MLS: The lure of ‘the last frontier’
In January, four of MLS’s biggest offseason acquisitions came to the league’s New York City headquarters. The group, all previously hailing from well-known organizations, were swept through a two-day crash course on the league, which included a sit-down with MLS Commissioner Don Garber, a tour of the league’s newly renovated on-site content studio and a breakfast with the entire MLS headquarters staff.
The foursome did not include Wayne Rooney, Zlatan Ibrahimovic or any other player. Instead, they were all C-suite executives — Tim Bezbatchenko, president and CEO of the Columbus Crew; Kevin Gilmore, president of the Montreal Impact; Brad Sims, CEO of NYCFC; and John Walker, the Houston Dynamo’s president of business operations — whose arrival has served as yet another sign of MLS’s rising trajectory.
All four had notable backgrounds. Bezbatchenko most recently served as Toronto FC’s general manager; Gilmore worked at AEG before becoming COO of the Montreal Canadiens; Sims was the chief revenue officer of the Cleveland Cavaliers; and Walker, formerly the president and CEO of Tickets.com, came from a stint as executive vice president for business operations with the Memphis Grizzlies.
“When [Garber] said he wants MLS to be the league of choice, most people viewed and heard that as a league of choice for players,” said Gary Stevenson, MLS deputy commissioner and president of MLS Business Ventures. “That goes beyond just having more fantastic players choose our league, but also becoming a league of choice for coaches, general managers and fans, all of which spills over into the human resources side with executives and other staffers.”
Garber and Stevenson certainly know the experience as both made their own jumps to MLS after establishing themselves elsewhere — Garber in 1999 after 16 years with the NFL, and Stevenson in 2013 from his role as president of Pac-12 Enterprises.
“For me, I’ve always gravitated toward ground-to-growth and growth properties — that’s what motivates me,” Stevenson said. “The curiosity of what you can do in a growth-building mode is appealing to a lot of people.”
That allure is just one reason many of the executives have moved to MLS at this point in their careers. Others include the booming demographic and cultural shifts in favor of soccer, local stadium opportunities and the looming 2026 World Cup, which will be played in North America.
Gilmore worked at AEG when the company operated multiple MLS teams in the early 2000s, and he recalled his fellow executives telling him that “MLS was one generation away from being a league that stands with the four others.”
After he left the Canadiens he started his own advisory firm and did some work on behalf of Impact owner Joey Saputo, taking a deep look into the club’s business to see what it could do to change its course.
“You see all of these things that are happening on the field in MLS with the level of play and quality of players both drastically increasing, but you have to couple that with what’s happening off the field too — there are now more kids registered to play soccer than hockey in Quebec, and people are moving here from other places where they didn’t grow up wearing hockey skates, but instead had a soccer ball at their feet because it’s the most accessible sport,” he said. “I started to realize what Phil [Anschutz] and my colleagues meant and saw way back when.”
Sims, an SBJ Forty Under 40 winner in 2015, had worked for the NBA’s team marketing and business operations group in New York before moving to Cleveland. Building the Cavs’ brand around superstar LeBron James gave him a view of the global sports world.
“For the Cavaliers, it went from viewing ourselves as a local regional Ohio brand, to boom, now just a few years later we’re a giant global brand, doing business deals in China and Southeast Asia,” Sims said. “I was very attracted to the global nature of what we were doing — but while the NBA is doing a great job globally, soccer is the biggest sport in the world by far.”
Sims pointed to the opportunity to be involved with City Football Group, which owns NYCFC and Premier League champion Manchester City, among other clubs around the world, as it charts a path to becoming one of the biggest global sports brands. He also noted the opportunity locally as well, as the team makes progress toward building its own stadium in New York City, something that eluded the club since it joined MLS in 2015.
