He calls it his dream job, but for Ali Curtis, being the sporting director for the New York Red Bulls affords him the opportunity to not just chase the franchise's first ever MLS Cup but to also be a role model. And as the league's first ever African American sporting director, Curtis is going to have a lot of eyes on him, watching his every move.
On the job now almost three months, it has been a whirlwind time period for Curtis, a former player in MLS who also won the Hermann Award as the nation's top college soccer player while at Duke. Talking with him, he is measured and calm and there's a hint of reserve as someone who doesn't want the spotlight and just wants to do his job. He's made some difficult choices and a couple unpopular ones in his few months leading the team, but he has stayed true to himself.
Even when he was young, Curtis said that he was always aware of being a minority, something that perhaps made him stick out even more as he grew up playing a sport in soccer that is widely embraced by Hispanics in this country, but also by upper-middle class whites. That the “soccer mom” demographic was spurred by the visual of a blonde-haired, blue-eyed suburban mother in a minivan picking up her children from practice only underscores that the job held by Curtis as an African-American is now shattering stereotypes.
Since the 1994 World Cup team, the United States has benefited from African-American stars such as Eddie Pope, Cobi Jones, Earnie Stewart and now the likes of Jozy Altidore and Tim Howard among others. But by and large, the African-American community has not embraced the sport in large numbers.
According to Nielsen's 2013 Year in Sports Media report, just eight percent of all MLS fans are African-American. Now in Curtis, there is an African-American who is in charge of the most high-profile team in the league, a role-model for young people and someone who has transitioned from playing to management.
“I’m a minority and not in the majority. Growing up, I’m a minority and whether that is on the playing field – I wouldn’t say loneliness because I was surrounded by great teammates and coaches growing up – but I’m a minority and that’s something I was very cognizant of. It wasn’t just on the playing field, it’s also in the classroom as well or in various jobs that I’ve had in the past. It’s always been something that I’ve been aware of and cognizant,” Curtis told Metro.
“As a result of my being aware that I’m a person of color and a minority, I’m doing the best I can to succeed and make it easier for those who follow.”
He comes to the job with high expectations. Red Bull has the deepest pockets in the league and yet, has among the most vacant trophy cases. The one trophy in that case is the 2013 Supporters Shield, won by a head coach who Curtis fired within his first month on the job.
There is a plan, he says, and on his interview Curtis presented the team with a 300-page document outlining his vision for the team. Fans hated the decision to fire Mike Petke, the head coach who won the league's regular season two years ago. Undaunted, Curtis stands by the decision and some of the other tough choices he's made over the past 90 days.
He was previously an executive in the league's office, and before that worked at J.P. Morgan as an analyst. Now, he's making history as the league's first ever African-American to be a sporting director or a general manager.
“MLS has long been committed to diversity throughout the league – from the players to the League office. In fact, we have been regularly cited as one of the most diverse sports leagues in the U.S. Ali, who worked in our Competition Department previous to his appointment at the Red Bulls, is a great example of this,” said Chief Administrative Officer of MLS, JoAnn Neale . “His experience and enthusiasm for the sport will be an added benefit to the Red Bulls organization.”
As the league gets set to celebrate its 20th season, that Curtis holds such a prominent job is a testament to both the team and MLS. The league touts its Diversity Initiative and that Curtis has finally broken through to represent minorities at this level is another sign of progress.
“Race is not the only component that defines me, it is not the only characteristic that someone may or may not have in common with someone who is before or after. There are a lot of characteristics I think I have in common with other sporting directors and general managers around the league. What’s most important is that I’m aware of who I am and what is happening around me and to do the best job I can do,” Curtis said.
“I want to be successful, I’m competitive by nature. I want to be a success, I want to trail-blaze. I know it’s going to be difficult, not because of my race but because the job is very demanding. I hope that my actions, what I do, how I go about my business, how I go about my work, my approach, to various aspects of my job, I hope I can inspire someone after me to want to get interested in the game of soccer. Or I can inspire a younger person to be successful in soccer.”