SBD/Issue 89/Sports Industrialists

Red Rover: The Daily Goes One-on-One With Alexi Lalas

MetroStars President & GM Alexi Lalas
ALEXI LALAS, the once bad boy rock star whose long red hair and grungy goatee made him the face of American soccer throughout much of the ‘90s, has traded in the cleats and become a clean-cut executive charged with doing something no other MetroStars President or GM has done before: put a championship caliber team on the field and 20,000-plus New Yorkers in the seats. Lalas, who has played in the World Cup and released four rock albums, has changed his appearance but not his philosophy. Sports, he says, are a form of entertainment, and soccer is no different. The often opinionated and never shy Lalas spent some of his offseason time recently speaking with SportsBusiness Journal Staff Writer Scott Warfield.

Favorite band: Ratt.
Favorite playing moment: ‘94 World Cup.
Favorite book: “Goodnight Moon.”
Favorite vacation spot: Nevis.
Favorite food: Twizzlers.
Favorite quote: “So it goes.”
Athlete you most enjoy watching: BOB PROBERT (former Red Wings LW).
Favorite sporting event: The World Cup.
Basic business philosophy: Be positive.
Pet peeve: Tardiness.

Q: On “Quite Frankly” with Stephen A. Smith last month, you talked about building stars. How important is that to the success of MLS?

Lalas: It’s not just soccer. If you look at the history and the growth of any league in any sport, there is a direct correlation to the arrival of marketable and successful stars as to how the league progresses. And in the case of the NBA, how it progresses very rapidly with Bird and Jordan. Soccer is a game where visually the stars are there and we recognize that we have to create those stars with the players that we have because we don’t have the financial ability to go out there and just buy anybody that we want.”

Q: One of the reasons I’m asking is because in your playing days, you were a star because of your talent but also because of that fiery red hair and long goatee. Wouldn’t some more marketable players, like the Alexi Lalas of ten years ago, help this league?

Lalas Would Like To See More Of
Players’ Personalities Spill Onto Field
Lalas: Yeah, unfortunately we’re producing a generation of athletes that fail to recognize that they are in an entertainment industry and from an early age, I understood that myself and my team were out there to perform and put on a show. It’s what I love about sports and it’s what I love to do, whether the fans are cheering you or booing you I wanted them to have interest in the players. And I think that’s a lesson many of our players have yet to learn. Now you have to couple it with ability or you look like a clown but I think some of the best players have recognized it very early on. People pay money to watch you perform and the interest in the league, the players and the sport is generated by not just the amount of goals you score but by your personality on and off the field and what you bring to the sport, on and off the field.

Q: Is that something as a GM you try to relate to your players, especially now since you are in New York, the media capital of the world?

Lalas: I tell all my players right off the bat that my assessment of them as a player goes far beyond what they actually do on the field. Their ability to promote and to be the ambassadors and to be involved in the community and to deal with the media and to create excitement about what they’re doing is part of their job and part of what I expect of them. I don’t want boring players because our fans don’t want to pay to see them and I wouldn’t pay to seem them.

Q: What else needs to be done to make MLS more than just a niche sport in America?

Lalas: We unfortunately love to kick ourselves for what we haven’t done and at times I think we really need to take a step back and pat ourselves on the back for the fact that we are going into our eleventh year, the fact that we have stadiums cropping up all across this league, the fact that we’ve been able to survive and in certain places thrive, is a great indication of where this is headed. It is also important to look at it from a historical perspective. I think we’ve learned many lessons from what has come before us, especially in regards to the NASL and other leagues that have come and gone. We’ve been very prudent and structured in the way that we’ve gone about this business. I think we have to deal with the perception versus reality of our actual product on the field cause I firmly believe we are producing international quality in terms of our players and our teams right now that could play anywhere in the world and would not miss a beat. And I truly believe that.

Q: Then why do we have a LANDON DONOVAN, who dominates here and then goes abroad and can’t make it? And how important is it for us to continue to send our stars to leagues around the world?

