SBJ/20100607/SBJ In-Depth

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  • AEG gets ready to open the souvenir stand

    Sean Ryan is no stranger to running retail at mega-events, a big plus for World Cup soccer officials in South Africa.

    Ryan is vice president of merchandise for AEG, the company that in December 2008 was officially awarded the rights to sell World Cup souvenirs at event sites. AEG’s deal is with Global Brands, FIFA’s master licensee.

    Ryan’s experience includes working the 1994 World Cup in the United States and 14 consecutive Super Bowls when he was with FMI, another retail provider.

    Recently, he has had to concentrate on events in Greater Los Angeles, where AEG manages retail at Staples Center and Angel Stadium in Anaheim, and last month’s Amgen Tour of California, a world-class bike race where mobile trucks trail competitors and sell T-shirts to fans lining the roadways.

    He’s made the trip from Los Angeles to Johannesburg five times as he oversees World Cup operations. A sixth trip will be delayed by the NBA Finals, where the Lakers are the Western Conference representative.

    In Ryan’s absence, AEG has deployed a full-time staff of six senior managers in South Africa, including William Stone, international director of merchandise. Stone has been on site since March 2009.

    Soccer City is one of 10 World Cup facilities
    where AEG will handle souvenir sales.

    Last summer, AEG got its feet wet in South Africa managing retail at four venues playing host to the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup. The experience helped AEG’s crew resolve logistical concerns for the World Cup, an event much larger in scope. Officials expected full move-in at all venues by last Friday.

    Establishing operations in Greater Johannesburg 14 to 15 months before World Cup competition began allowed AEG to become part of the fabric of the South African culture and fully understand its laws, Ryan said.

    “We have been able to mitigate any problems we have had with our people coming over and getting into the country,” he said. “We have worked tremendously well with local authorities.”

    AEG is employing about 2,000 South Africans to sell souvenirs at 10 World Cup facilities as well as several off-site locations tied to the event. The list of local workers extends to human resources employees, stadium managers, warehouse staff and cashiers.

    A key part of AEG integrating its business operation is its commitment to local residents. AEG developed a new program to subsidize education for eight college students taking the year off to work the World Cup. The investment is about $3,000 a student, separate from their wages, Ryan said.

    “These are kids that have been working with us in the warehouse since March 2009,” he said. “They were just getting their start and had a few college classes under their belt, but they weren’t able to finish the task of getting their diploma. We are helping them get their diploma with these incentives.”

    In addition to selling at the 10 World Cup stadiums, AEG is responsible for retail operations at the 10 fan fests tied to each host city, where fans without game tickets can watch the matches on big-screen televisions, Ryan said.

    AEG is also running fan fest locations at outdoor venues in Rio de Janeiro, Paris and Sydney that are broadcasting the games live in those cities. World Cup items range from $5 pins to $225 canvas jackets. The vuvuzela, a horn that South African soccer fans like to blow in the stands during games, should be a big seller, Ryan said.

    In the U.S., AEG will sell World Cup merchandise at L.A. Live’s ESPN Zone, the retail and entertainment zone across the street from Staples Center, and the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif. AEG owns the MLS facility, home to the Los Angeles Galaxy and Chivas USA.

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  • ESPN’s Ley looking forward to another World Cup

    ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” host Bob Ley is the network’s most experienced soccer voice. In the 1970s, he served as public address announcer for the New York Cosmos of the defunct North American Soccer League, before landing at ESPN. Ley first started working World Cup games for ESPN in 1982 and will be a big on-screen presence during the network’s coverage from South Africa. A few days before taking off for the World Cup, Ley spoke to SportsBusiness Journal about what he expects from the monthlong tournament.

    You’ve been to South Africa twice. How ready is the country?
    LEY: There might be some paint drying on June 10, but they have fulfilled every promise they made when they got this Cup. This was always going to be an African World Cup. It’s going to be staged safely and securely. But it’s going to have an African flavor. Not everything is going to be exactly the way you anticipate. But the matches are going to be organized well, and the stadia will be ready.

