Don Garber spent 16 years working in various capacities for the NFL before becoming Major League Soccer’s commissioner in 1999. He has since spent 16 years at MLS, helping it establish solid footing after a rocky start. Garber, in town Wednesday to announce that Minnesota had been awarded an MLS expansion franchise, spoke with the Star Tribune’s Michael Rand:
Q How long have you wanted to get into this market?
A Really, it’s only been about a year and a half. The Twin Cities were not on our original list. They weren’t on our second list. They weren’t on our third list when we were putting together our expansion plans. Then Bill McGuire bought the minor league team … and put together a good organization and fell in love with the sport. Very quickly he thought it would be good for the community to come into Major League Soccer.
Q What was the tipping point that made you say, “Bill McGuire is the guy I want in my league”?
A It was a passionate commitment to the sport and a devotion to building a soccer-specific stadium in the urban core. You add to that the fact that he brought Glen Taylor, the Pohlads and Wendy Carlson Nelson into the ownership group and it became even more compelling. … We love the Wilfs. They are great NFL owners and they are building a spectacular stadium. They would have been committed MLS owners if we didn’t have an alternative.
Q Some people still talk about the four major pro sports leagues being the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL. What do you think about that, and how do you change that?
A I do notice it, and I generally hear that from those who are nonbelievers. When you’re involved in launching a pro sports league, it’s a cause. And not everybody believes in that cause. But there are more and more believers today than there were two years, five years ago, and certainly 10 or 20 years ago. … I spent most of my career with the NFL. When I would travel, I would invariably be sitting next to a guy and he’d ask me what I do. When I said I worked for the National Football League, I’d have to listen to him chatter in my ear for two hours. Then I took the MLS job, and they’d say, “Soccer will never make it in America.” But that doesn’t happen today. It’s remarkable how the demographics have shifted so quickly. People know us, believe in us and actually kind of hope the little guy actually makes it.
Q There are still American soccer fans who watch the World Cup and watch the English Premier League but haven’t quite latched onto MLS. How do you capture that fan?
A Our greatest strength is one of our biggest challenges, and that is we’re playing a global game. The other leagues have been around for 100 years and have player salaries and television contracts far greater than ours. What we’ve been able to do in a short period of time is convert the soccer fan into being an MLS fan faster than we thought we could. Years ago, we had almost no chance. Today when you have some great world-class players, the core of the U.S. men’s national team, terrific stadiums, good brands and three television contracts, it’s easier to connect the dots.