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How I Made It: Shawn Hunter, head of soccer's Club Deportivo Chivas USA

Hunter, the president and CEO of the Major League Soccer team, has two decades of experience in the front office — stretched over three different pro sports and Division I athletics.

June 28, 2010|By Ken Bensinger, Los Angeles Times

The gig: As president and chief executive of Major League Soccer's Club Deportivo Chivas USA, Shawn Hunter oversees all aspects of running a team in a fast-growing sports league. With two decades of experience in the front office — stretched over three different pro sports and Division I athletics — Hunter, 46, is a true utility man for the 6-year-old Chivas organization, which he's led since 2007. In addition to managing roughly 100 staffers, including players, he also serves on the MLS board, running its key business development committee.

Despite the workload, Hunter's enthusiasm would put a Labrador puppy to shame. "The only thing I don't like is the off-season," he said.

Where's Toto? Hunter was born in Lawrence, Kan., and got his undergraduate degree and MBA from the University of Kansas. Inspired by his father, who served as athletic director at the University of Idaho and then Wichita State, Hunter decided to get into the sports biz. Out of school, he turned down a job from the NBA's Golden State Warriors for an internship with the expansion Minnesota Timberwolves. "I figured I'd learn more," Hunter said.

Back to school: At just 26, Hunter became assistant athletic director at the University of Minnesota, which unlike most colleges had three so-called revenue sports: basketball, football and hockey. The football team was on NCAA probation, but that didn't stop Hunter from launching a sponsorship program that brought in $3 million in its first year. "They'd never had that kind of sponsorship, so when I screwed up, they had no idea," Hunter joked.

A life on the road: After Minnesota, Hunter worked for the Denver Nuggets (NBA) and later the Colorado Avalanche (NHL), which had just moved from Quebec. Then he moved to Arizona, where he helped the Winnipeg Jets become the Phoenix Coyotes, also of the NHL. Next step was Los Angeles, where he was president of sports for events giant AEG, owner of eight pro teams. Just as he was ready to hang his own shingle as a consultant back in Colorado, Chivas USA's Mexican owners persuaded Hunter to stick around.

I see rainbows: Despite having launched one franchise and relocated two others, Hunter calls Chivas his biggest challenge. The team is named after a popular Guadalajara team that fields only Mexican players, and at first Chivas USA was marketed only to Latinos, basically ceding countless fans to archrival L.A. Galaxy. To overcome that, Hunter had to make the team more broadly appealing. "Today we have one of the most diverse teams in the MLS," Hunter said, noting that the current roster has players born in nine countries as well as nine California natives.

Future of futbol: With the World Cup in full swing, Hunter is optimistic about the future of the sport in the U.S. The huge success of expansion teams such as MLS' Seattle Sounders has convinced him that soccer could someday overtake hockey in terms of fan base and TV revenue. "Before, we were buying time on ESPN," Hunter said. "Now we're getting rights fees from them."

How about winning the World Cup? To win the sport's biggest prize, the U.S. league needs to develop more of its own stars and not just depend on pricey imports like Englishman David Beckham or Mexico's Cuauhtemoc Blanco. "I like how we're progressing," Hunter said. "All the elements are there. If we develop more world-class players, people will pay more attention."

Love your fans, and they'll love you: Once a month, Hunter has the Chivas team practice somewhere in the community with young fans, an event he insists on attending. "It's my favorite thing to do in this job — get out with the community. That's our future."

When not obsessing about transfer fees: Hunter is a cyclist and surfer, but his true passion is swimming. "Every day. Early. In the pool," he said. Hunter is married and has two school-age sons.

If you dream of working in sports: "Go where you're going to learn the most, not where you'll make the most," Hunter said. "Your responsibility is to be a sponge." Later, once you've learned a bit, "don't be afraid to take a risk. All the best choices I've made have been a little bit scary at first."

ken.bensinger@latimes.com

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