SBJ/November 19 - 25, 2007/This Weeks News

Movie exec Roth a natural as soccer owner

When AEG Chief Executive Tim Leiweke began entertaining the idea of bringing David Beckham to MLS, he broached the possibility with Joe Roth, a longtime Hollywood film executive and friend with an eye for marketing and a passion for soccer.

Joe Roth made his debut as an MLS owner at a news
conference last week. He’s the principal owner of
a new team in Seattle with Paul Allen, Drew
Carey and Adrian Hanauer.
At first glance, Roth called the idea of importing Beckham brilliant, but he admitted that he knew little about MLS. He spent several months investigating the league and then returned to Leiweke with an idea nearly as big as Beckham.

“I want to own a team,” Roth said.

Last week, Roth’s nine-month quest concluded when he was introduced to the city of Seattle as the principal owner of a new MLS team along with co-owners Paul Allen, Drew Carey and Seattle Sounders owner Adrian Hanauer. The moment punctuated a dramatic career shift that will see the 59-year-old, who is semi-retired from a career in film, launch a new career in sports business.

Roth’s successful and enduring Hollywood career spanned three decades and included roles as chairman of Fox Film Corp. and Walt Disney Motion Pictures. He aided the production of films such as “Home Alone,” “Toy Story 2,” “Sixth Sense” and “Black Hawk Down.” But his most recent role, as founder and chief executive of Revolution Studios, was set to end this December, and he was looking for a change.

“The seven years as an independent company was a great deal, but somewhere along the line he said, ‘I did this. I did that,’” said Tom Sherak, Roth’s partner at Revolution. “He could only ask, ‘What do I do next?’

“This is a man who loved the sport of soccer his entire life. Whenever we’d be with a group of people, he’d ask, ‘Did you see that game between Italy and Ghana?’ Owning a team makes perfect sense.”

For MLS, his investment in a $30 million expansion team is one of the bright spots in a busy year.

“We’ve always said we know MLS really has arrived when people who grow up with the sport say, ‘When I make it big, I’m going to buy a soccer team,’” said MLS Commissioner Don Garber. “That’s what happened with Joe. That’s what impressed me about him the most. He believes in the sport and is very committed to it.”

Roth’s love for the sport spans decades. He grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y. Though he also played basketball and ran track, he stood out on the soccer field, playing one year at Bowling Green State University in Ohio before transferring to Boston University.

Roth moved to San Francisco after college and began working his way into the movie business. He started as a production assistant on commercials and feature films and eventually produced his first film, “Tunnel Vision,” in 1974.

As Roth’s career took off, he remained devoted to soccer. He coached his son’s travel soccer team, leaving work every Friday after lunch to make it to practice 40 to 45 weeks a year. He often could be seen on the sidelines running up and down the field and yelling at his teenage team.

“On the soccer field, he’s a firecracker,” said Zac, his 24-year-old son who played soccer at Boston University. “At work, he has a calming presence, but on the soccer field he becomes very passionate and coaches with fervor.”

Roth followed soccer after his son stopped playing, attending two games during the 2006 World Cup in Germany. But it wasn’t until Leiweke asked him about Beckham that he began to think about MLS.

After Beckham signed, Roth became a Galaxy season-ticket holder. He woke up one morning in February as the Beckham hysteria died down and told his wife he wanted to buy a team. The decision caught her, and others, off guard.

Roth saw the move as a chance to superimpose some of his knowledge of the entertainment business on the sports world.

“I saw it all as show business,” he said. “It’s the same idea. You try to get people out of the house to spend money.”

Convinced Roth was serious, Leiweke recommended he call Garber. The two met at the Peninsula Hotel for breakfast, and Garber recommended that Roth look at the Pacific Northwest and cities like Vancouver, Portland and Seattle.

Ultimately, Roth gravitated to Seattle because it had the highest percentage of youth soccer players in the U.S. and a strong history of attendance during the North American Soccer League years.

He traveled to the city with Tim Leiweke to meet with Tim’s brother, Tod, president and CEO of Paul Allen’s Vulcan Sports Group. Over dinner, Tod talked about Seattle, the economics of soccer and recommended Roth meet Hanauer, owner of the USL Sounders.

The three settled on a loose ownership structure with Roth and Hanauer as the primary investors, controlling approximately 50 percent and 25 percent of the $30 million expansion team, respectively. Vulcan Sports will control the remaining 25 percent of the team in exchange for letting it play rent-free at 67,000-seat Qwest Field.

Drew Carey later approached Roth and invested in a minority stake.

Roth hopes the group will function like a studio. Vulcan Sports will handle back-of-the-house issues, sales, distribution and marketing; Hanauer will oversee the creative side, the organization’s players and team; Carey will be the anchor star that studios often rely on to keep their films interesting; and Roth will oversee both distribution and creative, much the same way he did at Fox, Disney and Revolution Studios.

“I’m relying on a structure I know from the past,” Roth said.

Roth plans to continue to make one to two movies a year in the future, but most of his attention will be on Seattle, a city he hopes will become the home of soccer in the U.S.

“Track and field is Southern California, high school football is Texas, street basketball is New York, but there’s no city that’s the home of soccer,” he said. “I want to take an inherent interest in soccer in Seattle and make it the home of soccer in the country.”

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