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What It Will take to Make It Work

COACH: After an awesome tenure as a marketer and international CEO with the National Football League, you have chosen to cast your future in what is apparently a new sport for you. What induced you to move into professional soccer as Commissioner/President/ CEO of Major League Soccer?

GARDER: We believe there are only five major sports in this country and soccer is the fifth. The opportunity to run a major sport, or soon-to-be major sport, presents a unique challenge for anyone in this business. It only happens once in a lifetime.

Now is as good a time as any to take some bold steps in my career and it's been an exciting run so far.

COACH: Did you have an opportunity to follow the maturation of MLS? And what was your perception of the league watching it from afar?

GARBER: I have been able to follow the league because this is a very small business we work in. The major leagues are all close in proximity and the commissioners from the respective leagues chat often, and the marketing and properties groups are always in touch. As an insider in the sports business, I was very aware of MLS' continued growth.

Two of MLS' owners, Lamar Hunt and Robert Kraft, are NFL owners and were very involved in the startup of the soccer league. They were two guys that I reported to on the NFL International Committee and my strong relationships with them gave me a sense of where MLS was heading.

COACH: As the Lord of Everything you survey in professional soccer, what are you going to focus on first?

GARBER: We have very vital short-term goals, needs and challenges that have to be addressed immediately. Then we have a much broader long-term strategy to work on in establishing a path to grow our business for the long haul.

Some of the short-term items will give us a better understanding of our fan base. We've been doing research on our fan base, especially as it compares to the other sports. What kinds of trends are taking place since the league's inception in 1996? That information gathering is key before we decide what changes are necessary.

Some of our rules, the length of our schedule, and our television presence have been issues plaguing the league since it started.

COACH: Is expansion in your immediate plans?

GARBER: The previous commissioner, Don Logan, stated that MLS would expand by two teams by 2001 and I still think that's a goal. Whether we'll be able to hit that mark is still too early for me to say.

Expansion is a priority and I think we need a broader national footprint and we need to have coverage outside our 12 major markets to present our game to a broader representation of American sports fans. You need to do that while still protecting and keeping true to the quality of the game, and that's something we are considering in terms of the timing of expansion.

COACH: The general thinking in the media is that professional soccer needs national heroes, as in the other professional sports. How does one go about establishing meaningful big-name players?

GARBER: I see absolutely no reason why our soccer players cannot be heroes. They've got all the aspirational qualities that every other professional athlete has and I believe that they are even more accessible in terms of who they are and where they come from. And I think they are much easier to identify with than most athletes.

We need to spend more time working with our corporate partners and marketing initiatives to get these guys more exposure. These guys are young, well-educated, and good-looking, and are in no way prohibited from having greater star value.

COACH: Are you satisfied with the marketing job that MLS has been doing and have you initiated any new plans in that direction?

GARBER: I think our marketing direction up to now has been driven by sponsor relationships. The league has depended on sponsor revenue to help drive our economic model and that won't change. The sponsor revenue is still a major priority. We do need to do a better job of understanding our customer/fan in terms of addressing their needs.

That involves grass roots marketing, star-building and star power, general advertising and media promotional programming, and a better television and broadcasting programming slate. These are the initiatives the other leagues work on everyday when they get out of bed. MLS has not been getting out of bed and thinking about the presentation of its sport to its fan base.

For the last three and half years, our leaders have been working hard in putting together a league and they deserve a lot of credit for that. We are now saying that we are here to stay, the product is good, the teams are established, and none of the teams are moving. We've got brands in 12 markets, but we now have to explode our product and attract a much larger group of potential fans.

COACH: Are you contemplating any changes in the game itself that might stimulate scoring? Americans are weaned on home runs, three-point baskets, 50-yard forward passes, and hat tricks. They have problems living with scoreless ties and shoot-outs. Is anything visible being done in this area?

GARBER: There are plenty of NBA fans who like three-point plays and NFL fans who enjoy touchdowns. But there are nearly 50 million fans who love soccer because it is a strategic, highly anticipated hour and a half that doesn't necessarily have to have the scoring that you will see in football and basketball.

