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March 3, 2013 at 12:00 AM

MLS commissioner talks Cascadia Cup trademark, Chivas USA’s struggles and more

garber mugReporters got a chance to interview MLS commissioner Don Garber during halftime of Saturday’s game. Here is a full transcript:

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(Opening remarks…) “It’s good to be here. Just came from Vancouver earlier today, on my way down to L.A. and then (San Jose). It’s such a pleasure to be here. I’m waiting for my first sunny Sounders game, but it’s fantastic. It’s such an unbelievable environment, such a thrill.”

(You probably know a Cascadia Cup trademark question is coming…) “I wondered if that would be the first, the second, the third or the fourth. So as I’ve said over the last couple of days, we didn’t go about that the right way. I think our intention was good, but we could’ve executed a lot better. Our goal is to do what we can to try to protect how that tournament is managed. It does involve our teams. We do understand it came way before we were around, but the implication of its misuse could have a real negative effect on our clubs that participate. We’ve had two meetings with the Cascadia Cup Council via telephone. They were productive. We haven’t reached an agreement yet, but I’m very confident we’ll be able to reach an agreement that’ll make sense for the Cascadia Cup Council, for the fans, for the league and our clubs. I’m actually quite optimistic. Next time we’ll probably go about a process like that a little bit differently.”

(Will the Cascadia Cup schedule be balanced — three games home, three games away for each team — in the future?) “It’s too early for me to speculate on any of that.”

(Have the fans indicated some interest in that?) “Again, I don’t think that we are ready to even talk about what our schedule would look like next year, and it’s probably not something that we would exclusively talk to the supporters about. It’s building the rest of our schedule, it’s the impact of our broadcast partners, so it’s too premature to talk about that.”

(Did you say you’d be satisfied with the fans running the trademark of the Cascadia Cup?) “Well, it’s their trademark. It’s not our trademark. So our goal is by meeting and talking about what our concerns are, that we could have a mutual agreement on what’s best for that tournament. I follow all of the Twitter comments and all of the social buzz, and there is a view that we should just stay away from it. That’s not really fair. At the end of the day it does involve our teams, it does have implications if it’s misused, and I think the leaders of the council understand that. The people that we spoke to were professional, they’re well-trained. Many of them, if not most of them, were attorneys. They understood our concerns about the potential misuse of the trademark, but it’s theirs. So we’ll continue to talk to them and see how it can be effectively managed.”

(So is it fair to say MLS isn’t pursuing ownership of the trademark at this point?) “What we’re trying to do is have a conversation to reach an agreement so that we don’t have to do that.”

(You’ve said the trademark is theirs. Surely you can have influence on how it’s run without legally contesting ownership…) “Again guys, it’s not really necessary to get into a legal debate. Intellectual property law is complicated. At the end of the day what we want to do is to insure that that tournament, which involves our clubs, and is clearly important to our fans and to the league, is managed properly. We have confidence based on our discussions that we will be able to reach an agreement that will make sense, but we have not made a decision to drop our pursuit of the trademark at this point. We’re confident that our continued discussions will be productive, and in a positive way. We’re very confident about that.”

(Were you surprised at the passion of the opposition?) “I was surprised about it. That’s probably why we didn’t think about going about it differently. This is new ground for a professional sports league where you have groups of fans that care so much that they create tournaments like this and have other things that are very important to them as ways that they connect with their clubs. It’s new grounds.”

(Garber on his own…) “You’ve got to have another question than the (Cascadia Cup trademark). It’s not that important! It really isn’t. It’s the start of the season. We had an unbelievable year, we just announced a 10-year plan to be one of the top leagues in the world, and all you guys want to talk about is the Cascadia Cup!”

(How proud of are that the league is now as old as the old NASL?) “Certainly soccer in America and Canada has developed quite a bit over the last 18 years, so we’re proud of being the longest running professional league in North America. We’ve just laid out a big plan to be one of the top leagues in the world in 10 years. We’ve got a lot of things that we want to do to be able to achieve that. A lot more investment will be required, a lot more development of players, and facilities, and new teams, but we feel pretty good about where we are.”

(Are you going to try and work toward bringing younger European players over here than some in the past?) “It’s never a matter of convincing people to come at a particular age. You have to work with those players that have interest in coming here in a time in their career that make sense for them. Our clubs are not looking to sign older players. They’re looking to sign younger players, but it’s got to be something that makes sense for the players with where they are in their careers, and what our financial capacity is.”

