Sponsors Caught in Crossfire of Divisive U.S. Soccer Election

The U.S. Soccer Federation’s upcoming presidential election has put sponsors in an uncomfortable position, as former president Carlos Cordeiro, who resigned two years ago amid an uproar over sexism in the organization, tries to wrest back the job from Cindy Parlow Cone.

Sponsors generally stay out of federation politics, but Cordeiro’s candidacy has resurrected concerns that came to a head with his resignation in 2020, after the USSF received substantial sponsor blowback for a legal argument in the pay equity lawsuit brought by the U.S. Women’s National Team.

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Deloitte, which was one of five major sponsors (alongside Coca-Cola, Visa, Budweiser and Volkswagen) to speak out against the federation’s legal filing two years ago, has reiterated those concerns ahead of the election, which takes place at U.S. Soccer’s annual general meeting in Atlanta on March 5.

“As we made clear in 2020, while our support for the team is unwavering, we were deeply offended by the views expressed at that time by the USSF,” a Deloitte spokesperson said in a statement to Sportico. “We have appreciated the improved tone and trajectory of this matter under new leadership and our future sponsorship decisions will be contingent on continuity of that progress.”

None of U.S. Soccer’s other major corporate sponsors commented for this article, but Deloitte is not alone in its concerns, said sports-business consultant Ricardo Fort, the former head of global sponsorships for Coca-Cola and Visa and an outspoken critic of Cordeiro. “A feeling is shared” among several major sponsors, Fort said, “and the concern is that Carlos Cordeiro may come back to the presidency. This is not a future that they want to be part of.”

Parlow Cone echoed that assessment and said several sponsors have contacted her team “expressing concerns about a leadership change.”

“It’s no secret that when I took over, we were in a really bad place with our sponsors,” Parlow Cone said in an interview. “It took a lot of time and energy to rebuild those relationships.”

In an email to Sportico, Cordeiro, a former Goldman Sachs partner and a U.S. Soccer VP from 2016-18, said his conversations with sponsors have indicated continued support regardless of the outcome of the election.

“I’m absolutely confident that I’ll be able to work well with current sponsors and also leverage the incredible opportunities of [winning the bid for the World Cup in] 2026 to bring in new sponsors that help us grow the game and invest more in every level,” Cordeiro wrote. “I’ve spoken with multiple sponsors, and they have made it clear … they will continue their partnerships with U.S. Soccer regardless of who is elected president.”

A source within U.S. Soccer said sponsors were more concerned with the ongoing legal battle between the federation and the UWSNT players—raising questions about the $24 million settlement that was ultimately reached this week. “They knew we were actively working on getting that taken care of,” said the person, who is not authorized to speak publicly on matters pertaining to the election. “But the question of whether it was Cindy or Carlos that got that done wasn’t the major concern or discussion.”

At the time of his resignation, Cordeiro said he took “full responsibility” for the sexist language in the 2020 legal filing. U.S. Soccer was pilloried for document, which stated, “The point is that the job of MNT player (competing against senior men’s national teams) requires a higher level of skill based on speed and strength than does the job of WNT player (competing against senior women’s national teams),” as well as asserting “the job of MNT player carries more responsibility within U.S. Soccer than the job of WNT player.”

The anger over the filing lingers. In response to an ESPN report that Cordeiro was seeking the presidency once again, UWSNT star Megan Rapinoe slammed the federation’s former leader for “embarrass[ing] everything and everyone with caveman levels of misogyny.”

Cordeiro and his allies note that although he took the fall publicly, he wasn’t directly responsible for the arguments made in court by the federation in his charge—nor was he the only one involved in overseeing the lawsuit. Parlow Cone, a USSF board member at the time alongside Cordeiro, was on a special litigation committee, though she has said before that none of the board members saw the language before it was filed in court.

“The sponsors that spoke out in March 2020 did so because they objected to the language in the legal filings, which were written by the Federation’s lawyers at the time,” Cordeiro wrote. “Even though I didn’t write or see that offensive language, as president of the Federation, I took responsibility. I learned from that experience, and I’ve resolved to do better.”

In his election platform, Cordeiro wrote that one of the reasons he wanted the job back was to push for equal pay for the women’s team. “Specifically,” he wrote, “I will make it a top priority to reach a settlement with our Women’s National Team players.”

That part of his platform became moot this week with the $24 million settlement, which is contingent on U.S. Soccer and the WNT ratifying a CBA that will pay men and women equal rates going forward.

