On the record: MLS commissioner Don Garber at BlazerCon
As promised, here's the transcript of Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber's remarks at BlazerCon. He first spoke on stage in a conversation with "Men in Blazers" co-host Roger Bennett, then met with reporters to answer a few more questions afterward.
I have edited things a bit for clarity, and to remove some of the friendly banter on stage, but all of the substance is there. It's still really long, but I figure that some of Garber's quotes will resonate for a while, so it's better to have them transcribed in full.
Bennett's remarks are in bold, and Garber's are in italics.
Bennett: I want to talk about MLS and the future. But before we dive into this, I want to say to you: You took over MLS in 1999, and the league, it was not where it is today, let's just say. Attendance was paltry, the national presence borderline irrelevant. I think there were three owners who owned all the teams?
Two teams in Florida, boom, contracted. You didn't come from a soccer background when you took the league over. If you look at the history of American soccer, it's boom and bust. When you settled into your corner office in those first early weeks, were there moments when you thought: my God, this league, MLS, it's not going to last?
Many, many times. And it wasn't a corner office. It was an office that one of our owners owned on 42nd Street, and it was above a diner. My office kind of opened up into the back of the building on 41st Street, and I'd get all these burger smells coming in there. I had left this Park Avenue office at the NFL, and I said, "What did I do?"
There was a number of times throughout the first couple of years where not only did I really question whether this was a good career move, but whether we really thought soccer, through Major League Soccer, in this country would actually make it.
When I took the job, and we've talked about this over the years, there were a bunch of headlines - there was one in the L.A. Times, "Garber wrong guy for the job." I sat at a press conference, and somebody from Soccer America - I had no idea who this guy was, he was an old man then and he's an older man today, he was just ripping me apart. I thought, "Here's a guy that left a successful career, MLS was a year or two old, and gee, this should be pretty good" - and it was pretty awful.
When I came in, the rules were ridiculous, in my view. Here you have a soccer league that's trying to be part of the global conversation and movement, but playing the game differently. You should know that the original owner thought about having the goals be a little bit larger, and fortunately Lamar Hunt shot that one down.
I think that the last 16 years for me, we'll talk about that, and the last 20 years for the league, have helped lead a movement in our country. And that movement was trying to deliver to the people here in this room, and millions and millions of people throughout the U.S. and Canada, something they could believe in, and a sport that they love.
We're going to talk a lot about strategy, but before that, I want to know: How is it being a commissioner? I've got to tell you, it seems like a pretty thankless task. You get zapped by the owners, you get zapped by the fans all the time. Is it good to be the king?
We talk about this a lot in our business. I had lunch with [English Premier League chairman] Richard Scudamore and [German Bundesliga CEO] Christian Seifert yesterday.
The commissioners' lunch together. I wish we had filmed that.
Yeah, it was fun. First of all, there's a big difference. Richard said, "The American owners are great for me in the Premier League because they treat me like I'm the boss. They're used to commissioners, so they think I'm the big man and they realize I'm really not. Christian has a lot more power, and as you guys will hear [Seifert was on stage later in the day], he's a fantastic executive.
This is the life I chose, right? And the commissioners here in the United States earn a lot of scrutiny. I'm no different in that. I've got the hardest job in pro sports because we're building a league. Those other leagues are established. They've got massive social, cultural issues. But we're trying to compete against the other leagues, we're trying to carve our niche against the other competition we have here, from the rest of the soccer community using our country like an ATM...
Overall, it's a thankless task. I'm just hated. I should have one of those things like the XFL guy had, He Hate Me. Whenever there's a MLS game, the fans just go nuts thinking that the officials work for me, thinking that before the games we sit down with [referee Baldomero] Toledo and tell him that he should call this penalty kick or not call this penalty kick. It's just ridiculous. Guys, I have nothing to do with the officials. We don't speak to them beforehand.
If you really have a bad time, send a letter to Sunil [Gulati, president of the U.S. Soccer Federation], send a letter to Victor Montagliani. at the Canadian Soccer Association [he's their president]. Send a letter to Peter Walton [head of the Professional Referees Organization, which assigns officials to MLS games]. But you're just jamming my Twitter account. I can't go on it without my brain hurting.
We've got a young audience for our show. What would you advise them? What's the most important trait that a commissioner has to develop to survive in the job?
Thick skin. Really, really thick skin. Patience. In many ways, you're part-mayor, you're part-governor, but you're also a sanitation worker and you're a beat cop. You have to be diligent about protecting the game. Ultimately, at the end of the day, in my contract, I can be hired or fired for things that I do that threaten the best interest of the game. Which is a pretty broad category. And I wake up every day thinking about that.
As I was coming over here, I wasn't able to take the subway like Richard [Scudamore] did - I thought that was pretty cool, and I know he bragged about that last night. But I think about, every day, what is it that we need to do to have more people believe in Major League Soccer? To have faith in our leadership, to want to become a fan of our teams, to get behind our players, think that there's a movement going on in our country and in Canada?
All the people here who love the Premier League and love our national team, if they can get behind a league that could rise, and in many ways create a movement - which I think is happening in many markets - then soccer will be better for all. Whether that's in the Premier League, whether it's a young kid playing at 12 [years old], whether it's somebody trying to make a living as a broadcaster.
I spoke to a business school class yesterday from the University of Michigan and they were touring the league [office]. I spent an hour with them just talking about soccer, and about professional soccer. Ten years ago, I'd go to a class like that and say, "Who here is a soccer fan?" Maybe five would raise their hands. "Of the soccer fans, how many of you are Premier League fans?" All of them would raise their hands. Today, that same group of 27, how many are soccer fans? All of them are. How many are are MLS fans? Half to three-quarters. So it's getting there.
You talk all the time about MLS being a top league in the world by 2022. When I hear that, I love it, but I've always wanted to have a chance to hear you flesh out your thinking. Your cynics would say, "Does Don Garber have inside information that Europe is going to sink into the ocean like Venice?"
Now, it's a bold thing to say, [and] the league has come so far so fast. But I wanted to invite you to flesh your strategy out. Get beyond the stump speech with me. Seven years, Don. How do we get from here to there?
