Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Manning creates winning foundation in Salt Lake City

Bill Manning is the President of Real Salt Lake, and is one of the real rising stars in Major League Soccer.

Having been a standout as a player, and then in management in the NBA, NFL and now in MLS, he is setting a gold standard in how to run a professional sports franchise.

Soccer America caught up with him on an in-depth interview of how he laid the foundation to build the 2009 MLS Cup Champions.

SA: We won’t give you all of the credit but there have been noticeable gains on the business side as well as that first league title in 2009. What are the highlights in that department?

Since end of 2007, we’ve doubled our business, doubled our revenue. I think this year we’ll be cash-flow positive. Last year, was the first time in the history of our organization that we made budget, which was a banner day for our organization. Our season-ticket revenue has doubled, our annual sponsorship revenue has gone from $1 million to $6 million. It’s just a different organization.

Our paid attendance is up over 4,000 fans since end of 2007, with an average ticket price of $22. That’s significant. When we play a home game, it’s real money. We’re no longer a glorified minor-league operation. In 2007, we did about $400,000 in merchandise, last year we did over a million.

SA: Could this have been done without the stadium, which opened at the end of the 2008 season?

The stadium gave me and my staff the tool to build the revenue. Without that, if the team was still at Rice-Eccles, I still might be in Philadelphia selling tickets and sponsorships. This is what made the difference for us. It allowed us to build an intimate atmosphere for our fans and create a homefield advantage for our team and build the sponsorships. It just changed everything.

SA: How do you balance working on the business side with Checketts and his partner Dell Loy Hansen, and on the technical side with head coach Jason Kreis and general manager Garth Lagerwey?

I really grew our ticket sales force, and ownership supported me in that. We’ve been able to prove with the revenue growth that it more than offset the additional cost of hiring those salespeople. We’ve also increased our staff on the soccer side, and this year ownership agreed to pony up and made Alvaro Saborio a DP outside the salary cap, and that’s something we wouldn’t have been able to consider even in ’09. We’ve come a ways that we were able to do that.

It was also a message to our fans that we want to compete at the highest level every year. What if we lose Saborio and Robbie Findley in the same year, after we lost Yura Movsisyan the year before? [Saborio] was the guy we wanted to keep.

I have a core group of department heads and some senior staff. We’ve built a very good team from a front-office standpoint. We feel good about our future. We feel good about what we’ve done in the last few years, but like Dell Loy Hansen says, "You guys have done a great job, here’s your pat on the back. Once. Now let’s continue it."

SA: You were still in the NFL when Checketts promoted Kreis from assistant coach to head coach in May, 2007, with only a few games of formal experience. What was your reaction from afar?

I remember rolling my eyes and thinking, "What’s he doing?" I didn’t know Jason that well, I knew him as a player but didn’t know him as a person. Dave saw things in Jason that he knew would make him successful.

SA: Such as?

He’s an extremely hard worker and he’s well thought-out, but what I like is that he also has instincts. There are times when he’ll tell me and Garth, "Look, this is just my gut instinct on this." I think he’s an excellent young coach, an excellent coach, period.

When he believes in things, he really believes in them. He is willing to listen to reason and different points of view. He and Garth have different views at times, but one thing we’ve all agreed is that once the decision is made we all move in the same direction.

SA: How long did it take to get on the same page?

When I was about three or four months in the job, we had gone through four or five games without a win at Rice-Eccles and we hadn’t quite found our way yet. I said to him, "What do you think’s going on?" He said, "We’re losing results here and there but I still think we’re on the right course." And I said, "Well, that’s the point, I don’t want you to abandon what you’re doing. I want you to stick to your plan, to stick to your guns. We support you, so don’t go second-guessing yourself."

There was a little bit of tension in the room. I remember feeling it when I came in, and when I said what I said, I could feel this rush of relief, like he let out a big breath. "Thank you," he said. Then he just went with it: "I feel we have it here, we have the ingredients, we just need to continue with it." We did, and things turned around.

When I look at my own career that was one of the best things I ever did, rather than say, "Well, hey, here’s what I think you should do." That would not have been a good conversation.

I look back and I think, "Man, that could have gone one of two ways." My instinct was that he had a plan and I’m glad I did. That wasn’t the right time for the Manning Plan, and the Manning Plan right now is to stick to the Kreis Plan.

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