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A Philadelphia Union blog hosted by Christopher A. Vito and Matthew De George

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Search for Sugarman: Impressions from the owner's first press conference

There were plenty of question marks going into last Friday’s press conference featuring Philadelphia Union majority owner Jay Sugarman, ones that went beyond the not-so-mysterious unveiling of Rene Meulensteen as joining the organization in some capacity.

What stole the headlines, though, was the first media address by Sugarman.

Understandably, a fair amount of myth and misunderstanding has grown around Sugarman. When his only image before the fans is comprised of appearances like this, that’s easy to see. It also doesn’t help that most of the information about Sugarman has come via ownership partner Nick Sakiewicz, who has his own issues of image within the Union fanbase (and MLS at large). Absent concrete statements from the man himself – and with three straight playoff-free seasons of time to let the imagination wander – the perception of Sugarman has had a tendency to slant toward the negative.

Sugarman, though, isn’t an absentee owner. He’s been at the heart of spending for the club in recent years, including infrastructure investments like the Union academy and the practice facility. He’s been visible and accessible, even if he didn’t want to talk on the record. Much of that distance is likely the product of two factors: 1) The fact that he lives and works in New York and isn’t as local as he’d like to be to comment on certain day-to-day issues; and 2) The realization that he is not a soccer lifer, which means he’s willing to defer to the expertise of Sakiewicz – who is no longer (or never was, depending on your philosophical bent) involved in soccer operations – on such matters.

The impression Sugarman gave at Friday’s press conference wasn’t in line with the reclusive, uncaring image that is sometimes portrayed of him. He was plenty candid, even if using pre-scripted notes to make sure he got his major talking points across. He threw in the joke of, “see you in five years,” at the end of the presser. And he was even willing to get a little sassy in answering a question from yours truly (20:50 mark).

Afterward, Sugarman was accommodating to one-on-one interviews with smaller groups of reporters, which painted a more candid picture. For one, Sugarman hasn’t been uninvolved in the Union over the last five years, even if he wants to be more active in the future. He comes across as a pensive, thoughtful student of the game, one who owns a team of relatively meager finances that requires an edge to compete. He’s a businessman who has realized that on-field profits aren’t turned overnight, leading him to use the novelty of the business as a cushion to meticulously seek information about the marketplace he’s venturing into before making sweeping statements about it. He’s sought that advantage, not just through emphasizing academy talent but by some pretty interesting advanced analytics tinkering.

Among the topics of discussion with Sugarman were the ability of throw-ins to provide more possession and scoring opportunities, as well as an appraisal of the importance of wins, with the draws that Sugarman says he hates representing “2/3 of a loss”.

It’s an outsider’s perspective, a fact that Sugarman doesn’t hide from. But he also thinks such a fresh view could be of value. What Sugarman advocates is an experimental approach, willing to give the people beneath him leash to explore these potential avenues of improvement.

Here are a few other tidbits from Sugarman’s side conversations:
“It’s a two-hour drive home for me from here, and when we lose games, I think, ‘how can we get better?’ I’ve spent really the first five years studying, watching, listening. I shared some of my ideas with our coaches, and I think they are amused by my ideas. But I will tell you that there are things about this league that an outsider can see that maybe an insider can’t see. And so I want to take a little bit more active role and start to say, ‘look, we are David vs. Goliath. There are a lot of businesses that succeed where they don’t spend the most money and they don’t have the best footprint, but it gives us the chance to try some things that others won’t or can’t.’ And what I really want our team to do now is adopt a sense of, ‘guys this is not a war of money. This is a war of talent. How do we do this better?’”

On the issue of pushing for wins and maximizing points:
“We’ve done analytical studies using Opta that suggest that teams that go into the last 15 minutes of games tied back off and actually score less and give up more goals than teams that are down a goal. What does that tell you? It tells you we need to instill a thought process from our junior kids all the way up to our first team of, ‘guys, we don’t want to tie.’ I don’t mind if you lose. I’ll take the drive home if you see time and time and time again we really go for the win at the end instead of potentially going into a shell and give up goals. That’s what the numbers say. I’m just sitting here testing ideas and theories and trying to look for data that suggests, is there a way to win? Is there a way to change the game a little bit, tilt it a little bit in our favor?
“I don’t know soccer better than these guys. They know the sport far better than I do, but sometimes an outside perspective is helpful, and that’s what I’m going to hope to bring a little more in these next five years is, can we challenge some of the conventional wisdom and say, as the league changes, can we act a different way than just can we just buy the best players?

Sugarman is also hoping to augment the ownership group in the near future, with an eye toward more local investment:
“Just taking you back, when I first agreed to buy the expansion franchise, I was on the hook for everything, but the plan always from the beginning was to have at least half the ownership local. There’s no way you can build a great brand or a great franchise without a lot of local connections to the community. And as much as I’d like to and as much as I feel like Philly is similar to where I grew up in Pittsburgh, I’m not a local guy. I’m not at the country club; I’m not at the water cooler. I’m not at the community charitable events every weekend. So we need local investors to carry the Union brand as we grow. And again, we’re only five years old, so this is not stuff that happens overnight.”

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