sports

Q&A with Michael Winograd, U.S. Soccer Federation presidential election candidate

Jonathan Tannenwald, STAFF WRITER

Updated: Tuesday, November 7, 2017, 12:11 PM

New York-based attorney Michael Winograd is a candidate for president of the U.S. Soccer Federation.

There are now seven candidates running in the U.S. Soccer Federation presidential election.

On Monday, former MLS and U.S. national team player Kyle Martino joined the field. To run, he has taken a leave of absence from his work as a studio analyst on NBC’s English Premier League coverage.

Martino is one of three former national team players in the field. The others are Eric Wynalda, who stepped aside from his TV work at Fox to pursue his candidacy; and Paul Caligiuri, who entered the field last Friday.

They join U.S. Soccer Federation vice president Carlos Cordeiro, New York-based lawyer Michael Winograd, and two men based in Massachusetts: lawyer Steve Gans and soccer administrator Paul Lapointe.

The election will be held in February at U.S. Soccer’s annual general meeting in Orlando.

To be officially on the ballot, a candidate must get three formal nominations from entities in the electorate. That pool includes state youth and adult soccer associations, the professional and amateur domestic leagues as entities, members of U.S. Soccer’s Athletes Council, and other individuals and entities.

Click here for a good explanation of how the voting will work, written by Anthony DiCicco.

The deadline for nominations is in early December.

The winner will be whoever gets a true majority, 50 percent of the vote plus one, in however many rounds of voting it takes to get there.

So if, for example, the vote is split many ways and no one withdraws through the first few rounds, the process could take a while.

Cordeiro spoke with the Inquirer and Daily News last week. You can read the interview here.

This past Friday, Winograd spoke with the Inquirer and Daily News. He has some ties to the greater Philadelphia region, having attended Lafayette as an undergrad, then Penn’s law school. He lives in northern New Jersey and works for the mega-firm Ropes & Gray.

Here is a transcript of the conversation, edited lightly for clarity.

A lot of people don’t know your soccer background. Tell your story.

I grew up playing youth soccer on Long Island, Rockville Centre and then Oceanside. I played in the ODP program. Played collegiately in Division I at Lafayette. I was a four-year starter there.

After that, I had a chance to go to Israel. I was playing in a game my senior year, and a former coach of mine from ODP who is very connected and a big player over in Israel said, “Hey, I think you can play professionally in Israel. Would you want to?” I said, “Great.” Went over there and signed a contract over in Israel. Stayed there for three years.

I came back to the States and was asked by my head coach my senior year at Lafayette — he had just taken the job at the University of Richmond, [which] was hosting the men’s Final Four that year. It turned out to be the most well-attended Final Four in NCAA history in men’s soccer. Nike had just come in and sponsored them. So it was an exciting time.

I did that for a year and signed a contract with the Rochester Rhinos in the A-League, which was then becoming the second division of soccer. Before the league started, the coach said, “Hey, you should play in the winter at the Buffalo Blizzard.” So I went over there and did that, and very early on blew out my knee. So that was that.

Then I decided to go to law school. By the time I applied to law school, I had quite a bit of time — a year and a half. I took the LSATs in February, so I couldn’t apply for entrance until the September after that. A friend of mine was the general manager of the New York Fever, which was an A-League team. Then the owner asked my friend Tom Neale and I to take the New York Fever franchise and move it, and start up a franchise on Staten Island [that became the Staten Island Vipers].

Tom Neale is a very good friend of mine, my college roommate, still a really good friend.

The two of us did that. I was in charge of soccer. My friend was in charge of getting the stadium and the business side. About halfway through, my friend left for San Jose, where he became, ultimately, the general manager of the Earthquakes the year they won the championship [in 2001].

When I left Staten Island, it was in good shape. I had hired a coach, signed the first player, put in all the processes, established grassroots connections with the youth community, picked a few names, put it out for a vote that involved the Staten Island community. Came up with the Staten Island Vipers. Helped design the logo. The team was all set, and I left, and after I left they started their inaugural season and made it to the playoffs, the quarterfinals.

I went to law school at the University of Pennsylvania, graduated in 2000, and have been practicing at the absolute top law firms in the world ever since. Sullivan & Cromwell; Wachtell, Lipton; now Ropes & Gray. I was flattered by the endorsement Ropes & Gray gave me [for the election]. They said some very kind things [about] strategic initiatives, dealing with people, intelligence and hard work — exactly the skill set you need to do this job.

