SBJ/June 2-8, 2014/In Depth

Executives share their memories of putting together '94 World Cup

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Twenty years ago, David Sternberg never imagined he’d build a career around soccer. He knew next to nothing about the sport when he took a temporary job with the 1994 World Cup organizing committee. He just wanted to do some sports-related work before he enrolled in business school at UCLA.

“Soccer wasn’t part of my long-term plan,” Sternberg said.

But over the past two decades, Sternberg has spent the majority of his career working around soccer — first at Fox Sports, later at Fox Soccer Channel, and now as the head of media at Manchester United. He’s one of dozens of people who worked on the 1994 World Cup who continue to work in the sport. Their professional involvement in the sport is a testament to the growth of the soccer business in the U.S. over the last two decades.

Organizers of the event faced plenty of obstacles stateside and plenty of scrutiny abroad.
Photo by: Getty Images
“The business of soccer has experienced a complete sea change,” Sternberg said. “Twenty years ago, you could barely find soccer on television. There was no professional league. It was something you parked your kids at on a Saturday afternoon and knew that when they got to high school they would play something else if they had any athletic skill whatsoever.”

Looking back, it’s hard to imagine how much things have changed. The U.S. bid to host the World Cup almost failed to materialize. The bid cost $1.5 million, and the bid committee only managed to raise half of that. California attorney Scott LeTellier, president of the organizing committee, left his law practice and mortgaged his home to secure the rest. Even after FIFA awarded the U.S. the World Cup, there was skepticism about it being played in America.

“The international soccer press was predicting that no one would come and that we would cut the game into quarters so we could have commercials,” said Hank Steinbrecher, who worked on the bid and was the former secretary general of U.S. Soccer. “We had every possible complaint registered against us beforehand.”

The corporate community also had its doubts. Kathy Carter, who worked in marketing for the World Cup organizing committee, recalls meeting with potential sponsors and having to explain what the World Cup was. The U.S.
qualified for its first World Cup in 40 years in 1990, and the U.S. team lost every match it played. As a result, the event and the U.S. Soccer team weren’t relevant to most marketers.

“They knew a big event was coming, but I wouldn’t say the marketplace knew what that event was,” Carter said.


The sports industry was still in its infancy, and the organizing committee reflected that. Organizers cut a value-in-kind, loaded deal with Starkist Tuna and planned to feed it to volunteers, but Carter said it was so hot in the summer that it couldn’t keep the tuna fresh for the workforce.

“Our sponsors were Coke and Mars, and I had so little money that I had Snickers bars and Diet Coke all the time, and sometimes for dinner,” said Scott Rosner, who was in graduate school and working as the assistant manager of volunteers at Giants Stadium during the 1994 event. “I had a stomach ache for months and was too dumb to figure out why.”

There were other issues as well. Hours before a match at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., a garbage truck knocked down a pedestrian footbridge near the stadium and took out all of the broadcast wires that ran from the stadium to nearby broadcast trucks.

“Miraculously no one was on the bridge,” Sternberg said. “Can you imagine a less auspicious start? We wound up taking the bridge down and routing people another way and getting the signal back up in time for the game.”

Ticket sales were a challenge as well. There was little history outside the failed NASL for attending live soccer matches in the U.S., so organizers turned to local youth soccer organizations for support.

“When we started to sell tickets, we had some lists from [the American Youth Soccer Organization] and a bunch of index cards with other names and addresses,” said Joann Klonowski, the former vice president of marketing for the 1994 World Cup and the current vice president of the 2015 Special Olympics. “We started the initial sale and used advertising with American sports icons to get people interested. In March 1994, we had a million dollars in ticket sales [in a single day]. Then everything started to sell out.”

Premier Partnerships founder Randy Bernstein, who was the senior vice president of corporate marketing for the 1994 World Cup, added, “We never really knew until the opening game in Chicago and saw the first ball kicked with political leaders that we had something special.”

The Rose Bowl is filled to capacity for the 1994 World Cup Final.
Photo by: Getty Images
The 1994 World Cup remains the best attended in history. It attracted 3.6 million spectators and averaged 69,000 people per game.

The event served as the launching pad for Major League Soccer, which debuted in 1996. It also was the catalyst for the first rights deal in the U.S. for the English Premier League, which Fox acquired for $2.5 million in 1998, and the UEFA Champions League, which ESPN acquired in 1994.

Soccer in the U.S. has exploded since then. MLS now attracts more than 6 million spectators annually. The league has 19 franchises playing this year (compared with 10 in that first season), increased its expansion fees from $10 million to $70 million, and has signed marquee international players like David Beckham and Thierry Henry.

The EPL became the foundation for Fox Soccer Channel, which was later disbanded so that soccer matches could air alongside other sports on Fox Sports 1, which pays more than $60 million for UEFA Champions League rights.
Rights for the EPL rose considerably over the past two decades. NBC Sports Network currently pays an estimated $83 million a year for those rights.

The value of World Cup rights in the U.S. exploded, as well. No broadcaster in the U.S. signed on to air the 2002 or 2006 World Cup. MLS stepped in to acquire the rights to both World Cups for $40 million to $50 million and struck an agreement with ESPN to broadcast the events.

ESPN and Univision went on to pay a combined $425 million for the rights to carry the 2010 and 2014 World Cups (ESPN paying $100 million, Univision paying $325 million). Looking ahead, Fox Sports bought the rights to the 2018 and 2022 tournaments for between $450 million and $500 million, with Telemundo paying $600 million for the Spanish-language rights to those two events.

In addition to its media value, soccer has become a major live sports event. European clubs now regularly tour in the summer and draw more than 50,000 spectators for exhibition games.

The game’s growth has allowed a host of people who worked on that World Cup in the United States to continue to work in the sport. In addition to Sternberg, who is working with Manchester United, the people still working in the sport include: Bernstein, whose firm Premier Partnerships has sold naming-rights deals for MLS stadiums like Philadelphia’s PPL Park; Carter, president of Soccer United Marketing; Sunil Gulati, who served as the executive vice president of the 1994 event and is the current president of U.S. Soccer; and Charlie Stillitano, who created the summertime Guinness International Cup event.

“Our mission statement said we were going to host a great World Cup and leave a legacy for soccer in the U.S.,” said Rosner, now a professor of sports business at the University of Pennsylvania. “We accomplished both.”

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