    When you first started at ESPN in 1979, could you imagine a day when it would cover soccer as heavily as it’s doing now?
    LEY: I think back to 1982, the first World Cup I worked on. It was definitely a niche sport. It was a bit of an oddity. There was a bemused tolerance for it across much of the work force. But it was designated last year as one of our company priorities internally. John Skipper [ESPN executive vice president of content] is one hell of a soccer fan. But there’s a lot of business acumen behind all of this — the understanding of the shifting demographics in the country and the rising profile of the sport.

    Bob Ley has been covering World Cup matches
    for ESPN since 1982.

    Can the World Cup help MLS?
    LEY: The NHL is struggling somewhat with the same issue of trying to take Olympic success and have it translate to domestic success. MLS has a business plan in place. They’ve been successful with that. They’ve got soccer-specific stadia. The next step is an upward curve in quality of play. If you can get more marquee players not on the downside of their career, then you’ll see the interest continue to grow. We live in a world where, on a Saturday morning, you can watch seven or eight matches from the best leagues in the world. That’s the environment in which MLS is competing.

    What’s your most memorable World Cup moment?
    LEY: It’s got to be hearing 80,000-plus Frenchmen singing “La Marseillaise” at Le Stade de France in 1998. The night they played Brazil for the final, they were in the fullest of throat. You got goose bumps. You really understood that there were tens of millions of Frenchmen there in spirit at that moment.

    What story is under the radar at the moment that you think will be a big one for this year’s World Cup?
    LEY: We may see an African nation catch a little magic in a bottle and get the sense of what it’s like to get a continent to put their spirit behind a team. I’d love to see that happen. I don’t think anyone realistically thinks that will be South Africa. It might be the Ivory Coast. But if an African team can advance and, maybe, get to the semifinals, wow. Then you’ll really have a sense of what this means, not just to South Africa, but to the entire continent.

    Who will win it all?
    LEY: William Hill, the bookies in London, has Spain as the favorites at 4-1 odds. They’ve never won. Just on the basis of the array of talent, I will take Spain.

    How far will the U.S. team go?
    LEY: Not only can they get out of the group, if the stars are aligned they can win the group and maybe even avoid Germany in the second round. Realistically, I could see them reaching the round of 16 against Germany.

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  • Global Influence

    Soccer is the most global game in sports and Americans haven’t held tremendous sway abroad historically, but with time, that’s begun to change. Here’s a look at some of the most influential Americans in the soccer world.

    Chuck Blazer
    As the first American-born member of the FIFA executive committee, Blazer has influence over everything from appointing U.S. representatives to FIFA committees to voting on where the 2018 and 2022 World Cups will be held. As CONCACAF’s general secretary, he has a voice in the region’s international competition and manages two growing soccer properties, the Gold Cup and CONCACAF Champions League.
    Sunil Gulati
    Through his four years as president of the U.S. Soccer Federation, the Columbia University professor of economics has become the face of the organization abroad. He is a member of FIFA’s strategic, Confederations Cup and ticketing subcommittees and is the driving force behind U.S. soccer’s bid to host the 2018 or 2022 World Cup.
    Tim Leiweke
    The AEG chief executive changed the dynamics of international soccer by pushing to have the designated player rule adopted and bringing international stars to MLS. Afterward, he stood toe-to-toe with Italian club AC Milan over David Beckham. AEG’s international interests, with venues everywhere from London to Shanghai, makesLeiweke a force abroad.
    Bryan Glazer
    Glazer and his family have become the faces of American ownership abroad and they may be influential for all the wrong reasons. The family purchased Manchester United, the world’s most valuable soccer club, in 2005 and have since come under fire for loading the club up with $1.3 billion in debt.
    Landon Donovan
    The American has become the face of U.S. soccer abroad following his successful loan to English club Everton where he proved he could excel at a top European league. His involvement in the U.S. as one of the driving voices in soccer’s recent labor dispute highlights his business interest and acumen.
    Casey Wasserman
    As founder of Wasserman Media Group, Wasserman oversees the management of some 250 soccer players worldwide, including British stars Michael Owen and Steven Gerrard. He played an important role behind the scenes in bringing Bill Clinton on board as the honorary chairman of the U.S. bid for the 2018 or 2022 World Cup.
    Don Garber
    During his 11 years as MLS commissioner, Garber has steadily extended his influence overseas. He has led Soccer United Marketing’s efforts to forge ties with Germany ’s Bundesliga and Spain ’s FC Barcelona, and he will become an important voice in global soccer as European leagues look to control player costs in the future. He also is a member of FIFA’s Club World Cup committee.
    John Skipper
    Four years ago, Skipper placed a huge bet that soccer could be a success for ESPN. The company’s executive vice president of content has since worked with ESPN International head Russell Wolff to acquire rights to Spain ’s La Liga and the English Premier League. His interest in soccer, and ESPN’s $100 million investment in the 2010 and 2014 World Cups, have made Skipper a recognizable and well-regarded figure among FIFA’s leadership.
    David Hill
    The head of Fox Sports is beginning to take a personal interest in Fox Soccer Channel. Fox’s decision to broadcast the recent UEFA Champions League final underscores Hill’s interest in the sport. Look for him to become more involved abroad as he looks for ways for the network to tap the sport’s growth.
    Stan Kroenke
    The Colorado-based billionaire keeps a low profile as the largest owner of club Arsenal (with a 29.8 percent stake). Since his investment, the team has worked to cultivate its business in Asia and improve its new media offerings. Not surprisingly, Arsenal also has one of the English Premier League’s few American-groomed chief executives, Ivan Gazidis.
    — Compiled by Tripp Mickle

