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Don Garber Keeps on Truckin'

12/07/2013 05:34 pm ET | Updated Feb 06, 2014
Bloomberg via Getty Images

This piece is cross-posted from Eight by Eight magazine.

How a Onetime American Football Man Is Leading MLS Into the Future
By Noah Davis

You can draw a direct line between a moment early in Don Garber's career and a 14-minute stretch last winter when Beyoncé Knowles nearly obliterated the Internet. In 1992, Garber, the Flushing, Queens-born senior vice president of business development for the National Football League, revamped the Super Bowl halftime show, bringing more glitz and glamour to the sport's signature event. In his previous position as the NFL's director of marketing, Garber learned how to build and sell brands, and he understood the importance of appealing to an audience beyond the football-loving one. Enter halftime entertainment. When Beyoncé rose up from below the removable stage on the field at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in February, Garber had long since moved on from the NFL, but his fingerprints remained. He put the world's most successful league on the path that led to more than a quarter-million tweets per second and massive press around the globe. And he was already on to his next job.

A talent for moving beyond traditional audiences would prove essential to success in his next gig. In 1999, Robert Kraft and Lamar Hunt -- owners of the New England Patriots and the Kansas City Chiefs, respectively -- approached Garber, then the senior vice president and managing director of NFL International, about taking over as the second commissioner of Major League Soccer. The three-year-old league had started off well on the heels of the 1994 World Cup but found itself in a tailspin and needed a visionary leader who understood the United States sporting landscape. After a few weeks of conversations, Garber accepted and set about righting the fledgling organization.

Nearly a decade and a half later, the 56-year-old who no one would have confused with a soccer guy has achieved something few thought possible: he stabilized MLS and set it on a path toward a successful future. Garber oversees a 19-team entity that plans to grow to 24 by 2020. The organization is financially viable, thanks to smart management, constant concerns about cost, and rapidly expanding franchise fees. Almost every squad has its own owner -- a vastly different landscape from the early 2000s, when three groups held sway over the entire league. The average value of a team is $103 million, up 175 percent from five years ago. The median salary is rising, and average per-game attendance is higher than it is in the NBA and the NHL. Still, the work is far from done. Individual franchises are struggling. Television ratings are low. Converting soccer fans to MLS fans is proving difficult. The focus on international stars hurts the value of American players.

Major League Soccer, still less than two decades old, is not a finished product. This summer, Macklemore played the MLS All-Star Game.

***

Don Garber rarely stays put. When I reach him by phone in his New York office, he has recently returned from Columbus, where he lunched with Ohio Governor John Kasich and ate dinner with the city's mayor, Michael Coleman, in between meetings and press conferences. Before that, he found himself at the CONCACAF Congress in Panama City, supporting United States Soccer Federation (USSF) president Sunil Gulati's successful bid to join FIFA's executive committee. Garber, who describes himself as MLS's chief spokesperson, salesman, and cheerleader, estimates he spends 130 to 150 days a year on the road preaching the gospel. "You know it's really bad when you start recognizing flight attendants and gate agents, and they know you on a first-name basis. Sometimes, they greet me when I enter the airport," he jokes, in a manner that's more realistic than resigned.

His unceasing energy and work ethic endeared him to his ownership group, especially the old guard that helped the commissioner resurrect the league. "Anytime I'm talking to him, he's at an airport somewhere or he's just checked into a hotel in a new city and it's late at night. He has to barnstorm more than other commissioners of the other sports leagues because he believes that he is our league's and our sport's best salesman," Jonathan Kraft, son of Robert and head of the New England Revolution, says. "He doesn't want to miss an opportunity to explain to people why he's so passionate about it, why we have been successful, and why we'll be more successful. You see 25-year-olds in Silicon Valley acting like this. You usually don't see the senior executive of a major company barnstorming the way he does."

When Garber, the son of a nursery-school teacher and an accountant, ascended to the commissioner role, he had the blessing of MLS's most important -- also only -- owners. After all, they handpicked him for his marketing experience, international understanding, and perceived ability to build a brand. The league needed a salesman, not a soccer guy. But some in the media wondered if he was ready. A brutal Los Angeles Times column headlined "Garber as MLS Commissioner a Bad Choice in Any Language" led the criticism, although Grahame Jones's argument against the then 41-year-old mostly revolved around his inability to speak Spanish.

