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