WASHINGTON, D.C. (Saturday, January 5, 2008) -- The New Year is a good time to examine the state of Major League Soccer. I'll offer my assessment of the MLS -- off and on the field in two columns, today looking at non-playing aspects.
I believe that Don Garber is arguably the most successful commissioner of any American sport. When he was hired away from the National Football League in 1998, he was given three marching orders by league owners: get a better television deal, solidify the league financially, and bring in new, substantial owners with deep pockets
Garber has succeeded in all three probably beyond anyone's near-term expectations.
When Garber took over, the league was buying itself onto television. MLS was paying all production costs and was getting air time under a complex revenue sharing deal with its broadcast partners, predominately ESPN. That has been completely reversed. Under the new TV contract, it is reported -- and MLS gets very closed-mouthed about its financial dealings - ESPN\ABC is paying MLS a rights fee and has assumed all production costs. The dollar amounts are unknown and certainly nowhere near NFL or Major League Baseball numbers, but whatever they are, it's a step forward.
Additionally, Garber has brought on major Hispanic broadcast partners and the league's exposure through international broadcasts has grown exponentially.
When Garber took over, the league was not in any danger of imminent failure thanks to the very deep pockets and the deep commitments of its founding investor-operators, but its financial future was far from secure. Today, while MLS might not be making a profit, its financial future now seems secure.
Moreover, the league's financial health -- at least relatively -- serves as an endorsement of its single-entity ownership structure, its strict salary cap adherence, and its conservative, go-slow policy. Now with that financial footing well established, the league can begin spending more through its "designated player" concept -- allowing each team to play one player beyond salary-cap restrictions -- and a gradually increasing cap.
Finally, when Garber took the reigns, the league was almost fully depending upon the continued dedication and largesse of Philip Anzchutz, Lamar Hunt and his family, and Robert Kraft and his family. Garber's greatest accomplishments have been the new ownership groups he has brought into the league in the New York area, Washington, Chicago, Denver, Toronto, San Jose, Calif., and now Seattle. Instead of a few guys each owning multiple teams, the league has gone a long way of reaching its goal of one team per owner.
Garber had two big targets when he came in -- Seattle's Paul Allen, the Microsoft co-founder and billionaire now turned sports impresario, and Houston's Bob McNair, owner of the NFL Texans and Reliant Stadium. Both men reportedly had reservations about soccer and more specifically MLS's single-entity structure which limits an owner's ability to spend what he wants to better his team.
With Allen a part of the new Seattle ownership group, one of the trees has fallen, so to speak. With huge crowds thronging Reliant Stadium to watch international matches, many produced by Soccer United Marketing, MLS's marketing arm, its must be clear to McNair soccer has a big future in Houston and his stadium. With Anschutz reportedly keen on divesting his Houston Dynamo franchise, the match now seems natural. Will Garber finally get his man?
One of the most interesting aspects of the broadening of the ownership base within MLS is how the new blood will change the direction of the league ownership with Anschutz, Hunt and Kraft having been a relatively small group of men with like thinking. Garber laughs that ownership group meetings have become considerably larger and "more interesting." What the impact of this might be over the next few years will be very much key to MLS's future.
Robert Wagman is SoccerTimes senior correspondent.
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