Major League Soccer almost folded after his first full season as commissioner. On Sunday, Garber will celebrate 20 years in the job, and his league and his vision for it continue to expand.
- As he enters his third decade as commissioner, Garber, 61, recently sat down with The New York Times at his getaway in western New Jersey, where he goes fishing to relax. He discussed how M.L.S. found its way off life support and carved out a place for itself in the American sports landscape, and why soccer people still don’t trust N.F.L. men to run their sport.
- Even today, you take a lot of heat from soccer purists because you started your career at the N.F.L. Why is that?
- Early on, I was shocked at the reaction to me coming in. I know Gary Bettman didn’t play hockey, I know Paul Tagliabue didn’t play football, and I know David Stern didn’t play basketball, and these guys are legendary commissioners.
- David Beckham’s signing in 2007 was a major moment in the league’s history, and you have been praised for it. But you also have been criticized for giving him an option to buy a team for only $25 million, since expansion fees have skyrocketed in the years since.
- If David Beckham doesn’t come to M.L.S., I don’t think we’d be where we are today.
He came in and was a massive storm of media coverage and it never stopped for the six years he was in the league. There were challenges with him going over to Milan.
- David was making a lot of money in Europe, and he and Simon [Fuller, his business agent] wanted to capture some of the growth he was expecting to create through his presence. The deal was, if he played for all five years and we got to 20 teams, he would get the 20th team for $25 million, and he had to do it in five years, and had to build it in a city he picked and build a stadium. I thought the chances were zero. I thought if it happens, great.
- In 2014, you announced that he had exercised the rights to form a team in Miami, yet his investment group still has not secured a stadium site. Do you regret cutting that deal?
Miami has been very difficult to get a stadium deal done. But I’ve learned in 20 years in the soccer business, it’s really hard. We’re fighting competition from other leagues. After all the trials and tribulations, we’ll forget how difficult it was.
- The creation of Soccer United Marketing, at your instigation, ultimately helped save the league. But it does not generate enough money to offset all of the losses that the teams still rack up, correct?
- That is accurate. Our owners have been willing to invest to a greater level than revenues because they believe they have to deliver a product on the field to fans who have alternatives so they think about M.L.S. as their league.
Garber has spent his entire career in the sports industry, working in a variety of capacities in marketing, events, television, and league administration prior to becoming MLS commissioner. Before joining MLS, Garber was with the National Football League for 16 years.
Under his leadership, MLS has experienced sustained growth in size and popularity in the United States and Canada. During his tenure, MLS has expanded from 10 to 24 teams and set records for attendance and broadcast revenue.
In addition, the league has seen significant increases in every metric – including team valuations, attendance, sponsorship, and digital and social media engagement. MLS ranks seventh among global soccer leagues in average game attendance.
Garber has been selected by SportsBusiness Journal as one of the sports industry's most powerful executives every year since 2005. In 2018, he was 16th on the list. In 2016, SportsBusiness Journal presented MLS with its award for League of the Year. In May 2019, Garber was named the Sports Business Journal Executive of the Year. Garber has received numerous other industry honors, and in 2011 was named by the Los Angeles Times as one of the top sports commissioners. He has received an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from both Montclair State University and the State University of New York. Garber was also inducted into the Athletic Hall of Fame at his alma mater, SUNY Oneonta. Garber was elected into the National Soccer Hall of Fame in 2016, but deferred his enshrinement until 2018.