ORLANDO, Fla. -- Twenty years ago, Don Garber stood on a podium at a news conference in New York, having just been named as the new commissioner of MLS, and proceeded to be, as he put it, "lambasted." The Los Angeles Times reported on the hiring as "A Bad Choice in Any Language."
Garber was an NFL executive with no connection to the game of soccer who was basically being asked to lead MLS out of the wilderness. As it turned out, the move proved to be astute. Under Garber's leadership, MLS has grown to 24 teams in 2019 with three more on the way; average attendance has increased by 55% since his first season. There have been some stumbles, the ill-advised experiment that was Chivas USA being one example, but overall Garber's tenure has been a tremendous success.
The challenges are never-ending, however, with the next round of expansion to ponder as well as the latest Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) negotiation. With a new five-year contract signed earlier this year, Garber still has time to further put his stamp on the league and told ESPN of his hopes and expectations.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
ESPN: You've been commissioner for 20 years. What are your thoughts on being in this position that long?
Garber: I never thought I'd be at the helm of the league for 20 years. I continue to just be amazed that it seems like yesterday that I was at an opening press conference in New York. It's been a really wild, but fulfilling experience for me, both personally and professionally. I've devoted most of my career at this point to building MLS, and trying to do my part to grow the game overall in North America and even around the world. I came into the league with very little knowledge of the sport, but take pride in how much I've learned over the last two decades and how passionate I am about the game, and the contributions that I've made to the sport.
ESPN: What was the lowest moment, the toughest moment?
Garber: Without a doubt, the most challenging time for me was the earliest years, even before we made the decision to contract and reorganize and start SUM (Soccer United Marketing).
From the very beginning it was clear to me that the premise of a Division 1 league coming out of the World Cup was right, and it was launched at the right time. There was pent-up demand for the sport, there was a great level of momentum that was coming out of the World Cup. But all the pieces were not yet in place because I don't think any of us understood what the true plan needed to be.
We had not yet figured out what were the right environments for our players and fans. How do we create value for investors so we can continue to expand the league? Where should we be investing money on the player side, and what was the relationship between star players and young players in our academies? How could we build a commercial market so that our clubs and the league overall could drive revenues from companies that were interested in the sport?
All of that evolved over the last 20 years, and the earliest years we didn't have the elements of a long-range plan in place. So we went through a reorganization in '01. It was an absolute triage moment. If we didn't get out of operating teams, if we didn't fold a handful of teams that we saw had no future either because of ownership issues or facility issues, if we didn't start SUM with a $100 million investment, we wouldn't have been able to grow a commercial market, which is an absolute necessity to grow a pro sports league. There were times when we were all sitting around a table looking each other in the eye, and having bankruptcy lawyers in another room, trying to figure out if the league can go forward.
ESPN: What was the highest moment, and what do you think your legacy is?
Garber: I don't think there is a particular moment, but a series of moments that I continue to get excited about. The opening up of the first soccer-specific stadium in my tenure, which was then the Home Depot Center and is now Dignity Health Sports Park in '03, was an absolute highlight and put us on the path to where we are now, which I think will be one of the legacies from this period in time. We've created a legitimate foundation for the sport from a facility perspective with now 27 stadiums opening up. The thought of investing billions and billions and billions of dollars in building cathedrals for our players and fans was absolutely the furthest thing from our mind in the early days. So I am very proud of the fact that those stadiums will stand the test of time and will be a part of one of the significant chapters in the book that will be written about MLS decades from now.
I'm very proud of the commitment of our ownership to really believe in the future of our league and to build relevance around their clubs and to invest deeply in the product on the field, but also to get involved personally. So I think one of my legacies will be to build the ownership group that exists today that so believe in MLS and the sport of soccer in America and really love the game.
The last thing would be that games come and go, teams come and go, even team ownership shifts over generations. But the legacy we'll leave behind are our community efforts. Those things last forever. The fact that we have players engaged in every single market in the U.S. and Canada, and in all of our events at MLS Cup and the All-Star Game, and our building stadiums, and coaching kids and creating life experiences for those that don't have the opportunity to experience that without us, is something that really warms my heart.
ESPN: What do you make of the recent incident in which the Seattle Sounders supporters' group Emerald City Supporters received a formal warning about displaying an Iron Front three-arrows flag at a recent match?
Garber: We have a fan code of conduct in which we've worked closely with our clubs, and our own internal operations group to ensure that our own stadiums are free of political signage. I so much support having signage in our stadiums, and having environments that I think tell a story about MLS here and around the world. But it is a very strict policy that we don't allow political signage, and it's not a question of judgement about which group is right and which group is wrong, which group we should support or not support.
We basically have created a policy that takes any decision-making off the table. Our stadiums are not environments where our fans should be expressing political views because you then are automatically opening yourself up to allowing counterviews. Then we're getting into a situation which is unmanageable and really not why the vast, vast majority of fans go to games. We just saw some research that was done where the vast majority of fans do not see sports events as environments that should be driven by politics. They want to go to a game and experience it and participate in a game without having to be confronted by issues that might make them uncomfortable. Any time you have a political statement, whether I personally or the league agrees with it or not, you automatically are leaving yourself open to counterviews which might be very objectionable to a majority of people who are in the stadium.
