Don Garber sees 'real ambition' in Union academy, but wants to see it 'pay off'

NEW YORK – Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber sat for an interview with the Inquirer and Daily News at the league’s headquarters on Tuesday. He was asked a series of questions about his view of how the Union are faring at a time when they are being outspent by many other teams in MLS; their attendance dropped from 2016 to 2017 (and again early this year); and many other teams are out-drawing them.

Here is a transcript of the conversation, edited lightly for clarity.

There is a perception among Union fans and outside observers that they are not running at the same level as big-market, big-spending teams like Atlanta, Toronto FC and others. The Union have said themselves that they are not going to spend at the level of Atlanta, Toronto and New York City. When you hear language like that, what’s your reaction?

Every team has got to pick their own strategy, and spending more money doesn’t necessarily drive on-field success in our league. Columbus, which is at the bottom of the middle, had a great run last year and looks pretty darn good this year. They are certainly spending a lot less than Atlanta, Toronto or New York City.

Our system still provides for a team to pick a strategy that makes sense for them; to decide what kinds of players they want outside the budget; to be rewarded or penalized by how they use Targeted Allocation Money; and succeed or fail based on the decisions they make. And that is the league’s model, and that model is not going to change.

I spend a lot of time with Richie Graham [chief bankroller of the Union’s academy], who has a very focused strategy on youth development. Jay [Sugarman, the Union’s principal owner] has said many times that they very much want to be a team that comes out of the grassroots and is focusing their investment on a different part of the roster. I have great faith in Jay, I’ve got great faith in Richie, and hopefully their strategy will pay off for them.

[MLS commissioner Don Garber’s ‘preference’ is for the Crew ‘to stay in Columbus’]

I’m sure you’ve seen this happen in many markets across the country, not just Philadelphia: the fan base hears a team executive say, “We know we can’t spend at the same level as Toronto, Atlanta, LAFC, Seattle, and some of the others.” And they interpret that as not being able to build a team of the caliber of those, and they conclude, “We can’t finish at the top of the standings.”

Does that worry you?

Kansas City won our championship [in 2013], Real Salt Lake won our championship [in 2009], Portland won our championship [in 2015], and those three teams are not spending like Atlanta is spending this year — and Atlanta hasn’t won anything yet. They’ve only been in the league for a year and two games. There’s a long way between what they did last year and what they hope to do this year, and being in a position where everybody is shooting to achieve what Atlanta hopes will be their success.

We take pride — and you’re not going to get me to say what I think the fans are saying, because it’s just not what I’m going to do. The league’s model is one that any team has an opportunity to win if they do a good job in development, if they do a good job in selection, if they do a good job in the technical areas. And our model has proven that out to be true.

Nine of the last 11 years, we’ve had a different champion, and not all of them have been large, big-spending markets.

We certainly had many years where people were looking at Toronto, who was spending a lot of money — more than anybody else — and not seeing on-field success. And they had a very successful year last year, and I’m sure they hope they have a very successful year this year.

But there has not yet been a direct correlation between spending and success, winning championships in our league, enough to prove this theory that the only way you can win is to spend more than your neighbor, so to speak.

Look at Real Salt Lake, which has been one of our best-performing teams. They are not a big spender. They have a particular philosophy as to how they are going to invest their money.

Jay and his partners are investing money, they’re just investing it in different ways than another club might be. And our league needs to cater to different philosophies, as opposed to this approach where the only way you could win is to spend more than somebody else. That’s not a theory that we subscribe to.

And should it ever get to the point where there are trends where the only way you could win a championship is to spend more, then we’ll see how we look at our system collectively to ensure that we could correct it.

If there were fewer teams in the playoffs, would that make a difference?

I don’t know the answer to that. I actually believe more is better. I know fans don’t agree with this, but having our playoffs be more meaningful for more teams at a macro level is more important to us going forward than less important.

Because as we start thinking about the extension of our schedule, when you’re out in October and you don’t start playing regular-season games until March, that’s just too long to be off. So we’re actually thinking about, as we expand, re-configuring our playoffs so we’re not dealing with this massive gap that we have.

When you look at the Union’s academy, what do you see? You’ve been there many times.

I see real ambition, and a very focused effort to not just develop players for the first team, but to think about them as developing young men. To educate them, to make them understand what it’s like to have the responsibility of being a role model, and having a very focused path to the first team.

That existed in many ways even before the Union came into place, with what Richie Graham was doing. And we do need to see, league-wide, it beginning to pay off.

There’s a multi-million dollar investment being made in Philadelphia, and they have not yet been able to develop a player who can get sold on to an international club — or have stardom on the first team — to be able to justify the expense.

These are long-term investments that are being made, and big commitments on behalf of Philadelphia’s ownership. We’re hoping to start seeing results out of that investment. And if we can’t, we’re going to have to re-think that strategy.