So, context - and I've never shared this, the motivation for the vision, before publicly. It started [when] I was a co-chairman with Sunil and others on the World Cup bid [to bring it to the United States in 2022].
I can tell you as we were sitting in Zurich and [FIFA president Sepp] Blatter is up there on the stage, where President Clinton is to one side and a number of other people in our committee - [former New York mayor Michael] Bloomberg is on the other side - we were looking at each other and figuring out, "Where would we stand so that we can be in the picture?" Because we knew what a great moment this was going to be for American soccer. And then Blatter pulls out Qatar.
[The crowd boos.]
Yeah, it was awful. I can remember the feeling that I had in my heart. I remember looking at Sunil and looking at Clinton, with his aide who ran out of the ballroom. Prior to that, as Joe [Roth, a Seattle Sounders co-owner, who was in the hall as Garber spoke] can attest here, we funded most of the effort that led to the bid. It was a lot of money. These bids cost tens of millions of dollars.
By the way, that's why a league needs to thrive. Because pro leagues can do that sort of thing: funding the parade for the women [in New York after the U.S. won the World Cup], doing the things that we can do because we're a commercial enterprise.
So I went to the board and I said we need to come up with 10 million bucks. But if we get the World Cup, by 2022 - this was 2009 or so - we should be able to be a league that can be among the best. And therefore, I'm going to capital-call the money, which is what a league that's losing money needs to do.
Then we lost, and I come back to a board meeting after that, and everybody is kind of looking at each other, and I said, "Listen. We could run and hide, which is not my nature and not the nature of guys like Joe. We can basically say we're screwed - I could have used another word. We've got to come up with another plan. Or we can do the American thing. We can have guts, we can have balls - I can say that, right? - and we can basically say, forget them. Even though we're not going to have the World Cup in 2022, we're still going to have that goal. It means we've got to get hungrier, we've got to invest more money, we've got to have more guts, we've got to get a little more energy faster, and that idea of still being one of the best."
And that's key. Not to beat the Premier League, not to beat the Bundesliga, but to be one of the best leagues in the World. And if we're not that, then we're not going to be able to capture the market. So I still believe it. Seven years - it's getting closer.
Let's get into this. Closing the gap. What are the strategies that give you confidence, that give your vision a sense of teeth?
Quality of play is number one. It is about a game. It's a sports business, not just a business. It's about a business that entertains and inspires fans. So the first thing is improving, increasing, investing in the quality of play, and how do we go about doing that.
The second is the passion of our fans. Now, I was with Richard and Christian yesterday, and Christian said in particular that he can't believe, when he watches [MLS] games in Germany on Eurosport, what some of our stadiums look like. So [it's about] getting that environment so that we look like the Bundesliga when people watch our games on television, or are going to our stadiums.
The third is, ultimately, the value of our enterprise. We don't want to be a league only Barcelona and [Real] Madrid win. We don't want to be a league where teams are constantly - including, formerly, in the Premier League - in receivership, and you've got to worry about whether or not you're going to be in business.
So those things are the things that ultimately we think the most about: Passion of our fans, getting our enterprise right, ensuring we have the right stadiums, and then, most importantly, the quality of play.
Quality of play. How good is MLS right now in your mind? Let's say, use England as a benchmark. The Premier League, [the second-tier] Championship, [the third-tier] League One. Where would most of your teams be?
[Minor editorial note from me: I count Roger as a good friend, but I couldn't help recoiling a bit when he phrased the question in that particular way.]
In the Championship, Roger, no doubt. I think our players, our coaches, our fans believe we're at the Championship level. You could measure that by things that we actually do that are not just suit-and-commissioner-speak.
Peter Moore is here from EA. About three years ago, we had a project where we rated every single player that plays in the top five leagues in the world, and we put a number to those players, and then we assigned a cost to each number, and we laid them across all of our rosters, all of the Premier League rosters, all of the Mexican league rosters, and on down the line. Then we matched those player ratings to the EA ratings, with a margin of error of less than five percent. Then we went to our coaches and technical directors, and had them do the same thing. Margin of error, about seven or eight percent, so they were a little harder.
Once we have twos, threes, fours and fives (on the rating scale), we know what it would cost to move that chart so that we're closer to the league that's right above us - which is the Mexican league. So we know where stand. Fans might disagree, pundits might disagree, but we know where we stand.
We need to aspire to be higher than we are, and Mexico is the next rung on the ladder. We know what we need to spend to be better than them. We're not going to win as much in the [CONCACAF] Champions league less because we aren't as good as Mexico, but more because of the schedule from CONCACAF. It's pretty screwed up for us. We've got to fix that. We know that our top players are better than their top players; we know our youth players are about where they are. They are much stronger than we are in the middle of the roster, and that's where we need to invest our money.
These things are not static. They're always changing. So I want to ask you: When you hear "elephant's graveyard," Don [in relation to MLS teams signing past-their-prime foreign veterans], what do you feel inside?
Well, it pisses me off, because it's not true. It's good that we can sign a [Andrea] Pirlo, a [Steven] Gerrard and a [Frank] Lampard, and have those folks get attention from people in this room, get Sky to want to broadcast our games. To get buzz around the league, you need to have those kinds of players, when you're a league that's trying to attract attention.
But the average age of the 43 players we signed in the [2015 transfer] windows was 27. Nobody pays attention to that. I get that - it's not their job to pay attention, it's our job to get them to do that. Having a [Giovani] dos Santos and a [Sebastian] Giovinco in our league is important.
I had an investor from another league, a European league, a really wealthy guy, come into the office the other day and we were talking about how many young players we have in the league. And he said "it's a pensioner league." I said, "That's total [male cow manure]. What about Giovinco? He just got called up to the [Italian] national team, and he had two assists." And he said, "Well, you know, I didn't really think about that." Because all people do is focus on those things that make their own narrative, and we've got to work harder to get our own narrative.
Baby elephants. Elephant calves. They are the future. I grew up with English football [when] English football was the runt of Europe. I was speaking with an Italian journalist a few weeks ago - we talked about this on the podcast - and he told me [that in the] early 90's, [compared to] Serie A, the English Premier League, in the beginning, was derelict.
