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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 2)

The second focus was investing money in soccer-specific stadiums, which Garber credits as having contributed significantly to the league's growing success. "Stadium development has been big," he says, "not just for the popularity of the sport, but also because it shows that we're building roots in the community. It's a place to see the game, but it's also a center point for soccer in the community." Soccer-specific stadiums are now in place in Columbus, Dallas and Los Angeles, with others scheduled to open in Chicago this June and in New Jersey (as a venue for the former MetroStars, who will be renamed Red Bull New York) in 2008.

Finally, Garber focused his efforts on maximizing the game's exposure and played a key role in the creation of Soccer United Marketing (SUM), which owns the commercial rights to nearly every soccer property in America. "We needed to concentrate our business perspective on not just the MLS, but the entire sport in our country," explains Garber. "With Soccer United Marketing, we have a way to make soccer a more valuable commercial property as opposed to just trying to make our teams the driver of that commercial opportunity." So far, SUM has done its job. Among other things, the company, which is owned by MLS investors, purchased the commercial rights to the USSF and the men's and women's national teams. It also bought the domestic English-language broadcast rights to the 2002 and 2006 men's World Cups and the 2003 Women's World Cup for $40 million.

Mixed in with all of these efforts to improve MLS's bottom line and make the sport more accessible to America's diverse population, Garber also has had to make some difficult decisions. Early in his tenure, he did away with rules that "Americanized" the sport, such as the MLS Shootout, which was used to break ties, to try to bring the game in line with international guidelines. But his hardest decision came in 2002, when, to much fury, he disbanded the Miami Fusion and the Tampa Bay Mutiny because their markets weren't performing. "At times, we make decisions that the fans don't agree with," Garber says of the move to contract the league. "But at the end of the day, the goal is to make a more popular professional league in this country and to be successful in every market."

So far, Garber is making it happen. As MLS prepares for its 11th season and the U.S. men's national team gets set to compete in the World Cup, the state of soccer in America is healthier than it's ever been and the future looks bright. The league is not only close to being profitable, but is preparing to expand. By 2010, MLS will have grown from 12 to 16 teams and each team will have a soccer-specific stadium to play in. Of course, this comes as no surprise to Don Garber.

"I knew when I took this job that we were at a tipping point," he says, "where the global changes, the demographic changes and the social changes would really be the driver of the future of the sport. It's only been 10 years, but we're making a lot of progress."

 

 

Back at Club Macanudo, The Don keeps an eye on the time as he savors his cigar. His love of cigars began during his days with the NFL, but blossomed once he became commissioner of MLS. During frequent travels to countries such as Spain and Germany, he visits local tobacconists, including Casas del Habano, to survey their inventory and replenish his own.

The humidor on Garber's desk at the league office in Manhattan is stocked with everything from Fuente Fuente OpusX and Montecristo No. 2 to Partagas Serie D No. 4 and Vegas Robaina. He enjoys full-bodied cigars and will smoke, on average, two to three cigars a week to help him relax and take a breather from his busy schedule. On occasion, when the weather is warm, he smokes in his car on the way from work to his New Jersey home. Yet even when The Don is smoking, you can tell that his mind is never far away from the game of soccer. And usually he is focused on how to make the game bigger and better in the United States. "At its core, this sport is so powerful," he says, blowing a cloud of smoke into the air. "It's growing so quickly and becoming so relevant that ultimately there's nothing that can stop us."


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