Garber’s Veiled Relocation Threat

By Andrew Winner
The Talisman

Take heart, Seattle SuperSonics fans. It seems threats to move sports franchises to other cities aren’t confined to the hardwood.

Taking a page from NBA Commissioner David Stern’s book, MLS commissioner Don Garber has issued a thinly-veiled threat to relocate the reigning two-time MLS Champion Houston Dynamo if the local government fails to provide public funding for a soccer-specific stadium.

"It is inconceivable that MLS will allow the team to continue playing as a secondary tenant in a college football facility, particularly after the league moved the team due to the challenges at San Jose State," Garber wrote in the letter. "While another relocation would be equally traumatic, we both must consider our options to ensure that the team has a path to economic success."

The April 4th letter was sent from Garber to the three owners of the Dynamo franchise but ended up on Houston Mayor Bill White’s desk. As Bernardo Fallas notes, it seemed like the letter “was written with him in mind”. White was not amused.

"I’ve gotten a little bit of a reputation, probably deserved, that I don’t respond well to threats," White told the Houston Chronicle on April 17th.

Over the past few years, the imminent construction of an SSS (soccer-specific stadium) has been a prerequisite for potential expansion cities (with Seattle and Qwest Field being the obvious exception). With the push for new stadiums built partially with public funds, more pressure is being applied to state and local governments to help foot the bill.

And while Major League Soccer continues to grow, both in the popularity among fans and the subsequent influence the league wields, one wonders if Garber carries a big enough stick to enforce his will.

So why did Garber write the letter in the first place? Apparently, he believes the ownership group isn’t working fast enough to find a solution to the stadium issue in Houston when that lease ends.

However, it’s not clear if that’s true. Currently, four different Houston-area cities are facing off against one another to woo the Dynamo.

Sugar Land, is moving forward with plans to construct a 20-25k seat stadium with several surrounding soccer fields. Pearland – another suburb – has also conducted preliminary engineering surveys for a stadium while there are also plans for a new stadium in the city of Houston itself, according to the website Associated Content. (A fourth community, Webster, is also in the mix.)

It also seems odd to me that Garber would find it necessary to fire a shot across the bow of the Houston owners – clearly finding resolution to the stadium issue tops their list of priorities. Garber must believe that all sides are dragging their feet. Currently, the Houston Dynamo are in year one of a three-year lease with the University of Houston’s Robertson Stadium. Therefore, the stadium issue must be resolved soon to ensure construction is completed before the 2011 season begins.
What is the takeaway here? For me, there are two main points that need to be addressed.

First, MLS wouldn’t – and shouldn’t – dare to move the Dynamo, not when the club has made inroads with the coveted Latino community on the on-field success has endeared the team to the local community.

On the other hand, the precedent has been set – public-private partnerships have been used to construct most of the new wave of soccer stadiums, including BMO Field in Toronto and Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City, Colo. Garber also enjoys a good bargaining position: recent expansion discussions show there are several other markets who would happily receive an MLS team (St. Louis, Portland, and Vancouver B.C. come to mind).

Second, the single-entity makeup of the MLS allows Garber to make relocation threats of this nature. However, from a public-relations standpoint it is not in the league’s best interest to start playing this dangerous game.

Up to this point, MLS has managed to avoid the bad publicity that plagues the other major leagues. By threatening to relocate a franchise that has just been relocated, Garber risks receiving a similar brand of fan vitriol being spewed upon Stern for his handling of the Seattle SuperSonics situation.

MLS, in its current form, enjoys the benefit of the doubt from journalists, fans, and sponsors alike. As the league continues to grow, more missteps like this letter from Garber could jeopardize that position of favor. While the league should do what it can to ensure construction of soccer-specific stadia, it should refrain from dropping the atomic bomb of negotiation – a relocation threat.

Andrew Winner is a freelance soccer writer based in Seattle, Washington. He can be reached at: