For three years as head of the NFL's overseas operations, Don Garber had the unenviable task of trying to sell pro football to an audience madly in love with soccer. Today, after being introduced as Major League Soccer's new commissioner, he accepted perhaps an equally difficult assignment: pitching professional soccer to a skeptical American public.
"I believe in the future of soccer," he said during a midday news conference at a hotel just a few hundred feet from NFL headquarters on Park Avenue. "And I truly believe I can make a difference in that future."
Garber, 41, signed a three-year contract for an unspecified salary to replace Doug Logan, who was forced to resign this week after serving as commissioner since the 12-team league was launched in 1996. Garber will attend his first match as commissioner Sunday when D.C. United plays Tampa Bay at RFK Stadium.
Logan also attended today's news conference, and in his first public comments since his ouster was reported, said: "I've lost the confidence of my board of governors and it's time to move on. . . . I have no bitterness, I have no regrets. I did my best. I have no excuses."
The 11-member board of governors--made up of league investors, including NFL team owners Lamar Hunt of the Kansas City Chiefs and Robert Kraft of the New England Patriots--had grown restless over the league's stagnant attendance and television ratings and began the process of removing Logan more than a month ago.
MLS founder Alan Rothenberg had identified Garber as a possible replacement about a year ago, and when the time came to make a move, Kraft and Hunt became Garber's most active supporters. In an interview Tuesday night, Rothenberg called Garber "the second coming of Pete Rozelle," the commissioner who transformed the NFL into a national institution in the 1970s.
Garber's office in midtown Manhattan will shift just six blocks south and one block east to MLS headquarters, but it's a quantum leap from the United States's most popular sports league to a 3 1/2-year-old circuit that is still trying to find its place in a congested sports and entertainment industry.
He inherits a league that has been losing about $20 million a year, doesn't make much money with its television contract and still is seeking investors for the Dallas and Tampa Bay teams. United's operating rights, valued at about $25 million, have been for sale for about eight months.
Garber worked for the NFL for 15 years, starting as a marketing manager for corporate sponsorships before becoming a vice president for business development and special events for NFL Properties, the league's marketing arm.
He was put in charge of NFL International in 1996, overseeing television production and distribution, marketing, sponsorship sales and licensing in foreign countries.
Garber also ran NFL Europe, a six-team league with players allocated primarily from NFL team rosters.
Garber said the audience for soccer in the United States is there, mentioning the unexpected popularity of this summer's Women's World Cup. "For me, the success of MLS will come from making the professional game relevant and important to the millions of soccer families and soccer players," he said.
Questioned about his lack of soccer experience and knowledge--he has attended two MLS games and watched a handful on television recently--Garber responded: "What this league needs is more than someone who can speak to soccer issues but can speak to business issues in the sport."
Garber promised to surround himself with people involved in the sport, but said he had no plans at this time to re-hire former MLS deputy commissioner Sunil Gulati, who was fired by Logan in February.