(Reports are that the Home Depot Center isn’t exactly full tonight. How concerned are you with what’s going on with Chivas USA right now?) “I’m going down to Los Angeles tomorrow. I’m sure it will be a topic in the media scrum that will happen tomorrow. We believe in a second team in Los Angeles. We originally in 2005 came up with this concept of having club that was connected with Mexico. It hasn’t turned out quite the way that we had hoped. I have not seen the final report about the attendance is down there [Ed note: It was announced at 7,121], but certainly if it doesn’t grow beyond what I have heard I would be concerned about that.”

(When you say you want to be of the biggest leagues in the world, how important is it then to be become the best league in North America first?) “It’s a very good question and it’s very important. We have to do better in the Champions League. I think the opportunity for an MLS team to win the Champions league in this region and go to a World Club Championship and compete against some of the best clubs in the world is an important goal. It’s something that we are pushing our clubs to be mindful of and hope that they would take that tournament — which I think is much better managed with the new leadership at CONCACAF — far more seriously than some clubs have taken it in the past.”

(Has there been any discussion on moving the calendar year a bit earlier to help that?) “The calendar discussion is one that is ongoing amongst the media and fans and certainly amongst the league. I don’t know that we would move it just because of the Champions league schedule. This is the earliest we’ve ever started; it’s going to be the latest we’ll ever end. The weather hasn’t been great in a handful of our markets. I understand it was 20-degrees wind chill in Philadelphia today, so all of these things have to go into the pot to be stirred around, and we’ll hopefully come up with a decision that makes sense with all the things we need to satisfy.”

(How important is increasing the salary cap to get to your ultimate goal?) “Part of our goal, remember I talked about four things: Quality of play, passion of our friends, and the relevance of our clubs, but also the continued stability and financial strength of the league. We don’t want to just have a league that is popular; we want to have a league that has a strong financial foundation. So it all has to work hand in hand. We want to grow our fan base that will lead to increased revenues. If our revenues are able to grow, I’m confident that we will, like most leagues, end up spending more of that revenue on players.”

(So much of revenue is tied to TV ratings and contracts. How does he drive that end of it?) “It’s a matter of just building your fan base and being more relevant in your local markets. Having fans that really care about their clubs, they care about where their clubs are in the MLS Cup tournament. And as they are following their team, they’re also wondering what some team that is right below them is doing, and if that team is on national television our hope is that they will watch it like they do with every other major league in America. It is about building the scale of the league and spending a lot more time and effort on money and marketing and promotion. I was very pleased with the March for soccer month-long promotion that we had, the jersey launches that we did, the Rivalry Week we have coming up in two weeks, and these are all a part of trying to create more national appeal for the league as opposed to just depending on a local fan base.”

(Can you comment on how Montreal is doing?) “Very, very much so. I don’t think Joey Saputo gets enough credit for what he’s done as a first-year team in Major League Soccer. They’ve done a great job. They build a terrific building. They’ve got a good, strong brand. Their team is competitive. He’s very, very focused, not just on the game, but he’s also focused on having a strong stable business and building his fan base. He’s got great media relationships. I’ve very pleased — very pleased. One of the reasons I came to this game was not just to see the 45-odd, thousand people here but to pay my respects to Joey Saputo.”

(Who are the top 10 leagues in the world by your estimation?) “I didn’t say top 10. I wanted to be among the top leagues in the world in 10 years. There are a lot of great leagues. There are certainly terrific leagues in Europe, but Mexico is a great league. I think they’re doing a terrific job. I think today there could be handful of leagues that could represent the top, but 10 years from now it might be a different group. We just want to be part of that narrative. If people think about great soccer leagues, we want them to think about Major League Soccer.”

(Is it more about respect than a specific number?) “I don’t think there’s any specific measure yet as much as it’s about respect and credibility.”

(Any updates on expansion?) “Well, we’re still working hard in New York City, trying to get our 20th team there. Continue to work with the city of New York, the local communities, local elected officials and potential investors. A lot more attention in Florida over the last couple of months. We’re paying a bit more attention down there.”

(How eager are you to see Obafemi Martins in this league?) “I’ve heard about those discussions. Certainly he’s a terrific player.”

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