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The Soccer Don

As the World Cup kicks off, Don Garber of Major League Soccer sees a burgeoning American market for the world's most popular sport
Michael Marsh
From the Print Edition:
Kurt Russell, May/June 2006

Anyone who spends time around Don Garber, the commissioner of Major League Soccer, soon sees why he's known as The Don. Garber has a hand in more business than a Sicilian on his daughter's wedding day, and on this February day in New York City, he's been particularly busy.

The 2006 FIFA World Cup Finals in Germany start on June 9 and the league office has been a revolving door of soccer greats recording television spots for the U.S. broadcast. Garber has made time for them all and extra time for Franz Beckenbauer, the German soccer legend and ambassador of the game who once starred for the New York Cosmos.

Garber's day has also included interviews with the media and talks with the makers of Red Bull, the energy drink, about buying the MetroStars, the MLS franchise based in the New York metropolitan area (the deal would go through in March). In addition, he has been in contact with several executives of MLS teams to discuss the upcoming MLS season and, later this evening, The Don has a sit-down with the president of CONCACAF, the regional soccer federation that represents North America, Central America and the Caribbean, before he heads to the Gotham Club for a dinner hosted by a German delegation promoting the World Cup.

At the moment, however, Garber, a collector of wine and cigars as well as antique watches and pens, is enjoying a rare break at Club Macanudo, one of the city's few smoking venues. He takes a sip of Cabernet and draws thoughtfully on a Montecristo Edmundo. "With the changing demographics and the globalization of our population," he says, "there is no doubt in my mind, and in the minds of our owners, that soccer is going to be the dominant sport in this country."

The Don brims with confidence. Fans who consider that soccer's biggest competitors in the United States include the NFL, the NBA and Major League Baseball might call it overconfidence—better yet, a total lack of realistic thinking.

But Garber sees it differently. He sees a market for an international sport that is only beginning to be tapped in a country where soccer has so often been an afterthought. He sees a market being fueled by the millions of youths learning to play the game and the growing ethnic diversity of America, which each year adds fans who already love the game. The Don also sees soccer as a viable and profitable business, driven by a U.S. men's national team ranked fifth in the world going into the World Cup, and by MLS, a professional league he is helping to structure for a long, bright future.

One might assume that the position of commissioner of Major League Soccer requires a significant soccer background. Such wasn't the case for Don Garber, who admits that before he took the job, his only soccer experience came as a coach of his son in his youth soccer program, Kinderkickers. But that isn't to say Garber wasn't qualified, just that his rise to the top of America's professional soccer league was via America's professional football league, the NFL.

A native of Queens, New York, Garber attended the State University of New York at Oneonta, where in addition to his studies, he worked as a ski instructor and was a member of the National Ski Patrol. After graduating in 1978 with a degree in business and journalism, he taught disabled skiers at the Winter Park, Colorado, ski resort and later at Vernon Valley/Great Gorge in New Jersey.

When Garber returned to the Big Apple in 1980, he began working for the National Wheelchair Athletic Association as the head of public relations. At the time, NWAA's sponsor was Bulova Watch Co., through which Garber eventually landed a job with the public relations firm Ruder Finn. He worked on the Kinney and Foot Locker accounts doing track and field promotions, and on the Miller Lite account, publicizing the Lite Beer All-Stars campaign.

Garber's break came when he went to work for Burson-Marsteller, the public relations firm that represented M&M Mars, which was sponsoring the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. M&M Mars was also looking to buy an NFL sponsorship, and Garber's involvement led to an offer from the league to be one of its first salespeople. At the time, NFL Properties was in its formative years. "It was before sports marketing really had taken off," says Garber, "and it was the first time the league was trying to manage and capture its intellectual property."

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