Former television executive David Downs is spearheading the U.S. efforts to land either the 2018 or 2022 World Cup.
SOCCER AMERICA: When did U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati first approach you about heading the bid committee?
DAVID DOWNS: He first broached the idea to me sometime around Thanksgiving. Even then, it was somewhat premature because FIFA hadn't yet announced what the timeline and process was going to be. As you know, that happened Dec. 20 or thereabouts in Tokyo, and it was shortly after that he came to me officially and asked me to come aboard. So it all happened pretty quickly.
SA: You'd been involved with television for more than 30 years. Was it time for a change?
DD: I'm loving it. Sunil didn't have to do too much of a sell job. I was definitely ready for a change in my career. I won't say a change in pace because I don't think the pace will be any different than the pace I'm used to working at, but it's a change in what I'm doing and I'm pretty thankful for that.
SA: What skills do you bring to the table for producing this massive bid document that has to be submitted to FIFA in just 15 months?
DD: I'm used to running teams of executives who are working on deadline-oriented projects. Television is the be-all and end-all for that. If you're not ready to go on the air at 7:14 on Wednesday or whenever it is, it's too late. I think I can bring those organizational and project-oriented skills to the table.
SA: How well connected are you in the soccer world?
DD: I know pretty much all the players at U.S. Soccer, Concacaf and FIFA, so there's certainly a lot of familiarity there that should be helpful in the process. Have I led a bid to bring a World Cup to the United States before? No, but there's only one other person in the U.S. who has.
I'm referring to Scott LeTellier [chief counsel on the 1994 World Cup bid effort]. Alan [Rothenberg] came aboard once the bid had been awarded, but Scott and I have been good friends since those days and even preceding that. I first met Scott when he was involved in the 1984 Olympics out in Los Angeles. We certainly have a community of soccer executives who are going to be lending their soccer expertise to the cause, and Scott is someone I hold in high regard.
SA: Dire predictions of apathy preceded the event, but the 1994 World Cup proved to be a smashing success, both in the stadiums and on television.
DD: I give Alan a lot of the credit for that. It was his personality, his willpower,that in some ways just forced the event over the top. Obviously, there was good marketing that went on and timing and all that, but it still was not guaranteed it was going to be the success that it was.
I remember meeting Alan. He came into our ABC offices to talk about the potential of the event and we'd never met anybody so dead certain it was going to be a big success. We were cautiously optimistic and we knew we wanted to be involved in it, and a World Cup could be successful on television, especially if it was held in the United States and the U.S. was a participant.
I remember him pounding his fist on the table and said we were going to get a 10 rating for the final and we were looking at him, saying, 'You must be kidding.' I can't remember the exact rating of that final but it was certainly closer to his estimation than to ours.
(Editor's note: the broadcast of the 1994 World Cup final on ABC drew a final national rating of 9.5).
SA: You attended the 1990 World Cup in Italy to prepare for the 1994 tournament. Was that your first real awareness of the competition?
DD: No, my first real vivid memories of the World Cup as a sporting event track back to 1978 when I was living in New York City and I attended some of those closed-circuit telecasts of the World Cup in Argentina.
That's when it first dawned on me the incredible level of nationalist passion it could generate. People were coming out of the woodwork to root for the countries of their heritage. Of course, back then, the U.S. didn't participate, so you couldn't wave the U.S. flag, but almost everybody in the U.S. can claim a right to cheer for Argentina or Spain or another country, you name it.
SA: Where did you watch the games?
DD: It's foggy in my mind but I think it was the Felt Forum or someplace like that. Honestly I can't remember where it was but I can remember going into a theater, an auditorium. Being half-Dutch, I still can't believe they played [West] Germany in Germany in one final , and then Argentina in Argentina four years later in another final.
SA: And the Dutch national team still hasn't recovered.
DD: No, they really haven't, though the team that lost in France in '98 in that semifinal against Brazil, that was a pretty good team. As lifelong Red Sox fans, we used to joke about the similarities between the Dutch and the Red Sox, but the Red Sox since have actually won a world championship.
SA: How did it work out that the USA played Brazil in the 1994 World Cup round of 16 on July 4th on ABC? Luck?
DD: I was at the U.S.-Brazil game at Stanford, and my vivid memory of that was being in U.S. Soccer's box and after the game was over, we were pretty disappointed but still pretty proud of how the team had played.
The Brazilians took a very quick tour of the field and kind of waved to a few fans, but then the U.S. team stayed on the field and really did the lap of honor. I remember having tears in my eyes watching that on July 4. And give me some credit for that. I had talked ABC into earmarking that game.
ABC didn't do many of the games — the majority were done on ESPN and ESPN2 — but we rolled the dice that the U.S. would get to that game and Brazil would probably be there no matter what. So it worked out.
(Editor's note: The U.S.-Brazil game drew the second highest rating of the competition, 9.3)
SA: NBC televised the 1986 World Cup, and the Turner networks aired matches in 1990. How did you get ABC on board for the 1994 competition?
DD: When I started at ABC, they were televising the NASL, so there was always a willingness to be involved in soccer and there were some soccer fans behind the scenes. And ABC always had a history, whether it was the Olympics or Wide World of Sports, of recognizing the pinnacle events in any sport, even log-rolling.
