SportBusiness International

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Headliner | Meet the bridge builder

Headliner | Meet the bridge builder

By: Kevin Roberts

Posted:
9 Mar 2017
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  • George J. Mitchell is supporting plans to create an Americas Champions League
  • Competition to boost profile of South American and MLS clubs
  • Organisers have settled on 32-team format

Here’s a question for you: What’s the link between the Good Friday Agreement, which in 1998 brought an end to decades of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland; steroid abuse in Major League Baseball; and an Americas Champions League showcasing the best clubs in North, Central and South American soccer?

The answer is George J. Mitchell, an 83-year-old American politician, lawyer and peace-maker whose remarkable career in the US Senate – where he was Majority leader – was eclipsed in the eyes of the wider world by his work as President Bill Clinton’s Special Envoy to Northern Ireland. There his unflinching belief in the potential for peace enabled him to navigate a route through a swamp of ingrained mistrust and hatred to find firmer ground on which to build a future that had looked impossible in the terror-fuelled darkest days of what were euphemistically known as ‘The Troubles.’

His attitude to peace-building and conflict resolution is encapsulated in his own words.

“I believe there’s no such thing as a conflict that can’t be ended,” he says. “They’re created and sustained by human beings. They can be ended by human beings. No matter how ancient the conflict, no matter how hateful, no matter how hurtful, peace can prevail.”

Reputation

Mitchell went on to play a key role as President Barack Obama’s Peace Envoy in the Middle East, but it is the Good Friday Agreement on which his global reputation was built.

Mitchell’s affection for Northern Ireland and its people was forged in those days and reinforced during his time as Chancellor of Queen’s University Belfast, home to the George J. Mitchell Institute for Peace, Security and Justice.

It was also where he first came to understand soccer and the hold it has on society. There is, of course, an apparent irony here. In Ireland, as elsewhere, soccer has served throughout history to affirm and sometimes re-ignite sectarian differences. Not for nothing is Glasgow’s ‘Old Firm’ derby match between Protestant Rangers and Catholic Celtic consistently held up as the most intense and terrifying in world football, and those entrenched enmities are an echo of the Irish religious and political divisions.

It’s an irony Senator Mitchell is only too aware of, but he remains convinced that “sport and soccer specifically can help bring people together.” He adds: “Sure, there are examples of violence at sporting events, although luckily these seem to be largely in the past.

“In the United States, sport has been a huge factor in breaking down barriers. For example, Jackie Robinson became a role model in Major League Baseball and we have seen that across sports. It delivers a powerful message.”

Robinson was the first African American signed by a MLB team when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, breaking a colour barrier in the sport that had seen black players perform only in Negro Leagues.

Project

Mitchell’s affection for sports developed during his childhood in Waterville, Maine, where his three brothers were high school and college athletes.

“I wasn’t as good as my brothers,” he admits. “In fact, I wasn’t as good as anybody else’s brothers, but I was raised on traditional American sports – basketball in the winter and baseball in the summer.”

But while he admits that he follows the NFL and MLB more closely than other sports, he is now at the centre of a development that could further transform the future of a previously alien sport in his homeland: soccer.

He is currently working as an adviser to a group developing plans for a 32-team Americas Champions League, conceptually if not structurally modelled on the Uefa Champions League in Europe. The competition would bring together the best teams from Latin America, home to some of the most storied clubs in the world, and those from the sport’s new world – the United States and Canada.

It would, says Mitchell, be “a natural consequence of the growing popularity of the game in the United States in parallel with the growth of the Champions League in Europe.”

“The league would capitalise upon the growth of the sport in the United States which, in large part, comes from immigration from Latin America,” he says.

“The growth of the sport here has been remarkable and there is a truly great history of club football in Latin America. These were among a combination of factors which led us to pursue this.”

The commercial prospects for the Americas Champions League would be driven by harnessing a world-class football product to the might of the US consumer market.

