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The Inside Track | Q & A WITH DON GARBER

Major League Not Just Part of Name for MLS

June 06, 2003|Grahame L. Jones | Times Staff Writer

Don Garber, the former head of NFL International who became commissioner of Major League Soccer in 1999, is in Los Angeles today for Saturday's opening of the Galaxy's new stadium in Carson.

In an interview with The Times, he discussed the future of the league and the sport in the United States.

Question: Has the job lived up to your expectations and what would you consider your major accomplishment, lasting this long?

Answer: We have more people who are following our league than ever before. Our attendance has increased the last two years. We have three times the number of games on national television than we had years ago. We have a beautiful new facility opening up in L.A. and a publicly funded facility approved in Dallas.

But more important than anything else, more people respect our league today than they did years ago. We no longer are asked about whether we'll be here tomorrow.... We now are treated like other leagues where we get the business questions about our attendance and about our [television] ratings and about our investors. It's no longer about will we be here tomorrow.

Q: What have you not accomplished that you might have hoped to by now?

A: There is no shortage of soccer participants in this country [but] we're only slowly growing the number of fans. Our biggest challenge continues to be converting the soccer involved into being soccer passionate.

Q: Why has it been so difficult to attract additional investors? Does the financial clout of the Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG), Lamar Hunt and Robert Kraft scare them off in some way?

A: The economy has been awful. We went through major changes in terms of the structure of MLS. The economy is improving and we think our structural changes are making us a more viable investment. We now have more investors looking at getting involved in the league than ever before, mostly in the form of expansion.

We also are close to announcing an investor taking over one of our existing teams, and that would be the first transfer of ownership since Phil Anschutz took over New York in 2001. So we are feeling pretty encouraged with the new investor interest in our league.

A lot of that is due to our reduced losses, the increased viability of the sport as a result of the excitement of the World Cup, and the fact that we continue to get more exposure and have a broader broadcast platform and more media coverage.... "

Q: Tim Leiweke [AEG president] is on record as saying the league will expand by two teams this year. What are the candidate cities and what is the most likely scenario?

A: I think what Tim said is that we would expand. I think we've qualified it by saying that we're going to work this year to try to announce expansion by the end of our season.

We've got many cities that have expressed interest. In Cleveland, the potential investor there is close to finalizing a deal to purchase property for a potential stadium. We've made progress in Houston. We've made lots of progress in Tulsa and Oklahoma City.

Q: Looking at Los Angeles, there are the Dodgers/Angels, Lakers/Clippers, Kings/Ducks, UCLA/USC. Why not the Galaxy and someone else sharing the Home Depot Center and creating some local rivalry?

A: I think that potential exists. It's certainly something we're looking closely at. It's not something that is as much a priority for us in the short term as expanding the footprint of the league and getting more cities involved and commensurately more fans involved.

But we haven't ruled it out. It's simply a matter of timing. If it turns out that's the most effective way for us to expand the league, then we are not opposed to it. We just are hopeful we can have more cities involved before we double up in current markets.

Q: Are you or is the league in general in any way concerned about promoters who are bringing in significant foreign teams and selling out stadiums in the midst of the MLS season? This summer's Manchester United tour will hurt MLS in some fashion, won't it?

A: You always hope in life that you can be the only game in town, but that's not just impractical, in many cases, it's illegal. So once you accept the fact that you're going to have competition, you try to manage through that competition as effectively as you can.

The fact that foreign clubs can come in and sell out big stadiums today speaks to the increased popularity of the sport in this country. I would venture to say that those games would not have been a sellout as recently as two years ago.

It leads us to greater opportunity for Soccer United Marketing [an MLS affiliate] in terms of getting involved in international soccer promotion and potential investment in international soccer rights. It shows that there are many people interested in a wide variety of soccer content. So I don't think it's a negative. I think it stimulates the market and even provides us with more opportunity.

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