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Football vs. Futbol On two continents, a pair of leagues awash in red ink strive to answer the same question: How do you win over an alien culture?

July 05, 2004
July 05, 2004

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July 5, 2004

Baseball

Football vs. Futbol On two continents, a pair of leagues awash in red ink strive to answer the same question: How do you win over an alien culture?

You want this league to survive, even though it's bleeding red
ink. You cheer your heart out for the Fire or the Galaxy, knowing
that if your favorite player gets too good he'll cross the
Atlantic for the Big Show and be gone forever. You realize that
the quality of play isn't the world's best, but dammit, it's your
league, performing live in front of you, and you're going to
support it. The athletes seem to be earnest, hard-working guys,
and you've learned why the sport is so beloved overseas. So
despite all the naysayers, you keep the faith because, really,
who knows what this league might be in 10 years?

This is an article from the July 5, 2004 issue Original Layout

You're an NFL Europe fan.

Or you're a Major League Soccer fan.

Roughly a decade into the global expansion of the Two Footballs,
there are striking similarities in the ways Americans have tried
to import the world's most popular sport and export their own.
NFL Europe (est. 1995) and MLS (est. 1996) have averaged the same
attendance (about 15,000 per game) while learning the hard way
that the globalized world is still fragmented by cultural
differences. The leagues have developed Super Bowl quarterbacks
and World Cup goal scorers, yet they suffer from what might be
called the Howard Dean Syndrome: intense support among hard-core
fans but not enough mainstream converts--not yet, at least--to be
successful.

What fate awaits them? Well, the prognosis is a lot drearier for
the league trying to persuade Helmuts to wear helmets. Last
September, NFL owners came within one vote of killing the
six-team Europe league, which has lost more than $20 million a
year. But while the 10-team MLS has itself bled some $15 million
in the past year (and $350 million since '96), its backers have
shown a greater tolerance for red ink. They've also attracted new
investors, built soccer-specific stadiums and even made plans for
expansion.

Back when Don Garber ran NFL International, the league's global
development arm, in its start-up days when anything seemed
possible, he commissioned a study of European pigskin attitudes.
"What we found was that people overseas knew about the NFL,
understood the Super Bowl and thought of it as quintessentially
American," Garber says. "It was cheerleaders and fireworks and
big guys in helmets and pads, with loud, screaming fans." So
Garber gave them what they wanted. He had gridiron zealots drive
giant helmets around Berlin's Potsdamer Platz and wing footballs
into the crowd. He had double-decker buses circle the field at
the Amsterdam Arena laden with beer-addled Dutchmen and
shirt-doffing hotties. (This was Amsterdam, after all.) But when
he handed out footballs in European high schools, he watched in
horror as kids played soccer with them.

Garber is still commissioning fan studies, but since 1999 he has
been doing so as a literal commissioner--of MLS. And while he
faces the immense task of converting the U.S.'s 18 million youth
soccer players into fans of the professional game, at least he
doesn't have to show them what to do with the ball. "Soccer is
part of the general social fabric in our country," says Garber.
"Minivan moms are a voting bloc. We have the one thing the NFL
doesn't have in Europe: a grassroots movement, which is necessary
for any sport to succeed."

It's no coincidence to Garber that NFL Europe has established its
biggest foothold in Germany, which has the Continent's most
advanced youth development system. While the Europe league has
struggled to muster 10,000 spectators for games in Amsterdam,
Barcelona or Glasgow, the Frankfurt Galaxy and the Rhein Fire
have regularly filled their stadiums with more than 30,000 fans,
almost all of them German Gen Xers whose enthusiasm puts Oakland
Raiders diehards to shame. With the pickups of Berlin (which
replaced London in 1999) and Cologne (which supplanted Barcelona
this year), Deutschland is now home to four of NFL Europe's six
teams. (The other two are the Amsterdam Admirals and Glasgow's
Scottish Claymores.) In fact, says NFL International vice
president Gordon Smeaton, the Europe league may eventually become
an all-German affair.

"If we had to go back, we would focus on Germany first, and then
let it expand," Smeaton says. "Look at the development of the
NFL. Where did it start in the 1920s and '30s? It was very
localized, and then it grew from there. Why would Europe be any
different? You have many different ethnicities, cultures and
attitudes toward sports. Attitudes toward America."

Going all-German, at least for the short term, is "the only
structure that has the potential for being successful," says
former NFL International president Doug Quinn, now executive vice
president of marketing for MLS. Besides its already demonstrated
appetite for the sport, Germany will have plenty of venues after
hosting the 2006 World Cup, and if there were eight teams there,
the league could reach critical mass. "Between 2007 and 2009 is
when you'll see that league really fly," Quinn says. "If you cut
it before that, you've wasted a huge opportunity."

