AN MLS EXECUTIVE SINCE THE LEAGUE’S BIRTH, FIRST TIME OWNER NICK SAKIEWICZ TALKS ABOUT HIS NEW BABY AND THE CHANGING AMERICAN SOCCER LANDSCAPE THAT DELIVERED IT
Former professional goal keeper and founding executive of Major League Soccer Nick Sakiewicz spent the last 12 years working in MLS. First with the now defunct Tampa Bay Mutiny and most notably with the defunct-in-name Metrostars where he was the president of AEG New York managing all of AEG’s business operations, Sakiewicz knows more than most the trials and tribulations of American soccer and its meandering path toward being a true major league. Now, as a first-time MLS owner in Philadelphia working as CEO and Operating Partner of Keystone Sports and Entertainment, LLC, Sakiewicz has a chance to create what he couldn’t rebuild.
In his playing days there were few if any domestic options for the American soccer player. Later, his time as an executive was fraught with roadblocks, not the least of which was September 11th. However, player opportunities along with league infrastructure and community support have changed drastically since those times, substantiating the passion Sakiewicz always had with new, tangible hope for the game, at least in Philadelphia. And he needed it. Just last year he was about to leave the sport.
Of course now we know he didn’t. Fresh from the excitement of last Thursday’s announcement - over 2,000 season tickets have been sold in the first week - the proud new father spoke to TIAS about the changing landscape and what made him want to be a part of American soccer’s newest franchise.
You’ve spent as much time within MLS as anyone, having been around since its inception – not to mention winning two MLS executive of the year awards and being a professional goal keeper before there was a MLS. Now you’ve reached a new milestone with the Philadelphia franchise. What is it about MLS and American soccer in general that has kept you passionate and engaged?
I started with the league from day one with a very small group of people that shared the same passion and commitment to making this league work and making this league the league that it is today. I grew up playing during a time when American players had nowhere to play. The NASL was nothing but foreign players, and there was very little opportunity. So a lot of us couldn’t even play in our own domestic league, and we had to look overseas. And by the time I had come back to the States, the league had vanished. That experience of being at the height of my career with no league to play in in the U.S. galvanized my commitment so that when MLS came along I really wanted to make a difference and establish this league for American players so that they wouldn’t have the feeling I did back in the eighties.
What are some of the biggest differences you’ve seen in MLS since its inception?
The thing that amazes me every year is how much better the players are getting. Today, as we sit here, I look at the young players coming through and they are phenomenal. These are real professional-caliber, quality players that are making our league more exciting than ever. On the business side of things, I look back to when we started this league and the small group of people who were involved and now I see the league office, Soccer United Marketing – we’ve got hundreds of people involved across the league, SUM, and with teams. It’s a real substantial business now. Both sides of the equation – the on-field product and the business side are both taking off.
In regards to the on-the-field product, one of the criticisms of MLS and its expansion is that the overall player pool is diluted. Being partly in charge of the newest franchise is this a worry of yours?
I wouldn’t categorize it as a worry. I’d categorize it as something that we need to pay a lot of attention to. The way I see MLS addressing it is smart. And I addressed it when the Metrostars started one of the first [youth] academy programs back in 2000 which generated players like Rodrigo Faria who won the 2001 Rookie of the Year award, Jozy Altidore, and Gabriel Ferrari who is now playing with Sampdoria in Italy. They all came through that system. Each team having its own youth development academy will help mitigate the potential dilution through expansion. It’s not a worry but one thing on the short list of high priorities and challenges MLS must address. But clearly, when you look at what is out there in the grassroots of soccer there are real players. They just need to be developed in the right environment.
How many years in your estimation are we from having a fully integrated academy within the geography of the American soccer landscape?
I don’t know. That depends on the facilities and environment. To really do a proper academy system, you have to have the training environment. We’re just starting to see those around the league and around the country. LA Galaxy and Chivas have wonderful facilities; FC Dallas has an awesome facility. The Rapids. Much like a stadium is the foundation of a pro team, the right facilities are just as important for a proper academy and youth development program. To put a time on it, who knows? I guess one day we’ll know when we are there.