The project is driven by sports business entrepreneur Riccardo Silva who identified what he sees as the need for a way to take the positive factors in soccer across both continents and create a package for the world – a competition that will generate attention and revenue that clubs need to fulfil their potential both on and off the field.

The plan is for the Americas Champions League to be contested by clubs from both the South American (Conmebol) and North American (Concacaf) Confederations, delivered to the exacting technical and commercial standards of the Uefa Champions League and offering major prize money.

In the same way that global coverage of the Uefa Champions League has been credited with fuelling the global brand development and value of its leading clubs, it is hoped that the Americas Champions League will reignite interest in historic South American clubs like Boca Juniors, Indepediente, Flamengo and Corinthians, as well as create a credible international platform for the leading Major League Soccer clubs.

PICTURE: Boca Juniors

Potential

The potential for soccer in North America was touched on recently in SportBusiness International by Phil Lines, the former head of media at the English Premier League, whose work did much to make it the most successful sports property in the world in terms of overseas media-rights revenue.

He believed that North America could have become the world’s most powerful league. He argued that the revenue potential of the domestic market could have led to the world’s leading players following the money to cities across the US and Canada.

Somewhere along the line reality fell out of step with aspiration and Major League Soccer – despite its meteoric rise – is left competing for fourth place among US pro leagues in terms of attendance. The expectation is that the Americas Champions league could help fix that by providing a significant boost to the profile of the sport and the revenues to be earned by competing clubs.

According to Mitchell, soccer in the US will continue to grow, even under a President anxious to control immigration from the countries whose cultures are fuelling its popularity.

“It’s not going to drop off,” he says. “The reality is that the Hispanic population in the US is growing quickly no matter what happens on a national level. There is a trend that has been established and will continue.

“There are many changes occurring at national and regional levels and the two federations (Concacaf and Conmebol) are adjusting their programmes accordingly. We are trying to accommodate those changes and are confident that the fundamental principle behind the Americas Champions League is very sound.

“When we started, it was a broader project, but we have settled on 32 teams and are now working to resolve how we fit it into the schedules with the various federations. We think that can be done in a way that moves us all in the right direction.”

 

The continued growth of the Fifa World Cup to embrace 48 teams is also likely to be a boom for soccer in the Americas, with smart money already on the US and Mexico to co-host the expanded tournament in either 2026 or 2030. While soccer is close to the heart of Mexican sporting culture, the arrival on US shores of the greatest competition in the sport could reasonably be expected to give it renewed impetus – like it did when the 1994 edition was staged in the country.

However, while Mitchell says that a World Cup would be no bad thing, his focus is on helping develop a competition that can transform club game across both continents.

Interest

“The fact is that a World Cup would kindle an interest, not only in the national teams, but in their clubs,” he says.

Brazil and Mexico, for example, have clubs with a great heritage, but no consistent exposure in the United States. The Champions League would create an environment in which rivalries would grow up between the clubs.

“Of course, the Uefa Champions league is the model and objective, but we know it will take time,” he adds. “This starts with a more modest effort, but it is one that will help grow the clubs. We have seen what it can do in Europe and it is always good to have a [successful] role model.

“Of course, there are many hurdles when you are dealing with long-established structures. People and institutions are concerned about their status and prospects.

“Scheduling is complex, but can be handled, and we think once people are exposed to the concept, we expect them to join us. We need to get the best representation of clubs and I expect lots of them to want to be part of it.

“I am personally confident that can happen, because it is beneficial to all those involved. I certainly see it as a tremendous enhancement of the North American sporting landscape and can imagine it attracting very large audiences,” he says.

PICTURE: Mitchell next to former MLB commissioner Bud Selig

Roots

While soccer may be a relatively new string to Mitchell’s bow, he has deep roots in US sports, not least as a former director of the Boston Red Sox baseball franchise. So how does he assess the reaction of longer-established American sports leagues and businesses to a potential competitor for eyeballs?

