The Major Soccer League still is looking for a future, and the most recent appointee to head the search wasn't even aboard this time last year.
Eleven months ago, Oscar Ancira put together a group of mostly Mexican investors and bought the Sockers, a successful team on the field, but weak at the box office.
Ancira didn't know what he was getting into at the time of the sale. Now he knows exactly where he wants to take the sport.
As he awaits word from St. Louis on transfer of ownership of the Storm, the sale of which could spark expansion into Buffalo, Ancira took time to discuss both the MSL's past and what lies ahead.
Question: What did you think the community's perception of the team was when you bought it?
Ancira: It was very difficult to sense the perception in the community because how do you evaluate unless you have the the experience of sports?
Q: What was your personal perception?
A: I didn't even have time to analyze it. We decided we were going to do it and we did it. We spent the whole time putting together the application, putting together the financial statement and the partnership and all that, so who had time to think about what we were doing?
Q: There was nothing you saw that discouraged you?
A: There was normal skepticism of a new business, normal skepticism of buying something that you know loses money up front, that is not in top shape. You're basically getting a fixer-upper.
Q: I don't know if Ron Newman would use that term.
A: Hey, let me tell you, that first game, right before the second game, that team was a fixer-upper. Who did we have? We had five or six rookies, and that was a fixer-upper.
Q: The franchise, then, needed to be rebuilt?
A: Not the franchise. I guess the league, the league is a fixer-upper. As far as the franchise, I think the operation was fantastic. The front office was complete and very experienced. I didn't have to do much. I just had to come in and watch.
Q: As far as the league being a fixer-upper, you spent much of the season developing a marketing plan. What's ahead?
A: The next four weeks are . . . I don't want to say they are critical, they are not critical . . . but they will be a good barometer of what's to come.
Q: In what way?
A: If we're in the same situation we're in right now in four weeks, then the barometer indicates a pretty bad situation.
Note: Currently, the the out-going owner of the St. Louis Storm is holding firm to a $750,000-plus price tag, a fee which new owners refuse to pay. If the haggling continues, it likely will doom expansion efforts in Buffalo.
Q: Another looming problem appears to be the salary cap. The best American players are fleeing to Europe and even considering Mexico. Does that have to be dealt with?
A: First of all you can't make that much money in Mexico. Second, in Mexico and in Europe, nobody's going to look at an American player. Do you know how many South American players there are that would love to play for $20,000 a year, $15,000 a year in Mexico? There are thousands of them. It's very difficult to play in Mexico if you're a foreigner, and even worse if you're an American because what is the attraction?
Q: It sounds like you don't see the salary cap as a problem?
A: I don't see the salary cap as a problem in competition with other leagues, I see it as a problem in going against other sports and business. If I get a college degree and I'm an intelligent person and I can cut it in the business world and I love to play soccer--if I'm a great soccer player--still, my mind, my sense of direction tells me, "Hey, you better evaluate the love you have for the sport and the income it provides."
Q: So how often did you have second thoughts about buying the Sockers?
A: No, no, no--you have second thoughts before buying. You mean buyer's remorse. . . . If I said I haven't had any buyers' remorse, I would be lying.
Q: What caused the headaches?
A: (Long pause) Selling tickets is tougher than I thought, definitely.
Q: How did your marketing efforts pan out? You hired a former player specifically to raise awareness of the team in the South Bay.
A: I don't have a comparison to last year to really tell.
Q: But you must have had some projections. Were they met?
A: We did have an increase in the South Bay, but we didn't have tremendous results. And we didn't expect tremendous results. You don't just walk in and say, "Well, here I am." And everybody runs to you. We didn't do anything in Tijuana this year, we're going to do it for next season and we don't expect Tijuana to all of a sudden jump on the band wagon. It's preparation for the following season.
Q: How close did you come to financial projections?
A: Ticket sales, we missed. I think what goals we did achieve were in sponsorship sales. Ticket sales were higher than last year, but not what we wanted.
Q: What did you want?
A: A lot. We didn't get a lot.
Note: The Sockers averaged 9,348 fans during the regular season, an increase from 7,192 during the previous season. The increase was counter-balanced by an average of only 6,905 in the playoffs.
Q: What about sponsorships?