Lalas: There’s a credibility that comes with success overseas. And that’s the perception again that if you succeed overseas, you’re a better player. And that’s not the case. I’ve been both places and you only need to ask many of the players and coaches that are involved in this league that have had the opportunity and experience of playing in both places and they will tell you that the soccer is as good, if not better than most of the places around the world. Now, there are many players whose dream it is to go overseas and I would never stand in the way of their dream but if the only thing you want to do is go overseas, there are flights leaving out of JFK every hour and there are plenty of clubs all over Europe and around the world. But to go abroad and find a situation that’s beneficial on and off the field is very difficult. We only hear the wonderful stories and unfortunately we don’t hear all the problems and the difficulties and the challenges that many players face when they go over there, and not just on the field but off the field.

Q: So when the league loses players does it hurt the growth of MLS?

Lalas Says Players Going Abroad
Can Be Both Bad And Good
Lalas: It depends. I think we have to pick and choose on a case-by-case basis. There are times when I think it’s beneficial because it’s a branding opportunity, if you will, and a feather in our cap when a player develops and is sold to a big club. But there are times when we sell tickets and we have marquee stars that we want to maintain and provide to our fans on a weekly basis and it just doesn’t make the proper sense.

Q: When you left to go play for Italian Serie A, what was your experience abroad and how were you treated as an American soccer player?

Lalas: There is a snobbery associated with American soccer and you have to prove yourself on and off the field. I was fortunate to be coming off the World Cup which provides the ultimate credibility. Because I had success in the ‘94 World Cup, I was given, let’s say, a month pass but that didn’t last very long. You really had to prove your worth as you do today. You don’t get the benefit of the doubt and if anything, you are ultra-scrutinized and I think more often than not American players relish that type of challenge and come out ahead.

Q: Has perception of American players changed overseas since you went abroad in ‘94?

Lalas: Oh yeah. What we’ve done in the past ten years as far as the credibility in terms of international soccer is unprecedented. Making the World Cup is no longer a goal, it’s an expectation. We’re going into our fifth World Cup in a row and there aren’t many countries around the world that can say that. All of that lends to an international credibility and so that helps. Listen, if I was a general manager for a club overseas, I would look to the U.S. players more often because they’re cheap, you know you’re getting a solid mentality and a solid base and I think that you’re getting a player who mentally is able to withstand much better some of the hardships and challenges that go along with being a professional athlete.

Q: Since you mentioned that cheapness. ... How can the league keep its stars on this side of the ocean with salaries where they are? And is salary, or a lack of funds, going to be what holds MLS back?

Lalas: Generally, this is a structured league for good reason in that we don’t want to survive but thrive and in order to do so we have to maintain salaries and I understand that from both sides, being on both sides. Every player wants to make more and all of our owners and investors want to make sure they control spending in all facets of this business so that we’re here for many, many years. But listen, players will go where the money is and there’s a reason why most of the players have gone to England because they made a cognizant effort over the past ten years to really start to spend and that’s where players go and American players are no different. If you can get an incredible opportunity and make a lot of money, you’re going to go. Our challenge with MLS is to try to shift that focus and say, ‘you can make a good living but you can also live in the United States in your home,’ and for many players that is incredibly enticing. And you can certainly look to Landon Donovan again as a really important example because there are many people that believe he could play anywhere in the world, and I believe that, but he made a cognizant decision to play in the United States, in MLS, and he believed he would not only have the lifestyle he wanted but also get the competition and maintain the sharpness and form that would enable him to compete at the highest level. And that was a huge, watershed moment for this league. We have to make sure we have more of those.

Q: On the other side of it, how important is it to bring in international stars and if that is important in your mind, how can the league do that?

Lalas: We have to spend money for international stars. One of the ways that we appeal to as many people as possible is by having stars of different nationalities. But we have to compete in a market that right now is very, very expensive when you’re talking about getting the appropriate player. Because you’re not talking about getting any old international player but rather an international player that will number one sell tickets but also be able to handle the style of play in Major League Soccer.

Q: What was your transition like from the field to the front office?

Lalas: [Laughs] It has been the most challenging but also the most rewarding thing that I’ve done in a long time. I’ve been on a crash course of sports business 101 and have had an incredible education and really been given an important perspective that as a player you are pretty insulated to because your job on the field is the most important thing to you. I’ve had to make a lot of difficult decisions that I certainly let my experiences as a player effect it but I have a much greater appreciation and perspective on the business of the game that we play.

