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SBD/Issue 176/Sports Industrialists
THE DAILY Goes One-on-One With U.S. Soccer Head Sunil Gulati
Published June 8, 2006
U.S. Soccer Federation
President Sunil Gulati
|Favorite artists: ELTON JOHN, BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN and U2.|
|Favorite athletes to watch: RONALDINHO, MICHAEL JORDAN and DIEGO MARADONA.|
|Favorite recent movie: “Crash.”|
|Last book read: “1776” by DAVID MCCULLOUGH.|
|Favorite vacation: My last visit to
|Most admired executives: BOB KRAFT and PHIL KNIGHT. I know Bob Kraft quite well and have seen him in action. Phil Knight I know less well. Everything they’ve done is pretty extraordinary. In both cases, they’ve built something virtually from scratch and done it with integrity and vision.|
|Best professional advice: Go to the World Bank. I received that
advice from my advisor at
|Best professional decision: To come to
Q: How do you set a tone as a leader?
Gulati: In some ways, I’ve been able to set a tone as a leader for a while in the soccer community. You do that with hard work and integrity and, frankly, by leading. If given the choice of making a decision or having to reach a decision by consensus, I’ll lean towards making a decision. That doesn’t mean you don’t involve other people but that you do so by leading and not equivocating. I’ve always found it much easier to sell ideas than myself. By that, I simply mean convincing people of the concept of a dream than convincing people to vote for me for office.
Q: Where do you plan to go with
Gulati: At a global level, we plan to take the sport to a higher level. Success on the field is very important. It underlies everything we do. We need to do a much better job of popularizing the sport in a media way, whether that’s television or news or print. We’re not where we want to be there. International aspects of the game are very important to me. We’ve announced and will further announce initiatives in international assistance programs. That’s because it’s the right thing to do and because there are large, underserved populations in the United States that are passionate about the game -- namely, the Hispanic and African-American community. Clearly, we want do what we’ve done well in the past, which is host major international events.
Q: How do you plan to popularize soccer?
Gulati: FIFA is determined to help and is going to help us increase awareness in this market. It’s not as simple as saying that there are millions of kids playing so therefore we will have an audience of them that turns into millions of fans. My guess is most of us at age seven, eight, nine and ten played badminton, volleyball, softball, swam. Most people who did that when they were kids don’t watch those sports in a paying capacity as spectators. It’s not inevitable that just because we have millions of kids playing that they’re going to be viewers. We have to do a lot more to establish a connectivity between those kids that play and what they see on television. The one great thing about soccer is it’s the same set of rules at age seven as it is at age 37 at the World Cup. We have to continue to develop that connectivity.
Q: How do you develop connectivity and what will you do that you haven’t done in the past?
Gulati: We’ve never had the sorts of resources we have now to go and do things. We have more financial resources and people involved than we ever have. We finally have stadiums that allow people to watch the game the way it’s supposed to be played, in an environment conducive to entertainment. Having a 25,000-seat stadium that’s full creates a different atmosphere than a half-empty 70,000-seat stadium. Television. We will certainly do things to show the game in a better light by pouring more resources at it. It’s pretty clear when you watch an NFL game or Premiere League game that look similar in terms of quality and number of replay machines. Clearly, given the economics of soccer in the
Q: How do you go about doing that?
Gulati: Part of it will be what happens on the field. Part of it will be what sponsors get behind him. I don’t know if as many people would know some of the prominent sports figures we know of without Nike or Gatorade or Coca-Cola. That’s not going to happen overnight. This a growth game for us at all levels.
Q: How are you working to activate someone before the World Cup?
Donovan Integral Part Of
U.S. Soccer's Promotion
Gulati: There’s always a catch-22 with that, as plenty of advertisers
can tell you with previous World Cups and Olympics. LANDON DONOVAN is
clearly one of our stars, both for the
Q: How does FIFA view the
Gulati: Clearly, they took a chance when they gave us in 1988 the right to host the World Cup. We showed we were up to the task. We launched a league out of that -- one that’s there 11 years later and stable. I think they continue to see great potential here beyond what we’ve done. They see great growth, but also see the juggernaut that is the NFL or MLB and say, ‘Why can’t soccer get a hold at that level?’ They have certainly planted the seeds with what they did 18 years ago, but they understand that for continued growth to happen we need their help.
Q: How do you think they’ll help in the future?
Gulati: You’ll see a number of initiatives that FIFA and U.S. Soccer will undertake together. Whether that includes getting FIFA sponsors to activate programs in the
Q: When you all hosted the World Cup in ‘94, could you have envisioned having the fifth-ranked team in the world a little more than a decade later?
Gulati: It gives us some credibility, but ... your ranking doesn’t mean a thing. You have to go out and play in the tournament. It’s nice. If we had gotten seeded, it would have meant more because it would have changed who we played. We have a very difficult group. We had a great run in 2002 and it’s not going to be the case that we’re going to get better in terms of our final, end performance in every World Cup. The main thing on that front is that over the last 20 years, we’ve certainly gotten a lot better on the field. The rest of the world is not standing still. In a competitive situation, you can’t just get better, you have to get relatively better. These last few slots -- and beating teams like
Q: How critical is it that the
Gulati: It would be a big plus if the team does well. I can’t define well, but playing more than three games is a starting point.
Q: Why has soccer struggled to turn youth participation into fan avidity?
Gulati Says Turning Youth Participants
Into Fans A Difficult Task
Gulati: All of the sports have great fall off from participation to
what happens when kids are teenagers. Some go from millions of kids participating
to zero watching: swimming, except for the Olympics. I don’t have an answer.
It’s a long hard growth. The growth in participation was in the 1970s, so we
now have millions of parents who played, whose kids are now playing. But how
do we turn it from a sport that parents love to take their kids to because it’s
safe and healthy to taking their kids to see a professional game or buy them
merchandise? We’re still working to get through. Along with connectivity, tradition
is extraordinarily important and tradition takes time.
Q: How is
Gulati: The Hispanic community and the support of their home countries is different than their support of Major League Soccer. My goal is to figure out for those people that have a great avidity for the El Salvadoran and Mexican national teams is how we become their second team, so that if we’re playing
Q: Where do you see soccer in this country in five years?
Gulati: You’ll see between four and six more MLS teams. You’ll see between four and six more soccer-specific stadiums. Hopefully, we’ll be looking back at the last two World Cups and saying, “Wow. Over the last two World Cups we’ve had really great results.” I see another women’s professional league. I see continued growth and faster growth in terms of participation numbers. That slowed down, and that’s a little cause for concern because I think we rested on our laurels a little bit and we need to get our message out again. I see greater avidity. I see the Hispanic community being much more important in organized soccer. I see the
Q: Why did participation numbers tail off?
Gulati: It’s not a coincidence that the heyday years of growth numbers for soccer were during the years of North American Soccer League. It’s not a coincidence that youth participation numbers for girls went up sharply after the women’s World Cup here. We need to do a better job about getting the message out, promoting just the game -- not MLS, FIFA, etc. -- just the sport. It’s got extraordinary power in suburbia and it’s starting to get more credibility in cities.