In the wake of last fall's NFL owners' vote, the Europe league
received a two-year stay of execution, a lukewarm endorsement
despite the continued support of commissioner Paul Tagliabue.
"The challenge is purely cost," says Quinn. "The owners have all
these new expenses--security, new stadiums, new training
facilities--so they're looking to cut anything that's not
absolutely necessary."

Now that Quinn has joined Garber at MLS, the old NFL
International buddies are pursuing a two-pronged approach to fan
development in the soccer league. The first--cultivating young
players--can be seen in two new publicly funded stadium projects,
in Frisco, Texas, and Bridgeview, Ill., which will include
sprawling youth soccer complexes alongside intimate homes for the
Dallas Burn and the Chicago Fire, respectively. The second task
is even more daunting: capturing the elusive Mexican-American
fan.

MLS's failure to engage Mexican-Americans in the late 1990s was
predictable. The league would borrow a handful of stars from
Mexican professional teams, only to have the intended audience
shrug at what it saw as short-term rentals. Why pay to see one
Mexican in an MLS game, the fan reasoned, when I can watch 22
playing in the Mexican league on my TV at home? Garber's
conclusion: There had to be a better option. "We've accepted that
legitimacy is the right path," he says. And what's the most
legitimate way to have a connection with a particular group or
team?

"Through ownership."

Jorge Vergara may be Mexico's answer to Mark Cuban, but it's safe
to say that the Dallas Mavericks' billionaire owner hasn't been
collaborating with Sean Penn lately. "I met Sean on the movie we
just finished," says Vergara, relaxing barefoot in a corner suite
of Manhattan's Mandarin Oriental hotel. Vergara is just off a
flight from France, where he attended the Cannes film festival
for the premiere of The Assassination of Richard Nixon, his
production company's (and Penn's) latest project. "He's intense
and very committed," Vergara says. "He's got this passion for
acting."

Passion is Vergara's calling card. It's what he used to turn
Omnilife, his Guadalajara-based health supplements company, from
a $10,000 investment in 1991 into a direct-marketing empire
(think Amway) with 2.2 million employees and $1.16 billion in
sales last year. Passion is why he ventured into the movie
business in 2000, forming Anhelo Productions with his pal,
director Alfonso Cuaron, and debuting with Cuaron's Y Tu Mama
Tambien, which earned an Oscar nomination for best foreign film
and $30 million at the box office. Passion is why Vergara spent
$100 million two years ago on a hostile takeover of Chivas of
Guadalajara--arguably Mexico's most popular soccer team--and why
he's convinced that Chivas USA, his spinoff MLS expansion
franchise, can do the unthinkable: make a killing off
professional soccer in the U.S.

"What we're bringing is the passion," says Vergara, 49, whose
team will begin play next spring in Los Angeles. "We have
registered more than 10 million Chivas followers in this country.
A lot of Mexican-Americans have been supporting Chivas all their
lives."

Chivas president Ivar Sisniega, a former Mexican minister of
sports, pitched the idea for Chivas USA two years ago to MLS's
Garber. "It was so obvious," Garber says, "that you smacked
yourself in the head and said, Why didn't we do this in 1996?" As
the Stanford-educated Sisniega, 45, puts it, "Mexican-Americans
haven't seen MLS as their own league because they haven't had
their own team. Now they will."

The plan is rich in irony: MLS will be creating its own regional
type of globalization by harnessing the power of globalism's
supposed bugbear, fervent nationalism. In the most multinational
of sports, Chivas's appeal is simple: It has never signed a
non-Mexican player in its 97-year history. "We want to spread the
passion of being all [Mexican] nationals," Vergara says, "and, of
course, of always giving everything you have. That's how Mexicans
play--and how Chivas USA is going to play."

There's no mystery to Vergara's interest. An estimated 37 million
Hispanics live in the U.S., representing 13% of the country's
population, and those numbers are projected to rise to 55 million
and 17% by 2025. Though not all of them are fanaticos del
futbol--some 15% of U.S. Hispanics are descended from
baseball-loving Dominicans, Puerto Ricans and Cubans--those with
ties to Mexico, South America and Central America proudly hang
mini soccer balls from their rearview mirrors like so many fuzzy
dice. Of the 9.5 million people in Los Angeles County, roughly
45% are Latinos, of which the overwhelming majority are of
Mexican extraction.

