Commissioner Don Garber speaks during "Sports Teams for Social Change"… (Mike Stobe / Getty Images )
Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber has presided since 1999 over the fastest-growing professional sports entity in the country.
The league, which had 10 teams in 2004, will start next season with 19. And that's not the only number that has increased. MLS is now drawing larger average crowds than the NHL or NBA — and outdrawing professional soccer leagues in Scotland, Brazil and England. Television viewership is way up and expansion fees have more than quadrupled since 2007.
By next spring, more than three-quarters of the league's teams, once largely unwelcome tenants in cavernous football stadiums, will be playing in new soccer-specific stadiums.
Last week, Garber spoke by phone from his office in midtown Manhattan with The Times on the state of the MLS, its future and its most famous player, the Galaxy's David Beckham.
Are you concerned that, 16 years after the MLS' founding, just five teams are likely to turn a profit this season?
Without doubt this was the best year in the history of the league, on and off the field. Ratings were up, attendance was up. The quality of play continues to improve. Also we had great playoff runs. The league continues to grow but it's doing so carefully. We could be profitable in every market if we just changed our salary structure and decreased our overall expenses. We actually spend more on players that we're required to in our collective bargaining agreement.
The league's most aggressive period of expansion began just as the economy crashed. Are you worried that growth can't be sustained?
Not at all. To me, the whole expansion initiative, which has been taking place since 2005, has seen the majority of our growth in the heart of a down economy. And yet our revenue has grown and all our metrics have improved. I'm convinced that the economy will improve and with that we'll have even greater success. If we can do what we did in a down economy, imagine what we can do when the economy improves.
There is more and better international soccer available in the U.S., on TV and via the Internet, than ever before. How does that affect the MLS?
Our key strategy from the beginning has been to grow the soccer market. The success of the Champions League, the English Premier League and the World Cup on television is good for Major League Soccer. We're creating a growing market of soccer fans who we can then convert into fans of a local MLS team as opposed to trying to convince them to be soccer fans. All those other programmers and properties are helping to build the sport for us.
Did David Beckham's success here make it easier for the league to draw other international stars such as Thierry Henry, Rafael Marquez and Robbie Keane?
David coming to Major League Soccer — arguably one of the most popular cultural figures in the world today, in or outside the sports business — was a statement to a really broad global audience that MLS was serious, that we were a legitimate league. His signing said that we were serious about building this sport in our country and the league would be the engine to drive the growth of this sport. And he had so many other [qualities] that just raised the creditability of our league that I can say unequivocally that without him the league wouldn't be where it is today.
Part 2 of that story is that it also says to a global market of soccer players that, 'Hey, if it's good enough for David Beckham it's probably good enough for you.'
Beckham's MLS future is uncertain because his contract expires Dec. 31. Is the league prepared for his departure?
We certainly have been able to establish … a very, very robust soccer market that we will continue to build and nurture. David has been a big part of that story. But I don't think any league or any club can rely too much on any one player as the person that we all depend on. I think we're well past that. That said, we are certainly hopeful that David re-signs with the Galaxy.
Where does the league go from here?
We've just gone through a process to establish a unified, shared vision. But at the end of the day we want to be one of the top soccer leagues in the world. And we want to try to achieve that by 2022. We have a lot of work to do to get to that point. At the end of the day we want to be the league of choice for players, for sponsors, for fans. It's fair to say that we've got a lot of work to do to even figure out what kinds of things have to happen to get there. But that's something that I'm not discouraged about. Frankly I'm excited about it.
Taking stock of your 12 years as MLS commissioner, are you happy?
I don't think commissioners can ever be happy. I think you can feel good about some of the things that we've done that have helped show real improvement from where we were years ago. But I don't want to give you the impression I'm happy. I'm pleased with where we are but not satisfied. We still have a big goal. And until we achieve that goal I won't be happy.