The Soccer Don
- | From 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."
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.
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."