And he said when the first players came over [to England] - the [Gianfraco] Zolas, the [Ruud] Gullits, these elephants who would play out their last paycheck in the English Premier League - there was a player, many of you may remember him [Fabrizio] Ravanelli. Great Italian player. Left Juventus and went to Middlesbrough, in the Premier League.
And he said to me, the Italian, "When Ravanelli went to the English Premier League, I felt so sad for him, that his career had come to that. How humiliating that he had to go to the Premier League." The honest truth is, Ravanelli came first; Gullit, Zola, they came first. But very soon behind them came the next wave, the [Dennis] Bergkamps, the [Robert] Pirèses, these guys that changed the Premier League and drove it on that trajectory.
So I see the [Didier] Drogbas and the [Frank] Lampards as the first wave [in MLS]. I see Giovinco as evidence of that second wave, dos Santos too. What is it going to take to build that next wave, so we don't have just have a Giovinco and dos Santos but we start to build out. What is it going to take?
So, you know, you asked what it's like to be commissioner, and in our league, it's different than others. Roger Goodell [of the NFL] doesn't have to think about what his teams need to invest in player development, because it's a closed market, right?
In our league, we're constantly thinking about how we can invest as much as we possibly can without threatening the economic viability of the league, so that we end up, like you talked about, like those leagues that have come and gone over generations.
What it really means is raising our revenues, trying to generate more money so that we can manage what I would think is a manageable loss. So that we can push our owners, I can push our owners, to spend as much as they possibly can without that point where they come and say, "You know what? This isn't fun anymore, I can't do this anymore, I'm threatening my family's life trust, here's your team back."
Now, that's happened, and is happening throughout European football. There are teams that literally, they take the keys and they hand them back to their version of the commissioner, or the government. We haven't had that since 2001, when we folded teams - but that wasn't so long ago.
What it really takes is growing our business enough to be able to push our owners to invest like Joe [Roth] has. He took a profitable scenario and then invested in getting [DeAndre] Yedlin, getting him out of his academy, putting money into that academy, getting [Clint] Dempsey to come in, getting Oba [Martins] to come in - ultimately wiping away all those profits, and then building a team that people could really believe in.
The second part of it, Roger, too, is we spend more money on our academy programs now and on youth development than we spent on player salaries as a league five years ago.
[For the record, the combined expenditure on player salaries across MLS in 2010 was $71,304,972.70. That gives you the benchmark figure Garber used for spending on academies.]
That just speaks to the timeline of how quickly the league is growing and investing, so that you can have the kinds of players like Gyasi [Zardes] last night - scores a great goal [for the U.S. national team in its World Cup qualifying game against St. Vincent and the Grenadines]. You can have somebody like Darlington Nagbe, young players who come out of the system.
And by the way, if Sunil was here, we've got to talk about how we fix the system, because the system is not good. It's not developing enough players. We only have 20 teams. We don't cover the 300 million people in our country, or certainly the 35 million people who are in Canada. So a lot more needs to go into raising the water level.
You say you know how much money it's going to take to close the gap with the Mexican league. How much money is that?
It takes us from where we are today to spending about three times more money than we're spending now. That's just to be able to beat the Mexicans on a regular basis.
Our numbers are somewhat public. Club América [Mexico's wealthiest team] spends over $25 million a year. Club América is going to be playing one of our clubs [the Seattle Sounders, to be precise] in the [CONCACAF] Champions League in February. By the way, we're out of our season at that point, so we're going to be playing before our full teams come together.
And we're not spending $25 million. Now, Toronto does - they spend a little more than that. New York City does. So if you look at where we are, it's not getting our top teams to spend more, it's actually getting our middle teams to spend more so that we're more competitive against these clubs on a day-to-day basis. And once we get Mexico, then we'll go to the next level, and the next level.
One thing I want to say, and it's not commissioner-speak: I will absolutely assure you, whether it's seven years or it's longer than that - I may or may not be around here - this thing will be in a convention center with 50,000 people. This league will be one of the dominant leagues in the world, in time. It has to be, because there are so many things that are happening with the soccer movement.
You have owners that are coming in and really believe in the sport, broadcasters that do, youth development that's thriving, players that want to play here from abroad. Giovinco didn't have to play here at 27. National team coaches aren't [insulting]* our league as much as they used to. I was thinking about the Italian coach who called in Giovinco, and the Mexican national team coach, who basically said that Giovani [dos Santos] is doing great in L.A., and they've got a great program there. And he's going to play for their national team. That didn't happen for many, many years throughout the world.
* - That's a polite replacement for an expletive. You can guess it yourself. And you know who Garber didn't mention, but might have.
Your playoffs were sensational last weekend. I laughed, I cried, the full range of human emotions. But the teams that moved into the final four, the semifinals, by and large are shorn of DPs.
They are young, athletic, sides. I look at them, and I used to watch The A-Team a lot as a kid - I loved it when B.A. Barrakas would go into the are to make an armored personnel carrier out of flotsam and jetsam strewn around the floor. Some of those teams look like that to me. They find value in the $100,000 dollar player, no big names.
When you look at your final four, you look at Seattle falling to the side; you look at NYCFC struggling in their first season with those incredibly marketable names; Toronto [was] a damp squib. In private, when it's just you and me, does that piss you off from a marketing perspective?
You know, on Twitter, how you've got that notifications thing? Mine is turned off. I can't look at it, because if I look at it, it doesn't matter what's happening, it doesn't even have anything to do with MLS, people [dump]* all over the commissioner.
[* - You can guess that one too, and that's as close as I'm coming.]
Right after that, I had people saying, "Garber's upset. He's crying because Seattle's not in, and 'TheSoccerDon' [that's his Twitter handle) must be digging himself out of a hole. We want compelling games. We want excitement for our fans. Having small markets win - I'm sure Rob Manfred, the commissioner of [Major League] Baseball is happy when the Kansas City Royals are in the World Series. So for us, it's all about having the best possible competition.
What I will say publicly, Roger, is it does force us to look at whether we have the model right. Because you do want to ensure that you cannot penalize teams for taking one approach or the other. We do need to have "name players." I won't call them "star players," because we have players that are not making a lot of money that are stars in their markets. You do need today to have some "name players" to attract attention.
