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The 20 Most Influential People in Soccer

The 20 Most Influential People in Soccer

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Phil Anschutz
Chairman, Anschutz Entertainment Group
The reclusive billionaire is the de-facto “angel” behind professional soccer in the United States. At one point, Anschutz was bankrolling six teams in MLS and was the money-man when the league needed bailing out after suffering major losses. He is in this sport for the long-term, although AEG executives continue to stress their desire to get down to owning only one team. While he leaves the day-to-day operations to Tim Leiweke and Shawn Hunter, Anschutz is still involved on the major decisions and the future direction of professional soccer in the U.S.
Don Garber
Commissioner, MLS
Many believe soccer will make it big in the United States long before American football catches on overseas. MLS Commissioner Don Garber is heading the charge. A 16-year NFL exec before becoming MLS commissioner in 1999, Garber spearheaded MLS expansion into soccer-specific stadiums, attracted huge investments from Adidas and Red Bull, and is close to a new TV deal that would allow teams to be profitable, or import big-name foreign players. As the most visible soccer executive in the United States, Garber is America’s voice of the sport.
Lamar Hunt
Owner, FC Dallas and Columbus Crew
Clark Hunt, the son of the serial sports league founder, points to his father’s launches of the American Football League and World Team Tennis and long-term ownership stint in the NASL as critical pieces of institutional knowledge that have helped guide MLS. “People involved in MLS tend to defer to Lamar, because there’s nobody else in the room like him,” said Clark Hunt. “You have an amazing collection of owners there, in terms of their involvement of sports, but none of them have been involved in founding leagues, fighting those battles and winning.”
Sunil Gulati
President, U.S. Soccer Federation; president, Kraft Soccer Properties
The 46-year-old Gulati is the hottest name in the game in North America, and many call him the machine behind it all. He helped bring the World Cup to America, guided MLS through its first five years of existence and continues to oversee Kraft Soccer Properties. Now, as president of U.S. Soccer, he faces his greatest challenge: turning the popularity of soccer at a participant level into a sport broadly accepted in American society. A polished ambassador of the game, Gulati is one of the most trusted soccer advisers to MLS operators.
Tim Leiweke
President, CEO, AEG
Leiweke may be known in some circles as caretaker for Phil Anschutz’s bank vault. It’s safe to say, however, that he’s more actively involved in promoting North American soccer than anybody else, outside of Anschutz, and maybe Don Garber. Leiweke, along with AEG Sports President Shawn Hunter, is ultimately responsible for operating the company’s four MLS franchises, and was principally involved in AEG selling the New York/New Jersey team in March. Leiweke now turns toward Chicago, where AEG opens the Fire’s new $70 million stadium.
John Skipper
Executive VP, content, ESPN
Overseeing a radical re-thinking of soccer at ESPN in the wake of Mark Shapiro’s departure, Skipper has plopped down money to lock up the World Cup and MLS (keeping both properties out of Fox’s hands) at the same time as retaining and expanding the networks’ Champions League presence. It’s a multimillion-dollar move that once seemed unthinkable at the network. Skipper has been vocal in his belief that soccer can be the next breakout property within the next 10 years; while others think that if the U.S. team crashes and burns in Germany, his experiment will be over before it starts.
Chuck Blazer
General secretary, CONCACAF
America’s most powerful voice in the halls of soccer’s government, Blazer can steer dollars to projects he deems worthy or freeze them out if he doesn’t. After an initially frosty relationship with MLS, Blazer and Soccer United Marketing seem to have mended fences and the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football enjoys a close working relationship with the league. While Blazer’s purview extends beyond the United States and Mexico, those two nations are the heavy hitters and anchor Blazer and CONCACAF’s power.
Erich Stamminger
President, CEO, Adidas
Adidas’ 10-year $150 million MLS sponsorship makes it one of the biggest league sponsors and Stamminger one of the league’s most important business partners. When Adidas signed the MLS deal, Stamminger said, “We see in 10 years a completely different ballgame here.” Having the world’s top soccer brand on its side can only help MLS. For those who doubt MLS will ever be as vital to Adidas as its European clubs: If we told you a decade ago that Adidas would sponsor MLS, while Nike would sponsor England’s Arsenal and Italian stalwart Juventus, would you have believed it?
Tony Ponturo
VP, global marketing, sport marketing, Anheuser-Busch
Arguably, soccer has helped raise the Budweiser brand’s awareness to the international heights it currently enjoys. Ponturo oversees a half-billion dollar marketing budget. With that kind of clout, he can inarguably turn a team or a league’s season around and steer a sport to respect and profitability. A-B is an inaugural MLS sponsor and one of FIFA’s top partners, and evidence of Ponturo’s influence can be seen by the recent compromise made in Germany to allow A-B to market its Bud brand during the World Cup despite competitor/trademark issues in the country.
Robert Kraft
Owner, New England Revolution
MLS constantly touts Kraft’s investment in soccer as a key indicator of the league’s viability and prospects for growth. Kraft has been a longtime supporter of the sport in the U.S., as his Foxboro facility played host to the 1994 World Cup. Kraft was an inaugural investor/operator in MLS and was in control of two franchises over two seasons in 1999 and 2000. While many involved in pro soccer wish that Kraft and his son Jonathan would become more involved, the family remains one of the most influential in the business and have the ear of all top executives.
Bruce Arena
Head coach, U.S. men’s soccer team; technical director, U.S. Soccer Federation
