The San Jose Earthquakes named David Kaval as team president on Monday, with former president Michael Crowley being promoted to managing director of the club. In his new role with the Quakes, Kaval will oversee both the business and technical sides of the club and report directly to Crowley. In assuming the role of president, Kaval will step down from his former role as CEO of the independent Golden Baseball League (GBL) that he founded in 2003.
Kaval’s hiring by the Earthquakes comes somewhat out of the blue, but had its genesis many years ago through a relationship developed by the successful baseball entrepreneur and San Jose Earthquakes and Oakland Athletics investor John Fisher. Through his efforts to fund and grow the GBL, Kaval had many occasions to speak with the Quakes part-owner, and they forged an appreciation for each others acumen for the business of sports. Earlier this summer, Fisher reached out to Kaval with an offer to help run his soccer operations, which set off a series of due diligence discussions on both sides. Soon after, the two parties reached agreement, and the road was paved for Kaval’s assignment on Monday. The Quakes new president spoke with Center Line Soccer on Tuesday.
“When the opportunity came up to get involved at this level with a team that has such a great history which really excites me — the two championships over the last 10 years — I felt I couldn’t pass that up,” Kaval told Center Line Soccer. “Even though it was in a different sport, from a corporate point of view the challenges are similar to what I faced when starting up the Golden Baseball League. We were able to overcome those challenges and be successful. I want to bring that same energy and excitement here to the Earthquakes and have that same success.”
The move to bring in Kaval makes sense for the Quakes, as out-going president Crowley has stated that he needed to take a step back from the day-to-day operations of the club. With the details of on-field player acquisition and management being handled by general manager John Doyle and Frank Yallop, Kaval needn’t be an expert in all things soccer at this time.
“In the near term I am really excited about what is happening on the field,” explained Kaval. “The fact that the team is performing at a higher level than in seasons past I give full credit to John Doyle and Frank Yallop.” He then reiterated that he was very happy with that aspect of the organization as he assumes his new role as president. “The fact that ownership was willing to go out and get a designated player, as well as build a dedicated training facility are really good indications of the club’s commitment to success.”
Given his appreciation for the state of the Earthquakes on the field, where they are closing in on their first postseason berth since being rejoining MLS in 2008, the question as to why the club made a change in leadership at this time seems to focus more on what needed to be done off the field.
“I hope that fans will realize that the necessary steps are being made in this organization according to a plan in place to get this franchise in a strong position financially, to get it into a new stadium, to get the team winning so we can bring back those glory years of continual playoff performances and championships. That is what we are striving for here.”
The clear message coming from Kaval is that the club needs to strengthen its financial foundation in order to grow as an organization. He mentions that a new stadium is in the plans — something everyone is aware of — but hints at some of the milestones that need to be met before construction can begin. When asked if building a stadium was a priority for him in the near term, Kaval answered emphatically with a single word response — “Absolutely!” — which will be music to the ears of the club’s supporters.
“I want to build the corporate sponsorships that we need,” Kaval elaborated. “that will obviously make the stadium happen, and that will ensure that this organization is viable for years and years to come. I was able to prove that possible with the GBL, which frankly, was a more difficult challenge with fewer resources than I’ll have in my role with the Earthquakes. I’m been through this once, and I’m excited to be taking on the challenge again.”
Kaval is nothing if not ambitious when it comes to the world of sports business. The Stanford Business School graduate and life-long Cleveland Indians fan developed the idea for the GBL alongside fellow student Amit Patel while taking an entrepreneurial class in 2003. They quickly found financial support from leading investors throughout the local area, but not until they had pitched their idea many thousands of times over. The biggest investment coup came when Kaval signed grocery giant Safeway to be the presenting sponsor of the fledging league, which led to other corporations and investors signing contracts with the GBL.
“The Safeway deal provided a proof of concept to others that what we had made sense,” said Kaval. “It allowed other people, third parties if you will, to verify the viability of the league. The presenting partnership for the GBL — akin to the Sprint sponsorship of NASCAR —was key to getting other investors interested in our product.”
For the Earthquakes, Kaval sees a similar opportunity to sign a presenting sponsor that will pave the path toward satisfying both goals he stated for the club — financial security and a new stadium. And being a Bay Area local — he has lived on the Peninsula for the past 18 years — Kaval sees the vastness of the Silicon Valley business community as a perfect place to find that sponsorship, especially for a stadium naming rights deal.
“That is really critical,” Kaval stated. “That was my past experience in the GBL and I think we should be trying that here. We have so much to build on here in San Jose, so we are in the right place. Before, I was in communities where I didn’t have the types of sponsors or the numbers of sponsors to go after. But we have all that here in the Silicon Valley.”
Kaval then went on to describe his vision for how the club will be identified by the business community as well as the public.
“I want to make the Earthquakes Silicon Valley’s team. Where is that really? San Jose, Palo Alto — it physically stretches over the whole region. But really it is an identity that we all share mentally. I want to run a professional sports team that embodies that state of mind, and I truly believe that association football — soccer — is the sport in which that can happen.”
Kaval clearly has a vision for where he wants to take the Earthquakes, but can the 34-year old founder convince local business leaders to join him? Looking at his track record of success funding the GBL, the answer appears to be yes. According to Forbes magazine, Kaval and Patel secured $5 million in investment money from an array of individuals and companies and also signed the Safeway sponsorship deal for $3 million over three years before a single pitch was thrown. While initial plans had the GBL expanding to over 75 teams during the rest of the decade, the league started the 2010 season with just 10 teams spread out over the west coast of North America and Hawaii. And in no small part due to the financial agreements secured by Kaval, the GBL continues to survive in a very hostile sporting environment for independent and minor baseball leagues.
Meanwhile, the San Jose Earthquakes do not look to expand their reach to such far flung locales as the GBL, and instead have plenty of opportunity to succeed in their own backyard.
“The Silicon Valley has scores of companies that we need to be interacting with more and who really need to understand the value of what we are doing,” said Kaval. “I’m not sure if the Quakes have done a good enough job of that to this point. I understand the urgency to get things moving, and we are already holding meetings in my second day on the job. You know, these relationships don’t just happen overnight, but if we can put the pieces in place to get those partners, that will drive a lot on the business side, and make everything else work out.”
In new club president David Kaval, the Earthquakes may have found just the right person to make it all work out. If he is able to sell the idea of a soccer club to local businesses like he did baseball before, and quickly find that puzzle piece of a sponsor that completes the stadium naming rights picture, then the Quakes will have made the right decision.