Until we are able to get those fans into the fold, we are not going to explode out to people who aren't really soccer fans. I don't think we have a large percentage of people who can be drawn into the game over night.

Our fans are kids who play, people who are watching the Women's World Cup, going to the World Cup games, playing at the grass roots revel, and nobody in that group is complaining about goal scoring.

But, we don't have a large enough percentage of such people in the fold as yet. The problem is this: Do we have to change the game in order to achieve a much broader fan base?

Until we solidify the people who are already soccer-involved, we shouldn't be thinking of going outside that box.

COACH: Although America has a tremendous youth program, there is still a huge gap in the quality of our players and the internationalists. Does the MLS have any teaching programs that seek to close this gap?

GARBER: We need to get much more involved in improving the quality of our player pool long term, and also in connecting them to our league and teams as fans. It's much too early to tell you what those tactics will be, but it's an absolute necessity to wrap our hands around it.

COACH: MLS has consistently defended its TV rating by comparing it with the ratings of the National Hockey League. Where do you realistically see ratings going in the next few years?

GARBER: That's a tough question because we're still a baby at this. The other leagues have been around for 75 to 100 years and it's unfair to judge our stability and viability by our ratings week by week.

Ratings define the market value of various properties because the industry uses ratings as their barometer. Since television is an important driver of awareness and credibility, you must have a valuable enough property to have broadcast coverage.

We know that the WNBA and the NHL have ratings similar to ours, yet they are valuable properties to ESPN and NBC. MLS' job is to become a valuable commodity to our broadcast partners beyond just the ratings.

COACH: What are the similarities between developing a successful American football league in Europe, and making a European sport successful in the States?

GARBER: That's the big challenge and the million-dollar question. I think we (NFL) succeeded in Europe by establishing a connection with the local communities and local sporting organizations and by making the NFL and American football important in their lives. Making soccer more important to people in this country is a huge part of the MLS mission.

Our teams must become valuable commodities on the local levels, our players must become meaningful role models, and the league must develop great television programming. These are issues we need to address in creating a long-term vision for the league.

Few doubt that soccer is going to catch on in this country. My challenge is to get it a little more connected than it has been in the past. I certainly don't have all the answers yet, but I am very optimistic. We will be able to grow our fan base, and once we do that, we'll be able to grow those increased numbers into fans, ticket buyers, and TV watchers.

COACH: The U.S. women's national team came off a hugely successful World Cup of its own. What did you learn from the women's game that could make the MLS product even better?

GARBER: I think the women's national team was successful because they knew how to position themselves and worked hard to get people to pay attention to them. Their grass roots marketing effort -- in which they set up tents at local youth organizations -- was started three years before the World Cup. People forget that.

Three years ago there were 5,000 people coming out for the games. That number has swelled to 50,000. They worked hard fan by fan, community by community, to convince people that the World Cup would be a meaningful event.

The players were out signing autographs, shaking hands and convincing people to buy tickets. MLS needs to do the same thing. Soccer has to work hard to create fans.

COACH: What role do you see MLS having, if any, in a future women's professional league?

GARBER: MLS has been meeting with the people who are working on the plan to bring a women's professional league to this country. It would make sense to have a combined professional league in some way. We'd love to figure out a way to make that work for everybody.

COACH: In its four-year existence, MLS has geared its marketing efforts towards soccer moms, youth programs, and Hispanics. Will that strategy change in year five? And can the league conjoin such diverse demographics?

GARBER: I think you can. One of the real values we have is that our fan base represents different ethnic and gender groups. That's what makes us unique and quite different from other sports.

I would argue that until you can figure out whom your fans are, where you need help, and where you need to grow in certain areas, it's hard to say which group we will be concentrating on.

The task now is to figure out which fans do we have, what fan base don't we have, who did we have, who did we lose, and how are we going to recapture them.
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Article Details
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Author:Mazzola, Gregg
Publication:Coach and Athletic Director
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 1999
Previous Article:How to Talk to the Soccer Official.

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