MLS commissioner Garber Q&A: Capitalizing on Messi mania

Why MLS shouldn't punish Inter Miami if it breaks roster rules (1:15)

Sebastian Salazar makes the case for MLS turning a blind eye to any salary cap breaches Inter Miami may incur. (1:15)

The economic winds are very much at the back of MLS. The league has the world's most popular player, Lionel Messi, gracing its games. Sponsorships at both league and club level have increased about 15%. According to Sportico, four MLS teams are worth more than $1 billion.

The pipeline of overseas players continues to be fruitful. Young talents like the LA Galaxy's Gabriel Pec and FC Dallas's Petar Musa are joining the league alongside veterans like Inter Miami CF's Luis Suárez, LAFC's World Cup-winning goalkeeper Hugo Lloris and the New York Red Bulls' Emil Forsberg.

Yet the challenges keep coming. With Messi on board, it's imperative that MLS take advantage of his presence, the better to leverage growth beyond his playing days. The 2026 World Cup, which will be co-hosted by Canada, Mexico and the United States presents a massive opportunity that must be exploited. There are labor issues with the league's referees and an ugly spat with the U.S. Soccer Federation over the league's continued participation in the U.S. Open Cup.

Overseeing all of this is MLS commissioner Don Garber, who is approaching his 25th anniversary in the role and has overseen immense growth in terms of team valuations, season tickets and stadiums built. He sat down with ESPN to discuss a variety of topics about the league's present and future.

(This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.)

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Obviously much of the spotlight is falling on Lionel Messi and Inter Miami. What is the league doing to leverage his presence in Year 2?

Garber: It's important to remind ourselves and everybody else that having arguably the best player of all time in our league says a lot about where MLS is, and how far it's come over the years. And I don't think Miami is stopping, right? Signing Luis Suárez and putting together a bunch of guys that Leo has played with for so many years, I think is fun. It's exciting. And I think we're going to see just more energy, and lots more attention in Year 2.

But the league has been signing really big-name international players for many, many years, and we're going to continue to do that. But as importantly, focus as much as we can on not just the top of the roster and the players that will bring us attention around the world, but also young players both here in the U.S. and players from overseas. And I think probably for the first time, I think the story this year is about how some of the great young players, particularly from South America, are choosing MLS. You know, I [was] told a stat, 15 of the players in Olympic qualifying in South America are playing in MLS, and I think you're going to see more and more focus on our teams to sign young players and sign under-22 players. And then at the same time, sign guys like [Hugo] Lloris and [Emil] Forsberg and any other player that we think could round out sort of what kind of league we want to be.

How instructive was the league's experience when David Beckham was playing in the league, in terms of managing Messi's arrival?

Garber: There's no Messi in MLS if David didn't come into our league in 2007. It really was the first real statement that MLS can be a league of choice for the top, most well-known players in the world. And David's experience, albeit a little challenging in the beginning, was just fantastic for him, for the Galaxy, for the league, and really morphed into him becoming an owner in MLS. I can't imagine what MLS would be like if David didn't make that decision. If he didn't make that decision, I'm not sure what MLS would look like today.

Were there some lessons learned from the Beckham experience that you think are helping you now?

Garber: I think some of the lessons are that you can't just take a big-name player and put them on the field and expect that everything is going to work perfectly. That player needs to really believe in the league, you need to manage around him and ensure that his family is well positioned and ensure, again, that it's the right fit for the club. And that's worked so well in so many cases, but it hasn't worked well in others. So I think it's not just about the experience with David, it really is the experience with all of the well-known, big-name players from overseas who've come into MLS. Some of them have worked really well, and some of them haven't. And by the way, that's OK.

How concerned are you that Messi's presence could overshadow what is happening elsewhere in the league? How do you get Messi fans to look at other teams and players?

Garber: Well, I'm not concerned about it at all. We're trying to always open up our team and our league to those people that are fans of the sport that might not yet be fully committed to our clubs, and getting people here and around the world to follow MLS and experience it is a positive. Our job is to convert those fans into being passionate supporters of our league and our clubs. And if we have a brand that has global recognition like Inter Miami does, that's a positive. And I think you see that with clubs that are resonating around the world in all leagues.

There are probably more followers of the New York Yankees around the world than there are of other Major League Baseball clubs. I think that's good for Major League Baseball and certainly followers of teams like the Dallas Cowboys and now the Kansas City Chiefs around the world -- that's good for the NFL. And now it's up to all of us to take that experience and spend time convincing all those new fans that MLS can really be important to their soccer connection, so I'm not concerned about it at all.

Do you think part of the path forward is to bring in more high-profile players?

Garber: I don't know. I think that our fan base and sometimes the media thinks that this is sort of a plan. You know, "Let's go sign X players so that we can achieve something in a particular market," and it's really less about that. Teams are making decisions that work for them, work for them on the field, work for them off the field. There isn't a grand strategy that says, "Let's sign more big-name players." Frankly, it's more about, how do we develop more competitive teams to continue our rivalry with Mexico? How can we be more relevant around the world and be more competitive against other clubs, our participation in Champions Cup? Then obviously that moves into the Club World Cup and how can we be more competitive in that tournament?

