WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Despite four straight days of negotiations, there was a spring in the step of Major League Soccer (MLS) commissioner Don Garber as he left the offices of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service on Wednesday.
A new five-year collective bargaining agreement between the league and the players union ensured that MLS’s 20th season will begin on time on Friday with no damaging work stoppage.
“It allows us to keep the momentum going,” said a smiling Garber, who after weeks of uncertainty was quickly back in his familiar mode of talking up the progress of the league he has headed since 1999.
Just before the talks with the MLSPU entered their intensive final stages, Garber spoke to Reuters in an interview about the league’s 20th season, looking back on the ups and downs of a league that many sceptics wondered would make it past infancy.
”I took over at a time when soccer was really so immature in our country,“ said Garber, who had previously worked for the NFL. ”It was hard to have any vision as to what we would be 15 years later.
”For sure, in 1999 when I came in, MLS was still operating as a start-up, we were raising money, trying to figure out our short-term strategy so that we could establish a long-term plan and vision.
“While we had some of the key building blocks in place, so much has shifted both in the market and in our own plans that we have evolved to be a business that is probably very different to how a lot of people thought it would be when it was founded.”
The ‘start-up’ MLS had some teams who were actually owned by the league itself and Garber was given the task of finding owners for Dallas, San Jose and Tampa Bay.
MLS has since doubled in size from the 10 teams that started the first season in 1996. But it is also a league that has put down roots in communities across North America, moving away from stadium-sharing in over-sized NFL venues.
”We had to find a way to create homes of our own,“ said Garber. ”The year before I took over, Crew Stadium was built in Columbus and we saw early positive returns from that.
“The owners felt that we needed to embark on a stadium development plan and we have done that.”
‘Soccer Specific Stadiums’, in the jargon of MLS, became the key to the league’s growth with impressive new venues allowing teams to generate extra revenue and develop a clear identity.
“Kansas City is probably the best example of how the soccer market in the U.S and Canada has changed in the last 15 years,” said Garber. “Sporting Park is one of the best soccer stadiums of its size anywhere in the world.”
The Kansas City team moved out of stadium-sharing to its own 18,500 venue in 2011, and changed its name from the cheesy early-MLS ‘Wizards’ to Sporting Kansas City.
“A local owner ... took a very small market that had been struggling and turned it into a team that has had 38 straight sell-outs and now is the envy of many teams in MLS and even some around the world,” said Garber.
“That is a great case study of what can happen if you connect the dots between right owner, right market and right stadium.”
While the league has undergone impressive growth, it has not all been plain sailing and some clubs did not make it to the 20th season.
The Tampa Bay Mutiny and Miami Fusion were shut down in 2002 and Garber says his toughest decision was to pull the plug on the struggling Chivas USA team in Los Angeles last year, an ill-fated link-up with Mexican club Chivas de Guadalajara.
“We are going to make mistakes, not every decision will be right and we have to have the courage to go in another direction,” he said.
Boldness is certainly not missing when Garber talks about the future of MLS in 20 years’ time.
“We hope and expect that we would be among the best soccer leagues in the world at that time,” he said.
Editing by Mark Lamport-Stokes