“I haven’t been in discussions with US sports leagues, but I know people personally and I can’t imagine that they are worried about the growth of soccer,” he says. “There is plenty of room for growth. In a couple of decades, we will have 100 million people in this country, so there is room for growth in all the sports that are played here.

“The US leagues may have concerns now, but they are unrelated to soccer. They are about what is happening to network television and the transition to and impact of hand-held devices. There are huge technical forces at work within our society and the leagues would be happy if they helped generate more interest in sport overall. After all, fans tend not to be exclusive to one sport.”

Mitchell’s links to baseball run deeper than his stint with the Red Sox. In 2006 the sport was agonising over the fallout of the Balco (Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative) investigation that linked San Francisco Giants superstar Barry Bonds to steroid use through his trainer, Greg Anderson, along with others.

The Balco affair reignited media and public focus on steroid use in the sport, fuelled by claims from former players that up to 80 per cent of MLB stars were ‘juiced.’ Baseball, which had been either in denial or genuinely unconcerned about doping issues, decided to act and MLB commissioner Bud Selig turned to Mitchell to lead a wide-ranging investigation.

The resulting 20-month investigation produced a 400-page report that named 89 players and concluded that although players must take responsibility for their actions it was a responsibility that had to be shared by the baseball community.

Mitchell’s findings and recommendations included setting up an independent testing system, as well as confirmation that steroid use was not only illegal, but ethically wrong. However, it was also suggested that pursuing every player who had ever doped would be fruitless, appearing to reflect the instinct for diplomacy and bridge-building that was to be the hallmark of his layer work in Northern Ireland. There was no attempt to negate or play-down the extent of the problem, but the conclusions and recommendations were future-focused rather than retrospective and centred on retribution.

The attitude displayed in writing that report is evident when he considers the wider issues around doping in sport today.

PICTURE: Barry Bonds

“The most important lesson is that cheating to gain an advantage is part of human nature and that has been true in sport since the dawn of civilisation and will be for the foreseeable future,” he says. “Every country has laws against murder, but nobody expects murder to come to an end – we understand that it is a sad and tragic part of human nature.

“We have to get past the idea that if we say this or do that it will all come to an end. The fact is that the incentives to cheat rise as levels of compensation rise and there are people who are always trying to develop new substances to stay ahead of the testers. This is continuous – there isn’t an end point.

“We have to do the best we can to manage the issue with education and have strong legislation. Wada (the World Anti-Doping Agency) needs increasing co-operation and there is a need to pool knowledge.”

He is certainly concerned that the example of superstars is not allowed to create a deep doping culture in sport.

“Youngsters look up to these stars,” he says. “That’s something that every society must be aware of and face up to.”

Curriculum Vitae:

Politician, statesman, chairman emeritus of global law firm DLA Piper and adviser to the Americas Champions League.
George J. Mitchell is one of the best-respected US politicians of recent times thanks largely to his crucial part in securing the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland and his role as US Special Envoy for Middle East Peace from January 2009 to May 2011.
He had a distinguished career in public service and was appointed to the United States Senate in 1980, leaving in 1995 as the Senate majority leader, a position he had held since January 1989.
The 83-year-old from Maine enjoyed bipartisan respect during his tenure and served on many key committees, being particularly active on environmental and social issues.
In 1995 he served as a special adviser to President Clinton on Ireland, and from 1996 to 2000 he served as the independent chairman of the Northern Ireland Peace Talks, resulting in an historic accord to end decades of conflict. He received numerous awards and honours, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
In 2006 and 2007 he led the investigation into the use of performance-enhancing drugs in Major League Baseball and served as chairman of the special commission investigating allegations of impropriety in the bidding process for the Olympic Games.
Mitchell has served as chairman of the board of directors of The Walt Disney Company, as a board member At the Boston Red Sox and as a director of several companies, including Federal Express, Xerox, Staples, Unilever and Starwood Hotels and Resorts.

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