The long-standing, and most successful, manager of the U.S. men’s national team is the de-facto architect of the pro game in America. Arena’s influence is wide: As technical director, Arena runs all the men’s and women’s programs, and can make or break players’ careers. On the business side, he is the face of U.S. soccer and his opinion is seen as incisive and vital. He is considered egotistical and distant to some, and has had trouble in the past with staff turnover. But at the end of the day, results count for a coach, and Arena gets them.
Alan Rothenberg
Co-founder, MLS, Premier Partnerships
The Godfather of American soccer is still pulling strings across the sport’s landscape. Rothenberg brought the World Cup to the United States in 1994, and subsequently launched MLS (he remains on the league’s board). He’s a confidant of many at the top of the sport and his influence extends over every U.S. soccer pitch. With longtime protégé Randy Bernstein, his Premier Partnerships agency sells more U.S. soccer inventory than anyone outside of Soccer United Marketing, and is the only challenger to AEG for corporate sales with American soccer teams, stadiums and events.
Mark Abbott
President, MLS, Soccer United Marketing
The money man behind the curtain at SUM, Abbott controls the big levers at SUM and MLS: broadcasting and finance. A legacy employee of MLS (Abbott drafted the league’s business plan), Abbott is the real power behind Garber and the man who needs to sign off on each expenditure.  Abbott is quiet and likes to stay out of the public eye. He is considered shrewd but has been criticized for putting bottom-line matters before potentially lucrative yet grandiose plans. Abbott controls all of SUM’s domestic exhibitions and tours, giving him a finger on a potentially huge source of revenue.
Dan Flynn
Secretary general, U.S. Soccer Federation
The day-to-day manager of U.S. Soccer, Flynn is a tough businessman who prefers to work behind the scenes. He has been remarkably successful at reversing U.S. Soccer’s sliding balance sheets. His personable demeanor conceals an extremely tough bargainer, and some voices in U.S. Soccer’s traditional money base (youth and amateur soccer) have said openly that they feel left out by his regime. However, U.S. Soccer’s bottom line under Flynn has dramatically improved, and there’s no question Flynn is doing the job he was hired to do regardless of what people think of his decisions.
Don Remlinger
GM, global soccer, Nike
Under his stewardship, Nike has focused on bringing home the one sporting prize that has eluded them: soccer dominance. Soccer is the lone category in which the Oregon-based giant lags its German rivals. Given the company’s late start, it is astonishing how much ground it has made up under Remlinger and his Nike colleague Joaquin Hidalgo. Nike has gone from $40 million in sales to $1.5 billion in just 12 years. Nike is spending some $100 million on the 2006 World Cup (compared with Adidas’ $200 million), and is surely planning on staging Remlinger’s signature blend of hip, drive-by promotions.
David Downs
President, Univision Sports
Downs handles the sports programming for the largest Spanish-language TV network in the United States, where Univision holds Spanish-language World Cup rights. The network paid $150 million for rights to the 2002 and 2006 World Cups and has a $325 million investment for the 2010 and 2014 men’s World Cups and 2007 and 2011 women’s World Cups. Sponsors and league executives recognize that Univision is the dominant network for the Hispanic market and as that soccer consumer market continues to increase, Downs will only become more of a player.
Jorge Vergara
Owner, Chivas USA
How Vergara fares in MLS may radically alter the landscape of the American and Mexican games. Vergara was the first foreign owner (outside of silent Japanese partners Dentsu) to take the plunge into the young league, buying an expansion franchise and setting up what MLS hoped would be the first of many international ventures. Vergara certainly helped bring in new blood, but the performance of Chivas USA in MLS has been downright awful, and that has been a huge blow to both Vergara’s ego and his power base in Mexico.
David Sternberg
Executive VP, emerging markets, Fox Cable Networks Group
Sternberg took on a larger role at Fox last year when Fox Sports World was converted to Fox Soccer Channel. The network touts some of the most extensive coverage of world-class soccer in the U.S., and includes rights to the English Premier League, United Soccer Leagues, FA Cup, UEFA Cup, the FIFA World Club Championship and other major soccer programming. Sternberg led a late, yet aggressive, bid for English-language rights to the World Cup, which would have been a major coup. But even missing out on that, it’s clear that Sternberg sees the upside to soccer and will attempt to keep ESPN honest.
Dietrich Mateschitz
Founder, Red Bull
The Austrian energy drink mogul spent a reported nine figures for a New York franchise (and stadium rights/naming rights), which was a good five times the normal MLS expansion fee. And while the team drew 36,000 for its opener, it hasn’t measured up  — on or off the field — since. German soccer star Franz Beckenbauer has Mateschitz’s ear and is said to be involved in the running of the team, while most of the front office jumped ship to other AEG operations. Mateschitz’s long-term plan is uncertain, and since he isn’t in the public eye, it’s too soon to tell what, if any, clout he’ll bring to the American soccer business world.
Richard Motzkin
Partner, SportsNet LLC; agent
Motzkin and partner Dan Segal have grown SportsNet LLC from a small firm representing friends into a full-fledged soccer powerhouse representing some of the biggest names in the American game, among them Freddy Adu, Eddie Johnson and Landon Donovan. Motzkin has skillfully negotiated the low-wage world of MLS, signing some good deals despite the restrictions placed on players in the league. Motzkin also has a solid staff helping him, including former MLS media relations pro Cari Goldberg. Now, with SportsNet being bought by Wasserman Media Group (see page 1), Motzkin has the resources to set his sights even higher.

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