By Dan Leidl & Joe Frontiera
As President and CEO, and driving force behind the initial investor group for Major League Soccer’s (MLS) DC United, Kevin Payne has watched his club and the MLS bloom from a seed of an idea to a product of national prominence.
The MLS started in 1996 with 10 teams, a niche market, and enough skeptics to sell out the World Cup. Once seen as a sure failure, the MLS has bowled over the critics, growing to 19 teams while recently surpassing the NBA in live fan attendance. As a league the MLS has not only endured, it’s managed to thrive, and early figures like Payne have made all the difference. With what seems to be a genuine mix of soccer passion and business interest, Payne has not only helped the league advance, has also put DC United on the map as arguably the most successful soccer team in the history of the United States. With four MLS Cups (league championships), four Supporter’s Shields (awarded to the team with the best regular season record), and a total of 12 domestic and international trophies, DC United has set the standard for stateside excellence in soccer.
With the early mantra of “The Tradition Begins,” Kevin Payne and the DC United franchise set two clear goals in 1996. First, play like a premier soccer team. Second, be a respected pillar of the community. Payne explains, “I believe that sports organizations have the ability to influence their communities and members of their communities for the good.” As with every team in every league in the world, DC United wanted to win, but less intuitive, they wanted to use their clout as professional athletes to positively impact the community. “You really have a responsibility as a sport organization,” Payne says, “to think more broadly about your place in the community than simply to win games and do well economically.”
Payne and DC United have embraced that responsibility, and proved a pacesetter in professional soccer. They were the first MLS team to incorporate a community relations department into their day-to-day operations, the first team to begin large scale charitable giving, and among the first teams in the league to create a 501c3, or a non-profit public charity. While DC United is a relatively small professional organization, Payne hasn’t let the size of his franchise or the perceived start-up status of the MLS limit his scope of the organization’s impact. Through United for DC, DC United offers a variety of charitable and service-oriented arms, including United Soccer Club, Kicks for Kids, and United Reads. Every year, the club provides a game-day experience for 7,500 DC youth, distribute over 10,000 books to schools that serve 1,500 children, and provide free afterschool soccer clinics to underprivileged children. DC United also serves its community in other ways, expanding its outreach capacity by inviting fans to participate in community efforts. Through United Builds, fans, DC United staff, and players work together in partnership with local charities, such as Habitat for Humanity and the Salvation Army to assist with various projects. United Drives is another initiative that attempts to leverage the team’s fan base.
Every month, DC United selects a charity and asks fans to donate charitable items such as books, food, and soccer equipment. Further leveraging their impact, the organization invites local DC area schools in a competition to collect the most items on a monthly basis, and winners receive a pizza party with DC United players. Kevin Payne and DC United started with two clear goals. While one was less obvious than the other, both have served to guide the franchise toward unprecedented levels of success.
Payne believed that a competitive sports organization could also make a positive impact on the local community, and he turned his beliefs into reality. Just imagine, if the most successful soccer franchise in the United States can find time to heavily impact the DC community positively, what can your organization do.
Joe Frontiera & Dan Leidl are co-authors of the Washington Post Leadership Playlist. Joe and Dan are also managing partners of Meno Consulting and authors of forthcoming book, Team Turnarounds, to be published in July of 2012 by Jossey-Bass.