You said the phrase “a player who can get sold on.” There’s a new rule in place this year by which clubs to get to keep 100 percent of transfer fees when they sell homegrown players, instead of the league taking a cut. do you think that might oil up the machine a little bit, and make some more sales happen?

I hope so. I still look at this two ways. We need to have young players that are growing up in our communities, and then being like the 17-year-old who grew up in the Red Bulls’ academy [Ben Mines] and then scores a goal [in his professional debut], and then is all over the local news. Having a young 14-year-old dreaming to be him.

One side of me wants as much of the homegrown talent here so that they can be aspirations for young kids behind them. But at the same point, if we’re not selling these players on, the economics of the academies make no sense at all.

Is the principle of selling more of a virtue to you now than it used to be?

Yes. 

What do you make of the Union’s attendance at the moment?

I can only tell you about what led up the beginning of this year. Their group sales are doing well. Their season ticket renewals were in the top quartile in the league. Their renewals were, I think the second-best in their history. Leading up to 2018, their sales have been pretty good.*

[* – A Union spokesman later followed up on this, confirming that the team last winter had the league’s fourth-highest season ticket renewal rate, the team’s highest ever amount of revenue from renewals, and its highest ever sponsorship revenue.]

I believe that the Union should have a very strong following in a very passionate soccer market. I think it’s a terrific stadium, I think the location is fine, and I just hope that the team can continue to get more deeply connected with their fans. 

Jay Sugarman has said in the past that he realizes he perhaps needs to be more of a public figure in the Philadelphia market. There are some MLS owners who have high public profiles, with the Portland Timbers’ Merritt Paulson obviously at the top of the list, and there are some who aren’t. Would you perhaps like Jay to be a little more of a public figure? 

It’s a good question, but I don’t think the league has a particular point of view as it relates to what kind of identity an owner should have in their market. You want them to be very committed, and Jay is incredibly committed. He is a big believer in this league. He is incredibly active at the board level. He’s very focused on a number of our committees.

I look at him as a really good MLS owner, and one that I turn to on a wide variety of issues. And if he decides that he wants to have a lower profile than another owner, that’s his decision to make.

I don’t think the success of your club is necessarily driven by the profile of your owner. I think there are some cases where it’s great, and some cases where it isn’t. But it’s something that is a very personal decision that an owner has to make, and the league doesn’t have a point of view on it.

A recent report by the Delaware County Times on the evolution of Talen Energy Stadium and the land around it noted that there is a clause in the Union’s lease of the venue which states that after 10 years, if the team’s attendance is in the bottom 25 percent of MLS, the team can pay the county $10 million and leave the venue.

There are some Union fans who, fair or not, have looked at what is happening in Columbus right now and have started to wonder whether the Union might similarly threaten to relocate elsewhere. The Union have insisted they have no such intention. What do you think of the matter?

I’m actually not familiar with that clause in their lease agreement, so I can’t respond to that in particular. I can only speak to it on a broader basis. It’s not the first time I’ve been asked that question.

The situation in Columbus has been going on since almost the first couple of years of its [the Crew’s] existence. The team has finished at the bottom of attendance and local television ratings and corporate revenue for nearly 20 years. So that in our league, and frankly in almost any league, has you taking a step back and trying to determine: can the city of Columbus support a MLS team at the level that’s necessary in order for it to be competitive in Major League Soccer?

In any other market, we’re not even remotely close to looking at that, because there’s just not nearly enough time. And in Philadelphia’s case, whether or not their attendance is what they want it to be today, there is a belief in the market; there is an absolute commitment on behalf of ownership; there is a terrific stadium; there is a good partnership locally with the city of Chester, and with the county.

No fan in Philadelphia should be remotely concerned about that team being anywhere other than where it is, and I would almost look at it as saying the team is not as appreciated, in my opinion, as it needs to be, because of the massive investment on behalf of the public, but also on behalf of ownership.

[As Columbus Crew move rumors shake MLS, Don Garber says Union aren’t threatened]

Taking Philadelphia in the abstract for a moment — independent of the specific stadium, the specific ownership and such — what is Philadelphia as a market to Major League Soccer? It’s no secret that it’s very important to television networks, for example.

It’s incredibly important. It’s a market that was on the original list [of potential cities] when MLS was launched in 1996. If not for Talen Energy Stadium and the project in and around it, we probably wouldn’t be in Philadelphia. We needed a stadium. We needed to get a young, ambitious owner, which we’ve had in Jay for many years.

It’s a huge market. It’s an influential market. It’s a big sports market, as evidenced by the absolute hysteria around the Eagles winning the Super Bowl. We continue to have great faith in the club, its ownership and the market.