Dure: Garber picks media battles wisely before 20th MLS Cup

A classic Saturday Night Live sketch from the 1990s: Candidate Bill Clinton (played by the late, great Phil Hartman) is at a town hall meeting. The questions are inane, and moderator Ted Koppel (Dana Carvey) loses patience with the audience.

A young woman (Melanie Hutsell) steps to the microphone. “Uh … it’s like … you look all around, and you see all this STUFF! And everybody’s got stuff but me, man. It’s like … where’s mine? Where’s MY stuff?”

Clinton: “Well that’s a very good point. And I think if this election is about anything, it’s about … stuff.”

Clinton spins it into an eloquent point about this generation possibly being worse off than the preceding one. Koppel grows more annoyed.

MLS commissioner Don Garber doesn’t pander the way Phil Hartman’s Clinton character did. In his Thursday appearances at a “State of the League” conference call and a Facebook chat, he faced substantial questions from media as well as superficial questions from fans.

mls crest1The latter was simply the way the comments and questions were selected. Garber wasn’t going to answer “When will you resign?” or anything about promotion/relegation. Or “When will you make tacos the official food of the MLS?” He talked about his love of fishing, his farm, his musical tastes and his dogs.

“This is a lot easier than the State of the League,” he quipped during the Facebook chat.

And it was. In the State of the League call, Garber was grilled about financial transparency, minority hiring, why a stalled expansion effort in Miami should take precedence over an enthusiastic bid from Sacramento, and several other pressing league issues.

So it’s not that Garber is ducking the tough questions. But he is side-stepping some of the more vocal elements of U.S. soccer fandom.

He hinted at his reticence in his comments at BlazerCon, as transcribed by Jonathan Tannenwald:

“You know, on Twitter, how you’ve got that notifications thing? Mine is turned off. I can’t look at it, because if I look at it, it doesn’t matter what’s happening, it doesn’t even have anything to do with MLS, people [dump] all over the commissioner.”

It’s tough to blame him. The questions he faced in the conference call were about actual league business. If he spent an hour on Twitter, he could end up sucked into the whirling vortex of promotion/relegation talk or conspiracy theories about Portland or whatever is agitating a few people at a given time. Or just reading random abuse. (Or random compliments, or random news stories in which his Twitter ID is tossed in for no obvious reason.)

Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl did ask about a hypothetical MLS 1 and MLS 2 with promotion and relegation. Garber’s answer was short: “It’s not something we’ve contemplated.”

Which frankly means that promotion and relegation wouldn’t happen even if Garber left office tomorrow. He’s the focal point, but the owners run the league. They’d rather invest in players, youth academies and stadiums, not risking the capital they need for such endeavors in a promotion/relegation system. It’s a popular topic of conversation on Twitter, and it occasionally sucks in pundits. But it’s not Topic A at MLS, just as it never was in the old NASL.

MLS Commissioner Don Garber.Here’s the tricky part, though — today’s young adults, as Garber mentioned early in the State of the League when reflecting on 20 years of MLS, don’t remember a time before the league existed. In many ways, that’s good.

But it means the underlying question of MLS has changed. In 1999, when Garber took office, the question was, “Will soccer ever survive in the USA?” Now it’s a different question: “Can MLS flourish alongside the Premier League, Champions League and other popular soccer programming?”

Those of us of a certain age remember when English-language soccer broadcasts were rare. Maybe a Monday evening tape-delayed Premier League game. Maybe a regional broadcast of an A-League game. Now American viewers can watch more Premier League games live than a lot of English viewers.

Millennials seem to like soccer far more than previous generations did. But they’re also more discerning and demanding. (Some would say whiny, but we’ll be nice. Besides, didn’t we all think a little too highly of ourselves when we were 24? Humility comes when you’ve had a few career setbacks, or when you have kids and you realize how difficult parenting can be.)

Garber was bullish, though, on his league’s prospects with young adults:

“You’ve got to deliver what it is they want. It’s why we continue to stay focused on our system and evolve it as the market continues to shift. While they are very focused on international leagues, they are the core of our fan base. The Millennial population and Gen Z is a greater percentage of the MLS fan base than it is the NFL, NBA, MLB fan base.”

So what we can take away from Garber’s media time leading up to Sunday’s MLS Cup is this: He’s confident. He has the confidence to pick his battles. He even has the confidence to talk more frankly about the league’s nadir in 2001, giving more details in recent weeks than he did when I wrote Long-Range Goals, a history of the league, in the late ‘00s. At that time, the league’s remaining owners — Phil Anschutz, Lamar Hunt and Robert Kraft — had a stark choice between piling in hundreds of millions of dollars or giving up. They chose the former.

MLS still faces tough questions ahead. It’s battling for TV ratings in a crowded sports landscape. The quality of play could always be better. Youth clubs are questioning its policies on transfer fees. The Miami area may soon have multiple NASL teams and no MLS stadium prospects. But if Garber didn’t want to face these challenges, he’d retire to his farm or find something else to do.

And the impertinent questions and insults he ignores on Twitter are surely far easier to handle than leading a league on the brink of extinction.

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Beau Dure has written three books on soccer, including Long-Range Goals: The Success Story of Major League Soccer.