Major League Soccer's Board of Governors has
extended Commissioner Don Garber's contract for five more years through the 2023 MLS season.
Garber, whose previous contract expired at the end of 2018, has been commissioner for the last 20 of MLS's 23 years, overseeing unprecedented growth for an American pro sports league after its rocky start and pro soccer's past history of failures.
Garber was the NFL's senior vice president of its International division when he was hired to be MLS commissioner in 1999, replacing Doug Logan, who had served as commissioner since the league’s inception in 1996. Garber was identified by NFL owners Lamar Hunt and Robert Kraft, who also owned MLS teams.
Prior to taking over the International division, Garber was vice president of business development and special events for NFL Properties, the league’s marketing arm, and responsible for the launch of the NFL Experience, the League’s interactive football theme park at the Super Bowl.
Garber inherited a league in trouble. MLS average attendance fell to 14,282 in 1999 -- its third decline in three years after its launch in 1996.
At its low, MLS contracted to 10 teams, folding the Miami Fusion and Tampa Bay Fusion after the 2001 season, and had only three owners, Philip Anschutz, Hunt and Kraft. There was serious discussion about folding the league until Mark Abbott, MLS's current president, and Garber presented the owners a viable plan for the league’s future that included the formation of Soccer United Marketing, whose first move was to acquire the U.S. English-language television rights and produce the broadcasts to the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan — where, as it turned out, the USA had its best performance of the modern era.
MLS didn’t get back to 12 teams until 2005 when Real Salt Lake and Chivas USA were added. But it has been almost nonstop expansion since then — at least one team has been added for nine of the last 12 years and new teams are coming on board in 2019 (FC Cincinnati), 2020 (Inter Miami and Nashville) and 2021 (Austin FC), putting MLS at 27 teams. MLS is exploring future expansion options and will likely move beyond the cap of 28 it set in 2016 when the current expansion process was outlined.
MLS averaged 21,875 fans in 2018 for a total attendance of 8,553,245 -- more than triple the league's total in 1999, Garber's first season.
MLS is still a long way toward rivaling the other major U.S. sports leagues -- NFL, NBA, MLB and NFL -- and the big five European leagues. Television audiences have grown in recent years, but they still remain very modest. As a consequence, the television revenues the league generates -- and MLS clubs share -- are only a fraction of those available to these other major U.S. sports and major European leagues, limiting what it can spend on players.
Attendance remains problematic at some of the legacy teams, including the Columbus Crew, which was saved from almost certain extinction in 2018 when fans and local civic leaders bandied together, resulting in new local ownership.
SUM's activities -- namely its role as the marketing arm of U.S. Soccer -- go to the core of the antitrust the NASL filed against U.S. Soccer and later amended to add MLS as a defendant.
In comparison to the American leagues, which dominate their respective sports, MLS has struggled to retain and attract players because of international soccer's open borders.
But that is a problem MLS will gladly take compared to 20 years ago when Garber came on board and pro soccer's survival in the United States was not assured.