This is more about a long-term plan to grow the competitiveness of our league and the popularity of our teams and each club, and this is the key part of it: each club has got to decide how best that's going to work for them. The LA Galaxy had decided to do that with big-name players, and certainly Miami is looking to do that with the best player in the history of the game and a very South American focus, both at the technical level and the on-field level.

Some teams are going to do it by trying to create a special experience locally. St. Louis is a good example of that, where they've been successful on the field and unbelievably relevant and connected off the field. Every club's got to decide what makes sense for them. I think the days of the league coming up with broad strategies for our clubs are over. Our clubs are now well positioned and have the experienced staff and committed ownership to make the decisions that make sense for them and support that.

I think there was a hope in some circles that there'd be a fourth designated player or that the salary budget would increase. Is that on the table to any degree? Are there different mechanisms to open the funnel in terms of player acquisitions?

Garber: Every year we work to determine whether or not the roster rules we have are delivering what we need to deliver in order to grow our fan base, right? And I think Messi comes into the league and then all of a sudden there's this buzz that, 'OK, now maybe we're going to just dramatically change our roster rules.' Leo came in within our roster rules and there's no shortage of opportunity for other teams to do what Miami did, or to find whatever player makes sense for them in their local market.

All that being said, we have evolved in sometimes really big ways and sometimes small ways, [but] our roster rules [change] every single year. And we will continue to look at that to ensure that we're managing our broad leaguewide strategy to become more competitive in the regional and global landscape, but at the same time do it within practical and rational means.

There have been some foreign leagues over the years that have tried to spend their way to success. China was one a while ago, and now Saudi Arabia is in the mix. To what extent is MLS feeling the impact of the Saudi Pro League's spending?

Garber: There are always emerging leagues that come into the market. And in the short term, I think it has an impact on global player movement. I don't think it affects MLS any more than it affects any other league. We are a participant in the global transfer market. I think that market continues to evolve.

MLS is now selling players as much as we're buying players. And I think you'll see more and more of that in the years to come as we continue to invest in player development. But I haven't felt any impact from the recent investment that Saudi Arabia's making in their league. Frankly, I think it's good and positive when emerging leagues become more relevant around the world, and show the more traditional, legacy leagues that this is a global sport and the rest of the world has an important role to play.

Where do things stand with the U.S. Open Cup? Obviously, MLS and the USSF seem to be at odds here.

Garber: Certainly there's a changing dynamic as our sport continues to grow and evolve that forces, I think, everybody in the soccer business to rethink how competitions have been organized, to ensure that we can continue to evolve and manage what is the single-biggest issue for all professional soccer, and that's the management of our schedule. And by the way, this is not just a challenge for us. It's a challenge for every professional soccer team and league around the world. You read about it all the time. And what's happened over the last number of years is more and more federations, confederations, FIFA and others are continuing to grow their competitions. And all of those different activities put pressure on local leagues. And we need to figure out, as professional soccer leagues globally, how do we manage that in a way that is in the best interest of all of our stakeholders, including MLS and our players.

So the original concerns that we raised to U.S. Soccer were related to schedule congestion. It also was related to the overall support and economics of the tournament. So that tournament, while it has lots of history, has not really resonated in a way that is what it needs to be in order to have the participation of all top professional clubs. So I think this situation is continuing to resolve. We remain in very productive discussions with U.S. Soccer regarding our participation for '24. They have been collaborative. They have been productive. I hope we can continue to have those conversations in a way that works for the tournament and works for MLS and our players. Those discussions are [happening] in real time. And we hope for all the reasons you'd expect that they get finalized soon.

You've been critical of the tournament in the past. Do you feel that MLS is above participating in the Open Cup?

Garber: No, I mean, I think it's not about "above." It's about that tournament. By the way, I'm probably the only person in the country that's been to all 24 or 25 of the last U.S. Open Cup finals. I've been an active member and supportive of the U.S. Open Cup for many, many years. What has happened over time is the tournament has not resonated enough with fans and commercial partners and sponsors, and certainly media partners in a way to justify the level of participation that had been required of us in the past. And over time, MLS has come into the tournament at different levels. We've had different number of teams, all ways that the league and the federation and the U.S. Open Committee have worked to try to ensure that the tournament is working for everybody.

But when we think about an expanded schedule, an expanded number of teams, the Leagues Cup -- which is an important tournament for our league in terms of our desire to collaborate with Mexico to support Concacaf's rising influential role in the global football landscape -- and the fact that there are tournaments that are coming into our country both this summer with Copa America, Club World Cup in '25, the World Cup in '26, which will have enormous impact on our schedule, we're just trying to be thoughtful about the best way for our teams to participate and at what level. So I think it's really ... I won't get insulted by you saying that you, or that somebody would think we're insulted. It's s not about insulted. It's a matter about as key stakeholders, we need to ensure that that tournament is working for everybody. And MLS is an important stakeholder in that process.

How long are you going to keep doing this? What about your own future in terms of continuing with the league?

Garber: Stay tuned. I'm entering Year 25 right now. I'm focused on that. But I've been doing this a long time and seeing an enormous amount of growth and opportunity. It's been fun. I'll sit down and determine my future in the near future.