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MLS: A-Team Takes on San Jose
by Ridge Mahoney, January 3rd, 2008 2:12PM

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TAGS:  mls, soccer business

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First owned by MLS, then owned or operated by various out-of-town ownership groups, and finally shipped off to Houston, the former San Jose franchise never took root in the Bay Area. But a group fronted by Oakland A's co-owners Lew Wolff and John Fisher is gearing up to launch the expansion Quakes this spring.

Nearly a decade after a consortium led by MLS founder and former chairman Alan Rothenberg failed in its attempt to buy the original San Jose MLS franchise, one of his long-time friends is taking the plunge with an expansion version.

In plunking down $20 million, forging ahead with a stadium plan, and revving up his organization for the 2008 season, Oakland A's minority (10 percent) owner and managing partner Lew Wolff has already done what MLS, Kraft Sports Group, Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG), and Silicon Valley Sports & Entertainment (aka the NHL San Jose Sharks) failed to do during a decade of futility: give the team stability, resources and hope for the future.

"You go all the way through it and look at what we didn't have in the past," said former player and assistant coach John Doyle, hired in October as general manager. "We didn't have a stadium, we didn't have Lew Wolff, we didn't have backing. We started out as a league-run team, but when people in the front office called the league and said, 'We need help,' we didn't get it.

"We didn't have that ownership we needed, the team was always for sale. Phil Anschutz is phenomenal, but he came in here to save the team and then said, 'I want to move the team,' and I don't blame him. Not at all. He gave everybody a fair chance to buy the team.

"It's great now that there is an owner, someone who wants soccer to make it in America and wants to make it in San Jose. That's going to help."

Doyle has already staged a coup of sorts by snatching Frank Yallop away from the Galaxy for a third-round draft pick. Before the team moved to Houston, Yallop led the Quakes to MLS titles in 2001 and 2003. Yallop, Doyle and assistant coach Ian Russell are handling the soccer side of the operation. But winning wasn't enough to save the original team and that's where the A's expertise is needed.

"I think the league is doing a lot of things right," says A's president Michael Crowley, who will fill the same position for the Quakes. "Getting individual owners for individual teams, getting local owners is obviously a key, and some of the corporate deals they've done with adidas and some of these other ones who are non-soccer companies show there's some interest in the league.

"You have to have local ownership. You can't manage these things from a thousand miles away or 2,000 miles away. It just doesn't work. It's like someone who opens a restaurant and after it's successful as one entity, starts branching out, and they go under. It's because you lose that personal touch. Right, wrong, or indifferent, we're going to give it a go."

MODEST BEGINNINGS. Granted, the Quakes will play three seasons at a renovated college facility, Buck Shaw Stadium, which lies across the street - literally - from the team's offices. Buck Shaw once housed the Broncos baseball team and desperately needs upgrading and expansion just to increase its capacity to 12,000 from the current 6,800.

As the joke goes, it's more spartan than the team's former home, Spartan Stadium, which despite several renovations the past few decades never rose above the level of a rustic edifice and despite dozens of meetings and proposals to find and fund something better, never truly suited its MLS and WUSA tenants. The Quakes moved two years after the CyberRays vanished along with the women's league.

Yet from those team offices, literally, can be seen the future: a plot of land near San Jose International Airport, which is where Wolff plans to build a stadium complex to house the team and ancillary facilities. That view is just one of several Wolff envisions.

He's devised an innovative project in another part of San Jose to fund his soccer stadium complex, so he's working with local officials on two fronts, in addition to negotiating with yet another nearby city, Fremont, for an A's stadium to replace their current home in Oakland, which the Quakes will use four times this season, including the April 12 home opener against the Chicago Fire.

That's quite a load for a 71-year-old to take on, especially one with a residence and other business interests in Southern California. The A's organization has survived in the crazily escalating spiral of spending that is Major League Baseball through sensible, frugal operations.

The A's will treat the Quakes as a start-up business, employ perhaps 35 to 40 people, and spend between $1 million and $2 million to renovate Buck Shaw. "It's an asset-building play, and you can build the asset without gouging the public," says Wolff.

In addition to Crowley's involvement, general manager Billy Beane, whose innovative use of statistics to value, buy and sell baseball players is chronicled in the book "Moneyball," is a rabid Tottenham fan. David Alioto, who'd been with the A's for nearly 15 years, volunteered to spearhead the soccer operation once Wolff had purchased an option for the franchise, and is the team's executive vice president. Ann Rodriguez, who played field hockey at Princeton, jumped from baseball to soccer and is the Quakes' director of business development.

"My role is making transactions, but we have a sports umbrella," says Wolff, whose business partner is John Fisher, founder of The Gap. "We've had just one brand, now we have two, maybe we'll have three one of these days, and Billy's in charge. It's as simple as that.

"David came to us. That was a pretty big change, a dramatic change, for him. But he's doing just terrific and I think he's enjoying it more than here. I was surprised, and delighted when he said that."

