Following his tenure as Chair & CEO of the 1994 World Cup
Organizing Committee and President of the U.S. Soccer Federation,
Alan Rothenberg became CEO of Major League Soccer, the most
recent attempt to bring pro soccer to the U.S. Rothenberg spoke
with THE SPORTS BUSINESS DAILY yesterday on the challenges of
starting a new league in the face of skepticism about soccer's
appeal to U.S. fans. The league is scheduled to start in April
THE DAILY: What is the difference between staging an event
such as the World Cup and running a league?
ROTHENBERG: An event is something that is ongoing and an
organizational challenge, but you have a clear time frame and a
clear direction. In that sense, it is easy to make happen. What
we are trying to do in starting a league is a daunting
enterprise. Nobody in this country has started a successful
professional sports league at the major league level from scratch
since the NFL 75 years ago.
THE DAILY: Is there a different approach towards sponsors
when you are trying to attract them to a league?
ROTHENBERG: There are two different issues. One, the World
Cup is an international event and so you had a lot of sponsors
who were in it for the international impact primarily, if not
exclusively. Where we are a domestic league, the sponsors are
going to look at it from a domestic standpoint. The second thing
is that World Cup, as big as it is, is a one-shot deal, and
sponsors obviously gear their promotions and advertising and
everything else towards that; whereas, with the league, we expect
a more permanent relationship. Sponsorship for the World Cup,
even though we were in nine cities, tended to be national,
whereas here a lot of the sponsors are going to want to do some
things locally. For example, an Anheuser-Busch or Coca-Cola,
they are going to go to their distributors and bottlers in each
market and say, 'OK, if we have this property, what would you do
with it from a promotional standpoint in your city.' So it
becomes more locally focused than the World Cup.
THE DAILY: How are the relationships with World Cup
ROTHENBERG: There were basically three kinds of World Cup
and Federation sponsors: people who have always been involved in
soccer; people who were curious, they were new, had their eyes
open and said we will wait and see; and people who were really in
it for one shot. Obviously the latter category is gone -- the
ones in the international scope didn't care about the domestic
market. The longtime soccer people are going to stay, it is just
a question of negotiating favorable terms for both parties. Of
the ones in the middle, the reaction is very favorable. You had
in that last World Cup cycle, companies like McDonald's, Master
Card, GM -- never previously involved -- who got involved in a
big way with both the World Cup and the Federation. All the
early signs are they want to continue a relationship with soccer,
both at the Federation and at the MLS levels.
THE DAILY: What would be your ideal presence be on TV, at
the outset and in the long-term?
ROTHENBERG: What we are going to start with is probably
close to what we would end up with long-term, and that is a
combination of cable with ESPN and network with ABC. It is a
total of 35 games, which gives us a couple of games a week during
the season, which is mid-week, prime-time, and the late afternoon
weekend. That is probably the format we would carry through for
a pretty long time. ... We don't expect in the early years to
have gigantic ratings, and therefore, huge rights fees. We think
it is much more important that the public get exposed to the
product at the highest level with the best quality, and, over
time, the ratings and rights fee money will follow.
THE DAILY: What efforts will there be to tap into the
grassroots of American soccer? Any programs similar to those
employed by other leagues, Hoop it Up, etc.?
ROTHENBERG: We are going to do even more than that. The one
great thing about soccer is that it is much more organized than
most other sports and we will have relationships with the major
youth organizations and we will have relationships with the major
camp and clinic programs, and, in effect, become partner to all
of those people.
THE DAILY: How will the ownership rules be structured to
avoid the type of problems revenue sharing wise and labor
problems that have plagued other sports?
ROTHENBERG: We have a single entity. MLS will be owned by
all of the investors, and therefore, hopefully, we will be able
to avoid the problems of other sports. Then, to the extent that
some of the investors will also want to operate a team, we will
enter into an operating agreement with them so they can run the
team in their market. But the league will control all of the TV,
all of the sponsorship, players and then allocate it out to the
teams. So if the league puts in a salary cap -- which it will --
it can absolutely enforce it. The league will be the only
entity that signs players, so the contracts will be between the
players and the league, then the teams will draft off of the pool
that the league creates. The same way with TV and sponsors.
THE DAILY: Is the league also going to manage the
merchandising and the logos of the franchises? When should we
look for names and logos?
ROTHENBERG: Yes, the league will manage those. I think we
are going to introduce them somewhere in the May-June period,
again starting from scratch. The beauty of it is we have all
those sporting goods companies as our partners -- the Nikes,
Reeboks and Adidas' of the world with all their graphic artists
and their creative genius working with us to develop logos and
merchandise. We are going to the pros in the business, saying
give us the best and the brightest of your talent, and work with