ST. PAUL -- Minnesota United principal owner Bill McGuire was answering questions about the financial makeup of his soccer franchise and the economic differences of MLS to other pro sports when he paused.
McGuire took out his phone to show a video Loons supporter Nate Arch posted on social media of his 9-year-old daughter Phalen riding her bicycle home from Allianz Field. Wearing a pink bike helmet, she was softly singing Oasis’ “Wonderwall,” the club’s anthem played after every home win. Meeting the tradition, she sings the song every ride back to their home in the Frogtown neighborhood of St. Paul.
“How does it get better than that?” McGuire asked.
United has enjoyed a strong third season in MLS. They are winning on the field, in the thick of the Western Conference playoff race, and on Tuesday will play for the U.S. Open Cup title against Atlanta United. They’ve sold out all 14 home games at their new St. Paul stadium and have spent millions to bring in new players, most notably 19-year-old Uruguayan playmaker Thomas Chacon.
McGuire sat down with the Pioneer Press this week for an extensive interview. He shared how the sporting operations have improved, gave a glimpse of the team’s finances and the importance of its fans and updated development plans for the superblock around the new Midway stadium.
You’re in a playoff race and playing in a final on Tuesday; is this where you hoped to be?
We could have hoped to have been in it; I don’t think anybody expected to be in it. We knew we had a few good pieces, we brought in some good additions, guys were playing together more. That is obviously a big thing when you’re playing as time goes on. I think it’s gratifying. People have worked hard and have done a pretty good job.
I doubt anybody would have ever thought we would be playing for the final and be in second place, regardless of how tight the West is. I don’t think anybody would have thought that.
What new players do you see as the defining reasons you’re in this spot?
I could try to pick them off but that would short change the complexity of the sport. … The biggest ones obviously, our midfield and backline are much better. We are much tighter. We are not as prone to making mistakes. I think the addition of leadership in terms of age and experienced leadership helps in those. I think when you add Ike (Opara) and Ozzie (Alonso) backline and in front, those are two people that have been there and done that and you can’t get away from the value.
In 2017, you had no high-priced designated players. Now, the fourth one (Chacon) just flew in. How would you describe roster building at the top end?
We didn’t do a good job our first year; there is no way around that. … We had not developed internally the technical skills that I think we have now to go look for players and assess one player versus another, and we have been out spending more time visiting and seeing players in person, which makes a difference because there you get to see things about how they train and other things. I think it has been progressive.
What does bringing in Thomas say?
It’s different because it’s building. We brought in a number of experienced players that were ready to play when they got here. They also had to acclimatize and stuff, but they had their experience. Bringing in a 28-year-old, a 30-year-old, that is different than a young kid.
What we are trying to do is hopefully balance and have a cadre of experienced players who bring the things that experienced players do along with skills, along with helping the younger players through all of what it takes.
How would you describe the budgets of MLS teams to other leagues and the low amount coming from media rights and the importance of other buckets of revenue?
It’s always fascinating to know and watch many of the pundits, usually few in number and loud in mouth, talk about ‘Well, it’s not the premier league.’ Well, c’mon folks, of course it’s not. Basketball in Greece is not the NBA. We are going to have more input from media rights and additional increases in sponsorship and fan support and those things to bring it up to the level where you can spend significantly more money the way people want.
I think there is going to be more and more spending, but when you don’t have a lot of TV stuff or media, and your tickets are modestly priced and you only have 17, 18 home games a year, you know, where is that money going to come from? I think people need to be a little bit more sanguine and patient about some of this instead of just complaining, ‘Why isn’t somebody bringing (Leo) Messi over?’
For instance, NHL has 41 home games so, literally, 2½ times as many. Their ticket prices are much higher than MLS teams and (teams) been around a lot longer and (there is) more TV (revenue). So, it’s less but catching up.
I know it’s important to you to break even this year. How realistic is that?