You’ve had a lot of experience with that ‘venue as foundation’ idea. Red Bull Park is the venue you are most associated with, but your work with infrastructure goes beyond soccer with the Prudential Center, home of the New Jersey Devils hockey team, the Nokia Theater at Times Square, a new music theater at Xanadu in New Jersey’s Meadowlands, the Starland Ballroom music club in central New Jersey and Hartford’s arena and football stadium - the Civic Center and Rentschler Field. What has the experience been like coming to Philly where relative to at least the Harrison Red Bull scenario the stadium project seems to not have been nearly as hard to push through?
It wasn’t and that has nothing to do with my part in it. I think the two projects and the two states frankly are night and day. Look, Red Bull Park, Metrostars Stadium project, the first hurdle it hit was September 11th. How do you plan for that – I don’t think you do. 9/11 fractured that effort in a big way, and it needed to be pieced back together. That was compounded by a state that has no money and was in fact in quite bad financial condition. Add in the fact that that area is a market very difficult to build sports stadiums in. Just ask the Yankees, Mets, Devils, Giants, Jets, and Madison Square Garden about their experiences. Then you have Pennsylvania and a governor who really understands sports real estate development, a state that is in terrific financial condition, and a community that needs it. Chester in a lot of respects is like Harrison, NJ, a community that has a waterfront asset that desperately needs redevelopment. The Governor again, is a big part. We had three Governors in 6 years in New Jersey. That didn’t help. It has nothing to do with my experience, its just the environment that is different. That’s going to be the case for every stadium project around the league. I am glad I was able to get two of them done. That’s pretty exciting to me. I’ll be getting my second golden shovel here pretty soon, and that one I’m going to own a piece of.
It sounds like Philadelphia chose you as opposed to you choosing Philadelphia in terms of the alignment of all the important aspects of getting a stadium.
You could say that all the stars aligned properly about this deal, but it was still a lot of hard work. Every step of the way we had great partners. The governor, the senator, and each of their staffs had people that really understood the economic benefit of this building going up in Chester. To the local community and Delaware County. The Mayor of Chester. The real estate partners – The Buccini/Pollin Group. We could have looked for 100 years for a real estate development partner and not found one as good as what we got. They are world class developers who have built around stadium developments before. They totally get the value a stadium brings to a community. We didn’t have that in New Jersey. In fact, everything I just said about the deal in Pennsylvania, we really didn’t have any of that in Harrison, except for the Mayor of Harrison and one economic development guy who understood the value of the deal. The environment presented itself to us here in Philadelphia, and thankfully we were able to take advantage of it.
When did your involvement begin with Philadelphia MLS? And up to that point were you shopping around for a team?
I started talking to them about a year ago, but I didn’t get really engaged until July of 2007. And actually on a couple of occasions I was looking at pretty significant positions outside of soccer. At one point I almost took one of them. So I wasn’t really looking for an ownership position with MLS. It was a dream, and I thought it would be nice to be a part of, and then it presented itself in the fall when this deal in Philly became real back in November. That’s when I jumped at it. My partners here are great, the kind of guys I can have honest conversations with. I went to them and we talked about it and they said “we really want you to be part of this,” so I took a real gamble because the Philadelphia deal wasn’t closed yet. I rolled the dice a little bit, but it was a calculated roll. And the rest is history.
You will have more time than previous expansion teams in building the franchise out, first the stadium and then the front office. How important is it in your mind to hire soccer people in those positions, no matter the required knowledge needed for those positions - such as hiring a communications director that might have loads of PR experience but very little knowledge of soccer and MLS’s unique situation?
It’s extremely important that people have soccer backgrounds. It’s something that we are going look at as a priority, bringing in people who know the game, appreciate the game, believe in the game, and also understand it. And in their daily effort, be it PR, marketing, sales, they need to do things in a thoughtful way to manage the game because it is a global game and our market is the whole planet, not just Philadelphia or the United States. We have to do things in a proper way to respect the traditions of the sport of soccer. It will be a very high priority.
And that goes back to your comment about the time line. I love the time line. It gives us the time to take this blank canvas and really think about how were doing things in a thoughtful way and execute on our strategies without hopefully making the big mistakes that can happen when you are rushed. That is what really excites me. When I took over Tampa and then New York, I was really taking over other people’s projects. Staffs and markets were already in place. What I love about Philadelphia is that I am the first employee.
That being said, how closely have you and will you be watching or communicating with the previous expansion teams?
We are looking at them very closely. We haven’t been communication with them yet only because here we are only a week old. But we will certainly be reaching out to them. I’ll be spending a lot of time in Seattle and Toronto this year.