[SOCCER AMERICA Q&A]Three years ago, former Tampa Bay Mutiny general manager Bill Manning left the Philadelphia Eagles to become president of Real Salt Lake. During that time he's overseen the opening of Rio Tinto Stadium, celebrated an MLS Cup championship in 2009, and managed a growing organization that employs more than 60 people and could actually make a profit this season. He took some time to talk with Soccer America about the team's prospects this season on the business side and on the field, where it plays Columbus Tuesday at Rio Tinto in the second leg of their quarterfinal Concacaf Champions League series.
SOCCER AMERICA: After MLS contracted the Mutiny and Miami following the 2001 season, you went to the NBA (Houston) and then the NFL (Philadelphia). What brought you back?
BILL MANNING: This league has evolved so much; compared to what it was when I was here the first time, it’s night and day. It’s more professional, the coaching staffs and the technical staffs are much more proficient. Back then, you had a head coach and a couple of guys around.
Now it’s much more sophisticated. It’s not the NBA or NFL yet, but it’s clearly going in that direction. The on-field performance affects everything else, including the business side: the ticket sales, the sponsorships, and all that.
SA: But were you looking to make a move when this opportunity arose?
MANNING: No. The first time I was in MLS, the team contracted, and that was pretty painful to go though. I still say, and it’s always easier to look back in hindsight, I learned so much. I was in the USL six years before that [Long Island and Minnesota]. I left for the NBA and then I went to the NFL. Those six years away from MLS really shaped me in the front office, more on the business side.
I was pretty happy, so I was pretty surprised when I got the first call, which was from a headhunter about this position. I told them I had no interest. He called me back a month later and he suggested I go out and talk to [RSL operator-investor] Dave Checketts, and I was in New York. I knew who Dave was and had a good friend who knew Dave and spoke very highly of him, so I took a train ride. A half-hour turned into a two-hour chat about his career and my career, about philosophy and vision. He asked me to come out and visit Salt Lake, and I thought it can’t hurt me to visit.
SA: So that was it?
MANNING: My wife wouldn’t come out on the visit, so that was a big impediment. He offered me the job and I couldn’t take it. But he called again a few months later, and when I talked to my wife about it, she said, "I’ve been doing some research and Salt Lake seems like a nice place to live." Dave kind of gave me full authority and what I thought was a good package and then we got into quick negotiations. I’m very, very happy I made the move.
SA: We won’t give you all of the credit but there have been noticeable gains on the business side as well as that first league title in 2009. What are the highlights in that department?
MANNING: Since end of 2007, we’ve doubled our business, doubled our revenue. I think this year we’ll be cash-flow positive. Last year, was the first time in the history of our organization that we made budget, which was a banner day for our organization. Our season-ticket revenue has doubled, our annual sponsorship revenue has gone from $1 million to $6 million. It’s just a different organization.
Our paid attendance is up over 4,000 fans since end of 2007, with an average ticket price of $22. That’s significant. When we play a home game, it’s real money. We’re no longer a glorified minor-league operation. In 2007, we did about $400,000 in merchandise, last year we did over a million.
SA: Could this have been done without the stadium, which opened at the end of the 2008 season?
MANNING: The stadium gave me and my staff the tool to build the revenue. Without that, if the team was still at Rice-Eccles, I still might be in Philadelphia selling tickets and sponsorships. This is what made the difference for us. It allowed us to build an intimate atmosphere for our fans and create a homefield advantage for our team and build the sponsorships. It just changed everything.
SA: How do you balance working on the business side with Checketts and his partner Dell Loy Hansen, and on the technical side with head coach Jason Kreis and general manager Garth Lagerwey?
MANNING: I really grew our ticket sales force, and ownership supported me in that. We’ve been able to prove with the revenue growth that it more than offset the additional cost of hiring those salespeople. We’ve also increased our staff on the soccer side, and this year ownership agreed to pony up and made Alvaro Saborio a DP outside the salary cap, and that’s something we wouldn’t have been able to consider even in ’09. We’ve come a ways that we were able to do that.
It was also a message to our fans that we want to compete at the highest level every year. What if we lose Saborio and Robbie Findley in the same year, after we lost Yura Movsisyan the year before? [Saborio] was the guy we wanted to keep.
I have a core group of department heads and some senior staff. We’ve built a very good team from a front-office standpoint. We feel good about our future. We feel good about what we’ve done in the last few years, but like Dell Loy Hansen says, "You guys have done a great job, here’s your pat on the back. Once. Now let’s continue it."
SA: You were still in the NFL when Checketts promoted Kreis from assistant coach to head coach in May, 2007, with only a few games of formal experience. What was your reaction from afar?
MANNING:I remember rolling my eyes and thinking, "What’s he doing?" I didn’t know Jason that well, I knew him as a player but didn’t know him as a person. Dave saw things in Jason that he knew would make him successful.
SA: Such as?
MANNING: He’s an extremely hard worker and he’s well thought-out, but what I like is that he also has instincts. There are times when he’ll tell me and Garth, "Look, this is just my gut instinct on this." I think he’s an excellent young coach, an excellent coach, period.
When he believes in things, he really believes in them. He is willing to listen to reason and different points of view. He and Garth have different views at times, but one thing we’ve all agreed is that once the decision is made we all move in the same direction.
SA: How long did it take to get on the same page?
MANNING: When I was about three or four months in the job, we had gone through four or five games without a win at Rice-Eccles and we hadn’t quite found our way yet. I said to him, "What do you think’s going on?" He said, "We’re losing results here and there but I still think we’re on the right course." And I said, "Well, that’s the point, I don’t want you to abandon what you’re doing. I want you to stick to your plan, to stick to your guns. We support you, so don’t go second-guessing yourself."
There was a little bit of tension in the room. I remember feeling it when I came in, and when I said what I said, I could feel this rush of relief, like he let out a big breath. "Thank you," he said. Then he just went with it: "I feel we have it here, we have the ingredients, we just need to continue with it." We did, and things turned around.
When I look at my own career that was one of the best things I ever did, rather than say, "Well, hey, here’s what I think you should do." That would not have been a good conversation.
I look back and I think, "Man, that could have gone one of two ways." My instinct was that he had a plan and I’m glad I did. That wasn’t the right time for the Manning Plan, and the Manning Plan right now is to stick to the Kreis Plan.