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  • MLS plans to ride the coattails of World Cup

    Major League Soccer plans to take a different approach to the FIFA World Cup when the event kicks off Friday, shutting down the domestic season for two weeks as it looks to use the South African tournament to its advantage.

    Unlike the summers of 1998, 2002 and 2006 — when MLS stuck with its schedule as some of its top players were busy playing on sport’s grandest stage — the league hopes to piggyback on this year’s World Cup as a way to appeal to a broader fan base and enhance its relationship with the international soccer community.

    “It’s certainly not an easy task to shut down our league for a specific period of time,” said Kathy Carter, executive vice president of Soccer United Marketing, “but the World Cup will grow the popularity of our sport and our players. We believe in the saying, ‘The rising tide lifts all boats.’”

    With several MLS players expected to play key roles for their national teams in South Africa, including Los Angeles Galaxy forward Landon Donovan and Chivas USA defender Jonathan Bornstein (United States), New York Red Bulls defender Andrew Boyens (New Zealand) and Kansas City Wizards midfielder Roger Espinoza (Honduras), the World Cup provides the league an opportunity to connect with World Cup viewers.

    This advertising campaign is one way Major League
    Soccer is connecting to the World Cup.

    An MLS marketing campaign linked to the World Cup began with a TV spot that aired Memorial Day weekend, while the entire campaign started this past weekend. The league also has created a speakers bureau that positions current and former MLS players as international soccer experts.

    On a local level, the league office is working with its 18 clubs to create events and maximize the exposure of the World Cup. For example, teams are distributing ESPN World Cup collateral materials, including viewing guides, at MLS stadiums.

    “The clubs know their markets and they are creating a variety of events around the tournament,” Carter said.

    The Red Bulls have constructed a World Cup countdown clock at the new Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J. Similarly, the Colorado Rapids have encouraged Denver-area businesses to air World Cup matches in their offices “so that their staff can bond around the sport of soccer,” Carter said.

    All MLS teams are involved with viewing parties of World Cup games. Some of the teams will host such events at their home stadiums, while others are electing to partner in their communities to bring events to restaurants, pubs or public spaces. The San Jose Earthquakes, for example, have partnered with sponsors and the city of San Francisco to air free coverage of the tournament in front of City Hall.

    “Every four years, the World Cup elevates the sport of soccer to a higher level in the United States,” Carter said. “People from all backgrounds, ages and origins embrace the tournament and consume the games as passionate fans. Soccer fans are united, skeptics are converted and the sport grows in our country. It is an opportunity to connect Major League Soccer and our clubs with World Cup viewers and fans in an authentic and meaningful way.”

    Brian Helfrich writes for sister publication SportsBusiness Daily.

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  • Ready on the set for Disney’s television operations

    Built 25 feet off the ground and overlooking South Africa’s Soccer City, ESPN’s state-of-the-art studio will be the centerpiece for Disney’s television operations from the World Cup.

