A Word with the Commish

As told to Robin Carlin

Commerce City, the City of Denver, the Rapids and Kroenke Sports put together an aggressive bid to have the MLS All-Star Game back in Denver. Once we saw what they were willing to do, the support of the community, and the passion and interest of KSE, it became a really easy decision.

Those new eight MLS teams really are ahead of Denver, if you will, but (this market) wanted it. At the end of the day, we wanted the best possible game, the most support, and an event that will help the team get closer to the community and show their interest in becoming a regional sports property. They’ll certainly be able to do that with the All-Star Game again.

We’ll go from 20 teams to 24 teams by the end of the decade. In 2017, Atlanta and our second team in L.A. will come in. So, 20 teams today; in 2017, we’ll have 22 teams, and between 22 and 24 and then we’ll take a breather. St. Louis, Minneapolis, Las Vegas, Miami and Sacramento are markets that we are looking at.

Denver has this great mix of American history, a cosmopolitan feel, a real urban energy with everything that’s going on downtown, and a great backdrop that is like something out of a movie set, but it’s real. As an outdoor guy, I love coming here. I also love the fact that when I wake up it’s 20 degrees and snowing and by the time I leave, it’s 60 degrees and sunny.

Tim Hinchey has been doing a great job – they’ve grown their season tickets, they’ve grown their group tickets, they’ve grown their division individual game tickets. I expect that trend to continue.

The Kroenke family arguably own more sports teams in more leagues around the world that any other sports ownership group. The fact that they own an MLS team is something that we are very proud of. KSE is super smart; they are what we call “fully integrated” – television network, facilities, merchandising, marketing – and they are an organization that is best-in-class are really gets the job done. We are really happy that they are an MLS team owner.

Arsenal is arguably one of the most important and popular football teams in the world. Stan owns it and sits on their board along with Josh, and hopefully some of that expertise and interest can flow through to Major League Soccer.

We are approaching 20,000 fans a game, which puts us in the top 10 in pro soccer leagues around the world, including England, Italy, Spain, Germany and France. That’s what we are trying to achieve. We focus less on the comparables to U.S. leagues because we are a global market. Our goal is to be one of the top soccer leagues in the world. It’s not necessarily to move up the major league chain here in the United States.

We want to have the best American players playing in our league. We want young kids to grow up and say, “I want to be Clint. I want to be Michael. I want to be Jozy. I can grow up in any city in this country – whether that’s Denver or Newark or Nacogdoches, Texas (which is where Clint is from) – and I can play in a grassroots club no different than the Colorado Rush or the Rapids Academy, I can play for my local MLS team, I can play at the highest level on my national team, and I can make a good living.” That’s the pipeline that we want to show kids that can exist for them.

(Jurgen and I) have certainly chatted. We met at the MLS Cup in December in L.A. Jurgen’s role is to ensure that our national teams do well. And that is one of our goals – to have MLS drive the success of our national teams – but we are also trying to build a fan base. We’re trying to grow interest with our television partners. We’re trying to drive the soccer culture in this country that believes in our league and that we can host and be a league that drives a soccer nation. In order to do that, we have to have the best American players in our league. We don’t have to have all of them, but have to have most of them. We have to have some of the best international players wanting to play in our league. We have to have young players playing in our league – coming out of our academies.

The World Cup television ratings were comparable to other big events here on television. We captured the hearts and minds of the entire country – from the President of the United States down to just about every community because everybody took a step back and said, “Wow, the U.S. has a big game against Ghana and a big game against Portugal and we really hope that these young upstarts can show the rest of the world that we can play this game.” It continues to over-deliver on our expectations. A lot of that has to do with the growth of these tens of millions of kids who play – boys and girls – who grew up with the game. They’re TV viewers, they’re ticket purchasers, they’re travelers.

More people attended the World Cup from the United States than any other country around the world. That’s an amazing statistic and that bodes well for the sport.

(When I was with the NFL), I was living overseas and trying to convince an international community to love a game that was not natural to them, in many ways it was deemed foreign. It was very difficult and it taught me about what to do to grow a passionate connection with your sport. In many ways, when I first joined 15 years ago in Major League Soccer, the sport wasn’t foreign, but it wasn’t as embedded in the culture as it is today. Now, it’s a whole lot easier for us to convince a soccer fan to be an MLS fan as oppose to convincing a baseball fan to be a soccer fan. We don’t need to do that anymore. We just need to convince the soccer fans to love their local MLS club.

We recognize that we are really young; we’re just coming in to our 20th season. The other leagues have been around a hundred years. So, we are one generation old – the time that a child spends with their parent. They’re four and five generations old. So, we recognize that the world we live in is entirely different from the world that they are living in. We don’t try to think about comparing ourselves, but we have been growing fast and we have to be mindful that some of the decisions that we are making can be wrong. We have to be brave enough to admit that and move on. We have got to do as much research as we can, but recognize that yesterday’s data isn’t necessarily going to drive our success tomorrow.

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