Los Angeles, Nov 19: Commissioner Don Garber thought he knew what Major League Soccer was getting into when the Los Angeles Galaxy signed David Beckham more than four years ago.
Garber now realizes he had no idea what the Beckham Experience would mean for his fledgling league.
A few days before Beckham plays for his first MLS title in the final days of his Galaxy contract, Garber says the league doesn't regret inviting the English superstar to become the face of MLS in 2007.
“I underestimated the power of his celebrity by a long shot,” Garber said in an interview with The Associated Press. “I think we underestimated the challenge of (Beckham) playing for England, and we didn't expect his desire to go out on loan (to AC Milan). But I also totally underestimated how hardworking and tough he is. He will play through injury and fatigue. That warrior-like mentality was like nobody expected in MLS. This guy wants to win, and he'll do anything. He's been great for our league and for our game.”
Garber spoke at length about MLS' past while outlining his goals for the league's future, from an expansion franchise in the New York area to the growing role of supporters in MLS' competitive culture.
He's also hoping the Beckham experience lasts for at least another year, putting his weight behind the Galaxy's bid to persuade Beckham to stick around after his best MLS season concludes this year.
“I find it amusing that when David came into the league five years ago, many sports media pundits were saying how much he's over the hill,” Garber said of Beckham, whose services are coveted by Paris Saint-Germain and a handful of British clubs. “You don't hear that any more, and this is five years later.”
Garber also is happy about the Galaxy's serendipitous appearance in the MLS Cup on Sunday on their home field. Los Angeles faces the Houston Dynamo on Sunday at Home Depot Center.
“At times I'm almost envious of other leagues' championships when it ends up with a dream matchup,” Garber said, citing the recent appearances of marquee franchises such as the Yankees, Lakers and Packers in other sports' championship contests. “Those matchups always seem to deliver greater value to their league in the years to come, and we have not really experienced that.”
The Galaxy are playing the final in their home stadium, just the third time that's happened in MLS' 16 seasons.
A similar coincidence boosted the popularity of the New England Revolution in 2002, even though they lost the league title to Los Angeles at home.
Garber confirmed MLS is likely to change the championship format soon from a neutral-site game to a championship matchup at the home of the highest-seeded club.
“There's something much more special when the home team is involved,” he said, suggesting the league will consider additional changes to the playoff format in the offseason.
With exponential growth in attendance and television exposure this season, along with a 19th franchise joining the league in Montreal next year, it's clear MLS is making progress in the long-growth strategy Garber has espoused since moving to MLS in 1999 from a job with the NFL.
Yet Garber also feels the league's 35 designated-player signings have been crucial to its growth into a reputable league.
“It's hard for any young, emerging business to not be guilty at times of overhype,” Garber said. “While at times I regret how hyped we were when Freddy Adu came into the league (in 2004) or when David came in, I don't regret the excitement that David created by coming in. I had the expectation that MLS would become more popular, that we'd see improved ratings and a different attitude.”
MLS' television ratings rose on each of its platforms this season, and attendance grew more than 7 percent. MLS will appear on the new NBC Sports network next year in a lucrative deal, and the Galaxy announced a reported 10-year, $55 million deal with Time Warner Cable Sports' new network on Friday—a tenfold increase on its last deal.
Merchandise sales also are up, driven by the new layer of star players and MLS' attention to eye-catching design with an international flair.
Yet Garber said he's most pleased by the growth of what he calls “the supporter culture” around each team.
From Seattle to Philadelphia, MLS fans are emulating the involved attention given to soccer clubs on other continents in increasing numbers—and in surprising ways.
“When you're a fan of other major leagues in America, the experience is somewhat similar,” Garber said. “You're in a bright facility and you're watching your team, but there is an institutionalization of sport that in many ways forced the fan to be an observer more than a participant. In soccer, the fan is that third key constituency. We've even seen the downside of that, but that's very positive for us today. That's what we want to instill and create in our fans.”
Garber is pleased to see a proliferation of “20- to 30-year-old hipsters” in MLS crowds, wearing team garb and reveling in a sporting pursuit with a different flavor than the standard American sports enthusiast.
Garber's passion for stirring fan support is the main reason MLS is focused on putting its 20th franchise in the New York area.
The commissioner scoffed at recent reports that the New York expansion plan had stumbled, insisting the league will figure out a plan to create a natural rival for the Red Bulls.
“We believe that big markets need rivalries,” Garber said. “If we truly are engaged in the unique dynamic that drives our sport, inner-city rivalries are a big part of driving fan passion.”