Alan I. Rothenberg
Title: Attorney, Latham & Watkins; Outgoing president, U.S. Soccer Federation
Born: Detroit, 1939
Education: B.A. in history; J.D., University of Michigan
Most Admired People: John F. Kennedy, Jack Kent Cooke
Career Turning Points: Succeeding in law school, working with Jack Kent Cooke starting in 1967
Hobbies: Spending time with family, community activities, reading, learning to play golf
Personal: Married, three sons, one grandson
By DANIEL TAUB
If the spirit of soccer in the United States could be personified, you would have Alan I. Rothenberg.
He headed the effort to bring the 1994 World Cup tournament to the United States with the final game held in Los Angeles. He was soccer commissioner of the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee in 1984. And he was instrumental in forming Major League Soccer, the latest effort to make soccer a successful professional sport in the United States.
For the past eight years, he also served as president of the U.S. Soccer Federation, the lead organization for promoting soccer nationwide. His term in the position ends this month.
Rothenberg, an attorney with the downtown law firm of Latham & Watkins, has not limited his sports interest to soccer. He served as president of the Los Angeles Clippers, was a member of the National Basketball Association’s board, and recently did legal work on the Staples Center sports arena, which will house the Clippers and Lakers basketball teams and the L.A. Kings hockey team.
Rothenberg also is involved in the effort to bring a National Football League expansion team to the L.A. Memorial Coliseum. If that effort is successful, he would join Kings owners Edward P. Roski Jr. and Philip Anschutz in an ownership group.
It is clear, however, that Rothenberg’s primary focus is not football, but futbol as in soccer. The latest evidence of that focus is his investment late last month to become an owner-operator of a Major League Soccer team, the San Jose Clash.
Question: What’s your personal interest in soccer?
Answer: It strictly came from my legal practice. I was a lawyer for Jack Kent Cooke, and he was one of the people who started the old North American Soccer League. And I got thrown into it because there were a lot of legal problems in a new start-up business. In those days very few people understood the legal or business aspects of soccer, so I became an expert in a hurry. And that’s really where it started.
I never played it as a kid growing up; I never watched it as a kid growing up. And the only two times I have played it were just kind of as fun during the ’84 Olympics. Our L.A. organizing committee had a team that played recreationally. And when FIFA (Federation Internationale de Football Association, the governing body for soccer internationally) came to the country, they had a team. And so we played a couple games at the Rose Bowl, just for kicks. So I walked out and made a fool out of myself for those two days, and that’s my soccer career.
Q: What do you consider your major accomplishments?
A: We put on a spectacularly successful World Cup in 1994. We were able to start a world-class professional league, Major League Soccer, which is now well into its third year and doing quite well.
We moved the sport from being, on a federation level, a volunteer operation that was pretty unprofessional to being very professional. We went from small offices in Colorado Springs to a major converted mansion as its office in Chicago; from 15 or 16 employees to about 80 employees; from one full-time coach on the national scene to 17 full-time coaches; from a budget of less than $5 million to this last year’s budget of about $38 million; from being an organization that had a huge deficit to one that’s now got a $12 million surplus.
Q: Talk about the soccer team you just bought, the Clash. Who is the operating group, and how does it work?
A: Major League Soccer is a unique institution because it’s an LLC (limited liability corporation), and investors invest in the company and the company actually owns all the teams. Then if, as an investor, you want to enter into an operating agreement to operate a team, you enter into a contract with the league that spells out the terms and conditions.
I have been an investor in the league from its inception. Also Dentsu Inc., which is the Tokyo-based advertising agency, the largest in the world, has been an investor from the beginning. We (Rothenberg and Dentsu) are exchanging our non-operating units in Major League Soccer for the operating rights to San Jose, and also paying a cash sum to the league for the operating rights to San Jose. At the present time, we are the only investors. There will be others added, some in the immediate future, some in the not-too-distant future.
Q: What kind of investment is involved?
A: The valuation is $25 million.
Q: You’ve been involved with two previous soccer teams, both in L.A the Wolves and the Aztecs. Any regrets that your new team’s not an L.A. team?
A: I love L.A. But I think that the Bay Area is a spectacular opportunity for us. Right now probably the single most important thing for the continued growth and success of Major League Soccer is having medium-sized stadiums. It’s a real challenge to have the right kind of atmosphere in a huge stadium. And we’re fortunate in the Bay Area that the primary stadium for the Clash to play is Spartan Stadium at San Jose State, which holds about 27,000 people. So you get a great atmosphere, a great intimacy, and hopefully before long we can fill it up on a regular basis and then worry about expanding it.
The two primary demographic groups that have become our fan base are Hispanics, who really have a great passion for the sport, and middle-class Anglo suburbanites, many of whom have kids that play. And the Silicon Valley-area demographic is a perfect fit for that because San Jose proper, of course, has a significant Hispanic population, and Silicon Valley is well-populated with middle- and upper-middle-class suburbanites.
Q: Have you ever thought about joining an adult league? You’ve started playing golf.
A: Yeah, but it’s a little safer to take up golf at age 58 than it is to take up soccer at age 58, so I think I’ll stick with trying to learn golf.
Q: Whom do you play golf with?
A: Anybody who has the patience to play with me. Anyone who’s willing to watch someone try to break 110 and try unsuccessfully, I might add. I play with (my wife) more than anybody, because she’s probably one of the few people out there I can beat.
Q: What was it like to work with Donald Sterling, owner of the Clippers?
A: He’s a very unique individual, obviously. At the time we were somewhat under siege from the (National Basketball Association) because we had made the move from San Diego to L.A. without the NBA’s approval. It was certainly a difficult time to operate. On day-to-day operations, he was somewhat hands-off. But it was his team, and he was the owner of the team, and he was the client and I was his attorney. So nothing of consequence was done without his at least tacit approval.
Q: Now that you’re returning to Latham & Watkins full time, what will you be doing there?
A: It’ll be the same practice I’ve always had, which is litigation, sports and a lot of advising clients.
Q: Who are your clients?
A: I’m doing a lot of work right now in this whole New Coliseum venture. I did a lot of work with my partners Dave Rogers and George Mihlsten in getting the whole thing together for the Kings and the Staples Center, which was an enormous project. And some of the same principals that are involved there are involved in trying to get an NFL team to Los Angeles and get a new stadium built at the Coliseum site.
Q: You’ll have an ownership role in the NFL team, if it comes to the Coliseum. How much of a stake would you have?
A: Ed Roski and I have an understanding, but obviously until we know what the cost of the new team is, who the other investors are, what pieces they take, there’s no way to begin to put a percentage in there. But I’ll be a small owner in comparison to Ed and the others.