NEW YORK (AP) — Don Garber keeps a fireman’s hat in his office.
“When you’re running a business like this, you are a fireman. You’re putting out fires every day,” he said.
Garber’s 20th anniversary as Major League Soccer’s commissioner is Sunday, and the league’s challenge these days is growth, an upward trajectory that will be boosted when the U.S. co-hosts the World Cup in 2026.
He was senior vice president of the NFL’s international division when he was hired in 1999 to replace Doug Logan, who had run the league since its launch in 1996. MLS has doubled in size to 24 teams under Garber’s leadership, plays primarily in soccer specific stadiums and maintains an average attendance among the top 10 soccer leagues in the world.
Yet, it has not caught up with the NBA or NHL for television attention and averages fewer viewers on U.S. English-language television than the Premier League, despite more favorable time slots.
“When I hear stuff from my bosses at ESPN saying we’re not going to show that game because we can make more money putting a 5-year-old rerun of the World Series of Poker on, then we got a big problem,” said former U.S. goalkeeper Kasey Keller, an ESPN analyst.
Now 61, Garber recalls being approached about MLS at an NFL owners meeting or a Super Bowl by Robert Kraft and Jonathan Kraft, owners of the New England Patriots and New England Revolution. Having launched with 10 teams in 1996, the league jumped to 12 in 1999. But average attendance had dropped from 17,000 to 14,000.
“I could remember like it was yesterday the opening press conference in New York and the reaction, much of it negative, to me taking the job,” Garber recalled. “I expected when I took the job that the soccer community would be excited about a young, experienced sports marketing executive coming over and taking over this fledgling soccer league. I realized quickly that soccer is a unique sport and it took a while to really earn the credibility and the respect of all the constituents. I remember walking home from that press conference and saying, oh my goodness, what did I get myself into?”
Garber pushed owners to get rid of Americanizations such as keeping time on scoreboards and breaking ties with shootouts in which players dribbled at goal from 35 yards. Garber pushed owners to cut Miami and Tampa Bay ahead of the 2000 season for a period of consolidation. MLS had three owners for 10 teams for much of 2003; Phil Anschutz’s Anschutz Entertainment Group operated up to six teams at one point.
Twenty-five owners have entered the league since Garber became commissioner, and no owner has had an investment in more than one team since 2015.
Expansion started in 2005 and shows no sign of ending. Nashville and David Beckham’s Miami start play next year, Austin in 2021 and at least three more teams are planned. The current expansion fee is $200 million.
Twenty teams play in stadiums built for soccer or remodeled for the sport.
“When Don first became commissioner and when we went through those dark days, there was always the question of: Is the league going to survive? I don’t think that’s remotely a question today,” Jonathan Kraft said. “So that’s a huge jump in a very short period of time.”
Average attendance was 14,000 in 1999 and now is in the 21,000 to 22,000 range, just behind Italy’s Serie A and France’s Ligue 1, above both the NBA and NHL albeit with a shorter schedule.
Team payrolls range from the $9 million to $22 million — far below next season’s salary caps of $81.5 million for the NHL and $109 million for the NBA.
To raise payroll, more revenue is needed.
“What the next level means is more attention in terms of media and TV interest, more people attending and having all sellouts in more cities,” said former U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati, a former MLS and team executive, “having the commercial community that’s corporate America and partners engage even further than they do now.”
MLS has TV deals with ESPN, Fox and Univision but national English-language ratings lag.
NBC and NBCSN averaged 423,000 viewers for 204 Premier League telecasts last season, according to Nielsen Media Research, with most of those games starting on weekends before noon Eastern time. ESPN has averaged 257,000 for its first 21 MLS telecasts this year. Still, that is far more American viewers than tune in for the Bundesliga on Fox or La Liga on beIN.
“I think everybody in the room aspires to have a league that is as good of a league as exists for soccer in the world, and obviously to get to the Premiership level,” Kraft said. “It is not going to happen in the next five or 10 years. But we aspire to it.”
MLS’s goal of catching and surpassing European leagues is among the factors in Garber’s push for MLS teams to launch youth academies. They have started to produce homegrown players and some who spurn the league for Europe at a young age.
“That competition has turned into an enormous empowering energy for us,” Garber said, “because it has it spurred the deep investment in facilities so that we could be more competitive with the rest of the world.”
There also could be a bigger relationship with the National Women’s Soccer League — four of the nine NWSL teams have common ownership with MLS sides.
“I have always believed and I continue to believe that there’s a role that Major League Soccer could play and probably should play in the growth of the women’s game,” Garber said. “I don’t know whether that takes the form of a commercial relationship. I don’t know whether it takes a form of MLS getting more involved in league operations. I do think that the time will come when Major League Soccer is more involved in the woman’s game on the national level.”