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It Seems To Me . . .

MLS commissioner Garber has made enormous strides during his brief time in office.

By Robert Wagman
SoccerTimes

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Wednesday, November 17, 1999) -- I don't know what Major League Soccer is paying Don Garber. But whatever it is, it probably isn't enough. He has officially been MLS commissioner for a little over two months, but I personally think he has already made huge strides towards advancing the league.

We need to go back a step to put what Garber has done in some perspective. I was a big fan of his predecessor, Doug Logan. I genuinely liked the man (and still do), and I found him open, approachable and always unfailingly pleasant. But I think Logan had two blind spots. The longer he held the job, and the more criticism he came under, the more defensive he got. I guess that's understandable. But late in his tenure, Logan would not admit to a mistake, no matter how seemingly trivial.

Logan's second blind spot, goes directly to many of the changes MLS will undergo next season at Garber's insistence. Both Logan, and now Garber, break potential MLS fans down into three groups: diehard fans who Garber describes as "those for whom soccer is a real part of their daily lives," casual fans who Garber describes as "having some connection with the sport," such as players or family of players, and lastly fans who might be lured through the turnstiles for the entertainment value -- such as business persons entertaining customers or employees, or those who will go to an occasional match for the spectacle.

Obviously, MLS must derive its core support from the first two groups. Doug Logan's blind spot, I believe, was to realize, or at least to admit, that there can be tension between these two groups, and that you could alienate one while trying to market to the other.

Logan's answer to how you draw in the casual fan was to make the game more palatable to an "Americanized" audience. The shootout, the descending scoreboard clock, the playoff set-up, all were concessions to luring this casual audience. Garber to his credit, did not take long to become convinced that by making the game MLS-style, fundamentally different from the sport everywhere else in the world, the league was alienating many of those fans who should be providing the core support, while at the same time not drawing in the so-called casual fan.

"This league got off to a good start in 1996," Garber said. "There was a lot of interest. We have not been able to capture and hold a great deal of this interest. We need to start winning it back."

The operating strategy before Garber was to assume that this "core" fan group had nowhere else to go for its soccer fix. It would come even to see this Americanized version. What the league has found, as Garber readily admits, is that there is plenty of soccer available on television to satiate the fan without having to go to MLS matches.

"The concept of reconfiguring the rules," Garber told a telephone press conference today, "was based on the original thought that the American soccer fan had different tastes than soccer fans from outside the U.S. What we found through research, and the fervor that has surrounded the issue, is that there are millions, or tens of millions, of soccer fans in this country who have grown up playing (or watching) soccer without a shootout and this league had bypassed this market. What we need to do is to build our fan base around the core soccer fan, and build from that base out."

There have been numerous complaints about the seeming haphazard approach to television scheduling. Garber is well on his way to fixing that with the announcement that the combination of ABC, ESPN and ESPN2 will broadcast a Saturday night game-of-the-week for almost the entire season, and in some cases broadcast East Coast-West Coast doubleheaders.

The realignment from two six-team conferences to three groups of four,should make the season more interesting because the playoff teams will be close to if not the eight best regardless of conference. The realignment will allow a shortened season should the league decide on a reduction from 32 to 28 games when the schedule is announced Friday. It will also actually help with expansion.

Garber has started a much needed dialogue between MLS and United States Soccer Federation so their schedules mesh better. Hopefully the MLS season will not be as affected by national team call-ups, although the Sydney Olympics might come at exactly the same time as the MLS playoffs. Also, MLS promises to give more weight to the Open Cup and to integrate it better into the MLS schedule.

Somewhat overshadowed in the announcement of the procedural changes is the fact that Garber and MLS marketing vice president Randy Bernstein have managed to renew the critical sponsorship deals with Pepsi, Honda and Budweiser. As always, MLS is closed mouthed about dollar amounts, by reportedly all renewed at about the same levels as their original contracts, and Pepsi has agreed to expanded cross-marketing programs that could be worth a lot more to MLS then dollars and cents.

"We've taken the first steps to improving the league," Garber said. "We're not done. We will see what we need to do to grow this league and we will do it."

Hey, this has been a pretty eventful two months. With no offense meant towards Doug Logan, Don Garber is making a believer out of me.

Robert Wagman’s "It Seems To Me . . ." column appears weekly on SoccerTimes. He can be e-mailed at SoccerWag1@aol.com.

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