Organizers hope Cup slakes fans' thirst

April 19, 1992|By Robert Markus | Robert Markus,Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO -- The fragile flower that is soccer in the United States is putting down roots in a pair of queenly mansions in the historic district just south of Chicago's Loop.

Here, at 1801-11 South Prairie Ave., turn-of-the-century home to some of Chicago's most prominent families, the United States Soccer Federation is establishing its headquarters.

There are 35 employees at work administering every aspect of the sport, from training and registering officials to organizing national teams on seven different levels. Soon the number of employees will swell to 50.

"We are here to stay," said Hank Steinbrecher, executive director of soccer's ruling body, whose mandate is to turn the world's most popular sport into the fourth-most popular spectator sport in the United States, and the most popular participant sport.

Steinbrecher sees the 1994 World Cup as the vehicle to carry that dream to fruition. Others have nurtured that dream and have been jolted back to reality. But the hiring of Steinbrecher, a former college soccer coach with a strong sports marketing background, may have provided the jolt needed to jump-start the sport in the United States.

"The strength I bring," said Steinbrecher, who has been on the job for 16 months, "is that we need to treat soccer like a business, a business not unlike Gatorade."

It was with Gatorade that Steinbrecher learned the sports marketing skills that the soccer community is counting on. Before joining the firm in 1985, he had been head soccer coach at Boston University and a volunteer venue director for soccer in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

"There's a lot of marketing inherent in coaching a minor sport at a top 10 or 20 school," Steinbrecher said, "but I never went to school for it. I learned a tremendous amount with Gatorade. At Gatorade we were fighting some very, very big boys -- Coca-Cola and Pepsi -- and we were successful at creating a niche for ourselves within that industry.

"Soccer, too, is competing in a very competitive industry, but we've never seen ourselves as a business. We're competing with the NFLs, NBAs, and NASCARs of the world and attempting to create a niche for ourselves in the sports industry. I bring a working knowledge of that industry."

He also brings the passion of your everyday soccer enthusiast, which explains, he said, why he left a job he loved, one that provided him security, to answer soccer's call.

"I was very content at Gatorade," he said. "It gave me financial stability, a comfortable life and an exciting job. I was able to go to every major sports event there was."

But at the Olympics, he had worked for Alan Rothenberg, who after being elected president of the U.S. Soccer Federation asked Steinbrecher to come aboard.

Although Steinbrecher can cite a survey that shows that 87 percent of corporate headquarters change to the location of their CEO, he said that is not the only reason that the federation moved last December from Colorado Springs to Chicago.

"We put it to a bid," he said. "We contacted 27 communities, and four were very attractive to us. Atlanta, Dallas, Kansas City [Mo.] and Chicago all had the primary requirements: being media, transportation and corporate hubs. The bottom line is that Chicago was the most attractive to us."

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