Ambitious Garber ready for next challenge
Don Garber is in a celebratory mood. The job of MLS commissioner can occasionally appear to be a thankless one, but not on this day. Through the $100 million deal which birthed New York City FC as the league's 20th team, Garber has allied MLS with two juggernaut global sports brands, the Premier League's Manchester City and MLB's New York Yankees. When I caught up with Garber on the afternoon the deal was announced, he was unsurprisingly ebullient. Though clearly exhausted, the Commissioner leaned back in his chair, demonstrating the kind of look a proud father would emit during the cocktail hour of his only daughter's wedding.
We are looking at a poster board with the league's "boot kick ball" logo sandwiched in between the Yankees' iconic "NY" and Manchester City's regal crest.
"It speaks a lot to see how far MLS has come seeing those three together," Garber says proudly. "Manchester City have won the Premier League. The Yankees are 27-time World Series champions. Their involvement in our league proves that owning an MLS franchise has moved from being an intriguing investment to a valuable one."
The partnership between City and the Yankees reportedly came together at quick-fire pace, but the seeds of the deal lie eight years ago, when Garber first encountered Ferran Soriano, now City's CEO, then Barcelona’s vice president.
"I knew Barcelona well from my NFL days," he said, referring to his time working with the Barcelona Dragons in the now-defunct NFL Europe. "We signed a relationship deal together where MLS represented Barca's U.S. marketing and game promotion, were able to study their academy and they briefly talked about a New York franchise before looking closely at Miami opportunity, but then Ferran left and we moved on to building out Seattle, Portland, Vancouver, Philadelphia and ..." Garber says, extending both arms out with a shrug and a smile.
Soriano resurfaced as Manchester City's CEO in August 2012. I ask Garber whether City or MLS reinitiated contact, and he admits that he was the aggressor.
"City had risen to become a football powerhouse, we knew they were thinking about global expansion and were keen to change the perception of their team after winning the FA Cup and the Premier League," he said.
When I wonder if the discussion was part of an active MLS strategy to build partnerships with Premier League superpowers, Garber shakes his head. "There's no grand plan -- this was all about serendipity and alignment in terms of their alignment of City's ascension to power brand status, Ferran's hiring, and our needs in New York to break through the clutter of the market and create a rivalry with the Red Bulls."
To reinforce his point, Garber makes clear that Manchester City was the only Premier League club MLS has held discussions with. "Will that change? I think it will," he says with a smile. "This move will likely raise some eyebrows around the world in a positive way."
I ask Garber to explain why he thinks City -- a Premier League power -- would become involved in MLS.
"There has been enormous interest in the American soccer market from European leagues," he says. "It's great for MLS in terms of exposure when clubs come over here to play exhibition games, but City are looking to do something more -- they are determined to make the sport grow using their resources to make an impact in the world from which they will ultimately benefit."
Garber does not duck when asked what can allow MLS to move to the next level.
"The soccer market has exploded in the U.S.," he exclaims, pointing to the $250 million NBC paid to secure the Premier League rights. "There is a passionate fan base embedded in local communities and we have to work hard to convert their passion for soccer into passion for Major League Soccer. There is no magic bullet. We have to continue to improve the quality of football in the United States to achieve our goal of being a top-four league in the next 10 years."
The commissioner has not been shy to express his recent frustration about the challenges MLS faces in breaking through the glut of football available on American television. I inquire whether in allying with a Premier League giant, there is an element of partnering with the enemy. Garber points at me and grins.
"If you ask [Premier League chief executive] Richard Scudamore if we are competing he would say anything that is good for soccer in America is good for MLS. We are the only league able to provide live, passionate football week in, week out, so I don’t look at the EPL as a competitor. The only thing I care about is our goal of converting EPL fans into MLS fans."
MLS's own television deals run out at the end of 2014. Before I can ask, Garber raises his eyebrows up and down and smiles. "Yes, City's arrival is good timing." He waits a beat before adding, "That was not the goal. Our goal was simply to keep building the league."
I ask whether that building process includes a franchise in Miami. "We have a lot of options in that city, but right now, we would like to have an even number of teams." He pauses and allows one last beaming grin to cover his face before shaking his head.
"Who knows what our ownership group ... who knows what our League ... will look like in four or five years' time?"