Garber Steps Up Again For MLS

Commissioner Don Garber makes bold move to strengthen MLS
by Peter Muller   |   Monday, February 24, 2014

Major League Soccer (MLS) 2012 Season Preview

With the announcement that Major League Soccer has purchased Jorge Vergara’s stake in Chivas USA, MLS Commissioner Don Garber has again displayed the vision and determination that could one day see him placed in the same category as David Stern or Pete Rozelle as a transformational leader of an American professional sports league.

Garber’s recognition that the Chivas USA experiment failed and his move to recapture the franchise – and ultimately repackage and resell it – is the type of action that will define his years as commissioner and secure his legacy as a top sports executive.

Garber was named MLS commissioner in 1999 at a time when the newly formed league was struggling to find its footing. He guided the league through the lean years and made the difficult decision in 2001 to eliminate 2 struggling teams.

While contraction was initially seen as a step backward, the move paved the way for the league to make a giant leap forward. The Chivas reboot holds the same promise.

In the years since, the path has not always been straight but the destination was clear. Garber’s goal was to secure the foundation of MLS and slowly build it so that one day it would be on par with the top leagues around the world. There is still a long way to go but he has taken the league further than seemed possible just a few years ago.

A key element to solidifying MLS was Garber’s success at bringing in new investors and diversifying the ownership of the teams. At one point just a handful of owners operated multiple teams, but, as Garber said on Thursday, those days are over.

Just as important as bringing in new partners is the quality of those partners, and for this Garber gets high marks. While Vergara did not pan out, the other ownership groups Garber recruited seem to have a true commitment to the league as well as the financial wherewithal to invest in their clubs and build long term success.

Another highlight of Garber’s tenure is his determination that all teams build and operate their own stadiums. For the league to be successful its clubs need to control stadium revenue – and today most of them do. He also recognized that supporters who regularly show up to games tend to be located in cities and he has pushed teams to build their stadiums in downtown locations.

Garber has also taken a thoughtful approach to expansion. Some of the most successful teams in the league in recent years – off the field, if not always on it – have been new clubs like Seattle Sounders, Portland Timbers and Toronto FC. These teams help to define modern MLS, serve as a model for future MLS franchises and provide inspiration to first-generation clubs in need of a refresh.

For fans it has not always been easy to immediately appreciate the wisdom of the moves Garber has made. The league can be frustratingly opaque about how it operates and it requires fans to trust that what happens behind the scenes is in the best interest of American soccer.

The apparent willingness of the league to spend money on behalf of some teams and not others raises questions about the league office putting its thumb unfairly on the scale of competitiveness. And the regular bending of rules to fit changing circumstances at times calls into question the credibility of the league.

But more often than not Garber has been proven right. And for every move that confounds supporters there is something like the Chivas deal that seems so clearly to be in the best interests of the league.

At a time when investor interest in MLS is at an all-time high, the league now has an opportunity to sell operating rights to a franchise in a highly desirable market full of potential buyers.

The Los Angeles area has an enormous resource of untapped supporters, it is a location that will attract internationally renowned players, it has a competitive sports television market that pays large rights fees to the Galaxy and has the ability to do so for a second franchise, and it has the space available to build a new stadium in an area distinct from where the Galaxy call home.

In short, the situation in Los Angeles provides Garber an opportunity to use the experience he has developed over the years to build a second model franchise in one of the best markets in the country.

Some challenges still remain - including finding permanent homes for some clubs and increasing the league’s national television revenue – but Garber has proven he is the right man for the job.

In recent months Garber has indicated that he can see the end of his tenure as commissioner on the horizon. When that time comes, he may be remembered as one of the most creative and effective sports commissioners in history. 


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Peter is a government relations professional in Washington, DC, and Los Angeles, CA. He has been a DC United season ticket holder since 1997 and has attended every MLS Cup except one – in 1998 when he was busy helping his boss get re-elected to Congress.