SBJ/20100607/SBJ In-Depth

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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