Sunil Gulati: Lessons from the Pitch

A key player in the US’s winning bid to host the 2026 World Cup, this Columbia Business School economist addresses the challenges of managing at the top level of the world’s most popular sport.

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“We’ll put on a spectacular event,” Gulati says of the US hosting the 2026 World Cup.
Ira L. Black/Corbis via Getty Images

He’s been called the most powerful American in soccer.

Sunil Gulati, the Michael K. Dakolias Senior Lecturer in the Discipline of Economics, recently served as president of the US Soccer Federation for 12 years and remains the sole American on the leadership committee of world soccer’s governing body FIFA.

In these roles, Gulati has overseen virtually all soccer-related activities in the United States, from youth and adult leagues countrywide, to the national teams’ participation the World Cup and Olympics, to the country’s winning bid to co-host the 2026 World Cup. He has also felt the pressure from mounting expectations for the sport. Since Gulati first got involved in the US Soccer Federation in the 1980s, the organization’s budget has soared to $100 million from $2 million, the national women’s team has come to dominate the World Cup and Olympics, and Major League Soccer has overtaken both pro hockey and basketball in attendance.

Ideas At Work caught up with Gulati – who was born in India, raised in Connecticut, and now lives in New York City – to hear about the real-world lessons from soccer that he brings to CBS, where he teaches The Business of Sports. The following interview was condensed and edited for clarity.

How did you become the “most power American” in soccer?

Sunil Gulati: I got involved in the sport when I was five or six years old. My dad was at the University of Connecticut, so we lived in Storrs and that happened to be a hotbed for soccer. I started playing, coaching, refereeing and then actually organizing the team I wanted to play on, because there was no team at that age group. So at age 16, I was involved in soccer administration, and a little bit later I was involved in what is essentially the all-star team for young players in Connecticut. After a few more left turns and wrong turns, I won a couple of elections and ended up as president of US Soccer.

Was there any particularly crucial decision you recall along that path?

Gulati: There were hundreds of decisions both personal and professional that came up along the way that led to being fully immersed in the game. I missed the LSATs twice after signing up for them twice and paying for them – once because of soccer events. That was a pretty good indication to me that maybe I didn’t want to go to law school.

What were the highs of being president of the US Soccer Federation?

Gulati: If I think of specific moments, it’s Landon Donovan in the summer of 2010 (kicking a winning goal in the World Cup), Abby Wambach’s goal in Germany against Brazil (to save USA from elimination in the 2011 World Cup), or the women’s team winning a gold medal in Canada in 2015. When you win a big game, when you qualify for a competition or advance to the next round, I think those are the things that stand out.

And the lows?

Gulati: Not qualifying for the 2018 World Cup, and not getting the right to host the 2022 World Cup… Whether you feel responsible or not, you are responsible in the eyes of the world. So, of course, I did feel responsible.

Can you take me to October 2017 when the US men failed to qualify for the World Cup?

Gulati: I try not to focus on that a lot, but it was basically – it was numb. I was at the game. You knew what it meant, you knew what it would mean in terms of public reaction and what it meant to the players, to everyone. It was painful, but mostly numb at the moment.

Is USA’s absence from the 2018 World Cup a setback for soccer in America?

Gulati: Sure. We’ve had a great run of qualifying for World Cups – not as much in advancing as far as we’d like in those tournaments, but we’re in pretty good company of teams that have done well over the last 30 years in terms of qualifying. But no one’s asking if soccer in the United States going to fail now because of that. Twenty years ago, we might've been worried about that. What it does is that it cuts back or slows down the trajectory of the game – but it’s not falling off a cliff, it’s just maybe being on a plateau for a little bit and not getting the rocket fuel we might get by qualifying for yet another World Cup.

Looking back over your time with US Soccer, what might you have done differently?

Gulati: There’s lots of things I would do differently – and I actually say this in class. It drives me crazy after every four years when I sit down with our men’s national team coach and say, “What would you do differently?” And the answer is, “Nothing.” Did I miss it? Did we just win the World Cup? We’d all do things differently with hindsight. I’m not sure I want to talk about any of those specifics – quite often they relate to personnel issues that you might do differently. But with hindsight, with more information, with time for reflection, of course I would do things differently.

What lessons from soccer do you bring to the classroom?

Gulati: A lot of the lessons that we talk about are from things that happened to me. I call them live case studies. In some cases, we’d actually be going through something at US Soccer or at FIFA and I would talk about it in class. What I said to the students was, “Look, the usual claim about academics is that you don’t have practical experience. But I’ve lived these issues, so it’s just the opposite. We’re going to talk about practical experience.” Whether it’s the issue about kneeling during the national anthem, or how to deal with player behavior off the field, or the whole issue regarding equal pay and equitable pay with our women's national team – all those came up during class and we had discussions about them.

… I lecture at a governance class for Professor Bruce Kogut about ethics, values, and sports with case studies from the soccer world – and that goes for everything from cheating on the field with an intentional handball to some of the things that have happened with FIFA with corruption and kickbacks.

“The rules need to be better.”

Given the corruption scandals within FIFA, what needs to change?

Gulati: People, given the opportunities, may not always do the right thing – whether that’s in business or an academic setting or anywhere else. So the rules need to be better. There’s been a number of reforms in FIFA that are positive in that sense: whether it’s transparency about bidding and contracts, whether it’s transparency about compensation… And then the rules have got to be enforced, so you need a monitoring process and then enforcement and then punishment, if necessary. If you put those things together, that’s a big step.

Why do you want the US to host the World Cup in 2026?

Gulati: I think it serves as a great target. We’ll put on a spectacular event if we have it in the United States, Canada and Mexico. But hosting the World Cup has been actually less about the 31 or 32 days of the event – it’s about the build-up between now and then and using this as a target both for on-field and off-field, the development of fan bases, competition between cities to host games… If we can host the World Cup in 2026, along with our partners, then I think you’d see the game go to even greater heights.

From an economist’s perspective, do the benefits outweigh the costs of hosting the World Cup?

Gulati: We’re not going to build a single stadium. We’re not going to build any training venues. We don’t have to build any hotels or highways or train stations that aren’t going to be utilized afterward. So the issue of white elephants and of governments spending money when they could be spending money on social causes – that goes away. So the opportunity cost of hosting an event, that doesn’t exist here.

What would you like your legacy to be?

Gulati: I’ll let other people judge that. But I think if we look at the growth of the game fully, it’s pretty easy to say that we’re better off than we were 10, 20, 30 years ago. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. And people who are very big fans of the game now – especially young people – don’t know where we were then. This isn’t a question of, “Appreciate the fact that you’ve got running water because when I went to school we didn’t have it” – that’s not the point. But where we are as a sport in terms of participation, in terms of viewership, in terms of fan affinity, in terms of major league soccer and the growth of the game… we’re still in very good shape and we've come a very long way.

Do we still have a long way to go to get to where I’d like us to be? The answer is “yes” and I focus much more on that. When we get there, then I’ll be happy rather than worrying about what the legacy’s going to be.

Would you describe yourself as an economist who likes soccer or as a soccer enthusiast who likes economics?

Gulati: I’m obsessive and passionate about both. I love being in the classroom and, for the most part, I love everything I do in soccer. Not losing games.

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