But you do need to have teams like Dallas, which had 13 homegrown players [on their roster] one day for a game. That's remarkable, and it's something we should be proud of. It's an athletic team, it's a skillful team. They're not spending as much as New York [City] are, but they're spending infinitely more [on youth development] than most of our teams on their academies. So when it comes to "spending," Dallas is spending as much as New York and as much as Toronto, they're just spending it differently.
And I'm sure their fans will say, "Good for them. Let's get the league out of telling everybody what they should be doing. Let's take off the training wheels, and let people decide a little bit more what is the right model for them."
Strategy two, the relevance of MLS clubs. I've been to Portland, and I've got to say it blew me away. It's up there with Dortmund and Crystal Palace* in must-travel-to football experiences, in my opinion.
[* - For those who don't know, Bennett is especially well-versed in Crystal Palace's culture. He visited the club in December to film a documentary piece, and chairman Steve Parish was a featured guest on a Men In Blazers podcast episode that was taped at BlazerCon.]
I've been to Kansas City - anyone here from Kansas City?
[There were two.]
What a tiny cauldron you have built on those plains.
[Some fans in the room laughed, others found the moment a bit awkward.]
I've not been to Seattle. I'd absolutely love to go - it's one of my goals for the year ahead. You've created a fan culture that is authentic and uniquely American, Don. I love it. To me, [Portland Timbers mascot] Timber Joey is one of the great American sporting heroes.
[This drew quite a bit of applause, and rightly so. Though I wonder how much of the audience knew anything about Joey Webber's predecessor, Jim Serrill, who started the Timbers Army's tradition of sawing off a log slice to award to Portland goal-scorers.]
However, when Chelsea play Arsenal, everyone who follows the Premier League - I'm an Everton fan, I would not miss Chelsea playing Arsenal. I would never miss Barcelona playing Real Madrid. Your product is successful in a hyper-local way.
What is that next level, and what do we have to do [to reach] that next level where you will get the Portland and Seattle fans who would not miss that game against each other to be, like, "Wow, D.C. United are playing New York, that is a must-see TV occasion."
If we were to put priorities down of what we need to go to get where we need to go, quality is one, and the relevance of creating a national fan base is number two. That takes time. Before you can have Seattle people caring about D.C., they've got to care about Seattle, right?
More and more, we're having these local markets become hyper-markets, where they are growing their fan bases outside of the five miles around [Toronto's] BMO Field, and becoming more regional. Eventually, that regional becomes national.
We had a television rating for a game in Seattle [this year's Sounders-Galaxy Western Conference knockout round game, broadcast nationally by UniMás] and it was also aired locally - we had a 5 rating [from Nielsen].* For those who don't know, that's a baseball rating, a hockey rating, a NBA rating in a local market. Three or four years ago, that might have been a 2.
As more and more people care about their local teams, they care about the outcomes, they'll hate their competitor. The other part of this - and people might not appreciate this - they're also going to care about players. [With the NFL's] Monday Night Football, somebody might watch the Indianapolis Colts play because they care about Andrew Luck, and they want to see him play. So we need to find ways over time of creating that dynamic.
By the way, the biggest inhibitor of our achievement of the goal is time. It really isn't tactics, it's just time.
[* - Seattle's local English-language simulcast of the game did a 5.4 rating in the market.]
The tension between the Premier League and MLS. I see the future, if I was a betting man, of hyphenated fandoms, where people say, "I'm a Kansas City fan and an Everton fan," or "I'm an Arsenal fan and I also support Seattle." Do you see the fandom as complementary, or are you trying to have total mind shares, so when people say, "Who's your team?" they say "Colorado Rapids," and then just stop."
It's a good question. Because right now, it's Arsenal and then New York. We want it to be Columbus and then Arsenal. That's going to be a generational flip. Today, the Premier League's presence in the United States has been here decades longer than we've been around.
You need to have those shared experiences with friends and family, those great moments like that - the double extra-time Seattle-Dallas game [the second leg of this year's Western Conference semifinals], which will resonate forever in the hearts and minds of fans in both markets. Those things create lasting memories and will attach somebody to their specific team.
When we think about the Premier League, and Richard was very kind in saying nice words about us, we look at them as the league we want to aspire to be. I think our structure is better than theirs, so I don't think we want to aspire to their structure, but we want to have the same level of relevance and quality of their clubs, and the power of their teams and how they matter in the community.
I want somebody to be a FC Dallas fan first and a Tigres [one of the top Mexican clubs] fan second. Watch a Premier League game on Saturday and Sunday mornings on NBC, then on Sunday afternoons on ESPN and Fox, watch their local club.
Do you put your head on your pillow at night sometimes and have a nightmare where MLS is just buried alive by the English Premier League in this country?
You know, I used to, but I don't today.
[The crowd laughs.]
I really don't. Honestly, Roger. We used to fear that we were not strong enough to lead the [U.S. and Canadian] market, and I believe we are leading the market. If you just look at the size of the fan following, the number of MLS fans, there are more MLS fans in the United States than there are Premier League fans. We know that from research.* They get higher ratings for their television games on Saturday mornings [because] there's a lot less competition than [MLS faces] on Sundays against NFL football.
If you look at the fact that we're getting eight or nine million fans that are coming to our games throughout the year, and on and on and on - I worried about it in 2001 and '02 when I was figuring out whether this would work. But I don't think anybody is burying the league today.
[* - Garber did not cite whose research specifically; I'll look into that.]
Let's talk about strategy three, the passion of our fans. To that point, I've got to say mazel tov* on the fan growth. Sensational. This season - this is amazing - MLS broke its average regular season attendance record, jumping 12.7 percent to 21,574 fans a game this year. It's the first time you've broken the 20,000 barrier. The increase, this is mind-boggling, is the highest recorded by a major American sports league in more than 20 years.
[* - Look it up if you don't know what it means.]
MLS, as we saw on Men in Blazers, it used to be bedeviled by Eurosnobs. Whenever we'd mention MLS on the show, and we love all forms of football, we would get zapped: "Why are you talking about it?"
Those days, to me, have ended. The era of the Eurosnob - we've not really discussed it or remarked upon it - has kind of just fallen away. The Premier League players coming through, the way the league is perceived globally, I think it has just fallen away.*
From our Men in Blazers mailbag, I think there's an authenticity that MLS has developed. The harshest criticisms you seem to get now, Don, are from those who actually love the game. They absolutely batter you and savage you. Is that progress?
