Talking with the Don: MLS commissioner talks soccer ahead of Sporting KC home opener

Kansas City’s professional soccer team finally has a place to call home this season after playing 10 games on the road during the past two and a half months. The team’s homecoming is much anticipated, as it also marks the grand opening of LIVESTRONG Sporting Park, a state-of-the-art new stadium near the Legends shopping center.

Thursday night’s home opener against the Chicago Fire at 9 p.m. will be well attended. Fewer than 200 tickets remained Wednesday evening and the team is making 1,500 standing-room-only tickets available for those who want to get a glimpse of the new digs. A number of VIPs are expected in the crowd Thursday including NFL player and Sporting Kansas City reserve team member Chad Ochocinco and the boss, Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber.

Garber, who took over MLS late in 1999, took a few minutes to discuss the league and where he wants it to go.

JP: With the expansion teams this year and the ones planned for the future, and with soccer-specific stadiums being built, is this the direction you envisioned for the league at this point?

Don Garber: Well, certainly we’re on the right path to make the sport more and more popular in our country and drive greater levels of financial success. But this wasn’t necessarily the plan that the original founders had years ago. I think in any business as you go through, understanding what the challenges are and how the opportunity changes, you need to evolve your plan. For example, the idea of a soccer-specific stadium was not an original part of the MLS business model. It was in essence to be tenants in buildings and be counter-seasonal programming. We learned very quickly — and Lamar Hunt was the one who wrote the book — that any sports team and its fans and players need to have a home that they can call their own and the evolution of that plan led to where we are today where we have 10 soccer-specific stadiums and the majority of our clubs playing in buildings that are built specifically for the sport.

JP: Why do you think it’s been so difficult for MLS to be mainstream in the U.S.? Is it the advertising? Is it the national perception that soccer is not as popular as it is in the rest of the world?

Don Garber: I think what’s mainstream today was different from what it was yesterday and certainly very different from what it will be tomorrow. Soccer clearly is the sport for a changing America and one that has more people like you — young folks who’ve grown up with the game and love it and want to participate when they stop playing, more people who are coming from other parts of the world where soccer is the most popular sport and landing here in cities throughout America — wanting to continue their support of a local club. And the third aspect of it is that the world is just getting smaller, and the shrinking global community is, I think, allowing soccer to more easily connect with people who in the past would not have had the opportunity to be touched by the game. All of those things are working in our favor, and I think soccer is certainly a growth business in this county and our league is the driver of the soccer business in America and I think our future is bright.

JP: Sporting Club has done some pretty progressive things as far as the direction that they’re taking and the ideas that they’re bringing for the stadium and the area soccer community. How does the management with Sporting Club compare with the big market teams in New York or L.A.?

Don Garber: We are very excited about the ownership here in Kansas City. I think if you’re a soccer fan you should feel proud to have Cliff, Curran and Patterson as owners of your team because they believe in the sport. They’re deeply committed and passionate about the city and the region here. They have a long-term vision for what their club can be both with people here in this community but also as a leader in many ways for the sport in our country. The technology focus with Sporting KC will establish them as leaders in that area, not just in soccer but in many ways within the sports industry. The stadium is a technological marvel and one that I think many teams will look to replicate throughout our league and also throughout the sport. These are all things that I as commissioner am very pleased about. Every market has their own unique and interesting dynamic whether its market size or market demographics or whether it’s soccer commitment or history. I think folks have tapped into what they think will work in making this team more and more popular in years to come.

JP: How have you gone about getting people who are fans of the sport to become fans of MLS?

Don Garber: There’s no shortage of soccer fans in our country and our goal is to convert all those soccer fans into supporters of their local club. As we expand into more and more markets and build more terrific facilities like LIVESTRONG Sporting Park and as we get more effective marketing programs I think we’ll get closer to achieving that goal. At the end of the day, what we’re saying to the soccer fan is hey, if you love this game, there’s no better way to be a soccer fan than to support a local club. Paint your face, wear a flag, put on your team jersey and go out and support your team because that team will really provide you with a very real, passionate opportunity to show your love for the game. It’s one thing to watch a game on television on Saturday morning, or watch the World Cup every four years, it’s another thing to really believe in your club and be a supporter like many people are throughout the world. Hopefully what makes the sport so valuable around the world is the commitment of the fans. Rather than being a fan of somebody else’s team, how about coming home and being a fan of your team. Now you have a beautiful building to be able to celebrate with your team.

JP: Sporting KC and other teams have set up youth and development academies where they have a system for grooming local players for the MLS. How long do you think that process will take to really be fruitful?

Don Garber: Well I think it’s already delivering value to our club. There’s been 35 players who’ve been developed in MLS club academies that are now playing for and signed to MLS rosters. This whole MLS academy concept is very new, the MLS reserve league is only one year old so I think we’ll continue to see benefits from the investment in the soccer pyramid.

JP: When you’re watching the U.S. Men’s National Team, it’s largely a collection of players who play overseas. Do you think eventually that needs to change?

Don Garber: I don’t necessarily think that needs to happen but I do believe, in my opinion — and I’m not the coach of the team — there’s no reason why every player on the U.S. national team, with the exception of maybe two or three, couldn’t come from MLS rosters. But the coaches make the decision that they think is the right decision to make and one that he thinks will give him the best team. There are so many factors that go into it as far as the way the players are playing, our season is playing through the Gold Cup… frankly it doesn’t bother me at all that the majority of the players on the U.S. national team this summer are not coming from MLS rosters because frankly I’d like local fans be able to see those players performing for their teams.

JP: What are the next steps for the league? Where does it go from here?

Don Garber: The overall goal is to be one of the top soccer leagues in the world and I believe that in time we’ll be able to achieve that. With all the size of our population and the diversity of our population and our continued development of the soccer player here in this country, I have no doubt that at some point we could be one of the top soccer leagues in the world and we’re going to be focused on trying to achieve that.

JP: As the commissioner of MLS I’m sure you’ve had plenty of opportunities present themselves to you. What’s been the best experience in your time as commissioner?

Don Garber: Well you know there are lots of things that continue to get me excited and clearly tomorrow night will be another great moment for me personally. I have a great amount of respect for Cliff Illig and Robb Heineman, and to see their dream come true is going to bring a smile to my face. Seeing the home ownership group of Neal Patterson and Pat Curran and Greg Maday with big smiles on their faces will make me happy, and certainly there’s nothing better than seeing a packed stadium in a brand new facility with a team that can come home for the first time in many months and perform in front of their fans. Tomorrow will be a big night for me as well.