It's all a bit perplexing yet pleasing to Wolff, who says he rebuffed Rothenberg's efforts for about three decades before finally giving in. The tipping point might have been a setup, but he's not regretting it. He comes to Northern California about once a week to work in the A's offices and often passes into an alternate dimension, one of soccer.

"If you look around the office, everywhere but here, if the TV's on and it's not baseball, it's soccer," he says.

Beane jokes that when he's home, his wife wants to watch the baseball highlights on "SportsCenter" and he's lobbying for Fox Soccer Channel. Wolff may not yet be among the converted. He's on board in many ways, however.

"My kids were sort of raised with Alan Rothenberg's family, in fact I'm on the board of his bank, and for three decades he's been pestering me about soccer," says Wolff. "Finally, in this decade, I think it was the combination of Alan's interest and Phil Anschutz's people inviting me to a playoff game at Home Depot Center. He's a very low-key person but he was really animated watching soccer, and I thought, 'There must be something to this.'"

ROAD TRIP. Anschutz bought into MLS after Rothenberg gave him two free tickets to the 1994 World Cup final that ended up costing him hundreds of millions in soccer-related investments. Wolff's entry into the league came after a trip to the 2006 World Cup in Germany with Beane and Crowley convinced him there indeed was something to this sport.

"We all went over to the World Cup," he recalls of seeing four games in about a week. "I just wanted to get a feel for it. I saw that the crowds were much more well-behaved than some of the press reports I read. Sometimes we got back at three in the morning because of the travel. I was following these young guys around.

"There were more people outside the stadium than inside. What I saw in Europe, and even locally the MLS games I've gone to, it's a beautiful sport. It's not a high-scoring sport, and we're a high-scoring country. But that's not the blockage. I think the sport needed a proper, professional organization around it, and I think they needed distribution."

The day before AEG moved the team to Houston in December 2005, Wolff took a pair of phone calls. The first came from AEG president Tim Leiweke, yet another of Wolff's extensive contacts in the sports industry. The second call came from someone he'd never spoken to. MLS Commissioner Don Garber was on line one.

"I didn't follow the Earthquakes too closely, I was so busy with other things in San Jose, where I'm active," says Wolff, who among other properties in the South Bay owns the Fairmont Hotel. "I didn't know Don, but he said, 'We're moving the team. Would you be interested in considering taking the Earthquakes name?' They wanted to keep the team name, so I said, 'Yes. Tell me what you want us to do,' and he said he'd get back to me."

That phone call evolved into an option to buy the team, which he exercised last summer. Wolff first developed a plan to build a new stadium on the San Jose State University campus, adjacent to Spartan Stadium, but couldn't reach an agreement with the school. Before that deal collapsed, though, Wolff and Garber held a press conference at the Coliseum prior to a Mexico friendly against Ecuador. No San Jose State officials were in attendance, an omen of what was to follow. The game and the spirited, sellout crowd it drew ratcheted up the A's enthusiasm another notch.

"It's a somewhat different market in the sense there's a huge Hispanic population that follows soccer," says Crowley. "We have that in baseball, too, but if you came to the Mexico game we had in Oakland, it was absolutely crazy. We don't have anything like that on the baseball side.

"But I think in many ways the businesses are similar and we do have an infrastructure that deals with sponsors and television and those elements of professional sports."

Wolff had already formulated another plan, one that needs San Jose City Council approval to re-zone an industrial tract for residential use and grant its rights to Wolff. By selling rights to a developer and funneling those monies into a non-profit charitable organization to avoid capital-gains tax, Wolff would generate the revenues to buy the city-owned land near the airport and build the soccer complex. Just the land could cost him $80 million.

Both soccer projects are slogging through the political process, but Wolff believes that by the end of the summer he'll have everything in order. That includes deciding on a design for the soccer stadium, which so far has been depicted only in rough schematics. He's also negotiating with the Sharks to bring them into the ownership team.

The A's stadium would cost an estimated $400 million. He plans to spend a lot less for the soccer team but wants to do it right in both cases.

"We think that sports today, and beyond, absolutely have to be in venues that are absolutely perfect, as perfect as you can get for that sport," he says. "The moment you try to have hockey and basketball, or football and soccer, you lose something. Occasionally for a huge game, you can use a huge venue, but our whole goal is the fan experience."

As for the failures of American pro soccer in general, and the NASL and MLS Quakes in particular, Wolff knows the past isn't pretty. Like many of his league brethren, he's a real-estate developer as well as a sports entrepreneur, and in both of those personas sees opportunity.

"The answer is yes, it did, obviously," he says if the sport's bleak track record until a few years ago affected his analysis. "The history is overwhelming. But we think the downside isn't too bad, and the upside is terrific."

(This article originally appeared in the January 2008 issue of Soccer America magazine.)

 

 



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