SANDY He has lived from New York to Philadelphia, Tampa Bay to Houston. He has worked in the NFL and in the NBA. But Real Salt Lake President Bill Manning has come to Utah to return to his true love soccer.
"I am a soccer guy at heart," Manning said. "I grew up playing the sport. I played all through little league and on through college. I played on a semi-pro team that won the Open Cup. Soccer has always been my passion. I am happy to get the chance to do something that has always been a part of me at this level."
Manning was hired as RSL president in April of this year. His road to that role is long and winding.
Growing up in Massapequa, N.Y., (Long Island) he played soccer at the highest levels. He continued his career by playing college soccer and being named an All-American in 1986 at the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut where he earned both a B.S. and Master's degree. Manning continued his playing career and eventually won a U.S. Open Cup with the Brooklyn Italians, a semi-pro team in 1991.
"It was a pretty incredible experience," he said of winning a national title at that level. "I think I was the only white guy on the team. Back then, a lot of the best teams around the country were teams run by sports clubs in their cities. We had a guy from Brazil that played at the highest level there, and he was only like 31 years old. Another guy was from Club Deportivo, the same club that brought us Olave (Jamison), and he was like 30 or so, so these guys could still play."
Manning played professionally in the United Soccer Leagues (USL) with the Penn-Jersey Spirit (1991), Valley Golden Eagles (1993) and New York Fever (1994-95). He also started on his coaching certificates while playing and eventually earned his "A" level in March of 2001.
While Manning knew his playing abilities could take him only so far, he became interested in the business side of sports. He started in the front offices of some minor league soccer teams, eventually earning a great reputation for turning around the Minnesota Thunder a team that Real Salt Lake became all-too familiar with after losing to the Thunder in a U.S. Open Cup match in 2005 despite current coach Jason Kreis's hat trick in that game.
In 1999, Manning was named the General Manager of the Tampa Bay Mutiny of Major League Soccer. Unfortunately, the team couldn't make it financially and was contracted prior to the 2002 season.
"I reported to the league office and was on a set budget," Manning said. "We were playing in a football stadium, and it just wasn't working for whatever reasons. I don't think any team can survive in a football stadium. It was kind of like what was going on here until they got the stadium deal done. Eventually, the team was folded and all of us involved with it dispersed."
It turned out to be a blessing in disguise for Manning. He landed on his feet as he took a job with the Houston Rockets as their director of corporate sponsorships. It was just prior to the Rockets moving into a new arena. After having great success in generating new sponsorship money for Houston, he moved to the NFL, where he was vice president of sales and service for the Philadelphia Eagles.
During his tenure, the Eagles saw a 50 percent increase in corporate sponsorship from the 2004 to 2007 seasons, and in August 2007, Forbes magazine cited the Eagles as the fastest-growing brand in the NFL using a brand value formula that included sponsorships and ticket sales. In June 2006, Manning was selected to represent the Eagles at the prestigious NFL Program for Managers at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.
With a pedigree like that, it was easy to see why the brass at RSL wanted him.
"The organization really struggled the first few years for a number of reasons," owner Dave Checketts said. "We didn't know if we were going to be able to stay here. It was hard to recruit the type of talent that we needed to become a world-class organization until we were sure that we were building a stadium.
"Once the stadium got under way, I did a world-wide search, literally, for the right president," Checketts added. "We needed someone that first, had a passion for the sport, and then had a knowledge of the business. We had a list of about 40 and interviewed about 12. The first time I met him I thought, 'This is the guy for us.'
"He's a leader. He's been through the business side of it. He was with the Philadelphia Eagles when they opened the new stadium, so he knows exactly what needs to go on with that."
Besides having the know-how in building corporate sponsorships, Manning has also done a lot of public relations damage-control. It isn't any secret that the new stadium caused quite a stir in both the political and business communities. Even today, it is still a sensitive subject.
"The best thing he has done is he is building bridges for us in the community," Checketts said. "Just in getting the stadium done, we blew up a lot of bridges. We created a lot of turmoil. I call it ripped blankets, whatever you want to call it. We had relationships that needed to be rebuilt. He's brought a friendship perspective, and people have opened the door and been receptive to him."
Manning said it has not just been in his dealings with Real that people have responded. He admits that his wife, Jennifer, was not all that keen on moving to a state they knew very little about and wary of bringing along his two sons, 9-year-old John and 5-year-old Will.
"We really didn't know much about Utah," he said. "But now that we are getting settled, we like it. We just bought a new house and the people there have been great. Our boys are playing sports and going to school. So far, I like the climate although, I haven't been through a winter yet. And you really can't beat the scenery. We like it here."
Manning had to make some tough transitions, make the most of some sticky situations.
"Organizationally he is very sound," Checketts said. "He has recruited and got great people around him. He came into a situation where Jason (Kreis) and (general manager) Garth (Lagerwey) were already there, so that is a little politically tricky, but he has done a nice job with them and with the team."
He also was coming into a team that had an established front office. It could have been easy for those around him to resent "the new guy." That hasn't been the case.
"I've known Bill since 1997 when I went to the league office and he was the GM of the Mutiny of Tampa Bay," vice president Trey FitzGerald said. "He is very smart. He sees how all the pieces fit together both with the ticketing to marketing and sponsorships. He is a soccer guy at heart, so he understands that there are a lot of business practices from the NBA and NFL to bring in to the soccer side. He understands the differences of the soccer fan.
"He has been exposed to every size and scope of the industry. He is a sports fan at heart, so he understands what all the different types of people need. He knows what needs to be done to keep everyone happy from Joe Six-pack to the Xango management team. He has been a real plus to have in the organization."
With the new RSL Stadium set to open Oct. 9 against the New York Red Bulls although he couldn't announce which company, Manning admitted that there will be a naming rights partner for the new stadium before the opening kickoff things have been rolling right along for the president.
"We've added several new sponsors, have all of the suites that we are going to sell, sold, and are working on getting the rest of the season tickets sold," Manning said. "I would say things are moving along exactly how we would like. I wouldn't have been willing to come into this organization if I didn't think there was some real potential and viability. Real Salt Lake is going to be fine."
Like his role in both the community and with the organization, it is a partnership that feels the same on both sides.
E-mail: [email protected]