SBD/Issue 135/MLS Season Preview

Catching Up With Real Salt Lake Owner Dave Checketts

Checketts Discusses Issues Facing
Real Salt Lake And MLS This Season
When Dave Checketts agreed to purchase an expansion MLS franchise in his hometown of Salt Lake City in ’04, the league landed a savvy and experienced sports business veteran to its already formidable list of investors like Phil Anschutz, Lamar Hunt and Bob Kraft. Since the acquisition of Real Salt Lake, Checketts’ Sports Capital Partners has bought the Blues and soccer cable channel GolTV. The move to acquire GolTV further demonstrates Checketts’ bullishness on soccer, but is being scrutinized by MLS rights holders, who see a conflict of interest in a league investor owning a network that offers separate soccer content. On the eve of MLS’ 12th season, Checketts spoke with Managing Editor Marcus DiNitto, and while he declined to discuss GolTV –- saying only “I wouldn’t have headed down this road unless I thought it could be done in a way that would benefit everybody” — he touched on several other issues facing RSL and the league itself.

Q: A lot of the soccer fans I know watch a lot of soccer on television. Some watch two or three games a week, but rarely, if ever, watch an MLS game. I’m sure they watched the Champions League games on ESPN Wednesday, but pay very little attention to MLS. How does MLS overcome that challenge? How does it draw in the core soccer fans that aren’t really paying attention to its games?

Checketts: It really is about upgrading our talent and the development programs that we have in place now. The academies that we’re building are going to just create better players. Our players at MLS are terrific and they’ve come a long way. But it’s really about elevating the game, because lots of people — and part of that is changing perception, too — most people don’t really pay enough attention to know how good the MLS game has become, and it’s getting better every year. Our games are competitive; the games are fast and exciting and physical. On a skill basis, we’re not Premier League yet, but I don’t see any reason why we can’t get there.

Q: What do you think a realistic timeframe is to elevate MLS to the level of some of the elite leagues in the world?

We’re just in the second decade of the league’s history, and I will say that it will happen in this decade.

Q: In terms of raising the awareness of those soccer fans to realize that the level play is better than they think, how is the league going about doing that?

The Designated Player Rule is going to take a big step in that direction. When you bring in David Beckham, when Chicago [signs Mexican star Cuauhtemoc Blanco]. ... Bringing in that kind of talent to the league — we’ll see what the Red Bulls do, what other teams do in terms of signing international players that may want to spend some time in the U.S. — that will bring a lot of attention, and people will start to watch, and that will also, I think, elevate the play of teams.

The other thing that has had an impact on the level of our play is bringing in international teams and having them play our teams here. Our guys here really get up to play them. We brought in Real Madrid last summer to play us, and most people thought that would not even be a match. It was not only a good match, it was a great match. It was very even in the first half. Real Madrid got a penalty kick and scored right at the end of the first half. But up until then it was very competitive, and the second half the same way. [For our players] I would imagine it’s like bringing the Yankees in to tour Japan. Those teams there are going to get up to play them. And that’s what happens here when we bring in Chelsea, when we bring in Real Madrid. The all-star team last year ended up beating Chelsea 1-0. It was a very competitive, very exciting game.

Look, the world is getting to be a much smaller place, and the Internet and access to these games on television from around the world has a lot to do with that, so I think this is all working in a very positive direction to upgrade the talent in the U.S. and thus the level of play.

Checketts Feels MLS Could Be
One Of Top Leagues In Ten Years

Q: Is Real Salt Lake looking at anybody in terms of the Designated Player Rule?

We are, but I don’t think I will do anything until we move into our new stadium, which will be a little over a year from now.

Q: Who are some realistic targets for the Designated Player Rule for Real Salt Lake or the league in general?

I can’t really talk about players who are under contract with other teams. Some of these players, though, who are under contract, are having their agents reach out to MLS teams and are expressing a strong desire to come to the U.S. after their contracts are up. So, that’s happening as we speak. There are a number of very powerful soccer agents in the country that are calling MLS teams and are starting to talk about players, but I can’t mention specifics about names.

Q: Your team did acquire another very marketable player this off-season, Freddy Adu. How are you planning on promoting him?

A lot of people are saying he’s in the middle of our marketing campaign. I’m not sure that’s really accurate. We did a marketing campaign on what I call the lives of our players. So there’s a lot of dialogue about not only Freddy, but Jason Kreis, the all-time leading scorer in the MLS, Jeff Cunningham, who won the Golden Boot Award last year as the leading scorer in the league with 16 goals. Just to hear what these guys say about their attitude going into the season is kind of our marketing campaign. And Freddy’s got this incredible personality and smile, and he’s an incredible ambassador for soccer, so we’re using him. But it’s a team sport, and we’re promoting a lot of our players.

Q: Have you noticed any impact on your business — ticket sales, merchandise -– after signing Freddy?

Oh yeah. Our season tickets are almost 50% ahead of last year at this time.

Adu Giving RSL
Ticket Sales A Boost
Q: And you attribute that more to Freddy than to the arrival of Beckham?

I think it’s a combination of Beckham, Freddy, and the fact that we’ve won our stadium battle in Utah, and people know we’re there to stay. Sports fans make an investment based on how they feel about a team and how they feel about the team’s prospects and their own allegiance. And in this case, I think people really know we’re there permanently, and they’re willing to make an emotional, as well as financial investment.

Q: After navigating through the stadium deal, what advice would you give other owners, whether that’s an MLS team or a team in another sport, who are trying to get their own facilities built?

I would tell them to consider trying to pass a kidney stone first. No, I’m sorry. [I would tell them to] just get ready, because these facilities don’t work without some sort of public-private partnership, and that becomes a frustrating exercise. People get misinformed. They act on bad information. Political leaders have different motivations than doing what’s best for a community, and they do things for political reasons, and it’s complicated and difficult and expensive.

Q: What other acquisitions are realistic or viable for Sports Capital Partners?

Our business is sports, entertainment and media. And those are the areas that we have expertise in and know well, and so we’re looking at a lot of different things in those three areas. I’d really like to be in baseball. Baseball’s in good shape labor-wise. I think it still has tremendous power in the U.S. So I’d like to be in baseball, and I still think the NBA has a lot of upside.

Q: There’s a baseball team on the market. I don’t know if you’ve heard.

(laughs): At the end of the ’07 season?

Q: That’s right.

Yeah, well, that one’s going to be very expensive, but it is a tremendous, tremendous franchise, so we’ll see what happens.

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