    The studio will feature a 16-by-9-foot LED
    screen, while the main set (below) and its
    30-foot, roof-to-floor glass wall will overlook
    Soccer City Stadium.

    ESPN, of course, will use the studio most frequently, producing pregame and postgame shows and filing “SportsCenter” reports from the event. That starts Thursday, with a live three-hour show that will be shot from the studio. ESPN will use the studio Friday for “SportsCenter” reports and pre-match coverage, then go back to it every day during the monthlong tournament.

    But ABC News — including “Nightline” — and the network’s morning show “Good Morning America” also plan to use the studio for their reports.

    In the fall of 2005, ESPN paid FIFA $100 million for the rights to the 2010 and 2014 men’s World Cup and the 2007 and 2011 women’s World Cup. Univision holds the Spanish-language rights to the same events, for $325 million.

    The studio is set up with a patio that will allow several live reports to multiple outlets at the same time. Each of the shots will have the same background.

    “We have three control rooms, and we’ll be able to handle that kind of multiple live situation when asked,” said Jed Drake, ESPN’s senior vice president and executive producer of remote production.

    “Good Morning America’s” Robin Roberts will use the studio for much of the tournament and plans to host the network morning show from that location on June 14. ABC will house its news operation at ESPN’s operation in the International Broadcast Center in Johannesburg.

    Big numbers ahead for World Cup ratings?
    ABC’s Sunday afternoon live broadcast of the Italy-France 2006 FIFA World Cup final averaged 7.7 million households, and a 7.0 rating. The audience size was 188 percent greater than the 2002 World Cup final, which originally aired live at 7 a.m. ET.
    In April, ESPN executive John Skipper said he expects 2010 FIFA World Cup ratings in the U.S. to increase 25 percent to 50 percent over 2006.
    Panelists in the Turnkey Sports Poll were asked in May:
    Are these expectations …?
    Source: Turnkey Sports & Entertainment in conjunction with SportsBusiness Journal. The Turnkey Sports Poll covered more than 1,100 senior-level sports industry executives spanning professional and college sports.

    The studio’s sets will have distinctive on-screen looks, Drake said, the most impressive of which will be the 16-by-9-foot LED screen. “It was built by the same folks that designed the 360 circular screens that hang over the U2 set,” Drake said.

    The studio will feature a 30-foot, roof-to-floor glass wall that overlooks Soccer City. And it will have multiple sets, including one that can hold four on-camera talent members and a separate interview set.

    ESPN also is pulling out technological bells and whistles for its shows. The one Drake said he’s most excited about will be the creation of a virtual soccer player that will look like an EA Sports-type athlete. The player will be able to move around in sync with the background, which will give the image a three-dimensional appearance.

    ESPN has used similar technology during its NBA coverage, showing the virtual player dribbling, with a wall of statistics to the left or right of him.

    Just two weeks before the start of the World Cup tournament — and 24 hours before he planned to hop a plane for South Africa — Drake said ESPN’s planning is on schedule. “In terms of all of our animation projects and music and features, everything there is right on target,” he said.

    But Drake said his internal countdown clock does not run to the start of the World Cup tournament. Rather, it takes him to the end of the tournament, nearly two weeks into July.

    “When you have an opportunity to do something that’s really special and really remarkable, there’s just an incredible feeling of emptiness when it’s over,” Drake said. “That, to me, is usually the best measure of how well something went — when you’re really sad that it’s over. I expect to feel really sad on July 12.”

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  • Trail Blazer

    Together, they started clapping. Philip Anschutz. Bob Kraft. Tim Leiweke. Clark Hunt.

    When MLS Commissioner Don Garber introduced CONCACAF General Secretary and FIFA executive committee member Chuck Blazer at a 2006 MLS board of governors meeting, the room swelled with applause. And while no one can remember who started it, everyone can remember why it began.

    At a FIFA executive committee meeting months earlier, Blazer had stood up and asked his FIFA colleagues not to approve a $350 million bid from NBC for the 2010 and 2014 World Cup rights. Granting NBC the rights, he argued, would hurt soccer’s exposure in the U.S. because NBC wouldn’t televise MLS or other international competition.

    Blazer asked for a few weeks to find an alternative, not because he had insider knowledge that a higher bid was in the works, but simply a hunch that other networks would offer a better deal.

