Tag Archives: Jeff Cooper

The Grand Failure Of A Real Soccer Club In St. Louis

st-louis

A few months ago, Peter Wilt posted an interview here with Jeff Cooper in which he described him as arguably “the most powerful man in soccer in the Midwest and one of the most influential in the country.”

Cooper is the lead man behind a unique endeavour in American soccer: a professional men’s club (AC St. Louis, part of the NASL in the USSF Division II which began play this year), a top flight women’s professional club (St. Louis Athletica, in Women’s Professional Soccer which began play last year) and an ambitious youth club, St. Louis Scott Gallagher, that amalgamated three of the area’s leading youth set-ups.

It seemed as if Cooper was putting together the perfect regional pyramid of soccer, from youth to the professional game in both genders.

But Cooper could not find the investment he needed to win an MLS franchise as well.

And now it appears that there is not enough investment to keep all this going: as reported today, it looks as if Athletica will be taken over by the league due to the team’s financial dire straits. “WPS and its Board continue to work closely with the appropriate parties on the matter related to St. Louis Athletica, including the possibility that the league will take over the team which would enable the Athletica to play the 2010 season in full.”

The men’s team seems to be in equal difficulties, a particularly awkward situation for Cooper as the Interim NASL Commissioner.

According to reports, Cooper’s investors, the brothers Heemal and Sanjeev Vaid from England, have pulled out, leaving the entire organisation in severe financial peril. The St. Louis Globe-Democrat reported yesterday that costs involved with St. Louis’ stadium have been one of the main issues facing the club’s finances:

A reliable source in St. Louis said that the money woes for AC and the Athletica stem, at least in part, from costs associated with operating the Anheuser-Busch Soccer Park, which Anheuser-Busch Inbev donated to Cooper’s group last summer. “The cost of the park is too much to allow funding for the teams,” the source said.

Three months ago, Cooper told Wilt on these pages that “Our model could be adopted to any market. It is scalable for larger or smaller markets. In time, every pro team in the US will become a real “club” with a youth program, academy, women’s team etc. It is the evolution of the game in this country.”

Cooper’s dream was grand and worthy.

But are there lessons to be learned here, if indeed AC St. Louis and/or St. Louis Athletica are taken over by their respective leagues? Would resources better have been devoted solely to the top flight women’s team, rather than trying to run a professional men’s team as well?  Is the evolution of the game not at the stage that such an ambitious set-up can be stable without an investor willing to lose millions a year for several years? Is it sensible for men’s and women’s professional teams to be part of the same club, and thus dependent on the financial viability of each other?


Q & A With Interim NASL Commissioner Jeff Cooper

St. Louis based soccer executive Jeff Cooper

St. Louis based soccer executive Jeff Cooper

This week’s column is a Q & A with Jeff Cooper, one of the most fascinating leaders in American soccer.  Cooper, a St. Louis area attorney and businessman, plunged into professional soccer only a few years ago and in that short time has arguably emerged as the most powerful man in soccer in the Midwest and one of the most influential in the country.

Though he played soccer collegiately at DePauw University, until recently Cooper’s main focus was as Managing Partner of SimmonsCooper law firm in East Alton, Illinois.  The firm started as an asbestos litigation firm in 1999 and went on to diversify its caseload including cases involving asbestos and mesothelioma, business disputes, intellectual property and international affairs.

Cooper first came to prominence in the soccer world by leading a valiant, though ultimately failed effort to bring an MLS team, soccer stadium and real estate development to Collinsville, Illinois.

He did succeed in aggregating three of the top youth soccer clubs in metropolitan St. Louis – St. Louis Soccer Club, Scott Gallagher SC and Metro United SC and launching Saint Louis Athletica in Women’s Professional Soccer in 2009.  Most recently, a failed effort to purchase USL from Nike led to a prominent role in the creation of the new North American Soccer League that includes Cooper’s expansion Division 2 men’s team, AC Saint Louis that surprised people by signing a high profile technical staff and lured MLS star Steve Ralston back home to finish his career in St. Louis.

