By Frank Pingue
(Reuters) - Mark Abbott may not be able to recall exactly what he envisioned for Major League Soccer when he became the organization's first employee in 1993 but he feels certain the league has exceeded his expectations.
Abbott was the architect of MLS's business plan, tasked with trying to carve out a place for soccer in the competitive North American sporting landscape, and his vision is a big reason why the league will launch its 25th season on Saturday.
"At that time there was skepticism about whether the U.S. and ultimately Canada would support a professional (soccer) league," Abbott, who was MLS's first employee when he was hired three years before the inaugural season, told Reuters in a telephone interview.
"Clearly we had a lot of optimism that it would work but there were a lot of people that needed to be convinced."
Abbott's plan for MLS was approved by FIFA as a legacy of the 1994 World Cup in the United States. He also played a key role creating the league's structure and negotiating with the initial investor-operator group.
Before MLS launched in 1996, there was a tireless effort to recruit not only an ownership group committed to investing in the league, but also broadcast and commercial partners as well as players who would give the league a shot.
"There were a lot of pieces that needed to come into place and at times that looked daunting," said Abbott, who in 2013 was named MLS president and deputy commissioner.
"But it was very clear to all of us that were involved in the startup that there was such a tremendous opportunity here that if we were able to assemble the right mix of all those different elements we ultimately would be successful."
MLS expansion has seen the league grow in ways few could have imagined considering it began with 10 teams in 1996 and at one point faced concerns about its viability as a number of franchises went out of business.
There are now 26 MLS clubs and four more will be in place by the time the 2022 season rolls around. While it may be high times for MLS, Abbott can recall the tougher times long before David Beckham's arrival in 2007 gave MLS an instant boost.
The former England captain, one of the most marketable athletes on the planet, drove media and fan interest to new levels and opened the door to a number of big-name players to follow in his footsteps, including Thierry Henry, Steven Gerrard and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
"It's not always been a smooth road," said Abbott. "After the euphoria of the initial startup it was clear that we needed to analyze our business and our business strategy.
Abbott said part of the problem was that in the early years MLS had been too focused on the playing side of the business and as a result the commercial side was lacking.
This led to the formation of Soccer United Marketing (SUM), the commercial arm of MLS whose owners are the league's club owners. The company's focus is to raise the commercial value of soccer in North America and grow the fan base for the sport.
So when no U.S. broadcaster was prepared to bid for the English-language rights for the 2002 and 2006 World Cups -- something MLS owners felt would have set the sport back for a generation in the U.S. -- SUM struck a deal with FIFA for the U.S. rights to both tournaments then negotiated an agreement with ABC and ESPN to broadcast the games.
Abbott said that era of deciding what MLS's new strategy was going to be was quite probably the most pivotal time in terms of laying the foundation for all of the growth the league has seen since.
"We had obviously tremendous optimism that the league would be successful," said Abbott.
"But it's achieved a level of relevance in the U.S. and Canada and the status as a major league both here and throughout the world that did exceed the expectations we had then."
Last November business magazine Forbes said the average MLS team is worth $313 million, up 30% from the previous year. The year-over-year growth outpaced the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL.
While MLS silenced early critics who felt there would not be room for a professional soccer league in North America, Abbott said there is plenty of work still to be done and the league is anything but complacent.
"In 25 years we are going to be even more established and more part of the sports marketplace than we are today," said Abbott.
"We have such pride in what we've achieved to date but we also recognize and have such optimism about the growth opportunities that we have in the future."
(Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto, editing by Ed Osmond)