The following interview is with Lee Stern. Lee is known for his lifelong involvement in the Chicago sports scene. His resume includes being the founder and president of the Chicago Sting (NASL) soccer team, chairman of the NASL executive committee (1981-1982). He was also a member of the U.S. World Cup Founder's Club, which was instrumental in bringing the World Cup to Chicago. Lee is currently a director and minority owner of the Chicago White Sox baseball team. He sat down with us and provided the following.
SMR: Bringing a sport like soccer into a busy market like Chicago must have had its challenges. Can you touch on a couple challenges that you encountered during your time with the team? How did you overcome those challenges?
Lee Stern: When I started soccer in Chicago it was an unknown thing in the city. So I had two problems; First, I had to sell the sport. Second, I had to sell the team.
So I asked myself how can I sell a sport that no one knows much about? Even I didn’t know everything about it, so I had to find someone who did. I ended up bringing George Fishwick, a past president of the US Soccer federation, out of retirement to be my right hand. After hiring George, we flew to Europe to find a coach for the team. I interviewed many worthy candidates and found Bill Foulkes, former captain of Manchester United, was the right man for the job. So I put him in charge of all player development and personnel with the team.
This was the first major step for moving Soccer forward in Chicago. I sought out people with experience and passion to take care of the team so that I could focus on selling the team to the people.
SMR: You’ve worked in Major League Baseball as well as founding the Chicago Sting, what are the common elements of a successful sports organization?
Lee Stern: I would say you need two things. First, you need experience and intelligence at an ownership level. I’ve seen many organizations crumble in troublesome times due to lack of experience. Second, you need the right people from a public relations standpoint. Having the right people to represent what you’re doing as an organization will help reflect what you’re trying to achieve much easier.
SMR: You successfully hosted the World Cup in Chicago, did that help to drive fans to the Chicago Sting games?
Lee Stern: It not only helped the Chicago Sting’s awareness in the city, but I truly believe it paved the way for the MLS to start here. It brought a new level of awareness to the game to the city. If it didn’t happen when it did I don’t think you would see soccer in Chicago, today.
SMR: What do you think is the most significant trend that will have a negative effect on sports ticket sales?
Lee Stern: High-ticket prices. You have to be honest as an organization and ask yourself the following question – “Is the product that we are producing bringing a level of entertainment that allows us to sell tickets at this level of pricing”.
If your team isn’t doing well statically, you need to adjust the price of your seats.
Another issue I’ve come across is teams that have no relationship with their fan base and neglect feedback. I think it’s very important to have an ongoing relationship with their fans. It was an important for me to do this in the early stages with the Sting. You don’t need to be a super hero; you just need to be one of the guys.
As an owner of a minor league team, your fans are your lifeline.
SMR: What do you think is the most significant trend that will have a positive effect on sports ticket sales?
Lee Stern: I think it’s important as a minor league team to have a strong digital presence in this day and age. It not only helps you stay connected with your fans but it also allows you to provide a consistent service that fans can access 24/7.
In regards to ticket sales and pricing, and I’m sure a majority of franchises know this, but watch who you’re playing and judge accordingly. Use opposing teams to your benefit and pull people in. A great new tool in the sports market can allow you to do this all online. You want to be convenient to your fans. Don’t give them a reason to pass over your team!
SMR: As one of two MLB teams in Chicago, what are the White Sox doing to differentiate themselves from the Chicago Cubs?
Lee Stern: We’re catering to the younger generations. We want to involve them with the team and create a connection with them that will hopefully last a lifetime.
We like to have meet and greets with players as well as other activities on a consistent basis that will make them feel like they’re apart of our team. In doing this we hope we’ve made a lasting impression with them.
From a GM standpoint, we’re keeping ourselves competitive. We’re making the necessary trades to fill our weaknesses and gaps. We want to be an entertaining team for our fans and keep them engaged in White Sox Baseball for many years to come.