    Blazer worked with Garber to eventually put together a deal for Univision and ESPN to buy the rights for $325 million and $100 million, respectively.

    This Friday, both broadcasters will televise the first game of the 2010 World Cup, and they have Blazer to thank for it. He changed the way the nation will watch the World Cup and established himself as the most important and influential American in sports’ most global game.

    “If we have to go to the mat on something, Chuck’s where we go,” said U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati. “The natural avenue to FIFA is through CONCACAF and that means Chuck.”

    Mexican soccer federation President Justino Compean said, “He’s been around the sport for many, many years, and he is in all the world a heavyweight, so what Mr. Blazer says is well listened. He’s a very charismatic, intelligent, professional entrepreneur, and before he speaks, he analyzes everything, and when he talks, everybody listens.”

    Blazer has earned that respect during a 30-year career as a soccer administrator, a seemingly implausible journey from the humble ranks of New York’s youth soccer association to FIFA’s famed facility in Zurich, Switzerland.

    His natural entrepreneurial impulses, deft relationship skills and shrewd political instincts have guided him along the way as he orchestrated his first election as a U.S. Soccer executive, urged CONCACAF President Jack Warner to run for that office, commercialized CONCACAF’s Gold Cup and brought FIFA’s marketing and TV rights in-house.

    Where it all began

    On a recent rainy day in his 14th-floor office in Manhattan’s Trump Tower, Blazer, 65, shuffled past an expansive marble desk and pulled an 8-by-10-inch digital photo frame off a wall. Blazer, a heavyset, magnanimous man with salt-and-pepper hair and a thick white beard, scrolled through a series of photos from his life, passing images that showed him standing beside Nelson Mandela, grinning alongside Muhammad Ali and shaking hands with FIFA President Sepp Blatter. Then he stopped.

    Blazer’s career highlights
    1984-86: Executive vice president of U.S. Soccer
    1986-89: Commissioner of the American Soccer League
    1990-Today: CONCACAF general secretary
    1995-Today: FIFA executive committee member
    2002-07: Board member of FIFA marketing and TV

    “Here,” he said, holding up a photo of a youth soccer team from 1983. “I’m the guy on the right, by the way.” He pointed to an image of a fit and trim, curly-haired soccer coach wearing light blue Nike shorts and a white, polo shirt. “In what was one of Nike’s early sponsorships, they sponsored our [New York] state team. That was our blue and yellow. We were one of the first teams they sponsored.”

    In the background, Max, Blazer’s 16-year-old macaw, squawked incessantly from a 10-by-15-foot glass aviary in the corner of Blazer’s office. “Hello. Hello,” Max said. The aviary was divided in half, separating Max from its other inhabitants, two eclectus parrots named Apollo and Venus, who were quieter, more subdued and less needy of Blazer’s attention. Max, who’s almost as well-known in soccer as Blazer, is known to succumb to fits of screeching jealousy when Blazer’s attention is divided.

    “Hang in there, Max,” Blazer said, trying to calm the parrot as he continued to talk about his days coaching youth soccer. “Each different level [of soccer] I worked at brought its own level of satisfactions and accomplishments. They were accompanied by things that were political as well, and I enjoyed the commonality of working together.”

    Blazer started coaching soccer in 1976 when his then 6-year-old son Jason joined a team in New Rochelle, N.Y. He immediately fell in love with the sport and became increasingly involved as his son moved up the ladder from rec league to travel soccer. Blazer was able to spend more time around the sport than the typical soccer dad because he had, at the age of 27, semi-retired after selling a button manufacturer he bought when he was 19 years old, shortly after graduating from New York University.

    In a story that has become legendary in soccer circles, Blazer’s button business exploded in the early 1970s when he began manufacturing the soon-to-be eponymous smiley-face buttons. A well-timed decision to sell the business around the time appetite for those buttons died made him a small fortune. He eventually opened his own marketing consultancy, which gave him the flexibility to coach and work in soccer.

    It quickly became apparent that Blazer’s administrative skills were stronger than his tactical ones. While fellow coaches, like now N.C. State University head coach George Tarantini, specialized in working with the players, Blazer developed patches, secured fields, reserved restaurants for season-ending banquets and worked on scheduling for the team.

