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Should MLS Commissioner Don Garber Be Baseball's Next Commissioner?

If Bud Selig really does retire next season, why wouldn't MLB want someone who already has experience as a professional sports commissioner?


I'm phrasing this article as a question because the truth of the matter is that I think the chances of MLS Commissioner Don Garber replacing Bud Selig to be slim and none. For one, I don't know that he wants the job. Secondly, everything I have read on the subject tells me that the baseball owners are looking for one of their own to replace Selig. Preferably that's Selig until he dies, and then his stuffed corpse after that. But taking Selig at his word that he will refuse to serve after 2014, all reports are that the baseball owners want a baseball man to replace him: either another owner (perhaps even another Brewers owner in Mark Attanasio) or someone like MLB VPs Rob Manfred or Tim Brosnan, both of whom have served at Selig's side. Third, I know that the primary job of the commissioner is to keep the 30 owners from killing each other and it might be hard for someone without a previous relationship with the owners to do that. Certainly Fay Vincent, Selig's immediate predecessor, was a baseball outsider who never had enough support from the owners to accomplish much of anything.

But I do know one thing: If I were on the committee to replace Bud Selig, I'd at least give Garber a call.

Don Garber came to Major League Soccer in 1999 after a career in the NFL. In 1988, at 30 years old, Garber became the NFL's director of marketing. In 1992, he became senior vice-president of business development and he finished his career with the NFL being in charge of all NFL operations outside of the United States.

When he came to MLS in 1999, it was a sick league. There were twelve teams and two of them, the Tampa Bay Mutiny and Miami Fusion, would soon be gone. Yes, Garber oversaw the contraction of two teams, but while the Mutiny, at least, had some fans and history, both teams were drawing fewer fans than an average Triple-A Baseball team. This wasn't anything like Selig going after the Minnesota Twins.

In 1999, teams in MLS played almost exclusively in NFL or NCAA football stadiums ill-suited for soccer. On top of that, MLS played by different rules than the rest of the world, which led to American hardcore fans turning their noses up at the league. (In truth, there are still a lot of fans, who refer to themselves strictly as football fans, who still turn their noses up at MLS. But fortunately, those fans are being drowned out by other, new fans.)

Garber changed all that. For one, he embarked on an ambitious program of privately-financed stadium building, starting with the Crew Stadium in Columbus. Now, 14 of the 19 MLS teams play in soccer-specific stadiums and one more, Earthquakes Stadium in San Jose, is under construction. This allowed MLS to play in a more attractive and intimate setting, as well as not have to schedule all their games around the needs of American football teams. Secondly, he changed the rules to the FIFA standard, which made MLS more attractive not only to American fans, but to foreign players as well.

But the biggest thing that you might have just noticed is that there are now 19 teams in MLS. Starting just three years after contracting Tampa Bay and Miami, MLS undertook an ambitious program of expansion. They're now up to 19 teams and a 20th, NYCFC, has been announced. Four more teams are expected to be added in the next few years.

Garber also instituted the "Beckham Rule" which allowed teams to sign expensive foreign players to competitive contracts without violating their salary cap rules. Even better, the "Beckham Rule" is starting to be used to keep top American players like Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey in this country.

So to summarize what Garber has done in MLS: He's overseen rapid expansion of the sport without taking on the large amounts of debt that crushed the NASL. He's worked with teams to construct stadiums without using taxpayer money. He's negotiated television contracts. He's dealt with international sporting bodies, which is important with the increasing internationalization of baseball. (Something I'm more than willing to praise Bud Selig for.) He even has a ton of experience in marketing, both with MLS and the NFL.

In short, if you want someone to run your professional sports league, wouldn't you want someone who has already run a successful professional sports league?

There are, of course, a lot of differences between MLB and MLS. For one, the amount of money in MLS is nowhere near what is available in MLB. For all the talk of the "Beckham Rule," MLS still has a pretty strict salary cap and most players make less than $100,000 a year. The MLS Players Association has nowhere near the power of the MLBPA. Comparing the negotiations between MLS TV rights and MLB TV rights is like the difference between selling your lawnmower and selling your house. MLS teams are actually all centrally-owned with each team's "owner" actually being a shareholder in the league, although Garber has stated that his goal is to end that and go to the owner/league model of other professional sports leagues. But the owners in MLS are less adversarial than MLB owners, in any case.

Is Garber perfect? Of course not. Just look at what's going on with Chivas USA to know that MLS has some problems. New England Revolution fans aren't happy that despite being one of the original MLS teams, they still play at the Patriots' stadium, with no end to that in sight.

As I said, the chances of this happening are slim and none. Baseball likely wants one of its own in charge. There's no indication that Garber wants to leave MLS, although his contract runs out at the end of 2014, the same time Selig has indicated that he's leaving. For him, it would certainly be a step up in prestige and money.

All I ask MLB is what would it hurt to give him a call?