[* - Okay, allow me a more substantive editorial aside here. I disagree with Roger's claim that the era is over. There are still a lot of Eurosnobs out there. There has certainly been a considerable shift in how many soccer fans in America view MLS, but I don't think the league has finished the work it needs to do in this regard yet. Now here's what Garber said.]
Yes. I think if you can't stand the heat, you get out of the kitchen, right? So the more scrutiny we have, the more pressure we have, the more social media discourse around us that's pushing the conversation, it's better than no conversation at all.
We used to say, and one of the big things I live for, is that the opposite of love isn't hate - the opposite of love is ambivalence. We really are trying to get people to care. Once they care, they can care and not like us, but we've already got them caring about us. And then we've got to work hard to get them to care more.
So, Roger, to address a couple of key points. We've tried to get you these statistics before this Men In Blazers show, we'll get them to you next year. We're going through a massive research project, trying to find out how many soccer fans there are in the United States, what do they think, what do they watch, what do they care about, etc.
And there are about 80 million soccer fans - "a soccer fan" is somebody who has watched at least one professional league game a year. So this is not the national team fan that doesn't watch anything [else] at all. They've watched a league game.
There are 1.4 million people of those 80 [million] who don't like Major League Soccer. They've said, "We are that Eurosnob, we hate it. If a game comes on, I'd rather watch baseball." That's 1.4 million people. That's a small group.
As you get up the pyramid, we are getting closer and closer to converting those people who are just watching a game. Maybe they've been taken to a NYCFC game at Yankee Stadium, maybe they've watched our playoffs. And as we get better and better at having better quality and getting more connected with our fans, we'll get closer and closer to that 80.
Which is why I don't think the issue for us is the Premier League. Frankly, it's the opposite. We've got to learn from them and the Bundesliga, we've got to get closer to them.
I'd rather have our teams playing them, rather than in this international tournament [the annual International Champions Cup friendly series], I'd rather have their top four clubs playing against our top four clubs in the summer. Maybe we do the same with the Bundesliga, maybe we take our top four teams over there and we play in a charity event, or it's a sponsored event.
Because ultimately the Premier League fan here in the United States is most likely going to be the person that will be a proselytizer for MLS.
Is it? Is that the next target audience? Not the Mexican-American audience? The dos Santos effect that we've seen this season?
It's both. It's a parallel market. There are not a lot of Premier League fans that are Liga mX fans.
Which is your next sweet spot audience? If you were to pick one that you could dominate, what would that segment be?
It's getting the soccer fan that is engaged in the sport, the "professional watcher," we call it, who's not watching Major League Soccer. That's it.
I've got to tell you. If I were commissioner for one day, and I know you've offered me that many times, I would march over and set up that Mexican league playoff game, that final [between the MLS Cup winner and the Liga mX champion]. One game in the Azteca, the other in the Rose Bowl. I think that's must-see television that everyone would pay a huge amount to go to.
It is. We're working on it.
Relegation and promotion. Massive, complex -
My favorite subject.
Well, you told me to ask this. You said, "I love speaking about relegation and promotion." Of course. It's nuanced, it's subtle, it follows the league everywhere. Owners hate it. Many, many fans adore it. It makes every game mean something. It allows more geographical representation to crop up on an ever-changing basis.
You've said, "It's never going to happen on my watch" - that was a direct quote.* You've said the owners won't stand for it. Is this a case where [putting] fans first doesn't work for you?
[* - Even if it wasn't, it was close enough. Garber has indeed been insistent about the matter for his entire tenure as commissioner.]
Well, I don't think it's fans-first. I think it's some-fans-first. I think that's key, Roger. Of those 1.4 million people that dismiss MLS, every single one of them wants promotion and relegation. Because they're followers of an international league, and that's the way the leagues are structured there, so therefore they think if we want [MLS] to be their league here, it needs to be structured the same way.
Promotion and relegation was created in the 1800s. It was a system that existed because there was no other way to determine how you would have a competition. Most of the teams at that point were amateur teams. And if you were to create professional football in England today, or in Italy or Spain today, I don't believe you'd have promotion and relegation. Starting today, like MLS just started 20 years ago.
We need to create a league that works for the fan base in this market where we play. Because if you create a structure that works for what works over there, there are so many other things that happen with those leagues that we don't do, that are intrinsic to what works in those markets that will never work in the United States or Canada.
I know people get really pissed off at me when I say this: nobody looks at the NFL and says it's not working because there's no promotion and relegation. I understand it's a super-closed market, there's not a second division like there is in basketball or there is in baseball. But if you're investing billions and billions of dollars - we are now about $3.5 billion invested in 20 years, which is a remarkable amount of money - to build something in Kansas City, and if they have a [same expletive as one of the previous] season, to think that they're now going to be playing in Chattanooga, in a stadium of 4,000 people, on a crappy field, with no fans, makes absolutely no sense.
You just described the romance of of the FA Cup.
[And that wasn't the only reason why Garber picked a particularly bad example.]
I mean it's fantastic. I know in the NFL, a lot of Cleveland fans that wish that they did have it.
There's two things, to get technical, that people don't really follow when they yell at us about this. We have a salary cap. There are no salary caps in any other [major] soccer league in the world. There are salary caps and a union [here]. There is no league union, to be fair, and I could be wrong - there could be one in one of the 180 leagues - but there is no specific union for one individual league around the world.* There is FIFPro that governs the rights of players throughout Europe, but we have a union [of MLS players specifically].
[* - I don't know whether that's true or not, but before you rush to cite the various players' unions in Europe, remember that they represent all registered professional players in their respective countries, not just players in one league/division.]
We negotiate certain benefits and certain requirements. We are forced to do things with our [collective bargaining] agreement, that if all of a sudden a team goes from MLS and they are playing in Charlotte, do they have to play by our rules? Do they have to agree to our salary cap? They might have a salary budget of $500,000. Our average is north of $8 million.
So how do you manage that? You don't have the money that's coming down from the Premier League that's handling all of the money up and back with those great, dramatic moments.
