PORTLAND, Ore. – At halftime of Monday’s Union-Timbers game, Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber and President of Programming for NBC Sports and NBC Sports Network Jon Miller took question from reporters.
Here are some highlights:
Do you have a ratings number yet for Sunday’s Dallas-New York game, the first MLS telecast on NBC Sports Network?
Miller: We don’t get it until [Tuesday] morning, but the early overnights were terrific.* We’re very excited, very pleased with yesterday’s performance. But I’ll be honest with you, I’ve been with NBC for 34 years and I have never seen anything like this tonight. This has blown me away.
The energy of this crowd in this weather is just spectacular, and I’ve been to NFL playoff games and World Series Game 7s. This fan base should be really proud of itself.
* - The answer: 82,000 viewers. That's not a great number, but it is a 21 percent increase from Fox Soccer Channel's average.
Commissioner, you’ve been to Portland many times before. Your thoughts on tonight?
Garber: What he said. He’s my guy. It’s just another very special day for us, a great way for us to end our opening weekend. It’s just remarkable what’s going on here. We got in here late last night from Dallas, and you could feel it in the airport. You could see the billboards walking around today.
I did an early press hit this morning and there were people lined up to get into the stadium. Some guy rolled up his arm and showed me a tattoo with the Timbers logo on his arm. It’s a great story for American soccer and great for the league.
Merritt [Paulson] and his staff have done a truly remarkable job. I think it’s only going to get bigger and better.
Having seen the atmosphere tonight, do you wish that you had delayed announcing all of the national telecasts?
Miller: When we made the deal this summer we knew we knew were embarking on a special journey. We had watched the journey of the MLS*, and we were fortunate enough to put together a package where there are going to be 50 games on the NBC Sports group, between NBC broadcast and NBC Sports Network.
We’re excited and we can only hope to build off it.
* - Yes, he said "the MLS."
Can an atmosphere like this translate to television? It doesn’t always happen with soccer.
Miller: Well, I think it’s important, and it’s incumbent on our producers. We’ve got a very bright young producer in Pierre Moossa who produced yesterday’s game and is watching this game right now. He sees this atmosphere, and it’s up to us to make sure we capture that and transfer it to television.
How high up the list of priorities is promoting this league to other countries?
Garber: It’s not the biggest priority. I had a conversation with Hank Paulson tonight, who spent most of his career and a great amount of time when he was with the government abroad. There’s a lot more buzz about our league overseas.
We haven’t talked a lot about this but we have scouts, full-time people in Argentina, Mexico and now Brazil. We have somebody in Asia. More and more, I think you’re going to see the league break out from a player development and player procurement perspective, but also from a television distribution perspective.
We’ve got to get it right here and continue to grow here, and then we can grow globally.
Commissioner Garber, you had some newsworthy comments regarding player development in your recent interview with ESPN.com’s Jeff Carlisle. Both of the teams in this game have homegrown players and have gone to other countries, most notably in South America, to get players.
Do you personally have a preference as to what path in player development and acquisition you’d like to see?
Garber: I want to see high-quality soccer. I want to have that product drive television ratings. I want to see it create the kind of environment and fan connection that we have here in Portland.
At the same time, we want to be a key driver of the U.S. national team. At the end of the day, we’ve got a primary role of creating a soccer nation in our country and having teams that matter in the community. And if while we’re doing that, we can help grow our national team, then I think that’s going to be a great byproduct.
We do have an international player limit. We work closely with our federation on that. We release our players earlier than any other country in the world. We release our players for the Olympics – we’re not required to do that. We release them early for the upcoming [U.S.] friendlies against Scotland and Brazil, and we’re not required to do that.
So we have about as close a relationship with our federation as any league does. But at the end of the day, it’s getting the right mix, the right recipe to make sure that both things happen.
From your perspective at a league level, what can teams and their supporters’ clubs do to replicate the atmosphere in Portland?
Garber: I’ve been following some social media today, and people have been talking about how special tonight is. It is very, very special. But it’s also amazing in Seattle and it was fantastic in Toronto, where the Champions League game had 47,000 people.
John was talking to the president of the Philadelphia Union [Nick Sakiewicz] who said it would be even better in Philadelphia for their game next weekend. So there’s great passion in a lot of our markets, and it continues to grow. It’s a little bigger and better than it was last year, so who knows how it will be a couple years from now.
Hopefully in markets it will continue to create a very positive dynamic of fan passion – controlled fan passion.
Even with all of its fans, is Portland a big enough market to get people across the nation interested?
Garber: Absolutely. I think we live in a country now where the market size isn’t necessarily as important as market influence. There are so many cities across the country that have a great way of influencing the way people think.
Right now, there’s a giant tech summit going on in Austin, Texas – South by Southwest. The entire media and social technology community is going down to Austin. Who would have thought that 10 years ago? It would have only been Silicon Valley or Route 128 in Boston. So I think it’s less of a concern for us than it might have been 10 years ago.
Are there certain things that the Timbers do you that you have told other teams in the league to look at replicating?
Garber: It starts with the owner being really involved, really engaged. He really gets every little detail. The president of the Union told me tonight that one of the things he has admired the most is that Merritt has listened to the fans and given them a voice, but done it in a way that’s responsible and respectable.
I applaud the Timbers Army for working closely with the league. We’re trying to replicate that dynamic around the league. I’ve spent time in their pub meetings and gone out quietly and met with their supporters groups, and that’s something I think Portland does in a pretty good way.
You mentioned the controlled aspect of it. Is that something that can get out of hand?
Garber: I think everyone in pro sports is worried about what could go wrong. I had a lot more hair when I started 12 years ago. But I think this is a different country – the soccer culture is different here than in other parts of the world.
We’ve never had any issues, and we have far fewer issues than other pro sports leagues have in terms of the numbers of fans that are asked to leave the stadium.
I think it’s that our games are shorter, our fans are younger, and they get their responsibility.
With that said, are you satisfied with what has happened in Houston with the Texian Army supporters club being restricted in its activities at road games?
Garber: What we’ve done with Houston is we’ve restricted the types of things they can do when they travel. They had an issue at MLS Cup [last November] where they were throwing things from the stands, and we said if you’re going to travel, we’re going to restrict the things that you can bring with you.
We’ve got to give them carrots and sticks to try to motivate them to be right, but if they aren’t going to do the right thing, then we have to have the kind of discipline that will prevent that from happening.
What is your initial feedback on Arlo White’s performance in his NBC Sports Network debut?
Miller: I was so proud of Arlo White. I had heard him and I heard his tape. We listened to a lot of different people and he is the real deal.
Any update on when an opponent will be announced for the All-Star Game?
Garber: I don’t know yet. Soon.
What is NBC Sports Network’s relationship with Universal Sports? Will we see a different presentation for the men’s Olympic qualifying games from the women’s games. The women’s games were called off a monitor in Los Angeles, and that got some people’s attention.
Miller: I don’t think so. Universal Sports had the rights to those, and they control the rights to the men’s games. We’re looking at some of those rights as well. They’ve wanted to have some of those put on NBC Sports Network, so we’ll continue to work with Universal Sports to make that happen.
You aren’t always in charge of the host broadcast feeds, but to what degree will the soccer broadcasts at the Olympics be similar to or different from your MLS presentation?
Miller: I think you’ll see that the same people who are producing soccer here are going to be producing soccer at the Olympics. Arlo’s going to be our Olympic guy as well.