By Ridge Mahoney
Since leaving MLS more than a decade and a half ago, former chief marketing officer Randy Bernstein still follows the league intently from afar.
And the man who went on to work for Yahoo! and then joined with league founder Alan Rothenberg to form Premier Partnerships, an advisory firm that manages sports and entertainment properties and projects for teams, leagues, stadiums and government agencies, is impressed.
“I hear it’s fantastic,” said Bernstein in response to a question about the latest MLS stadium to open, the Earthquakes’ new home, Avaya Stadium. “I love Kansas City’s story. I love what’s going on in Portland and Seattle and what [former Yahoo! president] Jeff Mallett’s doing [in Vancouver]. It’s just so exciting and I’m so thrilled to see from the humble beginnings just 20 years ago where the league is now.”
Bernstein played a vital role in those humble beginnings. A 1982 graduate of San Diego State, he started out with the NBA Clippers — of which Rothenberg was team president — and then worked seven years with the indoor San Diego Sockers before joining Rothenberg on the 1994 World Cup Organizing Committee as senior vice president of corporate marketing.
He left MLS in 1999 to work for Yahoo! and since 2003 has partnered with Rothenberg at Premier Partnerships, which has offices in Santa Monica, Calif., as well as New York City. Its current clients include the Rose Bowl (for its soccer events) and the Atlanta Falcons, which have partnered with MLS to launch an expansion team in 2017. PP also negotiated naming- rights deals for several MLS stadiums.
Bernstein sees some parallels between New York City FC joining the Red Bulls in their market and what will occur when LAFC goes head-to-head with the Galaxy in 2018.
“There’s plenty of money, there’s plenty of people seeking great entertainment and value for their dollar, and whoever comes to the forefront with the right product is going to be the recipient of those dollars,” says Bernstein, who cites existing rivalries in the market — Ducks/Kings, Dodgers/Angels, Lakers/Clippers — as the norm in many major cities around the world when it comes to soccer.
“All you have to do is look at other countries and how they have multiples of teams playing in the same region. I don’t want to compare MLS to the English Premier League but you do have to look at how close all of those clubs are throughout England.”
By confirming plans to build a 22,000-seat facility on the site of the Los Angeles Sports Arena, which will be demolished, LAFC has also eliminated one of the many problems encountered by Chivas USA, which shared StubHub Center (formerly Home Depot Center) with the far more glamorous and successful Galaxy. Former co-owners Jorge Vergara and Antonio Cue periodically mentioned the possibility of Chivas USA finding and funding its own place to play but nothing substantial materialized.
Bernstein points out that initially Chivas USA drew some notice as something radically different than its MLS counterparts as well as the new player in a huge market. Four straight playoff appearances (2006-09) and some notable players (Francisco Palencia, Claudio Suarez, Sacha Kljestan, Ante Razov, Ramon Ramirez, Brad Guzan) bumped up crowds in the early years. But once victories stopped and the unraveling started, nothing could turn it around.
“LA’s a special market. When you look at the Lakers and the Clippers, the Clippers have been sold out for four years straight. You can get a ticket but the sellout streak is intact. Although the Lakers sellout streak came to an end, they had sold out for years and years.”
The first Red Bulls-NYCFC derby played last month is another entry in the league’s successful quest to either create rivalries or exploit existing ones. The market is more than big enough to accommodate an ambitious rival for the Galaxy.
“Between the northern part of San Diego County and the southern part of Los Angeles County all the way up to the northern part of the San Fernando Valley, there are about 13 million people to draw from,” says Bernstein. “That’s a lot of people so if you can find the right entertainment, the right sports, the right excitement to provide for the audience, you can do it.
“It’s just proving that free enterprise in an open landscape such as Los Angeles or New York, you can have competing products and hopefully, in their mind, the second team can offer a very passionate alternative to the Galaxy and the sports market in particular.”
LAFC made its first major hire last week when Carl Schloessman, formerly an executive with Live Nation Entertainment — one of AEG’s main rivals in the sports and entertainment business — came aboard as chief operating officer.
“Carl is a world-class leader and expert in live entertainment and sports,” said Tom Penn, LAFC president and owner, in a press release announcing the hire. “His extensive knowledge and experience in the Los Angeles market will be invaluable to LAFC as we near a decision on our new stadium.”
With that decision on the new stadium in place, and a targeted launch date of 2018, Bernstein says there’s plenty of time for LAFC to get the soccer side of things in order. The bedrock of a successful sports franchise likes much deeper than the numbers of wins, ties, and losses a team encounters on the field.
Bernstein says, “It’s all going to be dependent on the quality of the product they put on the field and how they present it.”