December 6, 2016
How to run -- or is it ruin? -- a soccer team
Note: With the demise of the Cosmos this week, we thought it would be interesting to run this piece from 36 years ago about how two writers looked at the way professional soccer was run in the United States. You might be interested in items 15a and 15b, given what has come down in the past several days.
This story is a reprint from the Aug. 18, 1983 issue of Soccer America. That's when Michael Lewis and author Moe Sperber, frustrated by professional soccer's demise at the time, decided to vent their frustrations about how to run the show. Some of what was written still hold up today, unfortunately, in wake of recent events. The original story's headline: Scribes go into management and consultation. This story is reprinted with permission from Soccer America.
By Michael Lewis and Moe Sperber
Special to BigAppleSoccer.com
After many years of covering professional soccer in North America, we have decided to set up a pro soccer management consulting firm.
Here is our prospectus on how to run a pro soccer team:
1) Begin by setting unrealistically high attendance goals. Don't use market surveys to establish realistic figures. Go by seat-of-the-pants guess work and count on average of at last 15,000 a game, probably more like 20,000
2a) Peg your budget to your unrealistic attendance goals. Figure on an income equal to a 20-year-game average and spend your money accordingly.
2b) Spend YOUR money as soon as you get it and quickly as possible. Be certain that nothing is in reserve for a rainy day (forget that soccer is played in the rain).
3) To help you accomplish 2b, hire as large a front-office staff as possible. One marketing person and one public relations person will never do. A front office with less than 15 full time and 30 part time employees is "not big league."
4a) To leave no doubt that you will accomplish 2b, hire a foreign-born coach (an inability to speak English is a bonus). Make sure that your coach has a three-year contract with lots of bonus clauses (not pegged to attendance).
At the press conference introducing your coach, make sure that he predicts -- preferably through his translator that his team will play exciting, high-scoring soccer and at the end of the season, they will be in the championship game.
4b) Most important of all for your coach, be certain he knows lots of player agents in Europe and South America. Also make sure he has a Swiss bank account (a savings and loan account will not do).
5) Encourage your coach -- preferably in mid-season -- to find that "one special player," the wizard who will turn your whole season around, put 10,000 more people in the stands, and guarantee that your do-or-dive drive for a playoff berth will succeed.
6) Agree with your coach that the "one special player" is worth the extra money needed to buy him. So what if the purchase price is more than you are paying all of your other foreign players combined? So what if the wizard's salary is 10 times the combined salaries of all your North Americans?
So what if the agent's percentage, as well as what your coach rakes off for his "finder's fee" could finances a reserve team for a year? This guy is the "one special player" and he's worth it.
7) Choose the rest of your foreign players to match the ethnic origins of the population of your city. If you have lots of Germans, bring in Bundesliga veterans, the more washed-up the better. Is there a Chinatown in your city? The Republic of China may be willing to let some players go. Are there lots of Ugandan refugees in one of your suburbs? Surely there's a great fullback hiding out right now in Kampala.
Make sure that you contact the player agents in Zurich to set up these deals.
Also, don't worry if your foreign players fail to adjust to North America and don't put out on the field for you. The idea is not how well they play, but how they please the ethnics in your community.
8) Don't pay attention if the ethnics complain that soccer in North American will never compare to what they knew in the old country. So what if they never come to your games. Bring over a second Ugandan player, that's hard to pack them in.
9a) After your first season, trade, sell or release your most popular player. Announce that you need the money and/or building for the future.
9b) If you plan to return for a second season, add a million dollars to your budget, extend your coach's contract for an extra two years and announce that you are on the verge of a major TV deal for your road games.
9c) For your second year, raise ticket prices. If your first year team played .500 and made the playoffs, raise tickets 25 percent. If your team was below .500 and missed the playoffs, raise prices 40 percent.
10a) Be sure not to scout any North American players. Maybe drop by the Senior Bowl [editor’s note: then pro soccer’s version of a combine], only for the second half, if you feel like it.
10b) Draft lots of North American players. Immediately send out press releases about how you have acquired boys "who have the potential to be the North American Pele and Beckenbauers."
10c) Three months later, don't invite any of your North American draftees to training camp. If you slip up and one is invited or shows up on his own, make sure that your coach does not allow him to play -- even in exhibitions against college teams -- and cuts him at the end of training camp.
11) Hold a huge mid-season tryout camp for North American players. Invite the press. Lay on the free beer and cold cuts. Make sure that the camp lasts two days or at least until after lunch when the press has gone home.
Don't sign any of the North Americans at your tryout camp.
12) Only sign North Americans who were born abroad and have recently acquired a green card or citizenship. The more recent their arrival here, the better.
13a) When no one comes to your games, announce inflated crowd figures. Make sure that you round your numbers off to the nearest hundred. Better yet, a distant thousand. Instead of admitting that only 2,897 (including freebies) showed up, call it 7,000.
13b) If you feel that the above method lacks subtlety, try the following,: pad attendance by 20 percent. If the media discover the ploy, say that there was a misunderstanding with stadium personnel and that it will never happen again. Next game, pad attendance by 25 percent.
14a) When you start to run out of money, look for local buyers, preferably a large syndicate of locals. When that fails, talk about selling the team to the whole community.
14b) Start rumors -- and immediately deny them -- that the team may fold or move to another city next season if attendance does not pick up.
15a) Make sure that your team dies a slow, agonizing death. Make sure that the only news about your team during its last 18 months concerns its folding or relocation.
Double-check that the local even national, media picks up the story of your dying pro soccer franchise. Try some special promotions: Lame Duck Day, Dying Swan Night.
15b) Blame the media for your troubles. Accuse them of having sabotaged your every move. Accuse them or not giving you any coverage. Accuse them of non-stop coverage, of not letting you solve your problems in private.
16) Call a final press conference to announce that you are getting out of soccer. Tell everyone how much you love the sport and how much work and money you have put into it.
Most of all, give the following speech:
"My experience with this team tells me that North American is not ready for professional soccer. Maybe in 15 years when all of the kids now playing it grow up, but not in 198...... I've tried to make a go of it, -- God knows, I've tried -- but this town, this whole country, isn’t ready for my brand of professional soccer."
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That's it pro soccer owners, the Pro Soccer Management Consulting firm of Sperber and Lewis has culled these tried-and-true rules from years of observing pro soccer franchises in North America.
Write us for details on how to implement them. Our fees are reasonable. You can even use the speech free of charge.
Mike Woitalla gave permission to BigAppleSoccer.com to report the story. He can be reached on twitter at @ Mike Woitalla. Sperber wrote the book “Shake Down The Thunder,” a history of Notre Dame football.