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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

(continued from page 1)

The emphasis was changing. As Garber puts it, the new intent wasn't simply to sell advertising to companies, but offer them the power of the NFL. It was the beginning of sports marketing partnerships in which the NFL helped its sponsors achieve their sales and consumer goals.

By 1988, Garber had risen to the position of the NFL's director of marketing. In 1992, he developed a new division called NFL Business Development/Special Events. "I became the idea guy to find ways to personalize the players," he says. "We wanted to bring the players and the game closer to the fans and the public." With this in mind, Garber's group created the NFL Experience—a theme park at the Super Bowl each year—and gave the Super Bowl halftime show a face-lift. The group also relaunched the amateur Punt, Pass and Kick competition and started other television programming like the NFL Quarterback Challenge and the NFL Skills Challenge, which showed "who these players are without their helmets and shoulder pads."

Having noticed Garber's work and the exposure he brought the NFL, commissioner Paul Tagliabue approached him in 1996 about starting an international division. Garber was named senior vice president and managing director of NFL International, and was charged with finding ways to expand the NFL's brand outside of the United States. "It was a tremendously exciting exercise," says Garber, who took the World Football League and rebranded it as NFL Europe. "But we learned it was tough to inculcate a culture and a community and try to have them embrace something that is truly foreign."

As tough as this task was, Garber's hard work continued to pay off. His efforts caught the attention of two NFL owners—Lamar Hunt, of the Kansas City Chiefs, and Robert Kraft, of the New England Patriots—who also were owners of Major League Soccer franchises. They wanted more exposure for soccer among U.S. fans. Having seen what Garber had done to familiarize the rest of the world with the NFL brand, they felt they had found the man who could do it.

"I was at the NFL owners meeting in Atlanta in 1999," recalls Garber. "Robert Kraft came up to me and said, 'Son, what do you know about soccer?'" Garber confessed that he didn't know much outside of coaching his son. Kraft responded, "We're about to change that," and brought Garber to talk to Hunt. "They mentioned they were thinking of making a change with the existing MLS commissioner," says Garber of the conversation, "and by the end of the weekend, I had been traded. I went from selling American football overseas to selling the real football here in the U.S." The world's game has proved an easier sell for Garber in the United States than American football was for him abroad. "Here, people understand [soccer] and they respect its powerful position as the world's most popular sport," he says. "We look at this country as made up of every other country in the world. Therefore, the ability to translate soccer to people's lives is far easier today than it was a generation ago and certainly easier than it was for the NFL overseas."

It's also easier considering Major League Soccer has become a legitimate professional soccer league. It formed in 1993, as part of a deal the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) made with FIFA, the world governing body of soccer. In exchange for hosting the 1994 World Cup, the USSF promised to form a top-level professional league in the country. When the league played its first season in 1996, the commitment was fulfilled, but many still found reason to doubt that soccer could be successful. Still fresh were memories of the collapse of the North American Soccer League in 1984, after years of overspending, overexpansion and reliance on foreign players who were past their prime.

But MLS was determined to do things differently, and when the USSF and investors like Hunt and Kraft formed the league, they decided on a single-entity structure, in which the league would contract each player directly. The aims were to control spending and labor costs, share revenue and promote parity, and develop a league-wide player pool. The teams would be operated by so-called investor-operators who would make all decisions regarding player personnel, and each investor-operator would be allowed to run more than one team. "When the league was started," says Garber, "a centralized focus and a collective strategic vision were necessary to ensure that when the league was successful, it wouldn't be faced with the challenges that other leagues have been faced with as it relates to disparity of revenue, big market versus small market, and labor issues."

Sharing in this collective vision today are investor-operators who believe that soccer is the next big opportunity and, according to Garber, "they are willing to use all of their experience to make the business succeed." The group includes Hunt, who runs FC Dallas, the Kansas City Wizards and the Columbus Crew; Kraft, who runs the New England Revolution; Philip Anschutz, of the Anschutz Entertainment Group, who runs Los Angeles Galaxy, Chicago Fire, Houston 1836 and D.C. United; Stanley Kroenke, the owner of the NBA's Denver Nuggets and the NHL's Colorado Avalanche, who runs MLS's Colorado Rapids; David Checketts, the former president and chief executive officer for Madison Square Garden, who runs Real Salt Lake; and Jorge Vergeras, a movie producer, who runs Chivas USA with Antonio Cue, a Mexican real estate entrepreneur.

Despite the vision and experience of its investor-operators and the single-entity structure designed for long-term success, MLS was losing money and struggling to fill seats when Garber arrived. Yet he says he was intrigued by the challenges of managing a developing business. "As commissioner, you are overseeing a sport," he says, "but you're also the CEO of a business and responsible for raising the asset value of the teams and generating revenues that ultimately lead to more positive cash flows."

To achieve this, Garber focused on several areas. First was investing in the player pool to make sure there were always players to build the league on. This has included younger stars like Landon Donovan, Eddie Johnson and Freddy Adu, as well as veterans like Cobi Jones and Tony Meola. It has also meant investing in international players, especially Latin American stars such as Amado Guevara and Carlos Ruiz.

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