What I will say is: Life is a long time. I will be managing this for one chapter in a big, fat book. At some point that book will have another chapter in it, which will be the continued evolution of MLS. Who knows what that will look like in time. I have learned that forever is a long time, and that you never know what the future is going to hold.
So for now, it ain't happening. Legally, it's not happening - U.S. Soccer is not going to create a dynamic where it has to happen, FIFA is not going to create that dynamic. But who knows what the future looks like.
Your fourth point, we're going to blow through it pretty quickly: the value of the enterprise, the value of the clubs. Premier League clubs, mid-level clubs like Aston Villa, Everton, Palace. TV rights revenue for them is between 62 percent and 77 percent of their budget. The greater the TV ratings, the greater the commercial opportunity on top of that.
MLS ratings are inching upwards, but they still lag, as you say, compared to the Mexican league, the Premier League. I really admire the job Fox has done especially in taking MLS, placing MLS, giving it a regular time, regular slot, building out programming around it. What's it going to take for that national number to really shoot up to the next level?
It's two things. One is, all the things that we need to do to be a better league, and one of the best leagues, have to happen for that number to grow. Because that number reflects your fan base, right? We have to have higher quality, we have to have our teams be more relevant, we have to have more passionate fans, etc., etc.
The good thing about where we are today is that our television ratings are growing, and they have grown over the last couple of years. The second good thing is that television rights are not just a function of the size of the audience. It's the dynamic in the television media market. The huge influx of revenue in the Premier League is not just because more people follow the Premier League, it's because you have all sorts of things going on that are forcing people to pay a lot of money. In time, that happens.
When our [current] TV deal comes up in seven years, we'll make a whole lot more money. There's no doubt about that.
It's fantastic fare, the playoffs, but you are playing them right in the teeth of the NFL. You're a NFL man, that's your background.
Used to be. Used to be.
You're a soccer man now, Don. "@thesoccerdon" if you want positive love. I was watching those games. Fantastic. But the NFL is just a black hole. It throws shade on everything.
It's the toughest job in the major leagues here in the U.S. We're the last folks in, and we've got to do every thing, touch every point, every aspect of our business, every aspect of our future planning, and the biggest challenge that we have - not just our television schedule - is the schedule overall.
We can't play in January and February, we know that. We can't have the same schedule as the rest of the world. We've gone through that over the years. It's literally and figuratively impossible to do that. So that forces us to have a schedule that's up against the other leagues, and we need a destination time period to carve out our own pattern for viewing. And where's the only time that there's any opening? Up against the NFL.
I'm not sure that's the right time forever. It's an experiment now. We have an eight-year deal. We like the fact that we have "Soccer Sundays" with ESPN leading into Fox. We love our Friday night package with Univision. But who knows where that goes.
Kick all the games off at 7:30 in the morning. That's when America loves its football.
To close, Don, I want to ask you about a panel coming up later with Alexi Lalas and three MLS owners, including Joe Roth. They're going to talk about their different visions. MLS is 20 this year. It's something I don't think we've celebrated enough, to be candid.
I agree. I've got to talk to our marketing guys about that. It's not celebrated enough.
Twenty seasons for an American soccer league, if you look at the history, it's an amazing achievement. Also, how far and how fast it's come. But close your eyes for a second with me, Don. Your vision of MLS at 40. Everyone's vision is different. How many teams, how many leagues in the world will be better? Relegation and promotion is a given...
Let me start with one great stat. The league's attendance has been growing at a rate that, if we continue to grow at this rate, in 10 years we'll be averaging close to 35,000 people per game. And I'm not sure, unless our stadiums change, whether we're going to continue to have this five percent growth, but the growth has been dramatic.
Part of the growth has been driven by soccer stadiums. We have 15 now. At some point we'll have 20. I think that will happen by the end of the decade. We're building stadiums between 20 and 27,000 seats. We're at 83 percent capacity in our stadiums today. In 20 years we'll be at capacity or more, and our teams will be building larger stadiums, and those larger stadiums will be from 30 to 40,000.
Seattle looked at maybe getting out of CenturyLink [Field, its current home which is shared with the NFL's Seahawks], and maybe building a stadium. They were looking at a 40,000-seat stadium. In order to do that, they've got to tell season ticket-holders that they can't have seats.
So there is some aspiration. In 40 years, without doubt, we'll have a whole new crop of stadiums, a whole next generation of stadiums. They'll be all 30 to 35,000 seats. I think we'll be at that 80 to 85 percent capacity, we'll be averaging pretty close to [from the] high 20's to 30,000 fans a game, which will put us up with the top leagues. Without doubt, if it's 40 years from now, the competition will be at par with the rest of the leagues.
How many leagues will be better than MLS?
Well, you know, that's a tough thing, Roger, because if I asked you what the top league is, you'd say the Premier League. If you asked Christian [Seifert] he'd say the Bundesliga. So I think we'll be among the best. I don't know what will be best then - who knows where the world is going, and all the positive and negative things going on.
You are a tenacious man. You talk about thick skin, but you also have an amazing blend: you are a very sensitive man with a thick skin, which I think is a fascinating mix of attributes. You're a NFL gent who's become a soccer guy. You're a fighter for what you believe in - and you recently battled prostate cancer, and thank God, beat it. Which puts everything, even football, into perspective.
If you were to give one piece of advice to our audience, the greatest life lesson you've learned in your 16-and-a-half years as commissioner, what would it be?
Hope never dies. You know, I think that's a personal point of view, that I think, getting back to everybody here, I can put it in a MLS context. In 2001, we sat around a board table with Phil Anschutz, and Robert Kraft, and Lamar Hunt, and we were with bankruptcy attorneys, and we were shutting down the league. It's no secret now.
We went to the owners and said, "In order for you to go forward, we think you need to be prepared to come up with two or three hundred million dollars over the next five years, and I don't know if I can tell you..." - oh, and by the way, I was only in the job a couple years, so asking whether or thought I had made a bad move, I did - "Not only do you need to put that money in, but you need to change the model. You can't play in Arrowhead [Stadium in Kansas City, home of the NFL's Chiefs and former home of the Wizards-turned-Sporting]. You've got to build soccer stadiums. And by the way, Phil, Robert and Lamar, we are going to get rid of a bunch of teams, the league-operated teams, and you need to own all of them. And Phil, you need to own six of them."
