Sunday marks the 20th anniversary of
Don Garber's tenure as MLS commissioner.
Garber was an unknown in soccer circles when he was plucked from the NFL, where he was senior vice president of the NFL’s international division. He was hired in 1999 to replace Doug Logan, who was MLS's commissioner since its launch in 1996, after being sought out by MLS owners Lamar Hunt and Robert Kraft, who knew Garber from the NFL, where they owned the Kansas City Chiefs and New England Patriots.
Garber inherited a league in trouble. It was born out of the success of the 1994 World Cup, hosted by the USA, and expanded from 10 to 12 teams in 1998, but attendance was on the decline after the excitement of its launch ended. Two teams -- Miami and Kansas City -- averaged less than 10,000 a game and no team averaged more than 18,000.
The league had 12 teams but only seven owners. Phil Anschutz owned three (Colorado, Chicago and the LA Galaxy), Hunt owned two (Columbus and Kansas City) and the league operated -- and the owners split the bills to fund -- three teams (Dallas, San Jose and Tampa Bay).
Before the downswing was over, Anschutz, Hunt and Kraft owned all 10 teams following the contraction in 2002 that resulted in the folding of the two Florida teams, Miami and Tampa Bay. The league itself was close to folding, and only went forward after Anschutz, Hunt and Kraft accepted a business plan put together by Mark Abbott, the current MLS president, and Garber.
Reaction to Garber's hiring in 1999 was mixed. The headline to the Miami Herald article on the move was "Garber is the right choice as MLS commissioner." The Los Angeles Times was less convinced: "Garber as MLS commissioner a bad choice in any language." Garber recalls his first press conference in New York as expecting everyone would be excited about a young, experienced sports marketing executive taking over MLS but left wondering what had he gotten himself into. Soccer folks are hard to win over.
Upon Garber's hiring, Soccer America's Ridge Mahoney interviewed six executives, coaches and players for their take on the move.
Alan Rothenberg, the former U.S. Soccer president (1990-98) who founded MLS, said there wasn't any magic to running a pro sports league.
"The reality of developing a league is a lot of long, hard work," he said. "It's being smart and working awfully hard to succeed. He's a relatively young guy, with a lot of smarts and a lot of ambition. I think he's going to be great.
Rothenberg got it right when it turned out selling soccer in the United States was a lot easier -- even for a novice at the sport like Garber -- than selling a brand-new sport like American football in Europe. MLS has 24 teams -- with 27 confirmed for 2021 -- while NFL Europe, which had six teams in 1999, folded in 2007.
"Soccer is not new," Rothenberg said. "It's more how we market ourselves and position ourselves. I'm sure the experiences he gained there is not going to hurt him at all. A certain amount of hostile reception will serve him well. A quality product marketed in a powerful way will lead to success."
Just how different MLS is today -- but how much it
is the same today -- was reflected in the comments by Clark Hunt, Lamar's son who is the chairman and CEO of the Hunt Sports Group, which owns the Kansas City Chiefs and FC Dallas. Hunt said
Garber could help MLS in two areas: expansion and television growth, which depended on expansion to grow the league's national footprint.
In retrospect, what is remarkable is how cautious Hunt was about expansion, saying expanding every two years was "rushing it" -- the plan was to add two teams in 2001, which didn't happen -- and expanding every three years "is pushing it pretty hard." MLS expanded six straight years in 2007-2012 and beginning in 2015 will have expanded in five of the next six years with expansion also likely in 2022.
Total attendance in MLS was 2,742,102 in 1999 but it tripled to 8,553,245 in 2018.
But television? Hunt said MLS's TV ratings weren't where they needed to be on ESPN and a national footprint would help grow the numbers. MLS certainly has a national footprint it didn't have 20 years ago, but its TV numbers remain modest.
MLS's cable audience is up about 40 percent since the start of its current broadcast deal, now in the fifth year of an eight-year deal, but it isn't significantly different than it was 10-15 years ago -- ESPN is averaging 257,000 viewers per game this season -- in what is a vastly changed media landscape and changing viewing habits.
NBC Sports averaged 423,000 a game for more than 200 English Premier League games last season on NBC and NBCSN -- and dozens of matches are available for fans to watch each week. MLS is emphasizing its growth in the digital sphere, where it connects to a younger fan base.
While MLS no longer has to pay to be on television like it did years ago, the reported figure of $90 million a year ESPN, Fox and Univision pay for MLS and U.S. Soccer rights pales in comparison to what the other major U.S. pro leagues and big European soccer leagues bring in, keeping MLS at a huge competitive disadvantage on the spending front.
By the time Garber was hired on Aug. 4, 1999, the first MLS soccer-specific stadium had opened in Columbus. Paul Caligiuri told Soccer America the stadium issue was critical to MLS's success, noting Anschutz's commitment to building a stadium in Los Angeles, where Caligiuri was playing for the Galaxy, and Colorado.
Garber says the opening of the Galaxy's stadium in 2003 -- the second of 17 stadiums MLS teams have built or renovated as soccer-specific stadiums -- was one of the league's turning points.
What has changed in the last 20 years for owners is the cost of doing business.
The salary cap was $1.7 million per team in 1999. In 2019, the guaranteed compensation (per the MLSPA's salary dump) ranges from $7.7 million to $22.1 million, and that doesn't include acquisition costs (transfer fees) that weren't around 20 years ago.
Other costs were unimaginable when Garber started out -- not just constructing a stadium, but building training facilities and operating second teams and academy programs.
That's where expansion -- so problematic in 1999 -- has been so critical -- expansion fees for a team to enter MLS are now up to $200 million -- providing owners with the funds to pay for all the new expenses. And that's where Garber with his background in the NFL and ability to find and work with owners has been so critical.
Asked in 1999 what the move by owners to fire Logan and replace him with Garber meant, Bruce Arena, in his first season as national team coach after three years at D.C. United, said it showed the owners "were in it for the long haul." No different than their ongoing investments reaffirm their commitment to the long haul, which had never been the case of owners in the pre-MLS days.
MLS remains an imperfect league in an imperfect and fragile sport. It might have a national footprint but struggles to generate a national buzz. The league is a runaway success with waiting lists for season tickets in some markets, but attendance has declined in the last few years at many of the original markets even after new stadiums opened.
MLS will be no stronger than the sport is in this country. And American soccer's fragmentation to which MLS contributes presents a huge challenge for the league going forward, on top of all the structural challenges that have always there for soccer as the new kid on the block for the last 50 years.
One can think of how desperately U.S. Soccer needs to find someone like Don Garber to lead it forward to appreciate how fortunate MLS was to have him fall in its lap 20 years ago.
Photos: MLS, Chris Williams/Icon Sportswire