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Jan 12, 2006

Building a franchise from ground up

Talk about an army of one.

Back on Dec. 16, when the San Jose Earthquakes were officially moved to Houston, that's exactly what Oliver Luck was. When the former NFL quarterback was introduced as the team's president, he may have had a side loaded with talent, and a fan base chomping at the bit, but the front office was about as bare as Death Valley. And Luck's mission was to get the organization up to speed in just a little over three months.

So far, things are moving along at a brisk pace for the former NFL executive. The Houston franchise has received over 1,000 deposits for season tickets. Office space could be secured by the end of the week. And four front-office staff members have been hired, with more to come.

"It could be eight by [Friday]," Luck added.

While Luck's status as a soccer outsider resulted in some raised eyebrows when his appointment was announced, it's not the first time that he's been tasked with building an organization from the ground up. Back in 1990, Luck was named the first general manager of the Frankfurt Galaxy, in what was known then as the World League of American Football.

"[Frankfurt] was hauntingly familiar to this start-up," Luck said. "We were late, the usual things. Everything should have been done six months ago."

When the league went on hiatus in 1993 and was relaunched as NFL Europe in 1995, Luck was put in charge of the Rhein Fire before eventually being named CEO of the entire league a year later. Luck's situation in Europe was in some ways similar to the one he finds himself in now: That of selling a sport outside of the country's mainstream.

But according to Luck, the similarities end there. The Cleveland native states that the difficulty of selling American football to Europeans will easily trump that of turning football-mad Texans into futbol-mad Texans.

"It was a tremendous challenge," Luck said of his time overseas. "Believe me, people had no clue about the rules. I think the first points ever scored in the league came from a safety, and the fans found it confusing. But the opportunity for us was to present the whole package of how we present sports [in the U.S.]"

That meant bringing to Europe the best, and some would say worst, aspects of American sports presentation.

"We sold the game based on Americana, with pregame shows, tailgating, halftime shows - all of the extraneous entertainment," Luck said. "Traditionally, European soccer was not presented to the fan as our American sports are presented."

To soccer purists in the United States, such talk of "extraneous entertainment" is about as palatable as a dirt sandwich. But before Houston fans go tormenting themselves with visions of dot races and corporate sponsors for corner kicks, Luck points out that he doesn't have any plans to present an MLS match like he did an NFL Europe game.

"We'll do some things that will make it fun for folks to come out, but nowhere near what we had to do over in Europe," Luck said.

That's because soccer, despite its rather uneven development in the U.S. over the years, has a much larger foothold in this country than American football may ever achieve overseas, a fact from which Luck takes more than a little comfort.

"If I had gone over to Frankfurt in 1991, and seen 55,000 kids playing -- as we have here in Houston -- and another 30,000 playing apart from the official structure, I think I would have died and gone to heaven," Luck said. "We had literally nobody playing [American football] over there. I think the only valid comparison is that they are both sports that need nurturing. But soccer in this country is way ahead of where the NFL was and is in Europe."

Of course, there is still a long way for soccer to go, and while Houston possesses the positive attributes of a large Hispanic market as well as significant youth soccer population, the league has had only mixed success winning over those demographics. Given the number of items on Luck's to-do list, he admitted that he hasn't thought of how these segments might be penetrated. But he seems to have already learned the lesson that pandering to ethnic markets won't necessarily translate into huge ticket sales.

"I don't buy into this idea that a Hispanic fan who enjoys the game will only come out to watch a Mexican or a Salvadoran," Luck said. "I think those fans will come out and watch the sport if it's played well, and I think the team we have, along with the coach, have proven that they can play it well. I think we'll draw fans regardless of the [players'] ethnicity."

As Luck's crash course in soccer continues, it's important to remember that it was his time as CEO of the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority that was instrumental in obtaining his current position. The conventional wisdom was that the recent spate of stadium construction in Houston made Luck an ideal choice to drive the franchise's attempt at constructing a soccer-specific stadium.

While Luck no doubt developed some solid political connections during his time at the HCHSA, the fact is that Minute Maid Park was up and running by the time of his appointment in 2001, and construction had already begun on Reliant Stadium. Ground was broken on the Toyota Center several months after his appointment. All of which makes his reputation as a stadium builder seem a bit of an urban legend.

To Luck's credit, when he talks of his time at the HCHSA, he speaks little of the recently constructed arenas. Instead, he refers more to his experience in crafting lease agreements with the tenants of those buildings, and the various revenue streams that were involved.

"As you see those lease agreements, I think you have a better understanding of the way economics work in professional sports," Luck said. "You see why the NFL, the NBA, or MLB is successful. Because I was intimately involved in these agreements, you have a sense of what it takes to make the franchise work, on many fronts."

Of course, you have to have a stadium before you have a lease. On that front, a partnership with the Houston Independent School District to renovate Delmar Stadium remains the most talked about option. And Luck insists that AEG will be footing the bill for all of the construction, and will not be asking HISD or HCHSA to raise any money on the project's behalf. This, despite the fact that recent MLS stadium building efforts in Frisco, Tex. and Bridgeview, Ill. have relied on a significant amount of public funds.

But such concerns, at present, are low on Luck's list of priorities. He's got an army to build. Sam Houston's Army anyone?

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com