Gulati heads the U.S. soccer power rankings
The best thing about compiling a top-10 list of the most influential figures in soccer in the United States is getting to tell everybody you run across in the business, "Well, you were No. 11; too bad we could only publish the top 10."
So, here is the top 10. It's a subjective assessment, obviously, ripe for debate and discussion. Essentially, these are domestic soccer's 10 most influential opinion shifters and policy shapers. In other words, these are the figures at the head of the food chain, the people who do things that the rest of us talk about.
1. Sunil Gulati -- The no-brainer of the list. The president of U.S. Soccer has final say-so in every important decision affecting the U.S. national programs, including who coaches and where they play. For instance, he oversees Bob Bradley and U.S. women's manager Pia Sundhage. Gulati, 49, is at the top of the totem poll when it comes to all developmental efforts, including the recent initiative to formalize a U.S. Soccer development academy. Meanwhile, he also serves (some would say controversially) as president of Kraft Soccer for the New England Revolution. Armed with all that power, Gulati remains a steady practitioner of self-deprecating humor, which helps make him approachable.
2. Don Garber -- Major League Soccer remains the most visible soccer property domestically, and continues to grow steadily. Garber has smoothly shepherded the league's two most vital growth areas: stadium development and expansion (with a current price tag that has swelled to $40 million). He also heads up Soccer United Marketing, holder of exclusive rights to many important soccer properties in the region. And FYI: MLS was honored as the 2008 Professional Sports League of the Year by the SportsBusiness Journal, with many thanks to the man who helped steer MLS out of dire financial straits earlier in the decade.
3. Bob Bradley -- Nothing raises domestic soccer's media profile like success at a World Cup. Whether the U.S. gets there in 2010 is on Bradley, the national team head coach. Nothing raises a player's value like a good performance in a national team jersey, and Bradley is making the critical decisions on which players do and don't receive those potentially lucrative opportunities. Bradley also exerts tremendous influence over the Olympic team and young national teams.
4. David Beckham -- Contrary to what many MLS executives would have you believe, only the most designated of Designated Players can truly move the attendance needle. In fact, only Cuauhtemoc Blanco and Beckham have proved to do so in MLS. Beckham's enormous profile among soccer fans and non-fans gives him particular cachet. If he says it, it resonates. If he endorses it, it sells. And don't underestimate the value of Beckham's crossover ability to connect with the "non-soccer" media world. Who else gets Major League Soccer mentioned on Entertainment Weekly and the like?
5. Lyle Yorks -- The principal of Proactive Sports Management USA may have lapped his contemporaries -- most prominently Wasserman Media Group agent Richard Motzkin -- as the ranking agent in domestic soccer. Yorks launched his organization in 2000 and now oversees many of the highest-paid U.S. internationals. His connections and contacts in European soccer are particularly impressive. Proactive oversees about 20 European-based American soccer players and more than 50 MLS-based clients. His roster includes Brad Friedel, Clint Dempsey, DaMarcus Beasley, Brian McBride and Kenny Cooper, just to name a few.
6. Philip Anschutz -- The politics of MLS ownership shift constantly. HSG chief Clark Hunt remains influential, but his time is split between soccer and the NFL. Andrew Hauptman, the Chicago Fire's progressive owner, is seeing his power factor rise. Robert Kraft remains a heavy-hitting financial watchdog. But this much hasn't changed: Anschutz, the deep-pocketed presence who once owned six teams, maintains ample sway. Even if an expanding ownership roster has diluted Anschutz's power somewhat, the reclusive billionaire still commands enormous respect. He never misses MLS meetings and he remains tirelessly active in many important matters.
7. David Downs -- Univision has brought every World Cup since 1978 into American households and continues to maintain a presence in MLS and other soccer properties. Downs heads all those efforts as president of Univision Sports. You could perhaps put Fernando Fiore on this list, because he's such an influential personality in terms of shaping public opinion among Spanish-language audiences. Fiore is the host of Univision's popular "Republica Deportiva" and was the principal anchor for Univision's 2002 and 2006 World Cup coverage. But Fiore is who he is only because Downs has provided the platform.
8. Tim Leiweke -- We can argue about his choices for the Los Angeles Galaxy. And we can make a case that some of his ideas stand to benefit the Galaxy more than domestic soccer at large. Still, AEG's high-profile CEO has the clout to make things move, thanks largely to tentacles that stretch into other sports. He's No. 11 on SportsBusiness Journal's list of most influential people in American sports. Leiweke presided over Beckham's move stateside, the biggest news generator on the U.S. soccer scene since a quarterfinal run in the 2002 World Cup.
9. Mark Abbott -- As president of MLS, Abbott oversees all business operations for the league and for Soccer United Marketing. What does that mean for the guy watching his teams at some soccer bar in Long Beach or Long Island? Abbott is knee-deep in the league's ongoing expansion process. He's got a chip in every game when it comes to player contracts, legal issues, financial structure and broadcasting (always a hot-button topic). He's also high on the totem poll at SUM, which holds the keys to so many vehicles that drive soccer from here to there in the United States. Ivan Gazidis' recent departure from MLS (he was Don Garber's right-hand man but will soon take over as Arsenal CEO) has added to Abbott's power portfolio.
10. Dan Flynn -- Due to lack of media inspection and an understandable general lack of interest in the sport's inner workings, few knew how badly U.S. Soccer's accounting and balance sheets were scrambled back in the late 1990s. Flynn, U.S. Soccer's secretary general, helped to reign it all in. He did so in large part by playing "bad cop," releasing the stranglehold amateur and youth soccer interests had on U.S. Soccer at large. Flynn still performs those same functions, acting as the chief bargainer and the loudest business voice for what amounts to a mid-sized American corporation.
Others A-listers on the power continuum worthy of mention: Sundhage; Motzkin; WPS commissioner Tonya Antonucci; CONCACAF secretary general Chuck Blazer; MLS executive vice president of player relations and competition Todd Durbin; MLSPA director Bob Foose; USL commissioner Francisco Marcos; First Wave Sports agent Patrick McCabe; SUM president Douglas Quinn; Fox Soccer Channel GM David Sternberg.
Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.