We'll announce soon the sale of his last team [that he owns in addition to the Los Galaxy, his original property], by the way. So in a relatively short period of time, he went from from six to [one].*
[* - If you were at the event, you heard Garber say "from six to zero." He misspoke, and much of the room knew it. A member of MLS' PR team quickly reached out to me to clarify the matter. Garber realized it after he left the stage, and corrected himself later.
Although he did not specifically mention the team that Anschutz Entertainment Group is about to sell, I have heard and multiple other outlets have reported in recent months that the team is the Houston Dynamo. I presume that most people who heard Garber's remark in person guessed that was what he was referring to anyway. AEG is not giving up the Galaxy any time soon.
Garber then returned to his story about MLS' situation in 2001.]
We needed to invest in rolling up the marketing aspect of it, because to your point, everyone is coming here and seeing the proverbial ATM. So they doubled down and they tripled down and they quadrupled down, and as I looked around, there was a reckless kind of personal career moment where I almost said, "What the [expletive], what's the worst thing that could happen? I'll go back to work somewhere [else]."
But they had that look where they said, "We've got this. You know, we are going to do this." And they did. And to think about that - it's not a long time ago. So I think about that as it relates to anybody that's in the soccer business.
There is enormous belief in what this sport can be in this country and in Canada, built on the heart and soul of all these people, and folks that are in and are around it, and there's no end to what it can be.
On the personal side, I am a sensitive guy, and I think that motivates me, and it motivates the people in the league. By the way, the vast majority our employees have been there since day one. We have people who are celebrating 20th anniversaries [at MLS] and they are 42 years old. That's really amazing.
And we talk about the hope of, having the kind of world that we live in, hopefully our league can represent something that might be a bit different. Put yesterday aside [referring to the terrorist attacks in Paris], which are terrifying, frankly, and puts it all in perspective. But this is going to sound a bit corny: MLS Works [the league's charitable operation] is what, when I go, what I will be proudest of.
We've been able to get our players and our teams and our owners to represent the quality and character of what a sports league can be. We're not perfect. We have things that our players do and the league does that are not right. But our players really are those kinds of people you can be proud of, and our clubs and our owners care about this sport, and they have hope, and that hope never dies.
At the start of your remarks on stage, it seemed like you stepping intp enemy territory a little bit. What do you make of this crowd, and did you tailor your remarks to it?
I didn't feel that at all. Did you feel that? In my tone, or in the dynamic of the room?
In the dynamic of the room, in that, as you said, this was a crowd of people that are Arsenal fans first and then MLS fans second, instead of the other way around.
Yeah, but I don't think that makes it enemy territory. That creates a fertile market. Years ago, we didn't have a soccer market to try to get a piece of, and today that market continues to grow.
There are still more MLS fans in this country than there are fans of the international leagues. We know that from research. That's sort of an indisputable fact.
Now, whether or not they are watching our games as much as they are watching Premier League games isn't really the question, but we have in Seattle, millions and millions of fans that are coming to those games. That's an amazing dynamic that is a whole lot different than waking up on a Saturday or Sunday morning and watching a game on television.
So as you've heard from Richard [Scudamore] and I'll say it here, I view the Premier League as a close partner. I'm not threatened by them. I think that they are helping to grow the game, and we can work together to ensure that we don't just effectively manage the growth of the soccer market here, but probably as importantly, work importantly to see that leagues are better represented politically in the international football landscape.
Speaking of expanding those markets, it was pretty exciting to follow New York City FC getting off the ground here in town, because it's a different kind of organizational structure in terms of the ownership than we generally see in MLS - which in the past, at least, had been more local ownership groups. How do you characterize the working relationship between the league and City Football Group since things have gotten off the ground?
It's great. You know, they are very professional. Ferran [Soriano, City Football Group's CEO] and I have spent a lot of time together. He's active on our two most important committees, our strategy committee and our competition committee. He is a believer in not just the game globally, but a huge believer in New York and in Major League Soccer. So we work closely with them on a wide variety of things.
At the end of the day, they are a club no different than any other, and they've got to manage their business and build their fan base and do whatever they can to have the best possible team. But we've got a lot of respect for what they're doing in the U.K., and what they're doing around the world.
What do you expect to see from a guy like [new NYCFC manager] Patrick Vieira?
Yeah, I know Patrick. I've known him [since] before this world - I've done some charitable work with him. I think he's really smart. He really knows the game. He has an apartment next door to the league office, by the way. I saw him about six weeks ago. I attended one of his training sessions when I was in Manchester with Ferran, and I think he'll be a great addition to our league. Good man, too.
In this Designated Player era, looking at the teams that are left in the playoffs this year, and the particular story that has told about player development, what is your general impression of where we are and where we're headed?
The thing when you sit in this seat is one year doesn't create a trend. The Galaxy won five championships with a lot of Designated Players, so I don't look at this year and say that disproves that the Designated Player rule will allow for competitive success. What we do is look at it and track it over time, to get a sense as to how that rule is working.
It was originally intended as a vehicle to attract attention, and to sell tickets. The "Beckham Rule" wasn't about one player coming in and making the Galaxy better. It was about one player coming in and making the league more popular. And then it ultimately evolved to be a competitive vehicle, in addition to being something that could attract attention.
You know, we have the TAM ["Targeted Allocation"] money, it's investment by the league underneath the Designated Player. That is not necessarily about main players, but it's about trying to invest in just below the designated player level. And we'll continue to make changes to the system to ensure that we're achieving our goals, which is to be more competitive and to be more popular.
Do you think we'll get to a significant moment where, whether it's with Designated Players or "TAM" players, if you like, that they start to make half of the outfield players [on teams]?
I don't know. I've never done the math, so I don't know the answer to that. I do know that right now, the system that we have allows our owners to come together as a group through a competition committee that is very, very steeped in the game, with lots of outside help with research, to make the decisions that we need to make in terms of how we allocate our resources to get better.
And right now, that formula is growing, it's improving. The measure of our quality of play - I didn't get to this on stage - improves. How much time the ball is in play, how many completed passes, how many unforced errors, how many goals inside the box. All those things are really easy to measure, and when we look at that, the quality measures grow. So the formula, basically, is working reasonably well.
