Would Obama's election make soccer a major league American sport?
Since he closed up Revolution Studios, Joe Roth has kept his hand in the movie business -- he's got projects at Sony, Fox and Disney, where he's producing Tim Burton's upcoming "Alice in Wonderland." But he's spending most of his time with his new love, commuting up to Seattle, where he's the majority owner of the Seattle Sounders FC, the new Major League Soccer expansion team that begins play next spring. A lifelong sports junkie -- he spent years coaching his son's soccer team, has courtside Lakers seats and knows more obscure baseball stats than Bill James -- Roth has discovered that soccer is a great laboratory to test out both Internet community-based marketing and Hollywood-style glitz.
But when we had lunch the other day, Roth also made the tantalizing case that the new popularity of soccer in America has a lot in common with the groundswell of support for Barack Obama's presidential campaign. Roth is not a neutral political observer. It was Roth, along with David Geffen, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Steven Spielberg, who organized Obama's first major Hollywood fundraiser early last year, back when Obama was 20 points behind Hillary Clinton in the polls. Roth sees soccer as appealing to the same fast-growing demographic groups that have been at the center of Obama's campaign.
"If you took a map of America where Obama is strongest and laid it over a map of where soccer has its biggest appeal, you'd see an incredible overlap," he told me. "The blue states on both coasts are very soccer-friendly as well as huge areas of support for Obama, where as the center of the country is full of people who are the enemies of soccer and Obama -- white, 50-and-over guys who listen to talk radio and only care about football or basketball."
Before he bought the Sounders, whose minority owners include comedian Drew Carey, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and Adrian Hanauer (who owned Seattle's minor league soccer franchise), Roth did a lot of homework into soccer's key areas of demographic appeal. "The way America is changing in its ethnicity -- becoming more Latino and African American -- is going to make soccer a major sport in the same way those ethnic shifts are helping Obama. Soccer's fastest growth is in liberal, better-educated cities, places like Seattle, Portland, Boston, Vancouver, Montreal and Los Angeles. All you have to do is look at the MLS crowds -- they're young, they're noisy and they're not that different from the youthful spirit you'd see at an Obama rally."
If Obama wins on Tuesday, election analysts will give much of the credit not just to the candidate, but to his enormously effective political machine, which has used the Internet to boost fundraising and create a loyal, engaged community of potential voters. Roth has been using similar techniques to launch his soccer club, which has already set an MLS record by pre-selling more than 17,000 season tickets. What has he learned about the impact of the Facebook-style spirit of the Internet that will transform the way soccer fans interact at Sounders games? Keep reading:
When it came time to make the new team's pitch to soccer fans in Seattle, Roth soaked up the lessons his partner Hanauer has learned as a web entrepreneur. A longtime Seattle community force, Hanauer was an early investor in aQuantive, an Internet ad company that sold to Microsoft in 2007 for $6 billion. "Adrian taught me we had to give the fans a real stake in the process," Roth explained. "When we were debating what to name the team, we finally agreed to let the fans decide. Whatever they come up with is fine." The fans voted overwhelmingly to keep the Sounders name, which had been the name of the minor league team.
Roth also adopted a model used by Spanish soccer clubs. Sounders ticket holders are part of a membership group who meet on a quarterly basis in a 7,000-seat theater next to the club's stadium. It's not just a way for them to idly voice complaints or advice; every four years they are allowed to take a vote, deciding whether the team's general manager keeps his job. "I told Adrian: The good news is that you're my general manager," Roth recalled, "but the bad news is that you have a bull's eye on your back."
Roth's most intriguing idea sounds like a page lifted out of Facebook. When new ticket holders go online to pick out seating preferences, they first have to fill out a questionnaire about their predilections: Do they like to stand or sit at games? Chant? Cheer? Who are their favorite players? After giving the answers, they see what Roth described as a horizontal thermometer (the left side glowing red, the right side glowing green) helping them to find their ideal seat selection based on their rooting behavior.
"It's a way for you to be placed in a section with like-minded fans, so that each section could become a miniature version of a supporter's club, just like they are in Europe, with their own blogs, their own pubs, their own scarves and T-shirts," said Roth. "I'm a computer idiot, but when I explained it to my daughter, she said, 'Dad, I get it. It's just like Facebook.' "
The team has also lifted an idea from another famously successful fan-based institution --"American Idol." To drum up interest in the team, the Sounders are airing a live TV show on Seattle's NBC affiliate immediately after the 2009 Super Bowl. It will feature "Idol"-style soccer tryouts in three Washington cities, with players executing various performance drills. Fans voting on the Web will pick a winner who will be awarded a position as a player on the club.
As anyone who saw him run studios in Hollywood can attest, Roth is a fierce competitor, so he won't be simply relying on fans to stock his club. Expansion teams are notorious also-rans in their debut seasons, but Roth knows that for all the talk about a like-minded community, what fans want most is a winner. MLS teams are allowed to sign one designated player above their salary cap. Roth recently landed Swedish star Freddie Ljungberg, who has played in three World Cups, was Calvin Klein's first European underwear model and, at 31, might still be at the peak of his game.
To hear Roth tell the story, his wooing of Ljungberg wasn't so different from the way he'd persuaded Julia Roberts or Bruce Willis to star in a new movie. As usual, when it comes to star talent, CAA was involved. "I was talking to one of CAA's sports agents who said Freddie was going to be in town the next day," Roth recalled. "When I asked why, they said, 'He's getting a tattoo.' When I met him, he had a huge new tattoo that went all the way up his right arm to his elbow."
Ljungberg was interested in the MLS, but said he wanted to play in Los Angeles or New York. So Roth made his pitch. "I said to him, 'Neither city is right for you. L.A. isn't a sports town. It's an entertainment town -- we don't even have a pro football team. And in New York, the media glare is horrible. They'll eat you alive.'" Knowing that Ljungberg's agent also reps San Antonio Spurs star Tony Parker, he said, 'Talk to Tony. He wanted to play in New York or L.A., and he'll tell you that the best decision he ever made was going to San Antonio.' "
Roth persuaded Ljungberg to visit Seattle, which is on the water, like the city where Ljungberg grew up in Sweden. After a three-day visit, he was sold, signing a two-year deal with the Sounders. Of course, when I asked Roth how much he paid him, he suddenly sounded like a tight-lipped studio boss again, refusing to confirm reports that the deal was worth $5 million.
"I'm not saying -- I'm from the Bob Daley school," Roth said, referring to the longtime Warner Bros. studio chief. "Bob used to say, 'I'd rather run over my own grandmother than say what a movie cost.' So I'm keeping my mouth shut."
Photo of Freddie Ljungberg in a Calvin Klein ad.