Tuesday, February 14, 2023

Garber's 2023 Pre-season Interview

Like last season, Don Garber took a more quiet approach to his annual preseason interview with the Sports Business Journal than in previous years. Gone are phrases like "we'll be a top league in 10 years." Instead, it's more about getting off the ground with Apple and expansion (league size and growing interest overseas).

Reposting the interview because for some it may be behind a paywall (not just now, but forever). SBJ is a good media outlet. I subscribed for a number of years to their print version.


SBJ Q&A: Don Garber

The MLS commissioner sounds off on expansion, new ideas and a certain media rights deal that the whole industry is watching BY ALEX SILVERMAN

Don Garber’s 24th year as commissioner of Major League Soccer might be his most ambitious yet. Not only does the league welcome a 29th team in St. Louis City SC and its accompanying new stadium, it has designs by year’s end of announcing its 30th franchise, which will give it the same number as Major League Baseball and the NBA. This summer also will mark an expansion of the Leagues Cup with Mexico’s Liga MX, allowing every club from those leagues to participate.

Still, even those steps take a backseat to the development the entire sports industry is most focused on: the start of MLS’s 10-year, $2.5 billion media rights deal with Apple, which makes the league the first to go all-in with a tech company.

Garber sat down with Sports Business Journal for a discussion around all of those topics and more. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

What has the process of preparing for the debut of MLS Season Pass with Apple been like for you over the past few months?

This has been an all-hands-on-deck project for the entire MLS system, from our owners to our chief business officers to leaguewide staff that deals directly with fans. It’s a unique, almost unprecedented opportunity for a league to actually partner with a media company — not the least of which is the leading technology company in the world — and to capitalize on their entire ecosystem of brand, of subscription experts, design and technology and engineering experts.  

It’s been an enormous undertaking and one that’s been really fun and exciting. Every day spending time with Gary Stevenson and Seth Bacon and the staff — I just came from a design meeting on the new whip-around show, looking at openings and other design elements. Every touchpoint we have with them, you walk away and just feel so good about how best-in-class they are in product quality, product design, branding and consumer-facing expertise. 

What are your measures for success in the first year of the long-term partnership with Apple?

We’re far from having any analytics related to that. Year 1 is going to be about getting MLS Season Pass up and running, obviously producing over 600 soccer matches and all of the the aspects of building out what is going to be a 10-year partnership. We’ve got plenty of time to measure and evaluate success, but right now we’re working really hard to get the product up and delivered for our fans [for the first game] on Feb. 25.  

We’re very pleased with the launch on Feb. 1 and all the content that our teams produced in their respective “club rooms.” Think about that: 29 MLS teams have literally 10 episodes that they could provide their fans that are organized as seasons in ways that streaming customers are used to. We’re very, very impressed with the platform and the initial delivery to our fans, and I’m really proud of our clubs, who in a very short period of time produced some really compelling content. 

The Leagues Cup is expanding this year to include every team in MLS and LigaMX.GETTY IMAGES

You recently announced linear TV deals with Fox and Univision to complement the streaming offering from Apple. Do you and Apple feel as though you’ve struck the right balance between linear and streaming, as well as free and paid content?

We and Apple are partners together, and the best partnerships are aligned around delivering the most value and opportunity and ease of access to fans. 

In this case, the combination of our relationship with Fox and Univision, along with the amount of programming that’ll be in front of the Apple paywall, we’re convinced will lead our fans to want more. There’ll be an unprecedented amount of content living on Season Pass, not just every game and all the other programming, but deep in-depth content that fans will want and ultimately will see the value in purchasing when they get a Season Pass subscription. So, there’s just great alignment between our two companies on this concept.

How significant is the Apple deal for MLS in terms of the potential to grow the league’s global audience?

We are playing the global game and we’re not yet a global league. No different than any other soccer league around the world, we recognize that we have an opportunity through the diversity and international nature of our player pool and the global appeal of our game to be able to open up new markets. The Apple relationship is going to accelerate our ability to achieve that.

St. Louis City SC has broken numerous commercial records for MLS expansion teams since the franchise was awarded in 2019. What is its revenue potential?

They expect to be at the top of the revenue list, certainly among the leaders in the league. They’ve shattered all sorts of records for season-ticket deposits, they’ve done well on the commercial side. I think the stadium will drive lots and lots of events outside of just soccer games. There’s going to be offices, hospitality and retail there. All those things come together to drive revenue and that’s what we hope to see with all of our teams. Think of this as the real re-imagining of what downtown St. Louis can be, not just for St. Louis City, but also as a way to anchor a really optimistic future for the entire city. 

What are your hopes for the new expanded Leagues Cup with Liga MX?

We recognize that there’s so much competition in the international soccer space and we are still one of the younger domestic major leagues here in the U.S., so we’ve got to take advantage of the global opportunity that exists with our sport. The best way to do that is to create meaningful competition with our closest neighbor, where they’ve got tens of millions of fans here in the U.S., and obviously many millions of fans around the world.   

We believe that we’ve got this incredible opportunity to deliver our fans something that is truly meaningful: official competition against Mexico. I’m very, very excited about it. It’s a great lead-in to the World Cup in 2026. All of us are aligned here in this region about utilizing the World Cup as rocket fuel for the sport in the region, and this is just one of the many programs that we’ll have as part of our 2026 plan.  

I also think that CONCACAF should be as important and as influential as any other confederation in the world of global football.

Where do things stand on expanding to 30 teams, and with Sacramento, Las Vegas and San Diego in particular?

We do hope to be able to achieve that by the end of the year. Discussions continue in all three markets. Sacramento has been on our list for many years, and both the city and the state continue to be focused on how an MLS team could be an anchor to some urban redevelopment in that community. We continue to have discussions with investors to see whether or not there’s a deal that could make sense for all of us.  

Las Vegas remains a priority market for us. We love the energy in the city and all the focus on how sports can provide real value for an increasingly growing city. We are in discussions with investors on how they could come together, whether it be in a soccer-specific stadium or an alternative approach, but nothing new to add there.  

We’re also engaged in discussions with investors in San Diego about possibilities there. I love the market, it is a gateway city to Mexico, and with our increased programming and increasingly closer relationship with Liga MX, San Diego is a priority market. 

Looking beyond MLS, how are you feeling about the broader state of soccer in the U.S. with the men’s World Cup coming in North America on the horizon?

The next 3½ years will be the most exciting time in the history of the sport in North America. I am really impressed with the development of the NWSL and all of the things that they’ve been able to do to build their league and attract interest from investors and cities across the country, and I hope to see that continue to develop. Youth soccer is exploding in our country and is developing at a level that most people wouldn’t believe would have ever happened years ago when participation had been flattening out.  

I’m so pleased with Cindy Cone, who has been a very active and successful president of U.S. Soccer. She leads with a very quiet, yet very steady and focused hand. We couldn’t ask for a better leader for our federation, and I’m pleased with all of the development that she’s had in the staff of the federation, the signing of JT Batson (as CEO) and the rounding out of their employee base.

All of that comes together to position soccer as a really, really growing and terrific opportunity for fans and for investors throughout our country. 

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