This Q & A seeks Cooper’s perspective on the many areas of soccer he’s become involved in over the last few years.

1. How did you come to be the President and Interim Commissioner of the NASL?  Could this be like Bud Selig’s “interim” commissioner position that lasted more than a decade?

Jeff Cooper: I was voted Interim Commissioner by the NASL Board, probably because I was the only guy in the room dumb enough to take on such a time-consuming, non-paying job!  I will only be in this position until our League office is built out and a real Commissioner joins us.

2. What lessons did you learn by going through the failed USL acquisition followed by the forced merger with USL1?

JC: I learned that I need to say “no comment” sometimes.

Jeff Cooper pulled together some of the top soccer clubs in St. Louis and joined them with pro men's and women's teams to create an integrated soccer club unseen anywhere else in the United States

Jeff Cooper pulled together some of the top soccer clubs in St. Louis and joined them with pro men's and women's teams to create an integrated soccer club unseen anywhere else in the United States

3. Unlike most, if not all, other owners of pro soccer clubs, you are building a truly multi-dimensional business with pro men’s and women’s teams, an integrated youth club and shared facilities.  What are the keys to building a unified business vs. simply owning a series of related businesses?  Can your business model be replicated anywhere in the US or is there something unique about St. Louis that will allow it to succeed?

JC: The key is to make sure that you utilize all of the various economies of scale. An organization like ours thrives or dies on communication.

There are many unique things about St. Louis and its soccer culture, but we aren’t one of them. Our model could be adopted to any market. It is scalable for larger or smaller markets. In time, every pro team in the US will become a real “club” with a youth program, academy, women’s team etc. It is the evolution of the game in this country.

4. Your selection for head coach of AC St. Louis, Claude Anelka, has limited coaching experience and has failed badly in his first attempt in Scotland.  Why will he succeed in an unfamiliar environment?

JC: He may or may not succeed. Claude has a lot to prove here. Luckily, he will have Francisco Filho by his side. Francisco has developed some of the worlds top talent at Clairfontaine and Manchester United and we think he can do the same at AC St. Louis.

5. Is the NASL better off operating completely independent of MLS or are there benefits to work together on areas such as player development, marketing and sponsorship?

JC: The NASL should definitely be working with MLS in various capacities. There are huge benefits to the game if we work together on player development.  We get to compete on the field in the US Open Cup. Off the field, we should try to help the development of our nations top league in any way we can.

6. What lessons can be gleaned from the discontinuation of the LA Sol’s operation?  What changes need to be implemented by teams and the League to prevent other teams from failing?

JC: WPS now has 8 really solid owners who are committed to the long term vision of the league. The teams have already adjusted their business models from our experiences last year. I feel like our league is at it’s strongest right now.

Jeff Cooper's plans for a major real estate development anchored by an MLS team and stadium in Collinsville, Illinois ultimately fell short.

Jeff Cooper's plans for a major real estate development anchored by an MLS team and stadium in Collinsville, Illinois ultimately fell short.

7. What more did your group need to show MLS to get a team?  What obstacles prevented you from meeting MLS’ standards?

JC: We needed more financial depth. It’s that simple.

8. Which side of the Mississippi would’ve been better to base an MLS team, the Illinois or Missouri side?  Would the benefits of the population and corporate centers on the Missouri side outweigh the benefits of being the Illinois side’s only pro sports team?

JC: Either side will work very well. As your question points out, there are great benefits to either. The proven model for a pro soccer team is to own your stadium at the smallest possible cost. So we are still looking at opportunities to grow our current stadium or move to a larger, lower-cost facility.

9. The Seattle Sounders only drew 2,000 to 4,000 per game during their final USL1 years yet exploded to 30,000 per game in their first MLS year. Does that give you any trepidation starting a Division 2 team in a major league market?  How do you market a minor league team to a city that is used to major league sports teams?