    Blazer said, “I was still making a living, but solving those sorts of puzzles and dealing with those sorts of things was a lot of fun.” He eventually was named the head of the Westchester, N.Y., soccer association and began to get involved in the New York state association.

    “It was something about the game,” said Marci Blazer, his daughter, an in-house counsel at Johnson & Johnson. “He just became very passionate about the game and he liked the political nature of it, too.”

    In 1984, Blazer recognized an opportunity to become involved in the sport at a national level. A vice president position at U.S. Soccer opened up, and he planned to run for it in an upcoming election, believing that the position might open the door to an eventual job as commissioner of the North American Soccer League.

    Blazer designed this patch when he was
    a senior administrator at New York state’s
    soccer association.

    To help his candidacy, he pushed the New York state association to host that year’s U.S. Soccer Federation annual general meeting. Sal Rapaglia, the head of the state association, put Blazer in charge of the event. Blazer booked three nights at the Manhattan Sheraton and worked with a colleague to persuade Pelé, who then was playing with the New York Cosmos, to attend a federation dinner and forgo his usual appearance fee.

    “Chuck was part of our circle and you couldn’t say no to him,” said Shep Messing, who played for the Cosmos. “We’d go up to White Plains and do clinics. He’d come to our games. He was like our brother.”

    More than 500 delegates from around the country attended the dinner the night before the U.S. Soccer election. Blazer assigned the seats at the dais in the front of the room and arranged it so that Pelé sat to his left. When dinner ended, almost everyone in the room formed a line to get autographs from the soccer star. After each autograph he signed, Pelé said, “By the way, do you know my friend Chuck Blazer? He’s running for vice president.” The next day, Blazer got 49.6 percent of the vote on the first ballot as executive vice president of USSF.

    “Chuck worked very hard on that event,” Rapaglia said. “It was the first time for him to get noticed and he made the most of it.”

    As executive vice president, Blazer became USSF’s representative to CONCACAF, the soccer confederation composed of Caribbean and North and Central American countries that organizes competitions throughout that region. Blazer was assigned a seat next to Trinidad & Tobago’s representative at the time, Jack Warner, who was also a member of FIFA’s executive committee. The two already were acquainted and became fast friends.

    The confederation’s president at the time, Joaquin Soria Terrazas, was around 80 years old, and Blazer suggested to Warner that he should be the man to replace him. “It was the 1986 congress and we were looking up there and I said, ‘One day, it will be our turn,’” Blazer recalled.

    Three years later, Trinidad was one game away from qualifying for the 1990 World Cup in Rome. All it had to do was beat the U.S. in a game that November in Trinidad. The nation spent weeks celebrating before the game as though they had already won, so when the U.S. pulled off a surprise 1-0 upset, all of Trinidad spun into a depression. Warner’s depression was deeper than most. Not only had his team lost, but he was accused by the local press of printing 45,000 tickets for the game, which was held at a stadium with a capacity of 28,500. Blazer, who traveled to Trinidad for the game, visited Warner the next day.

    “We have to talk,” Blazer said. “You remember that conversation we had about it being your turn? I think you have to do it now.”

    “Why now?” Warner said.

    “Let me explain,” Blazer said. Because of Terrazas’ age, Blazer didn’t think he would live through another four-year term. If Terrazas died, the senior vice president, an American named Gene Edwards, would take over the presidency. He added, “The next election of the president would be in the United States. There’s no way you will be able to unseat a seated U.S. president who has the ability to give away benefits at the 1994 World Cup. It would be politically impossible. If you don’t do it now, the earliest you could run is 1998.”

    Warner, still processing Trinidad’s loss, asked for time to think about it. Blazer returned to his hotel and waited a few days while the entire nation of Trinidad mourned. Eventually, Warner called and said he would do it. Blazer managed his campaign, Terrazas withdrew his bid and Warner won with relative ease in 1990. He immediately named Blazer general secretary, a position that made him the de facto CEO of the confederation.

    “That was the genius of Chuck,” said Charlie Stillitano, a CAA executive and former employee of the 1994 World Cup organizing committee. “When everyone else was clawing their way to be the head of the state association or U.S. Soccer, he made a run at CONCACAF. It set him apart and put him in a position that wields a lot of power.”