That ability to build a brand and club from scratch is what most excited Ian Ayre to join Nashville SC as the MLS expansion club’s first CEO in 2018. Ayre is one of the more well-known soccer executives globally due to his seven-year tenure earlier this decade as the head of Liverpool FC’s business operations, culminating in his stint as CEO, an experience he compared to “carrying Fabergé eggs in your pocket — you had to covet it and protect it while also trying to move things forward.”
“There are things you can do in MLS and soccer in the U.S. commercially that you could never do at Liverpool — you also don’t have a great club that has 120 years of history with a long list of values and achievements that you can lean into,” he said. “That’s part of the challenge, but also part of the excitement.”
That excitement for Ayre is overseeing the building of a 30,000-seat stadium — which will be the largest soccer-specific building of its kind in the United States — in one of the country’s fastest growing cities, while engaging a corporate community that has seen first-hand what sort of buzz the NHL’s Nashville Predators have been able to create.
“I look around this city and this club, and all the raw ingredients are here,” Ayre said. “In my personal view, it’s the ultimate challenge. I’d never give up my 10 years at Liverpool, but after seeing all of this now, I wouldn’t mind being here when I was 10 years younger.”
Chad Biagini, partner and global head of sport at executive search firm Nolan Partners, said that MLS’s story of rapid growth has been putting the league and its clubs on more and more experienced executive’s radars.
“Talent is drawn to interesting projects and innovation, and what MLS has accomplished in the last 10 years going from an upstart league to being among the giants across sports is helping to draw some of the brightest minds in the industry,” said Biagini, who advised Nashville on its hiring of Ayre. “While some sports are holding onto traditions, MLS is pushing boundaries and creating their own traditions.”
Biagini said that as more owners join MLS with big ambitions for their respective clubs and the league, that’s also helping to attract like-minded executives who are at points in their careers where they want to put their own stamp on something.
“For lots of other leagues, it’s about brand protection and brand stewardship — for MLS, it’s how do we create brands, and how do we challenge the status quo,” he said. “An executive at one of the biggest brands in the NFL or global soccer might be able to shift things a degree or two right or left over your tenure. In MLS, you can put a real fingerprint on something.”
That’s what attracted John Urban to become the COO of the Chicago Fire in February 2018 after more than 30 years as a sports business executive at organizations like Madison Square Garden Co. and Legends.
“Coming from a place like MSG, when just by the definition of the size of that organization, you’re only responsible for a certain part of what is a much larger puzzle,” Urban said. “Here, in an environment like Chicago with a team that has an opportunity to take its rightful place in the city, you can touch and be part of literally every facet of the organization. Honestly coming here has been exhilarating.”
The migration of executives has also helped build the allure around MLS – Urban noted that he saw more and more executives he admired and saw the fruits of their success.
Many of the new incoming MLS executives pointed directly to Mike Golub, who followed a similar path as they did, joining the Portland Timbers in 2009 to help launch the club into MLS after a long career across the NBA. Golub, now the team’s president of business, has built the organization into one of the country’s most successful franchises.
“The talent level in the room at the CBO/team president meetings has never been better, which is really being driven by this wonderful infusion of experience and energy from the new folks,” Golub said. “To have the best possible people in these positions while the business is only getting bigger and sophisticated every year is only going to make the league as a whole stronger — I know we’re all rooting for each other.”
Industry sources said the salaries for these positions are also rising, helping to attract more executives. While those figures are still below comparable positions in the NFL or NBA, the average salaries for some of those positions have increased as much as 50% in the last three years, a source said.
Stevenson said that for club owners who want to attract highly experienced executives, “compensation packages that make it worthwhile for those people to be there have to be created — sometimes it’s salary, sometimes it’s bonuses, sometimes it’s a longer-term plan where you might gain equity or even oversee the competitive and commercial side.”
“People’s careers are often defined by what their impact was, what sort of impact did they have on the growth of something,” Stevenson said. “You have these opportunities to build something from scratch or take a brand in a major market that needs a restart to take it to the next level — the bottom line is, you’re getting involved in something with momentum in the world’s most popular sport — this is the last frontier for the world’s game.