ESPN: But where you do draw the line, though? What if someone walks in with a Make America Great Again hat? Is a rainbow flag considered a political statement?
Garber: A rainbow flag is not a political statement. In this case the Iron Front is a political organization.
ESPN: What about a Make America Great Again hat?
Garber: It's hard for me to respond to those kinds of things. I don't want to get engaged with that. It's very simple: We do not allow for political signage in our stadiums. It's a process we went through with our clubs. They were very engaged in it, and it's something that the league and me as commissioner are supportive of.
ESPN: In terms of legalized sports betting -- and obviously that's going through a legislative process in various states -- is that something that the league is embracing? You have Premier League teams with jersey sponsorships from betting houses. Is that where this is heading?
Garber: We, like all the leagues, have been working hard to better understand the change to the [Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act] ruling that provides states the opportunity to create their own guidelines and their own legal approach to sports betting. As to that, we formed a relationship with MGM. We were one of five major leagues that have done that. We do have a relationship with DraftKings that will also be working in that space. I think we're going to continue to ensure that we're in front of what we think can be a great opportunity for our league and our clubs. At the same time, I view it not as a true revenue opportunity. I view it as a way we can provide our fans with the chance to be able to connect more closely with our clubs, connect more closely with our players, and to use it as a way to develop new ways for fans to engage with our league.
ESPN: What do you make of the talk that Chicago is going to rebrand?
Garber: Chicago is going through a very positive transformation and relaunch of their club, starting with the move from Bridgeview to Soldier Field. I know that they have been spending some time looking at their brand. It's not something I have an opinion on. It's something the team needs to continue to work on determining what the look and feel of the club is going to be as they go through the relaunch of the entire Chicago Fire fan experience. Much more than that, I understand that some fans have a point of view on it, but I have great faith in Nelson Rodriguez and his staff. I'm sure they'll do deep research and will work both internally and externally to make sure that is going to be the right outcome.
ESPN: Can they make money in Soldier Field to the same degree they did in SeatGeek Stadium?
Garber: They're clearly moving down there to Soldier Field because they think it's the best way to engage fans in Chicago. There have been challenges in Bridgeview that we're all well aware of. We all know it's a great soccer market, it's a fabulous sports market. I believe in their team and I believe in their ownership, and I think the move downtown will be the right one.
Editor's note: The Fire have reached an agreement with the City of Bridgeview to leave SeatGeek Stadium. They do not have an agreement yet with Soldier Field.
ESPN: How do you think the Leagues Cup has gone so far?
Garber: So far, so good. It's the first year. We had some good crowds in some markets. We had crowds that I think could have been better if we had a bit more planning. The semifinals are selling well in Houston. The game in Los Angeles is selling well. I would have preferred to have more than one [MLS] team in the semifinals. Every journey starts with a small step.
ESPN: Is competing with Liga MX teams going to require a ramp up in spending on player contracts and transfer fees?
Garber: I think our teams are moving in the right direction to be more competitive against Liga MX clubs. We've seen that not this year, but the previous year in the CONCACAF Champions League. I don't think that it's about spending per se. A lot of our challenges in the CCL have been schedule related. I'm confident that we're on the right track. This is a lot about focus and prioritizing those games. We believe those games are important and our clubs need to decide if these games are as important as the league thinks. I don't think you can look at the performance in Leagues Cup and CCL this year and think it's about spending.
ESPN: Is an MLS/Liga MX Super League the end game?
Garber: This starts with a very, very close relationship that both MLS and Liga MX have with CONCACAF. Both leagues are committed to CCL, so we need to figure out where does this tournament fit with the CCL and how could we work as a confederation with two strong leagues and a number of emerging leagues, how can we work together to make our confederation stronger and more competitive with the other confederations around the world. There's going to be a new World Club Championship where our teams are not just going to be tested against leagues in our region, but tested against leagues around the world. We're all focused on having more competitive matches so we can get better in international competition.
ESPN: Obviously, Zlatan Ibrahimovic has brought a lot of attention to the league, but when he says, "I'm like a Ferrari among Fiats," what do you make of those comments?
Garber: When you sign Zlatan you get both incredible on-field performance and you get one of the most creative and unique personalities in the world. When I read that comment, I smiled. I wasn't the slightest bit angry. That was Zlatan at Zlatan's best. Then he went out and scored three goals in El Trafico and put up after making some pretty strong comments. If I was concerned about Zlatan's comments, we wouldn't have been as supportive as we were about his signing. It's so much fan buzz. Zlatan has been great for the league. The Galaxy-LAFC game was one of the better games in the history of our league. It broke through all the clutter. I heard from a reporter in L.A. who said that we owned the city of Los Angeles in the week leading up to El Trafico and the game itself. That is what we've been striving for and Zlatan helped us deliver that.