JC: AC St. Louis will be the biggest soccer team in St. Louis regardless of which league it plays. I think there were a huge number of issues with how the old USL marketed it’s teams. We plan on doing a much better job of helping teams gain greater attention in each market.

On a side note, I will say that I love to watch what is happening in Seattle. It shows how the game is growing in the US. However, I hope we don’t hold cities like Portland to the same standard going forward or there may be an inappropriate sense of disappointment.

10. Is the “St. Louis as a soccer hotbed” notion a myth associated with the history of the sport’s support there or is St. Louis truly still ahead of the rest of the Midwest, and nation, in soccer interest and development?

JC: Per capita, St. Louis still produces more elite level players than any market. This year, with the debut of AC STL, the fans here will have to prove or disprove the notion of being a soccer hotbed.

11. What interests do you currently have in English professional soccer. Is it too mature a market to have significant upside economically or are there still bargains to be found? (Cooper formerly sat on England’s League One Brentford FC Board of Directors.)

JC: I don’t have any current business interest in English soccer.  And to directly answer the question, there are no more bargains in English soccer.  Even the clubs that can be bought for £1 have millions in debt.  There is so much heavily-financed competition at the lower levels that it is nearly impossible to get promoted as a regular well-run club. The economics are completely out of whack. We have already seen a number of teams go into administration and we will unfortunately see many, many more do so over the next 12-24 months.


The Sweeper: Breakaway American League Confirmed

USL breakaway

Big Story
After months of speculation about a breakaway in North America’s second division, featuring farcical news management by USL and ambitious statements from the renegade Team Owners Association, it’s been confirmed today that a new second division professional league will launch in the United States in 2010, consisting of the Atlanta Silverbacks, Carolina Railhawks, Miami FC, Minnesota Thunder, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps and St. Louis Soccer United, most of those leaving USL-1. The new league has submitted its application to US Soccer for approval, and likewise in Canada.

So now, after all the talk, it’s time for the hard work to start. One key decision will be finding a commissioner, who it sounds like will have wide-ranging power, and the league plans to commit considerable resources to nationwide marketing, a weakness of USL-1. One of the key driving forces behind the league is Jeff Cooper of St. Louis, who has for some time been attempting to win an MLS franchise (and also owns a WPS franchise), and whose ambition for the league is clear. “This will be a league that will offer the best of both worlds – outstanding experience and leadership at the ownership level combined with the promise and ability to chart our own course for success as a new league,” Cooper said.

If the league’s strong marketing plans are a success, this could be a big step towards putting professional soccer really on the map nationwide outside of MLS, and give the sport deeper roots and broader coverage. Just no more silly talk about a winter league, OK? And what’s the future for USL-1 now?

Worldwide News

  • Rangers and Celtic fans are accused of “a stunning exhibition of ignorance and bitterness” by Graham Spiers in the Times, as he looks at a messy dispute over observance of Remembrance Sunday.
  • Sunderland fans who believe they have been unfairly banned from the Stadium of Light have launched a petition appealing to chairman Niall Quinn.
  • All that glitters isn’t gold, as Notts County face a winding up order. We hate to say I told you so, but the Supporters’ Trust who handed over power and wrote off an awful lot of money might be having second thoughts at this point.
  • EPL Talk urges Fox Soccer Channel to switch to American commentators for its UEFA Champions League coverage, castigating the quality of commentary so far. I have to say, as much as I’m not keen to hear Max Bretos scream “yessssssssssssssss” any more than I have to, the announcing has been poor. It’s a shame, as the quality of the broadcasts — with so many games available in high definition — has been outstanding otherwise.
  • David Ngog’s dive for Liverpool against Birmingham is the focus of most of the discussion in the English press today, with Henry Winter calling it “shameful”
  • Wow, Carson Yeung. Wow.

The Sweeper appears daily. For more rambling and links throughout the day every day, follow your editor Tom Dunmore @pitchinvasion on Twitter.