Don Garber had just completed his first full season as Major League Soccer’s commissioner in late 2000 when he and the league’s owners gathered for a meeting at the Colorado ranch of the billionaire Philip Anschutz.
At the time, Anschutz owned three of the 12 teams in M.L.S., making his the single most important voice in American professional soccer. As he and league officials talked, Anschutz was among those wondering if it might be time to shut down the five-year-old league.
“To be frank, we were trying to figure out how to survive,” said Clark Hunt, whose father, Lamar, was one of the league’s founding members. A few people present said they left the meetings thinking the end was near. But soon after the gathering broke up, Anschutz told Garber that he was in for one more year.
“I think Phil thought the cost of operating the teams for one more year was worth less than the opportunity of selling the teams,” Garber said. “And he was right, because he sold all those teams for a profit.”
It is not uncommon, when soccer fans talk about Garber and M.L.S., for the conversation to drift to money, and to owners’ profits. But his tenure, which marks its 20th anniversary on Sunday, is also the story of how those dark hours in Colorado gave M.L.S. the second chance it needed. In the two decades since, the league has nearly tripled in size, to 26 teams next year, with more coming. Along the way, Garber has overseen the investment of billions of dollars in American soccer teams, American soccer development and American soccer stadiums. He has helped create two billion-dollar businesses, M.L.S., which still is not profitable, he said, and its promotional arm, Soccer United Marketing, which is.
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.
Soccer has a small group of people who are so deeply committed to the game — fans, media people, owners or administrators — that have been fighting for their entire lives to get respect and credibility for the sport in the United States, and it has created a sense of insularness, if that’s a word.
People believe so much in the game, it’s almost as if no one else is worthy unless they’ve lived the game the way they have. I was a total outsider and I have not entirely shed that identity.
‘In the back of my head, I was thinking he’d be the perfect guy. He’s the right age, he’s had this experience at the N.F.L., he’s passionate about soccer, and I knew Robert and Lamar both respected him.’
— Jonathan Kraft, who said Garber first peppered him with questions about M.L.S. at a party at the Super Bowl in 1998. Garber, with the support of Robert Kraft and Lamar Hunt, was hired as commissioner 18 months later.
Early in your tenure, the owners almost shut down the league. How worried were you?
There were many moments that I went home at night convinced the league was going to shut down. There was a real question whether America was ready for a Division I soccer league. What’s driving the success of the league today is young people who have grown up in the game. But in the late 1990s, they were still teenagers.
How bad was it?
I remember [in 1999] going to my first MetroStars game with [deputy commissioner] Mark Abbott and Ivan Gazidis, who was the head of competition. There were so few people in the stadium that no one checked my credential. I remember thinking, This is going to be a long hard ride.
But there were 200 fans in the end zone screaming and carrying on. I remember turning to Ivan and saying, ‘We need to make those 200, 2,000.’
‘Don has had three different jobs. He has navigated the league through survival mode, when it was an open question whether M.L.S. was going to be a going concern. Then you go through expansion, and now we’re in growth mode. The skill sets required for each of those moments of the league’s life cycle are extremely different.’
— Merritt Paulson, Portland Timbers owner
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. [Beckham made two off-season loan moves to Italy, angering some in Los Angeles who thought he wasn’t taking M.L.S. seriously.] But the addition of a team in Toronto and David was the true start of M.L.S. 2.0.
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.
‘I personally thought the move to M.L.S. wasn’t a risk, even though people talked about it at the time. Don had a real vision, and he knew he had to make certain steps, and for me playing for one of the best teams.’
— David Beckham. In late 2006, Garber met Beckham and his wife, Victoria, for a four-hour dinner at a Madrid hotel to lay the groundwork for the star’s move to M.L.S.
Which decision during your tenure would you want to do over?
The rush to Chivas U.S.A. in 2005 was not the best idea. We thought by having a Mexican team’s brand in L.A., we’d have fans and it turned out not to be true. [M.L.S. eventually reacquired the rights to Chivas U.S.A. and folded the team. It later sold the expansion rights for a second M.L.S. team in Los Angeles to the group that founded Los Angeles F.C.]
The construction of soccer-specific stadiums will be a major part of your legacy. But marquee teams in Boston, Chicago and New York have searched for years to find places to build new venues without success. This can’t make you happy.
It’s enormously frustrating, but I look at the challenges in comparison to north of 20 cities with soccer stadiums. It makes success that much sweeter, because when you’ve been working on a stadium in D.C. for 10 years and go to the opening game, you think about all the countless meetings and announcements, it literally brings tears to your eyes. Our successes are that much sweeter.
‘Don sits on the U.S. Soccer board, and there are many decisions made that I question whether are in the interest in the growth of the game or maintaining M.L.S.’s status as the only Division I league in the country.’
— Erik Stover, a former M.L.S. executive turned league adversary when he moved to the New York Cosmos of the rival North American Soccer League. Stover now represents foreign clubs in America.
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.
The league’s most vocal critics have called M.L.S. a Ponzi scheme because, they say, the league will collapse when it stops adding teams and collecting expansion fees. How do you respond?
We operate and manage our business on our revenues from our businesses, not expansion fees. We know expansion fees will end, and they account for a bit of dilution because as you have more teams, you divide up the revenue by one more. We are never remotely thinking about expansion as a way to run our business.
I need to convince our owners to make investments in the future of the league that will force them to operate at a loss. This is a labor of love. They are willing to run their businesses at a loss. But they are not philanthropists. They ultimately want to make a profit.
A lot has changed in two decades. What stands out?
Years ago, the former president of FIFA [Sepp Blatter] literally had no time for M.L.S. He looked at it with one part disdain and another part absolute dismissal. Today, our reputation has shifted dramatically. Our players are getting sold. Our facilities, the media and marketing and social media that all leagues in North America have sets us apart.
This conversation has been edited and condensed.