    An eye toward business

    With the rain still pouring down outside his office early that afternoon, Blazer opted to eat lunch downstairs in the Trump Tower Bar & Grill. It was already after 1 p.m. when he slipped off his olive suit jacket and settled into a table. As he waited for his food, he explained that he never believed that it was possible Warner printed more tickets for the 1989 World Cup qualifier than were sold.

    “It made for a lot of noise and press,” Blazer said, “but it had very little credibility. For me, that was no issue. I already knew Jack. Jack was a smart man.”

    Blazer’s 16-year-old macaw named Max
    is equally well known in soccer circles.

    When Warner and Blazer took over CONCACAF in 1990, the organization was little more than a mom-and-pop shop. Its revenue was approximately $140,000 a year, and it hadn’t developed any marquee properties. Its biggest asset was its FIFA voting block. In FIFA, each confederation holds a vote for each nation it represents, so CONCACAF holds 35 of the 207 FIFA votes, a massive number compared with the South American confederation, which holds just 13.

    Blazer slowly and methodically improved the organization’s commercial operations. He developed the idea for a confederation tournament that could be held in the U.S. and Mexico, sold Mexican broadcaster Televisa on the idea and christened it the Gold Cup. In 1991, the inaugural Gold Cup culminated with a final at the Rose Bowl in front of 39,873 fans. In 1993, the final featured Mexico and the U.S. playing for a crowd of 120,000 at Mexico City’s Azteca Stadium. The event was enough of a success that CONCACAF was able to sell the marketing and TV rights to InterForever Sports, a Brazilian-based marketing company that later became Traffic Sports.

    When InterForever ran into financial problems in 2002, Blazer reclaimed the rights to the Gold Cup and created a marketing and TV sales division at CONCACAF. The event was shifted from even years to odd years and moved from winter to summer. CONCACAF’s attorney John Collins said, “It was scary at the time. A lot of major marketing companies were having problems, but the market was starting to turn, and Chuck recognized the power of the CONCACAF brand.”

    The move turned out to be a good one for the confederation. The Hispanic population in the U.S. was growing and games drew both English- and Spanish-speaking fans on TV and at stadiums. The confederation eventually brought in Soccer United Marketing to organize the event and recently turned over the sponsorship rights to them. The tournament permanently changed CONCACAF, helping increase the confederation’s revenues to more than $40 million annually, Blazer said.

    “Chuck understood the opportunity with the Gold Cup and was able to take advantage of it,” said Stefano Turconi, CONCACAF’s former deputy general secretary. “His business acumen is incredibly high, and [the tournament] brought the finances of the confederation to a different level.”

    This photo of Blazer in flight with Nelson Mandela
    is one of many memories Blazer keeps in a digital
    photo frame in his Manhattan office.

    The Gold Cup also gave Blazer and CONCACAF the financial footing to launch another ambitious property two years ago. The CONCACAF Champions League pits the top club teams in the region against each other and offers the winner the chance to go on to FIFA’s Club World Cup. The tournament lost money in its first year, but ratings have improved in Mexico this year and so has regional interest in the tournament. Nicaragua and Belize are upgrading their stadiums to meet CONCACAF standards so that their club teams can play in the tournament.

    “A lot of people didn’t think that CONCACAF could support a Champions League, and it’s no UEFA [Champions League], but in the Caribbean and Mexico and other regions, attendance and TV ratings are exceeding attendance and TV ratings in the regular season,” Collins said.

    In 1995, Blazer was voted onto the FIFA executive committee, bringing the entrepreneurial vision he used at CONCACAF to soccer’s international governing body. When FIFA’s marketing rights holder, ISL, filed for bankruptcy in 2002, Blazer and Jérôme Valcke, the organization’s commercial director, championed the idea of bringing the rights in-house. The decision has been credited with driving FIFA’s surge in revenue. The organization’s reported revenue exceeded $1 billion last year, allowing it to increase its savings to $200 million.

    “During [the] ISL collapse and … bankruptcy, his input had helped FIFA to overcome the crisis,” FIFA executive committee member Mohamed Bin Hammam wrote in an e-mail. “He was one among few with President Blatter who made the wealth of FIFA the way it is now. Football is a game but football [also] is a business classified under the entertainment industry, [which is] something I have learned from him.”

