SBD/Issue 176/Sports Industrialists

THE DAILY Goes One-on-One With U.S. Soccer Head Sunil Gulati

U.S. Soccer Federation
President Sunil Gulati
SUNIL GULATI, 46, has been a major force in U.S. soccer since ‘81, when he first began working with a youth program in Connecticut. Since then, he has played a role in bringing the World Cup to the U.S. in ‘94, helped launch MLS as its Deputy Commissioner during its first five years, served as President of Kraft Soccer Properties and, most recently, became the figurehead for U.S. Soccer.  Elected as U.S. Soccer President on March 11, Gulati faces the challenge of raising national passion for the sport by turning youth participants into avid fans of the game. Over the four years of his presidency, he said he will work to maintain continued national team success, expand the sport further into Hispanic and African-American communities, and work with media and television partners to broaden awareness of the game.  Gulati, who also teaches economics at Columbia Univ., talked recently with SportsBusiness Journal correspondent Tripp Mickle.

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 India was fantastic. I get there once every ten years and last year was the first time I’ve been back with my wife. We went to New Delhi, Shipor, Agra.
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 Columbia University, JAGDISH BHAGWATI. He’s the world’s foremost free trade advocate and a dear friend. My reason for going into economics had always been to pursue working in economic development. I’d fallen in love with teaching, but he encouraged me to go and I think that was the right decision.
Best professional decision: To come to Columbia, where I had a chance to study with Jagdish Bhagwati. In terms of economics, he’s been the most influential person in my life.

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 U.S. Soccer?
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 United States, we haven’t been able to do that at the level we would like. That will change. Obviously, we have to continue to develop superstars. I met with MIA HAMM last week and we talked pretty frankly. I said, “It’s a phenomenal thing you’re the most well known soccer player ever. It’s also a concern.” We have to develop other players at that level. A male player that’s iconic. We’ve got some that have started, but we don’t have any that have the fan recognition, the name recognition and the achievements that Mia’s got.

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 U.S. national team and Major League Soccer. DAMARCUS BEASLEY is very much a star. There’s a little bit of a dichotomy between players who are playing in the U.S., who the MLS would like to promote, and those who are playing abroad. We will highlight some of them, but they have to go out and perform and the team has to perform. The best thing that can happen for us is for the team to continue to perform and those players continue to rise. Those are all things we’ve begun discussing very seriously with FIFA.

Q: How does FIFA view the U.S. soccer market?
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 U.S. where they may not have, there will continue to be events that come to the U.S. They see that the world has changed in that the television deals that were signed for the World Cup, the largest came from this one, which many people call an underdeveloped market. If it’s the largest single country deal in the history in an underdeveloped market, imagine what it could be in a developed market.

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 France and Germany and Italy and Brazil and Argentina -- that’s the name of the game.  But that’s not easy.

Q: How critical is it that the U.S. team continue to perform well in terms of growing the sport here?
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. France and Argentina didn’t get it done in the last World Cup and they’ve won World Cups, so it’s not an easy thing. It’s important for the sport to progress that we stay in tournaments longer. Oddly, after we moved past the round of 16 in South Korea and almost beat Germany, I said, “This would have been extraordinary if we beat Germany." Not just because we would have played in the semifinal, an incredible feat in and of itself. But it would have given us two more games. You’re in the limelight for another seven, eight, nine days. That would have been phenomenal. We will have more fans at this World Cup than probably combined in the history of the World Cup for United States, leaving aside 1994. In terms of number of tickets sold to U.S. fans, buying U.S. team series tickets, is incredible. We may have 10,000 fans cheering for the U.S. There’s far more media interest than ever before. We’ll have as many games televised as before. The interest in the team -- a big part of that is the success we had last time. BRUCE ARENA, our coach, is exactly right on this: Brazil goes to the World Cup expecting to win, needing to win. The other 31 countries go hoping, kicking, playing, dribbling, trying to get out of the first round to see what happens from there.

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.

The United States is so unique in terms of soccer: the tradition base at a professional level is not really here; the role education plays; the size and demographics; the weather conditions in certain parts of the United States. All of those things make what we do at the professional and youth level very different.

Q: How is U.S. Soccer tapping into the Hispanic market?
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 Mexico they may not cheer for us, but when we’re playing Argentina they cheer for us. There’s no doubt that in DC there are a whole bunch of DC United fans that were Salvadoran fans and fans of RAUL DIAZ ARCE, a key player from the country who played for DC United early in the team’s history. There’s no doubt that there are lots of Mexican fans of the L.A. Galaxy who were big fans of JORGE CAMPOS of the Mexican national team and a Galaxy player. The Galaxy don’t have a Mexican player now, but they still have a lot of Mexican fans coming.

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 U.S. having greater credibility for soccer around the world. Hopefully we have a men’s and a women’s team as well that has two, three, four, five Hispanic players and two, three, four, five African-American players and two, three, four, five European-based players.

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.

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