Q: What about your transition from San Jose to New York?

Lalas: I jumped right into the fire here. This is another challenge. I love the challenge of taking something and improving it and we certainly have to improve the product on the field, which I already think we’ve started to do in this off season. And we have to get more people to embrace that product and it’s all about spreading the gospel and getting out there and being in front of people. We have to let people know about the affordable entertainment opportunity they have. It’s no different than anything I’ve been doing as a player for many, many years, to be honest. It’s really about getting out there and getting in front of people and being the ambassador and talking about this game that I believe in, that I know and love, and in this case, talking about a MetroStars organization that I believe can become something special in this market. But I’m under no delusion here because my predecessors have all come in and said the same thing ... and unfortunately to date, we haven’t been able to do that and part of my job is to change that.

Q: How important is this particular team’s success to the overall success of the league?

Lalas: Well there are those that would argue that had the MetroStars been stronger from the inaugural season in ‘96 on, or at least more competitive during the ten year existence, that the league would be even farther along and healthier. To a certain extent I can understand that. The New York market, the New York teams are in many sports the ideals, the flagships of the league. I would love to see what happens when the New York market finally gets a competitive and entertaining and successful team that we’ve all talked about in terms of importance.

Q: What role can you play in that?

Many Feel MetroStars’ Success
Could Be A Huge Boost For League

Lalas: Number one, I’ve tried to change the culture here both on and off the field to bring a positive mentality, not in the hippy, guru, California sense, breathing through your nose, but much more in a belief in the family that exists both on and off the field in terms of the front office and the players on the field. ... It’s also part of my job to give the players a perspective. Players are notorious for complaining and bitching about everything, probably in every sport but certainly in soccer, and so I love to bring the players in and explain to them that it might have rained and been cold out for training, but I can bring them into the office and introduce them to a young man or woman who that is selling tickets for us that works in a cubicle and day after day has people tell them to stop calling or hangs up on them, faces rejection and makes maybe a fifth of what they make. So they need to understand it might not be that bad to go out a couple hours every day and play soccer, even when it’s raining. Because those young men and women, and I have a ton of respect for them, believe as much, if not more in this sport and are constantly working to fill that stadium to give them the environment they deserve.

Q: Anything special up your sleeve? Like a MICHAEL JORDAN or MARIO LEMIEUX dual role as a front office player?

Lalas: Nothing that I can talk about. As I said before, I believe that the MetroStars organization needs to be competitive and successful. I believe we are headed in that direction. As far as the entertainment, yes, we need to put on a show every single time because ultimately the scores fade away but the experience that our fans have, whether it’s at Giants Stadium or in our new stadium in Harrison, is what remains. Our players have to understand that. Our front office has to understand that because that is who we are working for. So anything that we do will be geared towards giving people their money’s worth every single game.

Q: Can you still play?

Lalas: I could.

Q: Do you miss playing?

Lalas: I miss it every single day and I go and run around with the team every once in a while and try to humble them as much as possible. Ultimately I end up being the one that gets humbled but I try to run around there because it can be incredibly humbling to a player when your GM comes out and is in as good, if not better, shape than you.

Q: If it would put more people in the seats, would you come back?

Lalas: Yeah, I’d do anything man. This is a show. I work for AEG and I never forget the E.

Q: From what I understand, you are an avid musician. How did this start and what role does it play in your life today?

Lalas: I have written, recorded and performed for longer than I was playing soccer. I started at an early age and have continued throughout my life and my career. I’m actually in the process of forming yet another group out here in New York. It’s something I love to do, that has been a constant regardless of what team I was with or what country I was in or what job I was doing. Music is something that has always been there and will always be there. And when I get canned from here, music will still be there.

Q: Is there a way music and soccer could be intertwined to make these games more of an event?