It's hard to say. I don't think there was anyone at ABC who didn't think it was an absolute first-class sports event. The issue became at what level will it be marketed to the population and would it have a snowballing kind of momentum, or would it sort of fizzle out as the games went on?
SA: You left ABC for Univision in 1999. How did that change your perception of the game, and the role of television, in this country?
DD: Working at Univision opened my eyes to just what an enormous, powerful U.S. Hispanic population there is. The size of it alone, 45 million approximately, is larger than most countries on earth, Canada and Argentina to name two. The growth of that population is tremendous.
I want to say in '94 the U.S. Hispanic population was somewhere between 20 million and 25 million. In 2018 it will be somewhere around 55 million and 2022 somewhere around 60 million. When we host the next World Cup it will be double or triple what it was when we last hosted. Given that U.S. Hispanics consume soccer, at least on television, at a rate of about seven or eight to one [compared] to non-Hispanics, that becomes a very significant change in soccer consumption in the United States.
We are certainly a more soccer-savvy, soccer-friendly culture than we were in 1994, and the pro league helps that as well.
SA: So will this drive rights fees, and potential revenues, to much higher levels than in the past?
DD: Oh, yeah, absolutely. The last time around the U.S. contributed more in rights fees [combined $425 million from ABC/ESPN and Univision for FIFA events from 2007 to 2014] than any other single nation. Clearly, there's been an upgrade in the economic value of the World Cup in the U.S. market and when you add that to the notion that the World Cup might actually be held here it really increases the value. That has gone from being a minus in 1994 to a huge positive in 2018 or 2022.
SA: A minus in what way?
DD: In 1994 we at ABC raised the bar a little bit by generating a little bit more than $10 million in television rights fee on the English-language side. On the Spanish side, the '94 rights were sold by a consortium of Latin American broadcasters and went to Univision for next to nothing. It's gone from just north of $10 million to [$425] million in the space of just 15 years. That's pretty impressive.
SA: Did going to Univision sharpen your Spanish?
DD: I had none, so yes I sharpened it. I'm embarrassed to admit I never became comfortable speaking it at all. Fluent? Not even close. Though I got very, very good at understanding it spoken, and I can read it fairly well, because so much of the information I had to process was in Spanish.
It was an incredible treat for me to go to Univision after I had some great years at ABC. I had to learn about a whole new culture and a whole new audience and that was incredibly energizing, to be able to do that in my early 40s. It was a tremendous lift emotionally.
I would say the same thing is true here. There's something tremendously energizing about taking on this project, particularly one that requires some on-the-job learning. Not everybody gets a chance to do that in their careers and I'm thrilled.
SA: Now that the U.S. is bidding to host a second World Cup, how has the landscape changed since 1994?
DD: The single biggest thing that's changed from '94 is that FIFA's gone from having one or two countries interested in hosting a World Cup to this time there are 11 in contention for two, and I think '94 could be singled out as kind of the transformer. The profitability of the '94 World Cup may have led the way in that category.
From a marketing standpoint, it makes a lot of sense, because their marketing cycles are tied to two World Cups, 2002 and 2006 were combined for television and marketing purposes, and then 2010 and 2014 were sold simultaneously. The downside of that has always been was that they didn't have the second site identified when they went out to market the two tournaments. I think it makes a lot more sense to know the two sites you're selling in terms of that marketing.
SA: Given the success of the 1994 tournament, which set an aggregate attendance mark that has yet to be surpassed, and all the advantages the U.S. has in stadiums, communications, infrastructure, transportation, lodging, etc., how can FIFA say no?
DD: A lot can change in a lot of things, from the world economy, to fortunes of individual political climates, you name it. As we sit here right now, those conditions seem pretty favorable on a number of levels for our candidacy.
The one thing we don't want to do as a bid committee is be arrogant, or complacent, or somehow entail that we're entitled to do this. It's our job to show FIFA not only that we are capable but we would be the best place to do it for a number of reasons, but it's hard to grade us not as an A-plus right off the bat.
David Downs Bio
Birthplace: Leiden, Netherlands
Education: Amherst '77 (History).
Downs moved with his family to the United States as a youth and played soccer at Amherst before joining ABC in 1978. His first position was a researcher for ABC Sports' coverage of the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y. Once reaching the executive ranks, he lobbied successfully for the network to televise the 1994 and 1998 World Cups. He eventually held the positions of Senior Vice President, Network Operations and Development, and Senior Programming Executive for ABC Sports before leaving in October 1999 to work for Univision. Downs started as Vice President of Sports and was named President of Sports in April 2001.
While at Univision he expanded the network's soccer coverage from the World Cup and Mexican league to include the Copa America, Concacaf Gold Cup and Champions League, SuperLiga and MLS, and also helped launch TeleFutura (in 2002), which carries much of the Univision network's soccer programming.
There are some heavy infrastructure cost issues for a number of the countries applying to host World Cups in the future. We don't need to rely on government support to build out roads or hotels and so on. We're miles ahead of the curve on that.
(This article originally appeared in the March 2009 issue of Soccer America magazine.)