Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber was in Salt Lake last week to watch Real Salt Lake play FC Dallas. Garber has big plans for MLS, and he sat down with The Salt Lake Tribune while he was in town to discuss the league's future.
On the Salt Lake market
"The success of Salt Lake is going to be a big indicator of what our opportunity is to build this league over time. We have a market that's one of the smaller markets in comparison to some of the other cities in MLS, and yet they're fourth in attendance. They have higher attendance than they did last year, so we've got a desire to see everything happen here in a positive way."
On building a stadium
"It generally is not this difficult, but it's pretty close, and not just for us. You can follow what's going on in the NHL, the NBA and the NFL. It's a process that all team owners and cities go through. . . . I think you are going to start seeing most if not all of our teams in soccer stadiums and most of those will be private/public partnerships. Hopefully not as difficult as it's been here, but that's life."
On stadium, public trust
"At the end of the day, this league is about tonight [Real Salt Lake vs. FC Dallas]. It's about a national exposure for the city and for the team and for a great player [RSL defender Eddie Pope] who's going to retire and hopefully a win, their first for the team. And fans and most citizens care about that. The media and politicians and certain citizens care about all the backroom dealings."
"We didn't expect the euphoria with Beckham to be what it was. We were in a city [Las Vegas] without an MLS team yesterday and there were two articles on Beckham in the local newspaper. Our president [Ivan Gazidis] and I met with the mayor [Oscar Goodman] and he said, 'Who is this Beckham guy?' So we have a long way to go."
"I think it will lead for more players to come in the future . . . Most importantly for us, it's what this guy can do on the field . . . The real question will be less about what his wife does in a reality show, but more about how many goals he scores or how many assists he has."
Big calling for us. Very international game. We've got players from 30 countries representing this fabric of this new global community that is a big part of why soccer is the beautiful game.
Our efforts in the African-American community have been very, very aggressive, particularly of late. We're very engaged with the U.S. Soccer Federation in going into the inner cities, particularly targeting African-American players. And using guys like Eddie [Pope] and DaMarcus Beasley and Eddie Johnson . . . showing people of color can have a great living and make a great contribution on the field in the sport of soccer in this country. We could field a full African-American U.S. National Team today, and when you think of the sport of soccer most people think of the young, sort of Anglo suburban kids and the Hispanics that play this game and love this game for generations, but some of our better players are African-American.
THE PRODUCT ON THE FIELD
The real positive development in the league today is what's happening on the field. Our games are getting better, the quality is improving, far more competitive teams at any point. Two wins with Salt Lake and they're going to be at the top of the table. So, lots and lots of close races are going on in each of our conferences.
EXPANSION TO TORONTO AND BEYOND
Expansion has been a very successful experience for us this year. I'm sure if you follow us, you know those games have all been sold out. Fourteen thousand season tickets and those games have all been sold out in advance. We have a unique situation in Toronto. It's the first time we've opened a new team in a new stadium, so as we think about expansion going forward we're going to try and do everything we can to replicate that formula that's worked so well for us. We've got plans in certain parts of the West Coast in Southern California and San Diego, but also in Seattle and Portland and Vancouver and Philadelphia, St. Louis, Atlanta.
By the way, those teams are paying far more for their entry fee than the 2005 expansion with Salt Lake and Los Angeles.
MORE BROADCAST PARTNERS
For the first time, broadcasters are paying us rights fees to produce and broadcast our games. ABC, ESPN, FOX and Univision . . . It's not just about the money, though the money helps. We are a business. It's about the fact that they have to promote the games. They've got to think about how to produce them. They have to figure out a way to promote them in a way that will drive ratings.
Big move for us to go from Saturdays to Thursday nights . . . We're hopeful that this prime-time window will be one that we'll have for many, many years.
ARE YOU HAPPY WITH THE RSL OWNERSHIP?
We sought Dave Checketts out . . . because we want to have people like Dave as owners in Major League Soccer. People who have been involved in other leagues that they're interest in MLS, as opposed to in other leagues is a great comment on where our league is. Put a basketball/hockey guy who ran an arena in New York City making a decision to buy a soccer team, and that's a great story for us. He's put a good staff in place. You are always going to have growing pains with expansion teams, and I think people forget about that in time, but I couldn't be more pleased with the operation here locally and Dave and his ownership.
From a league prospective, you like to see teams not go through long periods of lack of success because that begins to create criticism and that criticism could ultimately start eroding some of the fan following. . . . Bringing [former RSL player Jason Kreis as coach] in was unprecedented, this is a guy that represents the story we're trying to tell. It's the Eddie Pope story. Play in our league. We want you to stay. We want you to be in management. We want you to hopefully work in a league office or work with a local team or coach. And Jason personifies that for us.
THE ULTIMATE DIRECTION OF THE LEAGUE
The reality of soccer in this country is that is it as slow, long term plan. We continue to grow day by day, year by year and that's positive for us. . . . It still is a long-term plan. As the country the country gets more diverse, as more kids start playing, as the sport gets more accepted, as the national team gets better and there's a broader understanding and following of the game, Major League Soccer benefits by that. If we do nothing, we'll continue to grow. So now, do we do some things to move that plan a little faster? Do we go now and take more risks and invest in players like Beckham and [Chicago Fire's Cuauhtémoc] Blanco and [New York Red Bulls] Juan Pablo Angel, does Real Salt Lake go through that question, which would be a deep, fairly significant financial analysis that they go through. And that's all about, is the opportunity bigger than we thought it was at this point?
HOW IMPORTANT IS IT FOR MLS TO HAVE A HOME-GROWN STAR?
No one has ever asked that question. . . . If our goal is just capturing the attention of America, then having [L.A. Galaxy's] Landon Donovan . . . would that get us the international exposure that the league has today? I'm not sure the answer to that is yes. The league today is far more popular outside the country because of Beckham than at any other time. One of our guys was over in China meeting with CCTV, which is the national network of China, and they were interested in broadcasting MLS games because of Beckham. CCTV was not interested in broadcasting MLS games before that. So if our plan is about broadening, one of the players in the global soccer community . . . it will be about [Brazil's] Ronaldino coming here, or it will be, if we could get [France's Zinedine] Zidan to come here.
THE FUTURE OF FREDDY ADU
It's less about what's good for us and more about what's good for Freddy. What is it that he's looking to achieve, how is he going to best grow and develop as a soccer player? I don't think he knows that yet. I don't think the team knows that yet, or management or family. Freddy is a terrific young guy. He's still the second youngest player on our U-20s. So he's still got a lot of growing to do. Still to premature. Freddy hasn't come into his own here. He's happy and that's a good thing.