Lalas: One of the things working for AEG that you realize very, very quickly is that the entertainment part is not just soccer, it’s concerts, it’s music. Putting people in the seats and giving them something that makes them say, “Wow.” And I’ve always been able to see the rhythm and the music of the game of soccer and the marriage of those two things I think is going to increase ... with the understanding that we have to respect the game, with the understanding that our games do not need to be a Barney show.

Q: Besides the quality of play, why does an English Premiere League game look so much different than a MLS game on TV?

Lalas: Environment plays a big part. Which is why the introduction of these new stadiums is so crucial. I mean listen, we play in Giants Stadium. It holds 80,000 people. If we get 20,000 people, which is an incredibly good crowd for us from a business standpoint and a sports standpoint, it’s still in a cavern, whether we like it or not. And by the way, 20,000 people, 99% of the clubs around the world would die to have that on a regular basis. But you throw them in an 80,000 seat stadium and it’s kind of like having a beautiful present in a horrible box. You’re gonna lose something. We’ve recognized that we have this product that is improving, but we have to put it in a pretty box and that’s what these stadiums are.

Q: What can be done, coverage wise, to improve the product?

Lalas: To be fair, a lot of the stuff the EPL uses is stuff that they’ve stolen from American sports and we would all love to have the “Monday Night Football”-type of production facilities and budget that they use for every single MLS game. But we don’t have that. I think we’ve done a very good job with the resources that we do have but I also think that we can learn. And where we were in ‘96 and where we are today, it’s another world. Listen, TV is a huge part of the future of this league and being able to transfer that excitement from the field to the television viewer, is important.

Q: The NHL just came back and made rule changes to increase scoring. What could MLS do in terms of rule changes to increase scoring?

Lalas Says He Would Be
Open To Minor Rule Changes
Lalas: We do this balancing act where we recognize that in order to appeal to as many people as possible, we need to make the game more Americanized in a sense. But we are also playing a game that is international and there’s something very heartfelt and possessive that soccer fans have when it comes to the rules of the game. We’re playing the same game that is being played on the other side of the world. Now I’m much more progressive in the way that I look at things. I’d make the goals bigger. If that means we end up playing a different game than everyone else in the world, yeah but I also believe ... whether it’s football or soccer or anything else, has to progress and expand and change. And so I’m not as scared of change as a lot of soccer fans. And I think we have an opportunity with MLS to set ourselves apart and be an American league and an American version of soccer. That’s not a bad thing. That’s not something we should fear. Now to completely bastardize the sport and make it a Barney show and make it something that you can’t recognize as soccer, that would be a problem.

Q: You’re not trying to make an XFL then?

Lalas: No, we’re not trying to make an XFL but there’s a lot of stuff in the XFL, that you can laugh all you want, that if done correctly, can enhance our game and would make it more appealing to more people.

Q: A lot of people say the single entity system is great to launch a league but terrible at developing a league. Is it time to look at alternatives?

Lalas: I can not comment on the structure of the league other than to say that the structure of the league is precisely the reason that at this point thousands of players have had the opportunity to have a professional soccer career in the United States. It is something, as I’ve said before, that has enabled us to learn from history and I believe will be the reason that the MLS will be in existence well beyond the careers of the players that are playing right now.

Q: What about WUSA. They are trying to relaunch. Should the leagues work more closely together this time?

Lalas: Yeah they should. That was the problem to begin with. Listen, I believe in women’s soccer. And soccer is soccer whether it’s being played by men and women or naked men and women. It’s entertainment where people are kicking a ball around and I believe there is room on the bus as they say for men’s and women’s soccer. And I believe cooperation and a willingness to work together is vital for the success of WUSA ... and I think that we, as MLS, could really use them as an asset to help us become stronger.

Q: Outside of soccer and music, what else do you like to do?

Lalas: I became a father for the first time, about three months ago, so I have no days or nights. I’m figuring that whole scene out and other than that, this is so much fun for me. This is as challenging as anything I ever did on the soccer field.

Q: If soccer didn’t exist, you’d be ...

Lalas: A full-time musician.

Q: Looking ahead to year 11, what is the biggest challenge for the league?

Lalas: Relevancy within the sports landscape and certain markets have done it better than others but you’re only as strong as your weakest link as they say. And that goes for this league too.
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