For somebody from Italy who's saying "What the hell are you talking about with all this goofy stuff?" - we need to do this, because in essence, we're operating a relatively young business. And we're doing it in a way where we've got to ensure that we have economic viability. If you were to just take the training wheels off, and basically have a system like you have in Italy, you'd end up with some of the challenges that exist in Italian football. And that's a country that's got 100 years in the game.
So that's what motivates us, or drives us, to continue to evaluate the system that we have.
Related to that, you said on stage that in order to reach the next rung of where MLS wants to be, which is where Mexico is - and it's a pretty significant level in a lot of ways - you guys are going to have to triple the spending that you're doing now. How do you get to that point?
The tripling of spending would be on a gross basis. We can be perhaps more efficient in how we spend than other leagues can. That's just the nature of the fact that we have salary caps and we have a union agreement and the like.
It just means that we've got to generate more revenue so that we can take that revenue, as we do today, and invest it in our rosters. It means more international television rights, more sponsorship, more merchandise revenue, and our Soccer United Marketing continues to be energetic and very active [in order] to grow the pie. Most of the pie goes, when you're generating new revenue, to improving the quality of the product. That's just the nature of pro sports.
The Players' Union would surely be happy to hear a line about needing to triple spending. Would you worry at all about any owners saying, "Well, instead of putting that money directly back on to the field, by the senior team or the academy, I've lost a lot of money over the years and I want to pocket some of this."
Well, again, right now, we don't have that money. And right now, we have a five-year union agreement. So nothing is happening in the short term. For any of you guys who are tweeting "Garber says," these are long-term vision plays. These are not short-term issues. Long term, we've got a new television agreement that comes up in seven years. We've got our television rights agreements internationally that all expire in about four years.
I think our owners have proven that they are committed to investing what they need to have the league grow. But they are demanding that it happens in an economically viable way. That's ultimately where the rubber meets the road. And if those things start getting disconnected, then we're back to where pro soccer was 25 years ago, which is its viability is threatened.
Looking farther into the future, in terms of MLS becoming one of the world's biggest leagues - right now, the center of the soccer universe, so to speak, is in Europe. And the best players want to play in the [UEFA] Champions League. How big a barrier is that competition to your growth? Do you have strategies to get around that? Do you see in the future possibly a World Champions League, on that scale?
No, again, I think obviously there are a lot of players that play in Italy, and sometimes two [teams] or three play in the Champions League. And the Italian league is pretty good. I think sometimes, everybody gets so focused - and we know one or two people who get really focused on "In order to be good, you've got to play in the Champions League." Well, of course, if you can, you should. But not everybody can and not every team can.
So look at how many players are playing in the Premier League that don't play in the Champions League. I think we try to get away from these absolutes, and just try to look at it broadly.
We know that our league needs to get better in order to be competitive with the rest of the world. We know that in order to do that, we need to invest in making our teams of higher quality. In order to do that, you have to have the revenue to feed that. And that is a pretty easy challenge to at least understand. How you do it gets difficult. But we understand the challenge.
You talked a little about relegation on stage. Are there some tips that Europe can take from MLS in terms of the balance of play, the depth of play, the draft and whatnot?
Well, I think Richard Scudamore talked about it yesterday. There are a lot of things that make our league attractive to the rest of the world. The fact that every person and fan, in the beginning of the season in MLS, thinks that their team can win a championship. And that is not the case in just about any other league. You have a pretty good sense, if you're a fan of a particular team, that there is a really low chance that you're going to be lifting that cup [or] trophy at the end of the year.
So that concept, that commitment to ensuring that the dynamic exists, is something that I think is a driver of pro sports. Or else you've got to wait 100 years, or, you know, just hope that somebody cares about their team, because they've inherited that fan following through their great-grandparents, and that will lead to some success for them.
But does having a tight salary cap stop those big-market teams, in places like L.A. and New York, from possibly competing for and possibly attracting players?
Competing with who?
In a theoretical world, for example, if there's no salary cap, and NYCFC can spend as much money as they want, maybe they could attract players away from Europe in their prime.
To what end? That's the ultimate question. That's probably more of a debate than an interview question. To what end? So that they win the championship? Is that going to make the league better? So then everybody would want to do that, because they're going to want to win, and now all of a sudden you've taken a model that has driven an almost unprecedented success for soccer in America and destroyed it for what end game. So that people will think L.A.'s as good as Chelsea?
I don't see what the value of that is [relative] to what we're trying to do, which is to build a league that ultimately, in its entirety, can be competitive with the rest of the world. One team is not going to drive that. You watch the Premier League because on any given day, Aston Villa can tie Man City, right? Not because you're just a fan of Man. U. There's a feeling that the competition is good.
You talked on stage about some problems with youth development in the United States. How big of a concern is that as the league continues to grow, with more teams, and a possible dilution of talent? How important is it for U.S. soccer to continue to produce more good youth players?
Very important. One of the things we didn't talk a lot about is the need for the league and the lower leagues and the federation to get very connected on youth development, because ultimately, I'm not sure it's delivering the value that we all need. Our U-17s, our U-20s, our U-23s have not had great success. So something has got to change, and we all need to come together as a sport in this country and try to fix that.
You mentioned various developmental fronts that you are dealing with and addressing. You've previously said that there was a moment when Toronto came into the league in 2007 and you felt you'd turned a corner. Has there been a moment since then where everything has come together in some way?
I think it's this year. I think this was the real inflection point for the league.
We never expected we'd have the popularity that New York City and Orlando have been able to achieve. You never thought that you'd have Gyasi [Zardes, of the Galaxy] come out of relative nowhere and be a starter for our national team, or certainly a big part of the pool. We never thought that we'd just build a stadium in San Jose and all of a sudden they go from the team that was at the bottom [tier] of our attendance to the top [tier] of our attendance. Or that we'd have three television deals that would give us consistency of schedule. Or that you'd have a league that would have Gerrard, Lampard, Pirlo, Giovinco and dos Santos playing in it.
So all that kind of came together in our 20th year. It's funny - somebody asked me and I poked fun at Howard [Handler, who heads MLS' marketing operation]. This is our 20th season. There hasn't been a lot of attention on it, but it's been our best year by far. And one that probably is over-delivering on our expectations.