BigSoccer Interview: Nick Sakiewicz Part 1

Nick Sakiewicz, the CEO & Operating Partner of Keystone Sports & Entertainment, LLC - the group starting MLS Philadelphia in 2010 - has been involved in MLS since before there even was an MLS. He agreed to share some of his thoughts and insights, and provide an update on where the project stands today.

A lot of fans may not know that you were a player of some repute. What are some of the highlights of your on-field career?

I played at the University of New Haven from 1979-82 and was an All American goalkeeper for one of the top ranked Div II schools in the country. Div II was very strong back in the late 70's.

After graduating I went on trial with FC Nantes of the French first division and was a developmental player in their system. It was very difficult getting into the NASL because most of the players were foreign so many of us tried to get jobs in Europe and South America. After the 82 World Cup it became very difficult for foreign players in France and my rights were sold to a 2nd division team in Portugal, FC Belenenses. I played there for a season and returned to the US after a severe ankle injury.

After recovering I decided to stay in the US and played half a season for the New York Arrows of the Major Indoor Soccer League.

I then moved to Florida after that season and started my coaching career as the goalkeeper coach for the Florida Olympic Development Program and assistant coach of College of Boca Raton (now Lynn University). We won two NAIA national titles and developed some excellent goalkeepers on the ODP program. I played one last season in 1989 for the Tampa Bay Rowdies in the American Professional Soccer League and retired after that season.

Those were the dark days of professional soccer in America and the players today are very lucky Major League Soccer exists.

You were with the league office almost from Day One in 1995. What was your role back then?

I was the League's first VP of Sponsor Sales and worked with the sponsor sales team during the launch season (1995-96) to establish the initial base of League sponsors. We had great success raising tens of millions of dollars to help launch the League and fund it's operations from our work. After the inaugural season the Commissioner asked me to take over Tampa Bay.

As President of the Mutiny, you were MLS Executive of the Year in 1999; how important do you think it is for the league to get back into the Florida market? What will it take for MLS to succeed there?

I think eventually MLS will get back in the Florida market and I hope it is Tampa. I think Tampa has the best environment for MLS to be successful.

It is very important that a strong ownership group, a proper soccer stadium (with roof) and the right Florida market (Tampa) be in place for an MLS team to be successful. I think Tampa is different than other Florida cities. First, the fans there were terrific and when I was there we actually started to gain some traction and success after 3 years of hard work. I believe my last season there we finished 3rd in the League in attendance and our sponsorship revenue was pretty good considering we didn't have our own stadium.

Why is that such a tough market for MLS?

Florida, particularly south Florida, is a tough market for all sports teams in every League. There is a lot of competition for discretionary leisure dollars and a limited corporate base with a large fixed income population which makes marketing even more challenging. Professional teams in every sport work harder and in comparison to their respective peers don't do as well in attendance and off-field performance. When operating in Florida teams have to do different things to promote events on top of having strong on-field performance.

Were you surprised when the latest Miami bid collapsed?

I was not surprised the Miami bid did not go through because it was just a matter of time before those involved realized that although the ownership team was world class the stadium situation and its location were not the best. As it turned out Vancouver and Portland are going to be fantastic markets for MLS and a real success both short and long term.

You were Executive of the Year again in 2000, this time with New York. Despite some success including last year's run to the Cup final, that's a team that's never really broken through on the field. I know it's hard to point to any one reason why a team hasn't had the success their fans want and expect over the years, but in general what are some of the things that have kept New York from being a consistent winner?

During my 5 seasons in NY we were consistently competitive except for one season in which we did not make the playoffs. We competed hard and got to a US Open Cup Final which we hosted but finished as runner up. We produced some very exciting games (Bayern Munich, Boca Juniors, AC Milan, etc) in one of the most difficult stadiums for soccer in the country and always ranked near the top of MLS attendance each year. We rarely were in the bottom of the MLS table and always in the top half of the league during the regular season.

Unfortunately for a variety of reasons playoff performance was not good and the team was not able to advance past the second round of the playoffs. The coaches have all been outstanding individuals with proven success that tried to work within the system to make good teams but for a variety of reasons have not been able to produce teams that can advance through the playoffs until this past season. New York is a very expensive and difficult place to operate in and although we tried to get player consistency it was very difficult to achieve that.

Now you're heading up the Philadelphia team that's joining the league in 2010. Between New York and Philly, you've had to deal with maybe the two toughest sets of fans anywhere. Are you courageous or just crazy?

The fans in Philly have been great. They are very supportive of the League and team. We have over 6,000 season ticket holders already and a fan club (Sons of Ben) that has over 3,500 members. The youth soccer community has been outstanding and coming to us looking for ways to support the team. We've signed a long term deal with Eastern PA Youth Soccer Association to promote player, coaching and referee development throughout the region.

It's been a very good experience and relationship with the fans so far. I definitely get a different feel in Philly. The environment feels more like a single cohesive soccer community where as in New York it felt more fragmented.

Wednesday: Part II