I had my first child with my wife in 2004, my second in 2006. Both played soccer. I coached them both for several years in youth soccer, recreational when they were at that age and then when they made the town travel team. My son now plays in the Development Academy, for Cedar Stars Bergen [of Carlstadt, Bergen County, N.J., which is right next to the Meadowlands]. My daughter also plays for Cedar Stars, but on the developmental team — she hasn’t made it to the Academy yet, and she’s too young in any event.

The presidency of the U.S. Soccer Federation is an unpaid position. What would you do to earn a salary while in the role?

The position is unpaid, and I would say this. Number one, it will stay unpaid while I’m in the office. I have no intention of proposing a change to a bylaw to give me a salary. But I think after my tenure, I would absolutely consider making it a paid position.

This is now a corporation. Soccer has grown. I’m not one of those people who think the sky is falling and we need to burn everything down and build it up again. Soccer has made tremendous strides since when I was young, and the business of soccer has grown tremendously. In large part thanks to MLS, and economics, and other things. But it has grown a lot.

To run the U.S. Soccer Federation now, we need to be able to attract qualified individuals suitable for the job. And right now, it’s people who can afford to do it. It shouldn’t be. It should be people who are qualified, ambitious and get paid what they deserve to do something commensurate with the job that it now is. So I would absolutely look at changing that. I just wouldn’t do it while I’m in office.

It sounds like you may have just term-limited yourself.

I have not term-limited myself.

All right. Would you want the job for four years, would you want it for eight years, or what amount of time?

You know, I don’t think that way. I think about things one step at a time. I would want to get in there, sit down, form committees that are inclusive with the right people, start looking at all the problems that we all know exist in U.S. Soccer, and start figuring out ways to fix them.

I’ve usually found that when you put your head down and you go step-by-step, you have a vision and where you need to get to in the end, but you climb that mountain one step at a time, then you lift up your head occasionally and see where you are, and you keep going forward. I think at the end of four years, I’d evaluate where we are, how far we’ve come, and whether I want to run for another four years, and make the decision at that point.

It is Nov. 3 as we are speaking. Do you have any official nominations for the election ballot yet?

I have not gotten anything concrete. I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback after initial calls, and second calls, and meetings. I’m going down that route, and I’m pretty confident that I’m going to have several pretty soon. Nothing concrete, but I think it’s looking promising.

Any willingness to comment on what those entities are?

No. But I will say this: They are diverse, and come from different areas of the U.S. soccer landscape, and they will reflect my ability. When I have sat at a table with parties with emotionally adverse to one another, whose interests are adverse to one another, and are amid litigation, I’ve figured out ways to get them past that, to talk about how to move forward.

I think the diversity of the people who are supporting me is going to show that’s what I’m going to do as U.S. Soccer Federation president. I’m going to be able to reach to the different parties, whether they are overlapping or not, and get everybody rowing in the same direction and working for the betterment of U.S. soccer, without losing sight of the fact that private businesses have their own interests, and you need to respect that.

You said you know Tom Neale. Whom else in the game do you know with names that would be recognizable?

I have several close friends that are pretty senior in MLS. I have a good friend who is a current general manager in MLS. I have friends who are NCAA coaches. I have very good friends in Division 1, Division 2, even Division 3. I have friends who are extremely involved in the U.S. Soccer Foundation and charitable organizations like that. I support the U.S. Soccer Foundation. I’ve come to know them through my support. And I have a lot of contacts at state associations at various levels.

Who is that current MLS GM?

I’d rather not give any names, just out of respect. But these are relationships that go back quite a while. I’ve played and coached and managed a lot, so I have good friends across the landscape. I’ve got good friends coaching youth soccer. I’ve got good friends who are academy directors. I have friends who are owners of clubs at the youth level. I have got friends who are in the state associations. And I’ve got very good friends who are very good friends with all of those types of people as well.

A few questions on specific subjects. First, with regards to the women’s national team, which is the most successful program that the U.S. Soccer Federation runs right now. Where do you want to take the program so that it continues to be as successful? What sorts of concrete things do you hope to achieve?

There are two things. First of all, and whether or not this has any bearing on their success is irrelevant to me: We need equality for the women’s programs. Full stop.

Define what “equality” is to you.

Equality in all respects. If men are not playing on sub-standard fields, then women will not play on sub-standard fields either, and I don’t think either should be playing on sub-standard fields.

If men are getting a certain per diem, women are going to get the same thing. If the men’s team is traveling first class to games, the women are going to fly first class to games as well. And in pay as well. If the women’s team or players decide that they want the same structure as men, they are going to get equal pay.

If the women decide they want a different structure that they would prefer, they will get equivalent pay. But one way or another, we’re going to have equity in terms what is afforded to the men’s and women’s programs. There is absolutely no justification for it to be any other way, and frankly I’m surprised that it still is in 2017.

