Major League Soccer: From Heavy Debt to Worldwide Respect

Don Garber - 'The Don' - MLS Commissioner

I was a skeptic back in 1996 when Major League Soccer's inaugural season kicked off. Ten teams divided into two Conferences played thirty two games each and combined for over five hundred goals. The first ever MLS Cup was contested at Foxboro stadium and was decided by a ninety fourth minute strike from Eddie Pope that saw DC United lift the silverware. I recall the game was played in dreadful weather conditions, in front of thirty four thousand brave souls. The MLS was born as part of a successful bid to host the World Cup on US soil in 1994. The following year I went to work for Nike Soccer and so began my relationship with Major League Soccer. Nike sponsored five of those first ten teams - Dallas Burn, LA Galaxy, NY Metrostars, San Jose Clash and Tampa Bay Mutiny. At the time we took a lot of stick for those names, very unconventional and their crests denoted taxi cabs, pirates, fire and star systems. The branding was all the creation of a Nike Apparel guru named Roger Wyatt. One of the 'originals' from Nike Soccer in 1995, Roger was adamant that each team had to have an identity that no fan would forget in what was a new League within the world's oldest game. He was resolute in his belief and forged ahead despite push back from the MLS. All came to a head at the 1996 Super Show in Atlanta and I was there, a very minor player making up the numbers in a meeting with then MLS Commissioner Doug Logan and his staff. I can still even today close to thirty years on, picture the two 'sides' sat opposite each other. One seat was empty and happened to be for Sandy Boedecker who oversaw Nike Soccer globally and was a right hand man to Nike's founder Phil Knight. Ten minutes passed and we had exhausted all the small talk, when abruptly the door swung open and in strolled Sandy. We all remember those remarkable moments in sport, they are mainly on the field, but mine happened to be played out in a conference room. It wasn't the fact that Sandy was wearing cowboy boots to accent a pair of gym shorts and a faded tee shirt, but the fact he sat down looked straight at Doug Logan and basically said " We do it our way or we're pulling our support and money". Doug wearing his Armani suit and red striped tie believing this was a start of some kind of negotiation started to counter. Sandy got up and walked out. The remaining Nike contingent followed once we knew he hadn't gone to the restroom. Sandy got his way and over the next five years I worked in Nike Soccer the League stumbled along. Players and even Teams came and went. Commercially it was a disaster and we kept telling ourselves it was an 'investment' an 'incubation period'. Long story short the League was dying, leaking money and being propped up by a few of sports oligarchs. Nike Soccer eventually decided not to renew their contract and turned their focus to sponsorship of the US Soccer Federation. Adidas stepped in to sponsor all of the Leagues teams going forward and I think both companies would say it has proven to work out for all parties. 1999 was significant and not because of the song by Prince but because the MLS saw Doug Logan step down (fired by owners) and be replaced by Don Garber. The man had cut his teeth building NFL Europe and you could immeadiatly telll this was a different and highly competent executive. During his nineteen years at the helm of MLS, Garber has rejuvinated and managed an amazing resugance. The US Men's National Team making the quarters of the 2012 World cup helped, but more importantly Garber had understood the proposition he was running and fundamentals that needed to be focussed on. Soccer specific stadiums and American players. The League stabalized financially and became more selective about the 'marquee' players it imported. They were more credible and not retirees looking for one last contract. The quality of play on the field became better, media coverage, camera placement during games and even the selection of commentators and color analysts now mattered. Garber embraced the Hispanic following for Soccer in the US . No longer was the MLS trying to take on the EPL, Serie A and instead sought to run it's own race, on it's own terms. I've had my lows as a fan of the MLS, but now look forward to watching games over the weekend and am buoyed by the great ownership at the team level and commitment from the League office. Atlanta United continue to set the benchmark and so appropriate that they should host this years MLS All-Star Game. Important to remember the MLS is a young League but undoubtedly thriving and with Worldwide respect. 

Mercurial Soccer Boot

R9 - Ronaldo

1997 and I was working for the newly resurected Soccer Division at Nike on the campus in Beaverton, OR. Sales was my remit and specifically building the soccer specialty channel throughout US. Nike senior leadership on the fourth floor of the McEnroe building had decided it was time to " go all in " and challenge the dominance that Adidas had in the category, the one truly global sport. Becoming #1 was the longer term goal, but short term it was to cause Adidas any and all grief so they would have to focus back on a category where they took the revenue for granted. Probably a little known fact that the early strategizing and product development were done on the ground floor in a building dedicated to the baseball great, Nolan Ryan. The Soccer Division occupied a few offices and cubes that in total was maybe 5,000 square feet. From this space and under the guidance of one of the icons of Nike, Sandy Bodecker the Mercurial boot was born. At this time every boot was leather, black and white and invariably players wore either the Copa or World Cup from Adidas. Innovation in a sport with deep heritage was not going to be easy but vision is a very powerful trait and Sandy had that in buckets. A small group of us were sitting around a table in Nolan Ryan and Sandy produces a generic shoe box and holding it close to his chest tells us that what we are about to see, we see under penalty of death if we talk about it. In this shoe box is a piece of footwear that is black, grey and red and very shiny. Caressing this shoe, Sandy turns it over and reveals blades that you would usually see on Baseball cleats. What struck me first was that this shoe seemed so light in his hands. The tongue was very minimal and the 'last' seemed narrower than a typical boot. As best I recall Sandy uttered these words " It's our new Soccer boot for Fall, called the Mercurial, made of Teijan leather, Ronaldo is going to wear, we are only going to make 500 pairs and the price will be $170 ". He educated us on what Mercurial meant " changeable, volatile, fickle; eratic; a mercurial nature" and sat there waiting for us to say anything. There were more smiles than words those first few minutes. We were all thinking it's not real leather, got too much color and we are going to charge an $80 premium for a plastic boot that doesn't have studs? The rest is history. Paradigm for Soccer boots was changed, sell thru was 100% inside a week, the brand heat was incredible. Nearly 20 years on and Nike Soccer goes from strength to strength. The Soccer category today is like Coke and Pepsi with Nike and Adidas dueling every season for dominance and owning almost every dollar of open to buy. Those were heady days helping build a Soccer brand / category and my high honor to have learnt from and worked with some true innovators (Bodecker, Wyatt, Daly, Hidalgo, Remmlinger) who changed a sport for the better through the product that made players at all levels reach new heights. Lesson is don't just build 'stuff' and chase trends but INNOVATE and 'set' the trends.