LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - With soccer-specific stadiums proliferating in the United States and 24 teams likely to be competing in Major League Soccer by 2018, Commissioner Don Garber could be forgiven for thinking that everything is rosy.
Ever the realist, though, Garber has long targeted soccer ‘ubiquity’ in the United States and he is well aware that much still needs to be accomplished before the sport becomes a perennial topic of water cooler conversation.
”We have not yet been able to create the ubiquity that exists with the other more established leagues, like the National Basketball Association and the National Football League,“ Garber told Reuters. ”That’s really our next frontier.
“That challenge is a generation in front of us but there is no doubt that the market is very ripe for Major League Soccer and we just need to stick to our knitting and be sure that we go about it in a smart and careful way.”
For Garber, the ‘Holy Grail’ is all about soccer becoming a part of the daily conversation for sports fans, rather than being largely event-driven.
“We had a front page article in the LA Times,” said Garber, referring to media coverage this week about Los Angeles Football Club, an MLS expansion team who will launch their inaugural season in 2018 after their new stadium has been built.
”I want a front page article when the Galaxy are playing Orlando, like they did at the weekend on ESPN, but we didn’t have that. We had an article in the newspaper but the LA Clippers (of the NBA) were on the front page.
“We are still a ways away from that level of intense connection but that will come in time. You can’t manufacture that.”
Overall, though, Garber is delighted with the burgeoning health of MLS where LAFC’s proposed state-of-the-art venue is likely to be either the 17th or 18th soccer-specific stadium when it opens in 2018.
“We have to remember and recognize that in 2003 Philip Anschutz built the cathedral for soccer in the United States, which is now the StubHub Center in Carson,” said Garber, 57.
Anschutz was one of the co-founders of MLS in 1995 and his Anschutz Entertainment Group owns the Galaxy along with several other sports teams, events and venues.
“That really set the stage for how we want to celebrate this game in beautiful stadium environments and how we can transform the landscape of our league by owning our own homes, as opposed to being tenants in other homes,” said Garber.
”And now here we are having a second stadium built in a city (Los Angeles) that loves the game. It’s really a good moment for Major League Soccer.
“This stadium project is almost 10 years in the making and I can’t wait for 2018 when we will open up our season perhaps with LAFC versus the LA Galaxy. I think this town will really embrace our league like never before.”
Garber joined MLS in 1999 when the priorities were to expand the league to 16 teams from 12, to establish a strategy for building soccer stadiums and to encourage investment in the sport through passionate owners while building up the fan base.
”We are continuing to manage expansion carefully,’ said Garber, who worked for the National Football League for 16 years before being appointed as MLS Commissioner in 1999.
”Unlike other parts of the world which have small leagues, this is a very big country and we also play in Canada. We have almost 400 million people represented in the two countries where we play across three time zones and multiple climate zones.
“So we can support a larger league than even the 24 teams that we are looking at by 2018. These are the good days in MLS, and we have to cherish the good days.”
Editing by Frank Pingue