But the chosen one, who taught skiing and worked in public relations before jumping into the sports world, was confident in his abilities. "Perhaps arrogantly or perhaps out of naiveté, I never thought that I wasn't the right guy for the job. I didn't lose any sleep over that," he says. Still, it was a big task with no guarantee of success. "There were many times, certainly in 2000 and 2001, where I wasn't able to sleep at night. I would be sitting up in bed wondering if it was really going to make it. We went through some tough times," he says, an allusion to the 2001 contraction of the Tampa Bay Mutiny and the Miami Fusion. Garber continues, "But after the reorganization in 2002, the league has been on really solid footing. At no time in the last 10-plus years have I questioned our path or the long-term viability of the league."

A major factor in the renewed success came straight from Garber's imagination. He persuaded the ownership group to put up another $50 million to fund Soccer United Marketing (SUM), which allowed the group to purchase the English-language television rights to the 2002 and 2006 World Cups and represent other entities such as the United States and Mexican national squads. Garber saw the rising economic potential of soccer in America. "There was a real opportunity to go out and not just generate revenue for the MLS intellectual property but also for other properties in the U.S.," he says. "I thought we could leverage the resources, experiences, and core competencies to grow the commercial value of MLS and the overall commercial value of soccer in North America. If soccer as a property became more valuable, then MLS -- one of the biggest organizations in that group -- would be more valuable."

It was a gamble for an ownership group that had already lost hundreds of millions, but the plan worked. While BusinessWeek reported that MLS's total losses from 1996 to 2004 hit $350 million, SUM helped put the league and its owners on a path to financial viability. The new revenue stream attracted new owners, and the second era of the country's top soccer league began. After a couple of World Cups (in 2006, SUM sold the rights to the 2010 and 2014 events for more than $400 million), a few sponsorship deals with Adidas, AT&T, and other international companies, a dozen or so soccer-specific stadiums, and one David Beckham signing, a 2013 Sporting Intelligence survey ranked MLS as the seventh-best soccer league in the world. Money continues to flow in, with the owners of Manchester City and the New York Yankees joining together to pay $100 million for a franchise in New York City and Orlando City buying in for about $70 million. David Beckham is currently investigating the possibility of launching a franchise in Miami, with NBA superstar LeBron James reportedly interested in a minority stake.

Garber hasn't improved the fortunes of the league on his own. Part of the key to success is the stability of the executive group. "Like any good leader, he surrounded himself with really smart people who know what they are doing in certain areas," Jimmy Conrad, a former player and current KickTV personality, says. Those lifers include league president Mark Abbott, SUM president Kathy Carter, and Todd Durbin, executive vice president of player relations and competition and MLS's first-ever employee. "They are loyal to Don," Kraft says, "And that's a testament to him." (It also gives a new meaning to the "Soccer Don" moniker Garber cheekily adopted.)

But the truth is that while serving as commissioner requires a delicate balance of leading the league while listening to the owners who pay his salary, Garber functions with a good deal of autonomy. His track record, specifically the foresight to form SUM, established his credibility and won him capital. Furthermore, MLS's single-entity structure promotes cooperation between the commissioner and the owners, many of whom he has personally courted and recruited. "I think Don views himself as an owner. He's a believer in the equity of our league and is compensated as such. I don't have the sense that he works for us or that we work for him," Robb Heineman, a principal in the company that purchased Sporting Kansas City in 2006, says. "He doesn't throw caution to the wind and spend money like someone with a commissioner's hat on. His does things with an owner's hat on, knowing that our league does have cash constraints."

Kraft, who also spends his days overseeing the Patriots, sees some similarities between Garber and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. "Don, much like Roger, is very firmly in control of not only the day-to-day operation of their business but the long-term strategic vision of their business and where they want to take it."

Garber leads by developing an idea, then building consensus around it. "He's a smart guy who knows how to look into the future and see what paths may be best, and then to convince people -- after hearing their views -- to sell ideas in," Gulati, the USSF president, says. That's an essential skill as MLS grows. The original owners, men who have lost tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars while supporting the league, may be more reluctant than some of the newer groups to spend money, especially on initiatives that pay off slowly. The league continues to invest in its digital properties, a long play designed to draw in a younger generation of digital-savvy fans. It's forward-thinking, and Garber hasn't relented despite some objections. "I think he's done a good job of pushing that agenda," Heineman, who was named to Sports Business Daily's Forty Under 40 list along with Portland Timbers owner Merritt Paulson, says.

That fans assume MLS will continue to improve year over year is perhaps more impressive than it seems given the struggles of some European leagues. "MLS is a weird league. It gets five percent better every year, and it doesn't ever feel like there's been a quantum leap in the popularity even when a guy like Beckham comes over," Yahoo columnist Martin Rogers says. "It just keeps churning on, and then suddenly you look back and think it's massively different than it was six years ago but you can't put your finger on why." The key is an amalgamation of things. The quality of play isn't brilliant, but it's slowly growing stronger. Television ratings tick up, although not as fast as the executives would like. According to salary data released by the players' union, the median player salary jumped $4,500 from 2012 to 2013, although the average salary dropped nearly $12,000 to $167,017 and total compensation fell $5 million to $94.9 million. Youth initiatives are starting to produce players, and European leagues increasingly see MLS as a place to purchase quality players.

