back. "I soon realized it was a much bigger job than I had envisioned when I took it."

Two years into Garber's tenure, MLS contracted from 12 to 10 teams when the Board of Governors decided to fold Miami and Tampa Bay. Following several lean years, it's experienced a growth spurt, adding two teams (Real Salt Lake and Chivas USA) in 2005 and one team in each of the last three seasons (first Toronto, then San Jose and now Seattle in 2009.)

Philadelphia comes aboard next year as the 16th franchise, and Portland and Vancouver join in 2011. A league that once paid to put its games on national TV now collects about $17 million per year from its broadcast partners.

Those last three teams each paid a $35 million expansion fee, pushing the total fees collected since 2005 at more than $200 million. When all three are operating, the league will have 14 ownership groups, with only two - Hunt Sports Group (FC Dallas and Columbus) and Anschutz Entertainment Group (Galaxy and one-half of Houston) - invested in more than one team.

Having presided over meetings with only representatives from Kraft Sports (New England), HSG and AEG in the room, Garber is thankful - and relieved - he and the league's partners stuck with a rather conservative game plan, given the current severe and foreboding economic conditions.

"We're more focused more than ever before on growth at the local and national level, and making good, strategic decisions, but unlike many other leagues or businesses, we've always had to do that," says Garber, who came to MLS after working in the NFL for 16 years. "We're very careful about how we spend money, we try very hard to control costs, and now that conditions are as hard as they are, it's forced us to be a little bit more focused."

Robert Kraft, also owner of the New England Patriots, lured Garber into soccer at an NFL meeting. He knew Garber from his rather meteoric rise up the NFL ranks - from his beginnings as a salesman for NFL Properties.

Garber helped develop what would become the NFL Experience, and when hired to run NFL International expanded it from five employees in a New York office to more than 130 workers in six countries. Selling American football in foreign countries prepared him as much as anything could for the task of making a pro soccer league flourish in America.

He's relied on former deputy commissioner Ivan Gazidis and others to accelerate his knowledge of the game but that will never be his strong suit, or primary task.

Garber likes to say, "I'm a Queens guy," crediting being raised in that New York borough for not only his confidence but also his energy, work ethic and attention to detail.

His sales background has proven to be invaluable. In 2001, he persuaded the MLS ownership group - which at the time consisted of just a handful of investors - to not only pay $40 million for FIFA events including the 2002 and 2006 World Cup TV rights, but Soccer United Marketing, which markets non-MLS properties such as the Mexican national games played in the U.S.

SUM, of which Garber is CEO, also manages the property rights of U.S. Soccer. Unlike the commissioners of other major pro sports, Garber must resolve major logistical, organizational, business and competitive issues that sometimes dovetail, and sometimes conflict, with those of the federation.

"We talk virtually every day," says U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati. "On a personal level, he's someone I admire and like. On a professional level, he's someone I enjoy working with, and sometimes battling. We both have the same goals for the league and the sport, and there are plenty of times we disagree pretty strongly, and we have to make compromises."

While Garber often fields sharp questions from the media and hears angry comments from fans about officiating injustices, scheduling conflicts, player callups and other on-field issues, he guides the fortunes of MLS off the field, and not always is the process a smooth one.

When the Hunt and Kraft groups objected seven years ago to AEG cutting a deal to manage Mexican national team games in the United States, Garber forced the parties to hammer out an agreement by which SUM obtained those rights.

When it appeared four years ago that television rights for the 2010 and 2014 World Cups were to be bought up by NBC and Telemundo, Garber helped persuade FIFA president Sepp Blatter to re-open the bidding, and worked his contacts in the television industry to prompt a joint bid from MLS broadcast partners ABC/ESPN and Univision that wrested back the rights for a combined fee of $425 million.

Garber has yet to land a stadium deal for D.C. United and will never satisfy the fans who want better referees, relegation and promotion, and the elimination of playoffs. He does get high marks, though, from a lot of other people.

"He's a substantive guy, and he communicates absolute enthusiasm, says Tod Leiweke, CEO of Vulcan Sports & Entertainment, which runs the NFL Seahawks and NFL Sounders. "And he deserves a heck of a lot of credit. He's in a heck of a fight, and he's got challenges, and I have a ton of respect for him. And I have no reason to say that other than it's true."

(This article originally appeared in the August 2009 issue of Soccer America magazine.)



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