SALT LAKE CITY — When Don Garber was hired nearly 20 years ago to take over as commissioner of Major League Soccer, the message he received from the small group of owners at the time was a simple one — stabilize and grow.
It took him about five years to get MLS to what he considered a stable situation. Expansion quickly followed.
The first two teams Garber added to the league as commissioner were Chivas USA (now defunct) and Real Salt Lake in 2005. In 2007 Toronto FC joined the league, and the aggressive expansion has continued ever since.
This year Cincinnati FC joined the league as the 24th franchise, with three more expansion franchises announced in Miami, Austin and Nashville.
The growth began in Utah, something Garber is reminded of whenever he visits the Wasatch Front.
“I have a special place in my heart for Real Salt Lake,” said Garber while speaking to reporters on Wednesday afternoon in Salt Lake City. “I worked really hard on this because I knew if we could not grow, then the league would not be able to move forward.”
Garber was in Salt Lake City on Wednesday as a special guest for the Governor’s State of Sport Award, in which Real Salt Lake and Utah Royals FC owner Dell Loy Hansen received the Partner of the Year award.
Hansen wasn’t part of Real Salt Lake’s initial investment group in 2004. He joined the club as a minority owner in 2009 and then bought out former owner Dave Checketts entirely in 2013.
Garber believes Hansen’s vision for soccer in Utah has fueled the club’s success.
“Dell Loy has created a model market,” said Garber, noting the MLS, USL and NWSL franchises along with the massive Academy structure in Herriman.
“My hats off to Dell Loy. He is a bundle of energy and has so many things he can do with his resources and he devotes a lot of resources to Major League Soccer and our sport.”
Garber said Hansen is one of the bigger spenders in MLS ownership, estimating he’s in the top 25 percent. It’s more subtle spending than some of the bigger market teams who are splashing money on player salaries.
“He’s deciding he wants to spend it differently in ways that will deliver on and off the field for this club. It’s less about going out and getting a (global icon), because he is spending that money on what he’s doing with the academy program,” said Garber.
The commissioner believes that the variety of approaches from the owners has helped strengthen the league.
“Diversity of thought has been a unique challenge for us to manage through, but it’s been delivering great benefit because we have a system that can allow our teams and owners that can come up with a formula that makes sense for them and be successful,” said Garber.
One of the first dominos in MLS’ evolution involved Garber taking a chance on Checketts’ belief of what soccer could be in Utah. The league has doubled since that initial gamble.
“Clearly expansion has been a driver of growth for the league, and it’s not the expansion fees, it’s the expansion opportunity. You’re growing your fanbase, you’re growing your footprint, you have more facilities, you have more opportunity for a broader and more interesting broadcast agreement because you’re not showing the same teams on TV all the time,” said Garber.
The expansion fees are nothing to scoff at, either.
Nashville’s expansion fee was $150 million when it was awarded a franchise in December 2017. Real Salt Lake’s expansion fee 13 years earlier when it was awarded a franchise was $10 million.