While Garber no longer needs to stay up at night worrying about the viability of the league, he does concern himself with individual franchises. Chivas USA averages less than 10,000 fans per game. Some of the legacy clubs like D.C. United and New England draw under 15,000. He answers a question about further contraction with a single word, "No," but dramatic facelifts are needed. While the resurgence of Sporting Kansas City provides a model, it's long, hard work and easy to get wrong. Pressure from the English Premier League and other European leagues forces MLS to try to persuade American soccer fans to support their domestic league, a surprisingly difficult sell.

The schedule is another matter of criticism. For years, MLS refused to stop playing during FIFA international dates, only to take a two-week break between legs of the 2013 conference semifinals. The decision hurt momentum and was another example of the league's inconsistent decision-making. The never-ending tinkering with the playoff format rankles serious and casual supporters alike. By trying to please all the people, MLS ends up pleasing none and looks weak in the process. A chance to rectify this situation, or at least show leadership, will come next summer during the 2014 World Cup. MLS smartly halted play during the 2010 groups stage, and it should do so again.

Here we are in 2013 with Don Garber still at the helm. It's perhaps not where he saw himself all those years ago as he worked his way up the NFL ladder, but it has become where he belongs. "I will tell you now that Don is a soccer guy. He understands the game. He understands the marketplace, and he's able to really sell it," Dan Hunt, head of FC Dallas, says.

The next goal is to transform MLS into one of the best leagues in the world by 2022. Is Garber, the calm and firm presence in the boardroom, the man for that task? Perhaps. "He gets the job done, he does it quietly, and I think they are very confident in their ability to get to a certain point," Rogers says. "The question of whether they can break through to another ceiling is almost out of his control. Can they get to a place where they are the eighth best league in the world by the end of the decade? I think it's achievable, possible, and somewhat likely. But top four or five? I don't think they can. What you might need is a crazy ideas kind of guy, and Don is not a crazy ideas guy. He's a sensible ideas guy."

When MLS needed a man with a steady hand and a head filled with strategies for marketing and growing a new league, it turned to Garber. He succeeded to the point where the question is "How hard should we push the accelerator?" rather than "Is there gas in the tank?" Now, however, everyone -- the owners, the players, the fans, the media -- has a different opinion on how to proceed. There are tense moments ahead. Negotiations between the league and its players nearly derailed MLS in 2010, and the collective-bargaining agreement expires in 2015. The commissioner will likely lead those, both publicly and privately. "He worked behind the scenes tirelessly to make sure there was a union agreement in place that satisfied some of the players' needs," Conrad says. "He had the wherewithal to know that he had to concede some stuff to move in the players' direction." But American players, who represented just a third of the players making more than $200,000, can make a case that they are undervalued. At some point, MLS can't have stars making $6 million a year playing next to young men taking home $60,000.

But that's an issue for a year or two down the road. Right now, Garber needs to get off the phone and back to the job of governing. I ask a final question: Does MLS's best salesman believe he's selling a success?

"I do. Major League Soccer undoubtedly is a North American pro-sports success story. We have achieved the initial goal of being a top division-one professional soccer league in North America with teams spread throughout the U.S. and Canada, with great owners, with teams that are connected in their community, and lots of terrific players who matter on and off the field. Now the goal is to go beyond just existing as a top league and to try to become one of the top leagues in the world. That's the next phase of growth for us," he says. "This question will be better asked of the next commissioner 10 years from now."

The last sentence surprises me. Everyone I spoke with indicated that they believed that Garber would still be around in 2022. Does he think he will be commissioner in a decade? The reply comes almost immediately: "I more than likely will not be."

He says there's no timetable, but says it in a way that makes me think he definitely won't be the commissioner in a decade and that he has ideas about when he'd like to step down. It's hard to see him leaving before the collective-bargaining negotiations, but after that who knows? He has accomplished what he set out to do.

When Garber walks away from the post he's held since before the turn of the millennium, MLS will continue down the path he set. Smartly marketing clubs with strong, committed owners will boast a quality product on the field in soccer-specific stadiums. "One day we're going to look up and we're going to have teams playing at the highest level, domestically, regionally, and at the World Cup level. That's going to be Don's legacy," Hunt says.

Who knows? If you build it, Beyoncé might even come.

The debut issue of Eight by Eight is available now.

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