It's a demographic that loves watching its teams. Mexican teams.
The Spanish-language network Univision, which will show more than
200 Mexican league matches in the U.S. in 2004, has drawn a
healthy 6.4 rating for those games among Hispanic households.
Chivas officials believe their club is better situated to make
money in the U.S. market than even Manchester United and Real
Madrid, which will be playing exhibitions in the States later
this month. "Our followers are already here," Vergara says. In a
recent survey conducted by Univision, 30% of Mexican soccer fans
in the U.S. chose Chivas as their favorite team, the same portion
that picked archrival Club America of Mexico City. (No other team
had more than 8%.) "If you bring Chivas in a legitimate form to
the U.S.," says Univision sports president David Downs, "it will
resonate with any Mexican-American." But it will also bring up
several potential conflicts:

How will Chivas USA keep its all-Mexican identity in a league
that allows no more than three foreigners over age 25 per team?
Look for Chivas to fill its foreign slots with Mexicans while
stocking up on Mexican green-card holders and players under 25,
who don't count against the limit. What's more, Chivas has begun
a grassroots recruiting drive called Nueva Sangre (New Blood),
holding tryouts in L.A., Chicago and Houston--and soon in other
U.S. Latino strongholds--to find prospects among the thousands of
players in ethnic leagues. And as a last option, Vergara says,
"We may have some gringos, too."

Will Chivas USA simply be a farm team for Chivas of Guadalajara?
No, vows Vergara. "Why should I have a team that will cost me so
much money just to float players into Mexico?" he asks. And
though there will be an initial infusion of players from the
Mexican Chivas, Sisniega says, "we're committed to keeping these
players in the U.S. and building their star status in the U.S.
market."

Will placing Chivas USA in Los Angeles cripple the L.A. Galaxy?
With an average attendance of 22,036 at week's end, the Galaxy
was MLS's top-drawing team, which explains the league's initial
refusal to let Chivas call L.A. home. Yet the league (and the
Galaxy's owner, the Anschutz Entertainment Group) eventually came
around for two reasons: 1) Chivas gave AEG $15 million for the
right to use the Galaxy's 27,000-seat Home Depot Center, and 2)
Vergara convinced AEG that both teams would be helped by the
creation of MLS's first intracity rivalry.

Meanwhile, Vergara's L.A. production company, Monsoon
Entertainment, has announced plans to produce a reality TV show
following around the winners of the Nueva Sangre tryouts, for
broadcast in the U.S. and Mexico. Vergara has also begun talks
with municipal officials in the Chicago suburb of Cicero, Ill.,
to build an Omnilife factory and the inaugural Chivas Club, a
sports academy that would specialize in Olympic events, with an
emphasis on soccer. "It will be the first social sports club for
Hispanics in the country," he says. "We'll repeat that in most of
the cities with Hispanics: Los Angeles, Dallas, Houston, even
Atlanta and the Carolinas."

No matter what happens with NFL Europe and Chivas USA, the Two
Footballs will continue to pursue aggressive international
strategies. Take away the Europe league and its heavy losses and,
thanks to merchandise sales and TV rights fees, NFL International
is a profitable enterprise today. While the NFL admits that it
isn't a global concern per se, the league is satisfied for now,
focusing its energy on a few key foreign markets: Canada,
Germany, Japan, Mexico, the United Kingdom and China. The idea is
to drive interest from the top (the NFL on television) and at the
grass roots level (by organizing flag football programs for
kids). "We would love to see more international players in the
NFL," says Smeaton, "and if we're doing our job, you will."

MLS, for its part, has attempted to fill its coffers and
strengthen its credibility through Soccer United Marketing (SUM),
an offshoot that seeks to tap the sport's global power structure
by purchasing valuable soccer properties regardless of language.
SUM has established business ties to, among others, the world
governing body, Federation Internationale de Football Association
(by buying the U.S. English-language TV rights to three World
Cups), and the Mexican federation (by acquiring the rights to
promote Mexican national team games in the U.S.). The goal,
Garber says, is for MLS teams eventually to be involved in
interleague play with Mexico, as well as in the Copa
Libertadores, the lucrative South American club tournament that
is the Western Hemisphere's answer to the European Champions
League.

"In the global culture the universal language is soccer," Garber
says. "That's the sweet spot. If it weren't for the shrinking
world caused by globalization, we wouldn't have the opportunity
we have today." Capitalizing on that chance is the key. Garber's
future--to say nothing of his league's--depends on it.

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY THOMAS REISCOLOR PHOTO: MARTIN MEISSNER/AP (TOP LEFT) DEUTSCHE TREAT The NFL has a foothold in Germany, where fans went wild as the Thunder (in white) beat the Galaxy for the title.COLOR PHOTO: NORBERT SCHMIDT [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: JESSE GRANT/WIREIMAGE.COM MEXIMUM IMPACT Vergara (left) believes the red-striped Chivas brand will appeal to fans in Los Angeles and help sell soccer across the U.S.COLOR PHOTO: GUILLERMO ARIAS/AP (TOP) [See caption above]
People overseas, says garber, "thought of [the NFL] as
quintessentially American. It was cheerleaders and fireworks and
big guys in helmets and pads."
"Between 2007 and 2009 is when you'll see that league really
fly," Quinn says of NFL Europe. "If you cut it before that,
you've wasted a huge opportunity."
The plan for Chivas USA is rich in irony: MLS will be creating
its own regional type of globalization by harnessing the power of
fervent nationalism.