On a shiveringly cool morning in who-knows-where-the-hell-we-are-Arizona, Jeff Mallett is standing, venti Starbucks cup in hand, quite literally on the edge of an oasis: an island of verdant green in a dusty plain broken up by the occasional hot-rod shop. Just down the highway, a seemingly abandoned subdivision, where signs promising 102% financing flap in the wind, is a reminder that bubbles burst.
The Starbucks cup, in this case, seems unnecessary-a sand-to-the-desert type of accessory, since Mallett appears to be naturally caffeinated. In his old job-transforming Yahoo from a Silicon Valley start-up into a global digital media brand with $15 billion (U.S.) in assets-they used to call him Sparky. And now, as he stands on the patch of bright green grass, the 46-year-old Victoria native is radiating excitement. "I've got goosebumps," he declares. "You try to be in business mode, but when the whistle blows, I'll be a fan again."
On the pitch, the Vancouver Whitecaps-of which Mallett is part owner-are warming up before a friendly matchup with Real Salt Lake. This is the team's first action as a Major League Soccer (MLS) expansion franchise. They'll spend nearly a month training down here before returning to Vancouver in time for their season opener on March 19 against Toronto FC, a game that will be broadcast nationally on TSN.
Mallett has driven an hour into the desert south of Phoenix to see his next big bet come to life: building Canadian soccer into a commercially viable business, and helping lift the fortunes of the men's national team along the way.
And yes, he says, rolling the coffee cup back and forth, he did notice that subdivision on the drive in, a dusty symbol of the perils of unfettered optimism. "That kind of sums up everything that went on out here in the last few years, doesn't it?"
Predictions about soccer's bright future in North America have been bubbling up each decade since the 1970s, as youth soccer grew and soccer moms became their own demographic. But there's some evidence that soccer's time has finally come. For one thing, the Whitecaps' owners plunked down a $35-million expansion fee for the right to operate an MLS franchise in Vancouver. These aren't just a bunch of rich guys chasing childhood dreams, either-they have pedigree. There's Mallett, who'll soon be getting a 2010 World Series ring back home in San Francisco, thanks to his stake in the Giants; Steve Nash, the Canadian NBA star; Steve Luczo, chairman and CEO of hard-drive maker Seagate Technology and a minority shareholder in the Boston Celtics; and reclusive B.C. financier Greg Kerfoot, who threw a lifeline to the Whitecaps when they appeared to be going under in 2002 (the club, then playing in a minor pro league, had a staff of three and worked out of Kerfoot's West Vancouver home; he's still majority owner). The quartet sometimes gets referred to as the Fab Four, and Mallett cheerfully describes himself as Ringo, keeping the beat.
The Whitecaps join Toronto FC as the second Canadian entry in the 18-team MLS (a third is coming on stream in 2012-the Montreal Impact, owned by Quebec dairy scion Joey Saputo). TFC, owned by Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, has yet to make the playoffs heading into its fifth season, but the club's off-field success-routine sellouts at soccer-specific BMO Field and a rabid fan culture that has lent the team an aura of European authenticity-has made it an MLS success story. MLSE paid a $10-million expansion fee in 2006; company insiders now peg the team's value at close to $100 million.
Mallett has seen those kinds of returns before. He made his reputation during the Internet boom as a rigorous operator who actually managed to eke a profit out of a dot-com venture; he's convinced that soccer has significant upside in North America, and he wants the Whitecaps to help drive it. "We want to compete on a global basis," he says. "Eventually we want to be considered one of the top football clubs in the world."
That seems like a tall order for a first-year club in a loop that's been dismissed as "B League." But Mallett has been through this before. "The day I walked into Yahoo, we had less than six weeks of cash left, no revenue, no business plan," he says. "The size of the online advertising market at the time was estimated to be about $40 million; it's $22 billion today. It was in a stage where the majority of people-smart people-would tell you the Internet was probably not a good investment. It's speculative. We're not sure the business model translates. Are major brands going to come over? I won't correlate MLS exactly to that, but it's not much farther off."
A lifetime ago-long before mallett made a fortune off the dot-com boom-he was a gritty, diminutive striker on the under-16 B.C. provincial team (at 5 foot 5, hockey and baseball judged him too small) who dreamed of a professional career in the beautiful game-maybe even at home in British Columbia.