I think it’s important that we be financially prudent in developing this. There has been a tremendous amount of capital put into the team (including $250 million for Allianz Field and a $100 million franchise fee to MLS) and you can’t expect people have unlimited capacity to fund that. We have to run it responsibly. … It is important (to break even), but just like anything else it is important to be disciplined, like all of us in life have to be responsible on a lot of fronts, and financially is one of them.
When Forbes says Minnesota United’s operating income was minus-$6 million in 2017, is that accurate?
To my knowledge, nobody knows how Forbes comes up with any of their stuff, ranging from valuations to what teams are making and not. (Forbes estimates United’s value at $248 million, 12th among 23 MLS teams.)
It doesn’t take one too long to sit and say if I have 18 home games a year, and my average ticket prices are this and even if I sold every ticket that gives me this much revenue and I have to run a business and have payroll and open a stadium — every time you open your stadium, it’s $100,000 or more — if you do it, it’s pretty easy to see that it’s an uphill climb to make money. Which isn’t to say you can’t; it’s not worth getting into a debate with people. What’s important is we run our organization in a way that secures sustainability for the future for all of the fans.
Every game, another fan that I’ve never seen before walks up and says, ‘Thank you for bringing soccer, thank you for keeping soccer, thank you. I never thought 30 years ago I would see this.’ They are telling you something at the same time: They are appreciative, but they are also reminding you that these things can be fleeting. You know back in the ’70s when people looked around and saw 40,000 people at the Met Stadium (for the Minnesota Kicks), who would have thought that would go away in a couple of years?
That is really the important thing. Obviously, the money is one of the parameters and how much you spend and that kind of stuff that drives things, but the biggest thing is having the discipline to balance and be smart about how you invest, and how to adjust when you see things you don’t need. … So, unlike a government that may go and spend it anyway because they’ve got it, you want to say no and redirect that over into something else. That is just where you want to be.
With MLS’ collective bargaining contract set to expire in January, what’s important to you in the upcoming negotiations?
I think we have to have a good, fair balance between compensation for players measured both with the short term and the long term and what the league needs in terms of having something that allows you to produce a (sustainable) product. … I think the big thing in the CBA is just fair balance and a long-term view.
The Athletic had a piece that said some general managers would like to see the salary budget possibly triple (from $4.2 million in 2019).
That would be a disaster. What GM said that? No GM said that unless it was one of the guys that — I mean the problem is a lot of these things, it doesn’t matter what budgets and stuff are if you can’t pay it. You may want a 10,000-square-foot house, but if you can’t buy it, you can’t buy it. … I would say it needs to be a very prudent, fair and balanced thing that recognizes the stage of the league, the investments that are being made on both sides from players as well as owners and the fans. And we have to keep the fans, as well. We’ve got owners, you’ve got fans, you’ve got sponsors and supporters and you’ve got players. All of those have to mesh.
Where do things stand now with development surrounding the stadium?
Rick Birdoff, who owns the property, and me — I’m sticking my head into it almost full-time now — we have (architect) Populus helping out with some of the layout and stuff because I felt like we need and want it to be something special. Simply replicating what is being done around the urban core of the two cities is not necessarily an appropriate approach, in my mind; just throwing up some buildings for apartments because you can throw it up and they pencil out. It needs to be more influenced by this urban village concept. Instead of having it where University (Avenue) is now where everything fronts and faces onto University, we actually want a little more of things facing inward, almost like you have this plaza and space and things are around it. Then you have shops on streets’ interiors and not just on the thoroughfare and looking out. … I think by this time next year, there will be some construction going on.
Will construction happen along Snelling Avenue first, the west side?
Probably, but again there are issues. The site has issues just as we confronted with the stadium, and you have to look at water tables and what can you do and how far down can you go and that kind of stuff. I think the bias is (to) get a couple of things started on the west side and maybe something immediate on the east side of the great lawn, maybe the plaza to the north. Still a few things to work out there. I think it’s going to be very nice. … Hopefully, people will look at what we did with the stadium and say, ‘Hey, if these guys continue their thinking and what they did and how they approached it and think about all the different elements, we are going to be really well off as a neighborhood.’