    Blazer’s influence gives him the full attention of his peers.

    Blazer also played a pivotal role in the development of two FIFA properties, the Confederations Cup and the FIFA Club World Cup, and he is a member of a committee currently reviewing how FIFA should package the rights for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.

    “He’s constantly challenging what we are doing,” said Valcke, now FIFA’s general secretary. “He’s always asking questions. ‘What are we doing with the mobile phones? What are we providing sponsors?’ He’s very interested.”

    While Blazer’s colleagues in the U.S. and abroad speak highly of him, his affiliation with Warner put him in precarious position a few years ago. In 2006, Warner was censured by FIFA for a breach of ethics after London’s Daily Mail reported that his Trinidadian company, Simpaul Travel, acquired 5,400 World Cup tickets from FIFA and sold them at premium prices to tour operators in England, Japan and Mexico. Blazer said the charges were the result of changes to FIFA’s ticketing policies.

    “The whole nature of ticketing was in flux around that time,” Blazer said. “He addressed it and made corrections to the business practice. It sounds worse than it was. It was a censure and not an expulsion.”

    Blazer’s own credibility was questioned when he testified during MasterCard’s 2006 lawsuit against FIFA. MasterCard sued FIFA after the organization awarded marketing rights to Visa without honoring MasterCard’s contractual right of first refusal. The judge in the case, Loretta Preska of New York’s Southern District, described Blazer’s testimony in the case as lacking “credibility.” She was particularly critical of Blazer’s claim that he told FIFA’s marketing and TV board that continuing to work with MasterCard when the company had an outstanding trademark issue would be “unacceptable.” The judge rejected that claim as “fabricated” because Blazer’s comments weren’t reflected in the meeting minutes.

    Sources familiar with the trial said that Blazer had to take the stand because Blatter didn’t show up to testify after being deposed in Brussels, Belgium. Blazer became his surrogate and was used to get the testimony on the record.

    Blazer said that he took the stand because he was on FIFA’s marketing board. He stands by his testimony. He took the testimony to two other members of the marketing and TV board and asked them if it was consistent with their knowledge of the sponsorship controversy at the time. “It became clear to me that we didn’t know everything,” Blazer said. “Neither one of them or myself knew there were existing lawsuits between MasterCard and FIFA over the use of the globes.” He believes the judge dismissed his testimony to prevent an appeal, but her remarks still affect him.

    “Nobody likes reading stuff like that,” Blazer said. “I see it from time to time and I shrug at it.”

    Can he deliver the Cup?

    The episode did little to undermine Blazer’s standing in soccer circles. He remains well-respected and still continues to serve as the region’s go-to man abroad. Little happens in U.S. soccer without his knowledge or involvement; the recent MLS labor dispute was just the latest example. Though he wasn’t involved in the negotiations, sources say he encouraged FIFA to lend MLS support when the MLS Players Union alleged that the league was in violation of FIFA rules pertaining to the league’s single-entity structure.

    FIFA President Sepp Blatter joins Blazer
    at last year’s FIFA Club World Cup.

    “If you’re a chess player, Chuck’s the grand master,” Messing said. “He’s that influential, that smart, that visionary. And the most important thing to me is his integrity, his honesty and his genuine love of people.”

    Gulati said that what makes Blazer so important is what he’s able to do for the region. He added, “If you’re the senior senator from New York and you bring home the bacon in New York, then you’re going to be popular in New York. Jack’s president, but on the commercial side where Chuck’s leadership is and CONCACAF has experienced tremendous growth, he’s done that, and that can be measured in various ways — the assistance of FIFA, the creation of the Gold Cup, and the eventual development of a commercial property base.”

    Over the next six months, Blazer will be more important to the future of U.S. soccer than ever before. The U.S. is bidding to host the World Cup in 2018 or 2022, and CONCACAF holds three of the 24 deciding votes in the selection of the two host nations. It is expected to use those influential votes to not only back the U.S. bid but also lobby other voters to support it. If he and CONCACAF succeed, the U.S. could host another World Cup.

    Now that would be reason for another round of applause.

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