MLS had experienced steady growth and stability since its 1996 inception but the turn of the millennium would ask serious questions of soccer's viability in an extremely competitive and mature sports market.
Forward to 2007 and it is apparent--despite Garber's slow-growth, long-term business strategy--the league has come a long way in a very short space of time.
By 2011 the league expects to have 18 teams, and the burgeoning reputation of MLS for competitive soccer has attracted the likes of former England Captain David Beckham and Mexican super star Cuauht?moc Blanco.
Don Garber sat down with Soccer365's Andrew Rogers to talk MLS and the sport's future.
When you came into the MLS, how would you describe its health?
When I first arrived I felt pretty good about the league. It was very new then and had come off a very successful launch in 1996 and then suffered from what we would call a sophomore slump in 1998. I think that led to a change in management direction in 1999. We felt at the time the league was in pretty good shape and all we needed to do was to start focusing in on better local team management and continued investment in players.
At that time there was only one soccer specific stadium--in Columbus--and we realized we needed to build more stadiums.
But early on you had to deal with some very lean times for the business.
In 2000/2001 we went through some real challenging times, we folded two teams in Florida, and contracted a number of teams in the league. The economy was suffering from a new media bubble that was affecting the overall robustness of the sponsorship community, and as most probably know, we went through reorganization at that time.
It was not as bad as people thought back than but it got pretty challenging for a few years after I arrived.
Is there an argument to suggest Juan Pablo Angel and Cuauht?moc Blanco are more important than Beckham on the MLS strategy?
It is not that Angel or Blanco are more important. They are all pieces of the puzzle that are coming together to make the league more popular and make the league come together.
Hopefully having Beckham here will really be one of the success stories in this country and it will be one of those moments that people look back on that helped raise MLS to higher levels. He is a fantastic player and he is bringing crowds and raising the quality of play on the field. It is a great accomplishment to have him in Major league soccer.
You also have Blanco and Angel, two terrific Latino players from Mexico and Colombia. They happen to be, by the way, the two largest Spanish audiences in the United States. They represent the hopes and dreams of all the people who have come to this country. The fans have followed Blanco since he was in Mexico, and Angel when he was in Colombia or in England for Aston Villa.
These are investments that our owners are prepared to make to grow the overall popularity of the league.
In terms of attracting personnel you need to recruit young athletes. With the young guys coming through, it appears that the compensation packages are low.? With that in mind how do you expect to recruit the top athletes?
It's the development player at the end of the roster, players 21 to 28, who are earning those developmental salaries. We are basically telling those players that rather than not play soccer because you are not good enough to be a starter on an MLS team, come in and be a developmental player. Like in England, these guys equate to reserve team or fringe players. Many of them graduate very quickly from being a development player up into the senior roster. When they do get promoted they make more money.
It is the 17 to 21 year old player who we believe has a lot to contribute from the day he signed. Jozy Altidore makes over $100,000 per year; that is probably more than any other 17 year-old athlete is making in this country.
Will the teenage market for players always be more stable than Europe or can we expect to see investments in potential start to rise?
I think the sport is not nearly as developed as it is in Europe. Revenues are not nearly what they are in the other leagues, particularly the dominant leagues.
We have to manage our business. We have to manage our expenditure in relation to our revenues. There has been a very positive development for the league in terms of our success of late and this is because of the way we have been managing our success in a very strategic way.
Should we lose sight of that and start chasing after players that would only lead to increased losses, this is the only sure thing that can comprise the future of the league. We will continue to be very focused on sound business principals to ensure this is a league not just for today it is a league for tomorrow.
So in 5 to 10 years will we be reading on the front page of USA Today that Red Bull New York will have changed hands for $500 million?
Well probably not $500 million but I think our teams will be a whole lot more valuable than they are today.