Don Garber

Now in his 22nd year as Major League Soccer’s commissioner, Don Garber has been one of the main forces driving the sport’s popularity in America. After dealing with contraction and taking the league down to just 10 teams in 2002, he has presided over a period of unprecedented expansion that includes Nashville SC, which became the league’s 26th team last year. Garber was in town to check on the progress of the Fairgrounds stadium and sat down with the Scene to talk about salary caps, new facilities and whether baseball would affect NSC’s outlook.

Let's start with something a little topical: Lionel Messi just left Barcelona, the biggest club in the world, because they couldn’t pay him. The interesting thing to me is that a lot of top talent around the top leagues in Europe is having a hard time moving right now because there's only so many places. If you were talking to your counterparts in other leagues, what would you tell them about a salary cap system and the U.S. experience with that? Do you think that, in some ways, that's some kind of vindication of MLS’ approach?

I noticed yesterday that Oliver Kahn, who's the CEO of Bayern Munich, just came out with a position that he thinks that there should be a salary cap — whether it be in the Bundesliga or in the European leagues. His rationale was, particularly post-COVID, the governing bodies need to work and create structures to ensure that their teams are financially stable. That's what has been part of the DNA of the North American leagues forever. It's hard to imagine that you would not have a salary cap in all of our leagues.

Certainly in Major League Soccer, it would have been inconceivable that we would have started a league without a cap. There are leagues obviously that go about it differently, whether it's through revenue sharing and other ways to ensure that you can keep teams strong throughout seasons of winning and losing and be consistent. I'd be the last one to tell the European leagues that have done so well for so long how they should be structuring their leagues. What I will tell you is that we have team values that are at the top level of the European leagues today and our revenues are dramatically less.

The reason for that is because the long-term opportunity in Major League Soccer based on our structure is significant because we think very, very hard about what we need to do to ensure that we've got a competitive product on the field. We are building relevance in our markets. We're developing players, putting a system in place that will ensure that the league continues to grow year after year, even when we're faced with a crisis like the pandemic.

For a couple of players, say a Messi or Ronaldo, would that be something that would make either of them attractive to MLS at the end of their contracts?

We've recognized that our system was structured in a way that's different than the other North American major leagues in that we have this concept of a designated player. In essence, we're saying, “We acknowledge that there are players that are so popular and so impactful that we should make accommodations to our system or our structure in order to bring those players into the league.” There's been a long list of them. From David Beckham to Zlatan to Thierry Henry to Stephen Gerrard to Marquez and — am I leaving anybody super special out? Chicharito and Carlos Vela, to be current.

Those players for the most part have all worked very well to help drive value both on and off the field. When I look at a Messi or Ronaldo and all the buzz about are they coming to Major League Soccer, the irony is that if Messi came to Major League Soccer this year, everybody would say, “Here they go again, signing an overage player.” Meanwhile, he's rumored to be getting 40 million euros a year playing at PSG and nobody's saying that he's too old.

We have so many other factors that we have to address when we're dealing with players that are towards the end of their career and what that indicates in the minds of fans and media and others as it relates to our brand.

That's actually my follow-up. I think you and the owners have attempted to position the league more as a selling league than a buying league over the past few years. A number of U.S. stars have been sold to Europe this summer. We saw some off the Gold Cup team have already gone. Do you think that there's more value in that for the league?

These are good questions. I remember saying two years ago that we need to become more of a selling league. What I continue that statement with is we need to be both a buyer and a seller and it was only picked up that we need to be a selling league. The challenge at that time was we were almost exclusively a buyer and that's just not the way the ecosystem of professional soccer works around the world. It's a balance. At times, the pendulum swings where you're buying more or selling more, but we needed to get into the game to be more a part of the way football is managed around the world.

I think what we're seeing now is that our academy system, which is now a massive investment to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars a year, is producing a greater numbers of players than we expected. When you start producing more players than you were planning on for your rosters, it makes sense to take that revenue and invest it back into the league in whatever the club thinks is going to drive success on and off the field.

It could be in buying another player. It could be in additional marketing, could be more staff to work on the player and fan experience. It could be in facilities and infrastructure. Now we're in the game and now we just got to figure out what's the right way to manage this influx of revenue so that every fan and every media partner and every sponsor believes that the system is working to achieve their expectations as well as our ownership's goals.

With the influx of expansion teams, what are the conversations that you're having with these clubs about academies and the expectations that the league has?

Academies are a requirement. That's the great thing about the MLS system. It is a partnership. The majority of that partnership is driven by strategy that starts at the league office supported by committees that have owners and club technical staff on it. We've determined very early on that we need to be in the player development business. That was before U.S. soccer got out of the DA academy and we were able to jump into that within a matter of weeks to create what is now MLS Next.

