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MLS GM at home in Taos

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Red Bulls’ de Bontin optimistic about U.S. soccer’s future

Jerome de Bontin, born in Paris some 55 years ago, has found himself taking up residence in a New Mexico village that was once an abandoned mining town tucked into the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

He has counted Monaco, Chicago and New York among the places he has set up a home. Now he includes Taos Ski Valley — a place, as its name indicates, known for winter sports.

But it is the sport of soccer in which he makes his current livelihood.

De Bontin, general manager of the New York Red Bulls of Major Soccer League, is a former financier, a money man who has kept company with royals. He now spends time with the likes of Henry Thierry, the French legend who now toils for the Red Bulls.

Back in New Mexico, he has become friends with Lobo men’s soccer coach Jeremy Fishbein.

De Bontin loves the game of soccer at all levels, decries some of its darker sides, but has great optimism for its future, particularly in his adopted America.

And he sees great potential in Taos Eco Park, which features a FIFA-approved field.

De Bontin knew little about Taos Ski Valley 25 years ago. But the family of his Chicago business partner discovered Ernie Blake’s place in the late 1950s. At his partner’s invite, de Bontin and his wife spent Christmas 1989 there.

“We fell in love with the place,” de Bontin says. “My wife is Austrian and grew up skiing. We had been in Chicago eight years and didn’t know you could find extraordinary mountains with a European flavor.”

De Bontin decided to buy some land in the area.

“I was spending more and more of my time there,” he says. “In 2007, the Blake family came to me, asking to help fight off a Florida real estate developer. They wanted to include a few friends to do something more in the flavor of the place.”

As he became more entrenched, he became more invested.

“I got to know the people in Taos proper,” de Bontin says. “I came to realize one of the beauties of the resort is that it could be combined with a summer resort, that you could enjoy the mountains in summer in as unique a setting as Taos is.”

When Taos was looking into adding a world-class field to Eco Park, de Bontin was asked his opinion.

“I pointed out that most professional teams and some college programs look for a place at altitude in which they can train in the preseason,” he says. “It really helps the conditioning if you can spend a week, two weeks. Most European teams go to the Alps for training. But there’s nothing in the Alps like we can have in Taos.”

He would love to see Eco Park expand, add another field or two, build facilities, or even a hotel.

De Bontin is beginning his first full season as GM of the Red Bulls, his initial foray into the MLS. He was once president of AS Monaco FC (and a former classmate of Albert II, the prince of Monaco, at Amherst College in Massachusetts).

He is impressed with the 19 club owners “who have been willing to spend their personal money” and invest in soccer-specific stadiums.

“It is a testament to the dedication of MLS investors that it has grown significantly,” de Bontin says.

He points out that last year, for the first time, MLS averaged more fans per game than the NBA — 18,807 to 17,274. While acknowledging the NBA has smaller arenas, he says not all of them sell out. The MLS teams with soccer-specific stadiums are close to capacity, with Seattle, and its average of 43,114 a game, the crown jewel.

“The worst statistic to be critical of is TV ratings continue to be very low,” de Bontin says. “Nielson statistics the past year gives you a sense of where we are. Last year the NBA Finals averaged 60 million (viewers). The World Series was 12 million. The MLS Cup was 800,000. You take that view and say there’s a long way to go.”

He says MLS teams need a stronger connection between its franchises and the local soccer communities.

“Unlike basketball, football, baseball,” he says, “(MLS) soccer competes with the international version of soccer. The World Cup had a billion people watching. When we show European games, then we see the (TV) numbers rise dramatically. When the U.S. played Algeria (in the 2010 World Cup), 18 million people watched.”

He says MLS has been a marketing success, but the “time has come to focus on the product itself. Invest more in the players, increase the salary cap.”

As for the international game, he admits concerns over game-fixing and racism. He would prefer betting not be allowed on soccer matches and believes that while FIFA could come down harder in cases of racism, it is doing everything it can to improve the situation.

De Bontin is a big fan of U.S. college soccer and of college athletics in general.

“When I look at most other sports,” he says, “our system continues to produce the players. You see more Americans winning more medals than the French.”

When it comes to college soccer, he would like to see the NCAA allow teams more games in the spring.

“When you look at the contribution of players who have played in college to the contribution of players from Europe, the U.S. products do a better job,” he says.

And, now that he is a New Mexican, he follows the Lobos.
— This article appeared on page D1 of the Albuquerque Journal