Worries over Cordeiro’s candidacy aren’t limited to sponsors or advocates for the women’s team. The U.S. Soccer Foundation, which has refrained from directly involving itself in U.S. Soccer’s governance or elections since its inception in 1994, also raised issues about Cordeiro in a public letter to U.S. Soccer members in which it “enthusiastically” endorsed Cone for reelection.

The foundation was engaged in what it described as a “completely avoidable” Cordeiro-era lawsuit with the federation in 2020, which was only settled upon Parlow Cone’s appointment as president.

Other American soccer notables have also criticized Cordeiro’s candidacy. “It’s not in soccer’s best interests, at all, to go backwards towards Carlos,” former U.S. Women’s National Team captain and current ESPN commentator Julie Foudy said in an interview. “I usually, being in journalism, don’t advocate for a candidate, but I just feel there’s too much at stake in this one…. There were so many lawsuits and there was so much animosity around the program and things just not getting done.”

Alan Rothenberg, who headed U.S. Soccer from 1990-98 and helped organize the successful 1994 men’s and 1999 women’s World Cups in the U.S., said the 2020 sponsor outcry, the U.S. Soccer Foundation lawsuit and the handling of the WNT case all raise red flags about Cordeiro’s management. “What’s so weird is that things are moving so smoothly now,” Rothenberg said, touting a new sponsorship deal with Nike, an expected new media rights deal on the horizon, and the progress of the CBA talks.

“Carlos keeps talking about how he’s a businessman, and Cindy’s not,” Rothenberg said. “First of all, it’s not a business. It’s a governing body… And if you judged how he performed in the two years he was running [U.S. Soccer], you’d have to say he was a failure.”

Despite such criticism, Cordeiro is forging ahead, trumpeting his success in helping land the 2026 World Cup—in which a tri-country bid of the U.S., Mexico and Canada won out over Morocco—and his plans to use the event as a launching point for U.S. Soccer’s business in the years to come. He says he will be transparent and inclusive in decision-making, especially when it comes to U.S. Soccer’s grassroots membership, and that he will use his global soccer and FIFA connections to bring a women’s World Cup to the U.S.

To win the election, one candidate must win a majority of U.S. Soccer’s vast voting membership, which represents wide-ranging constituencies, with members across the country from youth and state associations to professional leagues.

Voting is also weighted. The Professional Council, which includes MLS and the NWSL, has 20% of the vote. MLS commissioner Don Garber said in a press conference Tuesday his league is hosting meetings of the candidates with team owners, and that MLS is not taking a public position in the race.

The Athletes Council now has 33.3% of the vote, up from 20%, in response to a 2020 federal law mandating increased athlete representation in sports governing bodies.

Most of the rest of the votes belong to grassroots groups, a cohort Cordeiro did well with in the 2018 presidential election, when he beat out a crowded field of candidates. Insiders say such groups have expressed frustration at having their voice diminished under the federal law, as well as feeling squeezed by U.S. Soccer’s reduced budget allocations during the pandemic. Cordeiro sympathizes with those sentiments in his platform. “Extreme budget and personnel cuts—beyond what was required by the pandemic—have made it harder to rebuild for the future,” he wrote.

Janet Campbell, president of the North Texas Soccer Association, said she supports Cordeiro. “What I have seen from Cindy, thus far, is that she seems to be more focused on the elite players, and the national team, in particular, the Women’s National Team,” Campbell said in a phone interview. “U.S. Soccer is about so much more than the Women’s National Team.… Now, I’m not saying it’s not important. It is important, but there’s so much more to the federation.”

During Parlow Cone’s two-year tenure through the pandemic, U.S. Soccer saw revenues slashed from $138 million to just under $65 million during the fiscal year that ended in March 2021, resulting in budget cuts throughout the federation. But U.S. Soccer made progress elsewhere, particularly in the public eye in regards to the women’s team lawsuit and CBAs, and the Nike sponsorship.

“We’re in a really good place now,” Parlow Cone said. “And I think everyone is afraid that forward progress could start to move in the wrong direction. If a company’s—whether it’s a media company or a sponsor—vision and values aren’t aligned with leadership, there’s very real challenges there and hesitancy to move forward.”

While sponsors hold no voting power, sponsor dollars accounted for nearly $40 million in revenue for U.S. Soccer in FY21—more than 60% of its overall income. Grassroots revenues from membership dues accounted for less than 6% of revenues the same year, and an even smaller percentage pre-pandemic, as the federation’s business model matures.

But in the U.S. Soccer membership, revenue generation does not translate into votes, a fact that could determine who wins the federation presidency next week.

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