Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber was in town Friday afternoon for a promotional event to kick off the countdown to next Wednesday's All-Star Game at PPL Park.
The centerpiece of the event was a bunch of kids kicking soccer balls en masse down the steps in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. You can watch video of that at the bottom of the post.
The more important part, though, was Garber's Q&A with reporters afterward. He chatted with me and The Inquirer's Chad Graff for a few minutes about the importance of the All-Star Game, and the state of MLS in Philadelphia.
Here are some highlights.
On the Union being "ahead of schedule" in terms of building a fan base in the Philadelphia region:
It is earlier than we had originally planned, but the story here really is that the fan base in this city has really delivered by showing terrific support for the team. The corporate community has really embraced the club as well, and this [awarding the All-Star Game to Philadephia] made eminent sense.
On whether MLS has to use a different strategy to market its product in a market as crowded as Philadelphia, compared to markets such as Portland and Seattle where there are fewer teams competing for fans' attention:
Not really. Philadelphia is one of the great "big small cities." It's a huge city, one of the biggest in the country, but it has a small feel to it, and it seems to really embrace local businesses and local sports teams. That's really what has happened here.
I don't think we've had a different strategy in Philadelphia than we've had in Portland or Seattle. We've got a great management team with Nick [Sakiewicz] and his team that has had a lot of experience. He brought in people that have experience in pro sports. And they've done a lot of things right. The stadium is fantastic, the team performed reasonably well its first year – I think that helped.
On whether the All-Star game can get the attention of sports fans who don't follow soccer in Philadelphia:
The purpose of bringing the All-Star Game here wasn't necessarily to give a boost to the Philadelphia Union. It was more to say thank you to the Union and to their fans, and to the city, and all of the people in the region who love the team.
On how he would respond to soccer fans in the United States and Canada – whether fans of MLS teams or not – who argue that the All-Star Game is a waste of time, and that competitive games should not be stopped in the middle of the season for an exhibition contest:
I'm a guy who has been in the pro sports business in this country for 30 years, and I believe in All-Star Games. In taking a break in the middle of the season and providing both fans and players an opportunity to step back and really celebrate the game, and the sport that we love.
So I'm a big believer in it, and as long as I'm commissioner, we're going to have an All-Star Game. We think we have one of the most compelling formats in all of sports, by not just playing ourselves and putting on an exhibition, but really having a proper match, one that's competitive.
And while our guys are not together for very long, they're playing to win, and they're playing against perhaps one of the best teams in the world – certainly the best team in Europe this year.
So like many exhibitions, this is a real game. It doesn't count in the standings, but there's a lot on the line. Our pride's on the line, a national platform for the sport is on the line. Those things, I think, are very important.
On whether he expects the current All-Star Game format to continue, and on what he hears from commissioners of other American sports about the format:
I haven't really heard anything. The NHL, I think, did a fantastic job with the [player captains] choosing teams format that they have, and I think that has really added to the appeal of the National Hockey League.
This is an opportunity also to have some fun, but to do it in a really competitive and proper format. This works very well for us. I'm not sure it would work well for any of the other leagues.
On whether PPL Park might be the last soccer-specific stadium built in a suburb, given the success of downtown stadiums such as Portland's JELD-WEN Field and Houston's BBVA Compass Stadium, and given the potential for a new stadium to be built in Queens, New York:
That's a good question, but really I don't know. I don't have a sense as to where and how we'll be expanding and developing stadiums going forward in the future. Right now, we've got to work with each team, in each market, to try to find the best possible site and location.
Right now PPL Park is working fine, and certainly we've got some urban stadiums that are working very well. But you've got to take each individual situation and try to evaluate it on its merits.
On whether, as MLS' revenues have increased in recent years, the cost of land for stadium sites – which was a major factor in building suburban stadiums such as those outside Chicago and Denver – has become less of an obstacle for investors:
Developing stadiums in America is difficult for a wide variety of reasons – land, construction costs, matching it to hopefully getting some public support for the project. That's only just one component.