If you look at the mission of the U.S. Soccer Federation and the spirit of it, there’s no rationale for it. And if you look at the only argument that I’ve ever heard for it — which is, “Well, the men’s side makes more revenue” — that, again, misses the mission and spirit of the U.S. Soccer Federation. I think it’s factually misleading, particularly in a cycle like this where the women have made the World Cup and the men haven’t.

And if you actually look at the financials last year for U.S. Soccer, they spent $80 million on its national teams. The amount of money that it would take to create the equality that should have been there a long time ago, you’re talking about a single-digit fraction percentage of the total spend in the first place. This just shouldn’t be an issue.

The second point in making the women better is youth development. The women have done well. I want to make sure that they continue to do well, and I have fears that player development on the women’s side — and the men’s side — needs to get better.

When you asked me why I’m running: I don’t look at it as, “Oh my God, we didn’t make the World Cup, the sky is falling because we lost to Trinidad & Tobago.” I’m disappointed like everyone else is, but I look at how we got here. This is a problem that has developed over several years, and it starts with youth development. That’s where we really need to continue to focus, to make sure the women continue to be the best in the world and the men get there.

A follow-up question about the women’s national team’s collective bargaining agreement. According to Sports Illustrated, the deal that was signed this year gave the players “a significant increase in direct compensation and bonus compensation; enhanced ‘lifestyle’ benefits for the players with respect to travel and hotels; per diems that are equal to those of the men’s team; and greater financial support for players who are pregnant and players adopting a child.”

The women’s national team’s players association also gained greater control over players’ image rights for sponsorship and marketing deals.

One of the highest-profile candidates in this presidential election, Eric Wynalda, has said he wants to tear up their collective bargaining agreement and start it over. Do you agree with that? What do you make of the deal that the women’s players signed this year?

The deal that they signed was absolutely a step in the right directions. They compromised in it. This is not, for me, an issue of compromise. This is an issue where the U.S. Soccer Federation is able to negotiate what it would like to spend on players. When that ultimate negotiation is resolved, there will be parity. There will be equality amongst men and women.

So to say I’m going to walk in and rip up a contract, or how I’m going to go about doing it, the process is not necessarily the point. But on day one, whether it’s ripping up a contract or not, on day one I’m going to assess every single aspect and every single aspect of the men’s and women’s programs, and make sure that there is absolute equality.

What should the relationship be between the federation and the professional leagues? And would you answer that question in three parts: MLS, the NWSL — which the Federation subsidizes — and the lower leagues?

The relationship should be really simple. The professional leagues are private, independent businesses. That autonomy needs to be respected. The U.S. Soccer Federation is not in a position to jam anything down anybody’s throats, or dictate anything.

However, what U.S. Soccer needs to do is collaborate more than it has. And it has collaborated with MLS to some extent. But I think the collaboration needs to be more. I’m a big fan of, and a big believer that, a rising tide lifts all boats. What’s good for MLS, what’s good for the lower divisions, is good for the U.S. Soccer Federation. And what’s good for the U.S. Soccer Federation is good for those leagues. The better those leagues are, the better the U.S. Soccer Federation will be, and vice versa.

So we need to work with them to figure out plans. You broke it down into three groups. If you start with MLS: Can U.S. Soccer make MLS a billion-dollar-a-year company? Can we work with them and put our heads together, get in a conference room. The business folks running MLS are tremendously successful individuals. Can we get into a conference room and figure out ways to increase revenue?

One of the things that happens is, the U.S. Soccer Federation says it needs this sponsorship and is not going to give it to MLS. But I think that’s short-sighted. Are there instances where MLS and U.S. Soccer can work together in joint ventures, or joint sponsorships, where despite whichever channel the revenue flows to initially, it will build up one of the entities to the benefit of both.

In that context, what is Soccer United Marketing? It has built a corporate relationship between the Federation and MLS, and that relationship has been criticized for being nebulous and developed in a closed room.

People have criticized SUM by arguing that there is too much of an overlap and too much of a conflict of interest. I don’t think that’s necessarily true. I think that SUM is a step in the right direction. But I think ultimately, the U.S. Soccer Federation can do more with MLS. And not just MLS. The criticism of SUM is you can’t favor MLS to the exclusion of other divisions. The U.S. Soccer Federation has got to keep in mind that its constituency is broad, and not just one constituent.

Sitting down with MLS and figuring out ways to increase revenue is critical, because it’s going to help both organizations. When you look at the lower divisions, the very first step is building their profitability. Let’s focus on doing what we can to get lower divisions into more markets, and getting the stability and the strength and the profitability of those lower divisions to grow — and hopefully close the gap with MLS.

