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Goal! A's owners kick off soccer venture

Goal! A's owners kick off soccer venture

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DENVER -- About the time the A's were finishing batting practice on Wednesday, general manager Billy Beane was in Commerce City, Colo., where he was introduced by Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber as part of the new ownership of the San Jose Earthquakes, a hot-out-of-the-oven expansion club set to begin play in the spring of 2008.

The A's ownership group, headed by Lew Wolff, officially bought into the league on Wednesday, returning the Earthquakes brand to San Jose, where the original Earthquakes played before moving to Houston in 2005 and winning the MLS Cup championship as the Houston Dynamo in 2006.

"I've been nudging Lew for the last couple years," Beane said. "I dragged him to the World Cup last summer. It started out as a fan interest, and obviously as we got move involved in the business, a combination of both.

"This sort of bridge is being built," Beane added, citing Tom Hicks and George Gillette as American baseball and hockey owners interested in crossing the pond to invest in soccer. "You start to see us going over there, them coming over here. It's only a matter of time. It's the world's biggest sport, and we're one of the world's wealthiest countries. At some point, with media opportunities now, it's going to happen."

Beane describes himself as a "huge" soccer fan, having adopted the Tottenham Hotspurs of the English Premier League as his favorite team. He says the team is "on the rise and soon to hopefully enter the Champions League."

Wolff caught the passion from his colleagues in the A's partnership and front office, finding the sport increasingly irresistible.

"Thanks to our staff, Billy Beane and Mike Crowley, when I walk through our offices at night, soccer games are on all the time," Wolff said. "We got this feeling that maybe soccer is a sport that might be terrific for us and parallel some of the things that Billy and Mike have done with the baseball team."

When members of the partnership attended last summer's World Cup matches in Germany, Garber recalled, principal partner John Fisher even painted an American flag on his head.

"The A's are a fantastic sports group operator," Garber said on Wednesday. "They understand the market. They understand pro sports. They have fallen in love with the sport of soccer."

Standing at the site of Thursday's MLS All-Star Game, Beane couldn't hide his excitement at entering the world of soccer. He embodied both the emotional enthusiasm of a fervent fan and his unique appetite for breaking down, quantifying, and evaluating the elements of the game.

Beane's foray into soccer gives him the chance to test his own successful approach to keeping the A's competitive, taking on the challenge of succeeding in an entirely different sport with a dramatically different financial structure.

"We're exploring those things right now," Beane said. "When it comes to evaluating athletes, there's always some sort of common thread and connection. When you're putting teams together, I guess there's a rational way, a subjective and an objective way of doing things, and it's something we've explored."

Part of the intrigue of the MLS is the way the league functions as a "small market" player in an arena fueled by huge markets. American soccer is a creative challenge, and Beane doesn't hide his inclination to unravel the riddle.

"From a baseball standpoint, to compete, we need to find undervalued players," Beane explained. "We need to find players who are better than what they're being paid. The advantage of having the sort of system the MLS has is everybody's on the same [league-wide budget], so you ultimately have more buying power if, in fact, it comes down to evaluation -- finding the guys that are actually, possibly more objective and more linear towards creating a winning team."

The wheels were already spinning as Beane contemplated the challenges associated with getting the Earthquakes up and running in less than nine months. He wasn't ready to commit to a specific role with the organization's management, but he left no doubt that his foot could safely be considered in the door.

"Because of my interests, I'll be involved at some point," Beane said. "But I have my responsibilities to the baseball team. As we put the foundation together, I anticipate growing in a more active role. But believe me, running a baseball team, you have your hands full. Twenty-five Major Leaguers, a hundred-and-something Minor Leaguers. Fortunately, I have a pretty capable staff in Oakland."

Is he ready to delegate more to that staff and turn any of his attention to playing a similar role, perhaps as general manager of the Earthquakes?

Beane stressed that it was "much too premature" to think in those terms, describing himself as a relative neophyte in the world of soccer, despite a passion for the sport and an insatiable appetite to learn. For now, he will leave the nuts and bolts to business development manager Ann Rodriguez and executive vice president David Alioto, but his own sense that the timing wasn't right hinted at the belief that the planets could, in time, align themselves to favor his further involvement.

"The interest is there," Beane admitted. "There's no secret, it's always something that interests me. But I think that's more looking off into the horizon.

"Listen, I don't think you can do what I do in my sport and not have an opinion, even if it's not welcome. It comes with the business and what I do for a living. But I'm a fan, and someone who sort of learned the other side as well."

If anything, his experience as an ownership partner of the A's while serving as general manager has fueled his desire for a hands-on stake in pursuing his passions.

"It's fun," Beane said, laughing appreciatively about the work he loves and the prospect of crossing that bridge to a similar role in soccer. "You're not only invested in the outcome of the game, but the outcome of the business. That's the way to do it."

Owen Perkins is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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