A: I was pleasantly surprised given the fact that we had a very late start, a very late start, and also considering the credibility of the league.
Q: Were there enough sponsors to make the telecasts back to San Diego profitable?
A: Everything goes to the same pot, so if we don't make money at the bottom line, we don't make money. Everything goes into the same pocket--the one that has the big hole at the bottom.
Q: How big is that hole? Another league executive, Tacoma's Stan Naccarato, said it swallowed $500,000.
A: Five-hundred thousand what? Is Stan Naccarato a CPA now?
Q: So how high were the Sockers' losses this year?
A: It's not good to discuss money because then people can get either the right or the wrong impression. We didn't make money, as expected, but we were in the ballpark we expected to be in.
Q: Getting back to the marketing plan you developed for the league, where does it stand?
A: We're still talking about it. The review process has started, but it's difficult to implement the marketing plan until we know if we're going to have eight teams or seven teams or nine teams.
Q: But what does it entail?
A: It basically entails the development of the infrastructure as far as making sure everybody has a youth soccer club. That forces each team to go out into the community and reach out and grab those fans. The development of a reserve team. Again, in order to put together a reserve team you have to go out and work with the adult leagues. Again: fans. We're also talking about promotion. We somehow have to convince the networks to carry our results. I'm not talking about televising games, but just getting ESPN to read our soccer results. Even if they do it like Ted Leitner does, "6-4, 3-2, 4-1," that's fine. That's a start. But we have to be out there and we have to get some credibility. It's a great sport. We have to start with that. It is a great sport, great entertainment. We shouldn't be ashamed of it, like we're taking something to the networks that's unacceptable. It is acceptable. People like it. But we need the support of the media to give it credibility.
Q: So you'd just like to see Chris Berman come up with some nicknames for soccer players?
A: I don't think back, back, back, back, back, back will work in indoor soccer. . . .
To me graduation time is when you go out there when the Sockers are playing (host to) Dallas and you see 200 Sidekicks fans at the Sports Arena. That's when you know you've achieved national recognition, national coverage. But, hey, who cheers for the opponent? You go to a Padre game and you see, even if they're playing against the Braves, you see a bunch of Braves fans. When the Dodgers play here you feel like you're in L.A.
Q: How do you achieve that?
A: Patience, and just keep on pounding on this thing. It's almost like having a kid who's 2 or 3 years old and you want him to compete against a 21-year-old sprinter. Well, he's going to lose. But if you're patient, you train him, when he's 21 years old he's going to be great. The analogy is that soccer is brand-spanking new and it's a baby in this country. It's moving really fast. It has caught on really fast, but at the participatory level. There's 125,000 kids playing soccer in the county. They're participants. Now all we have to do is turn them into spectators.
Q: But the youth soccer boom began 20 years ago and still participants haven't turned into spectators.
A: The money is out there. Now how do you reach out there and grab it? I think only time will take care of it. If you do the right things like promoting, advertising, sports relations, if you do it, it's going to happen.
Q: You must have gone back in the Sockers' books and seen that at one time the team averaged 11,000 fans per game. What happened to those crowds?
A: Many theories. . . . Complacency on the part of the league. Someone once said that business is like riding a bicycle. Either you keep moving or you fall down. Well, what that means is the more sales you have, the more effort you have to put in to sustain what you already have. So you have to keep on pedaling, and, I think, they stopped pedaling. . . .
I want to do what the NBA did as far as creating a successful league and a successful sport--they made it into big business, and they used TV to do it.
What we have to do is make our sport more competitive. We had a playoff game on network TV once and we beat Baltimore, 14-2 (in 1985), and CBS said, "That's it." We need superstars like the NBA. Put Magic Johnson against Larry Bird in the finals and they draw ratings.
Q: But can the MSL attract superstars with a $60,000 maximum salary?
A: No. But one of the things I proposed in the marketing plan was to exempt one player per team from the salary cap. And one superstar is all it takes. Look at Dr. J when he was in the ABA. He forced the NBA to merge with the ABA. And when the AFL signed Joe Namath, Namath forced the NFL to merge with the AFL. I'm not talking about a merger, but we need to find players with superstar abilities and exploit them. Exploit the hell out of them.