With regards to the men’s lower leagues, and your remark about not wanting to favor one pro league over another, you can probably figure out what the next question is. A lot of people out there want to see promotion and relegation. Are you one of them? And how would you make it happen?

I would love to see promotion and relegation. I don’t think at this point it’s practical, given the $150 million franchise fee that’s in MLS. In order to work towards promotion and relegation, I think we need to start building the lower divisions. Can we make them more profitable, can we grow them to the point where it becomes more practical to have promotion and relegation?

That said, one of the things that I’ve talked about is: Can we sit down with MLS and say, “Listen, we can’t dictate these types of things. We’re not going to jam something down the throat of a business that has done quite well, and has done quite well for soccer. But is there a way to give fans, to give lower teams, something that will benefit MLS?”

One of the things that I’ve talked about — and again, this is just an interim-type measure to explore while we build the strength and profitability of the lower divisions — is, can we do pro/rel through “guest spots”? Where we say all of the MLS teams can’t be relegated, but we will create two guest spots for promotion from the lower divisions. The lower division champions come up.

If they finish above a certain threshold — call it above the bottom three — they stay in the division next year and that spot doesn’t open for promotion. If they finish in the bottom three, they get relegated and a new team gets the opportunity to be promoted.

That at least is something that we could explore with the parties while we build the profitability and strength of the lower divisions. And could, at the same time, generate a strong, positive benefit for all the parties involved. Those types of things are fun to think about, and I would sit in a room and talk about it and figure out what’s practical or not. But the first step really needs to be that we’ve got to build the strength and profitability of those lower divisions.

How much of a factor in whatever plans you might make is the single-entity structure of MLS? It’s not so easy to move a franchise in and/or move a franchise out.

In my mind, the single-entity structure is not so much the barrier. I don’t know that it’s any different in any other sport in the U.S., where there is not a single-entity structure. If you think about baseball or football, they are not single-entity structures in the sense that MLS, but they are still franchise structures. So if you want to move away from that franchise-type structure, that’s just something that I think is beyond the scope.

Look, the U.S. Soccer Federation can get involved with MLS and present its views and talk about its interests. But to dictate, or to try to dictate, the structure of a league that’s a private entity — I don’t think that’s something the U.S. Soccer Federation can do.

You mentioned MLS’ franchise fees earlier, of around $150 million. And the fees are going up. A lot of people think the fees are too high. Do you think that? Or do you think it’s fair market value?

This is supply and demand. With a franchise right, fair market value is what people will pay. If people are paying $200 million for a franchise right, I don’t see how anybody would argue that economically it’s too high.

When it comes to the NWSL, the salaries are subsidized by the Federation. The Federation has also has some levers of authority over the league in ways that extend beyond simply sanctioning the league, when it comes to administration. What would you want the relationship between the Federation and the NWSL to be, and how would you help build the NWSL’s finances so that some day it might be able to stand on its own to feet?

I think that is, again, sitting down with the interested parties. Sitting down with businesses. My law firm is probably the leading law firm in the private equity space. It would be sitting down with the big private equity type firms and those types of people, in addition to all of the people interested in the league, and figuring out: where can we get investments and what is the best course forward?

I will sit down and just as much attention as I will spend on helping to make sure we are working with MLS to help each other grow, I’m going to do the same thing with the NWSL. They are in a different situation. They need to catch up a little bit in terms of financial strength and stability, and we’re going to figure out how to do that.

There is no magic talisman to get it done. But when you put enough people in a room who think through the issues and hear where strategically we can take this, we’re going to explore everything to the hilt. Because we want to see the NWSL profitable and strong.

This may or may not be the Federation president’s job, but given your experience with private equity, how do you get corporate America to invest more in women’s soccer? There is clearly a demand out there in some form for something. Not everyone has figured it out yet, but what do you think?

I think that it is working with the business folks to figure out what that is. It is sitting down with people who do this for a living — many of whom are clients that I advise — and saying exactly that. Soccer is a massive sport in the United States. Half of the youth players are women, and our women’s team is the best in the world. What can we do? What has MLS done well? What can the NWSL do better? And let’s figure out a business plan for strengthening the league and bringing more profitability.

Jonathan Tannenwald, STAFF WRITER

Read full story: Q&A with Michael Winograd, U.S. Soccer Federation presidential election candidate

More Coverage:

Get the latest Union news with the FREE Philly Sports Now app for iPhone and Android

More soccer coverage

SHOP: MLS, EPL & Int'l soccer gear