Now you have the creation of what will be a very significant player development pyramid. Academy players on the bottom going up to what will be this new league that we announced which will be underneath Major League Soccer and then having those players travel through the pipeline to the first team.

Alphonso Davies is a great example of that. Homegrown through their USL team and then ultimately through the [Vancouver] Whitecaps and now a star young player for Bayern Munich. That model will work for our clubs if they're very committed to doing it the right way, with the right investment and the right plan.

You were at the Fairgrounds Nashville to see the stadium. What's your assessment?

The stadium is fantastic. It's so exciting for me to see bricks and steel coming out of the ground. A big part of my legacy has been building. ... This will be our 24th stadium. Having a vision with our owners early on that we needed to not be tenants in other people's buildings. We needed to build our own homes that could be cathedrals for our clubs and be places to capture the memories that will be shared by fans and their moms and dads and sisters and brothers and all those things that are sort of part of the narrative of professional sports throughout North America.

We can't do that unless we have great homes. This one is going to be fantastic. It's large. It's the largest one we have in the league. It's in an incredible location that's going to transform the fairgrounds. The development around it is going to transform the city. I'm just overwhelmed by how much they've gotten in such a short period of time and managing it through a pandemic and doing it the right way with minority-owned businesses as partners. They've done great. They're terrific.

I've spent a fair amount of time in the old Crew Stadium in Columbus. There's been an evolution of what MLS stadiums are. How would you compare some of those early stadiums, Crew Stadium or the old Fire stadium in Bridgeview, to the new facility. The new Crew facility cost 10 times what the original one did.

Every journey starts with a small step, and if you don't get on the road, you're not going to be able to have a path to achieving your goals. Mapfre Stadium will still be a part of the Columbus Crew infrastructure plan. It's going to be where their second team is going to play, where their academy is going to be based. I've looked at the renovation of that. It's remarkable. Their training ground is going to be out there.

It's been repurposed. It served its goals, served its purpose for Major League Soccer because it created the concept. Soccer-specific stadiums didn't exist until Lamar Hunt came up with the name. Then the stadiums that came after that, whether it's in Colorado or in Houston or in Chicago, have all sort of taken Crew Stadium to a next level but those stadiums are becoming nearly 20 years old. Think about what happens in many sports facilities: At some point, those stadiums have to either be dramatically renovated or need to be repurposed.

We've seen that with Columbus. The new Field is just spectacular. It is overwhelming how big and dramatic it is and it's downtown, which is exactly where we want to be. We've seen the life arc of a stadium in, at least in my tenure. That's pretty cool.

You've talked a lot about Liga MX and some kind of partnership with the Mexican league. There are certainly markets like New York and Houston and Dallas and even New York that have kind of larger Mexican fan bases. That certainly makes a lot of sense. What would you say to a Nashville fan when there maybe aren’t those team ties or that kind of league tie?

It's a really good question. I think if you're a soccer fan, you want your club to win trophies. In football, or soccer and football, you could win the league trophy, but you can also win the amateur cup trophy, our U.S. Open Cup. You can win the Champions League trophy, which is a regional tournament.

All of these competitions are so unique in the world of North American sports because there's only one World Series. Outside of the Olympics every four years, you're not seeing your players perform in any other competition. That's what makes the game beautiful. This idea that you've got to be managing your roster and you're going to be playing against teams that are not part of your league. You're going to be broadcasting and seeing them on channels that would not be the traditional broadcast channels and all of those things — at least for us in the soccer business — add to the beauty of the game.

As it relates to Leagues Cup, this is not going to be that hard for people to understand. We just beat the Mexicans in the Gold Cup. We beat them in the Nations League. You got our rivals down south who really, really are very competitive with us. They've got a great league and they've done a great job.

There's been some effort here in Nashville trying to bring Major League Baseball. For a market like Nashville, are you worried that another major league could hurt in terms of the amount of sponsorship dollars available in a market and the amount of fans available within the market with disposable income?

I think that's a decision that the city leaders need to make to determine if they're going to be able to find a site for a stadium. This is a growing commercial market. I'm sure by the time, when and if a baseball team comes in, there'll probably be twice as many companies in Nashville than there are today.

As it relates to the fan base, there's very little crossover between our league and baseball. Baseball has the oldest fan base in sports and MLS has the youngest fan base in sports. We don't really see that crossover in markets where there are multiple pro sport and major league teams. I just think Nashville is such a great, growing city. If it makes sense for those who want to bring other leagues in here, that's a decision they'll make and we'll be successful regardless.

Like what you read?

Click here to make a contribution to the Scene and support local journalism!