Up next in our espnW Power Play series, we highlight JoAnn Neale, executive vice president for Major League Soccer. In her role as executive vice president, she is responsible for overseeing MLS W.O.R.K.S.
espnW: What does the acronym stand for and what does the program entail?
JoAnn Neale: When we started MLS W.O.R.K.S. in 2007, the acronym stood for Wellness; Opportunity & Education; Respect, Fair Play & Leadership; Kids; Support of Human Rights & Diversity.
MLS W.O.R.K.S. is the league's social responsibility platform. We look to embark on national programs, but it is also important for us support the clubs' efforts locally, as well as causes that our players are passionate about.
espnW: As part of the championship weekend, MLS W.O.R.K.S. is revitalizing a park and library in Los Angeles. Why did you select those two?
JN: Whenever we enter a marketplace, we work closely with our clubs to get them involved in giving back to the communities that help support them. In working with the L.A. Galaxy and the National Education Association, we picked the library at Catskill Avenue Elementary School to refurbish. This revitalization is taking place during National Education Week, so we'll be creating a soccer-themed reading corner. We'll be donating new furniture, books, electronics and soccer programming as well. For the park refurbishment, which is in conjunction with our partner The Home Depot, the goal was to make Veterans Park in Carson, Calif., a clean, safe area for local youth and members of the community to gather.
espnW: When MLS enters a community for a game or a championship, why is it important that the league leaves its mark?
JN: We're really committed to social responsibility. The nature and success of our league is driven by the passion and support of our fans, so we believe it's extremely important to give back to the communities and leave a lasting legacy to show our appreciation for all the support they give us year-round.
espnW: Do the players themselves jump in and help with your revitalization projects?
JN: Absolutely. Our players drive these projects. We will have some Best XI players -- the league's top 11 players at each position on the field -- at the refurbishments of both the library and the park.
espnW: On Sunday at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN, the Houston Dynamo and L.A. Galaxy will face off in the MLS Cup for the right to be crowned champion. Talk about what type of game fans are in for this weekend.
JN: I think it's going to be an incredible game. This is one of the few times in our history where one of the teams in the Cup is the host location. I think it's going to be an incredible environment. The Home Depot Center is sold out and there is going to be an unbelievable level of excitement and passion. It will be quite an event for the people in the stadium and those watching on TV.
espnW: As EVP, you are also in charge of drafting league policies and procedures. What is the most important policy you have instituted thus far?
JN: That's a good question, but of all our policies, we are probably most proud of our diversity initiatives. Major League Soccer is extremely committed to diversity both on the field and off the field, so I think our diversity programs have had the most impact. They are also addressing an important issue in this country.
espnW: You also oversee the hiring of employees. What specific qualities make for the ideal employee in a sports league office?
JN: I don't think there is just one quality. You don't have to love soccer, but we work so hard that if you're not passionate about the sport, it might not be the best place for someone to be. Interestingly, a lot of our employees have played competitive sports at some point. I think that's because sports foster a lot of the qualities necessary to be successful in business and in life. It's not a requirement, but when someone has played sports at any level, we've found that to correlate with their success in business.
espnW: You joined MLS in 1998 as legal counsel. What changes have you seen in the league during your 13 years there?
JN: Wow, where do you start? There have been a lot of changes -- I would say all positive. From expansion -- at one point we were at 10 clubs and next year, we'll have 19 -- to our stadiums, which have grown as well. By the end of next year, we'll have 15 stadiums that were built or renovated with soccer in mind. We have diverse ownership groups, the creation of Soccer United Marketing, our TV deals -- I could go on.
espnW: Prior to joining the league, you spent four years as an attorney in private practice. How did you end up making the jump to sports?
JN: I think I got lucky, to be completely honest. I remember I was studying for the bar during the '94 World Cup. Around that time, they announced the formation of Major League Soccer. I played soccer from the age of 5 all the way through high school. I remember thinking to myself, "Wow, that would be such an amazing thing to be a part of." Major League Soccer was formed by two attorneys from Latham & Watkins, which was the law firm I was going to work at, so I sort of made the connection in my head. So I think I just got really fortunate that there was an opportunity at Major League Soccer, and I was in the right place at the right time.
espnW: You are surrounded by world-class athletes on a daily basis. Are you an athlete and sports fan yourself?
JN: I wouldn't compare myself to some of the world-class athletes that I'm around, but I do enjoy sports. I grew up playing soccer, and I love the sport. I think it's an incredible game. I actually play in a mommy league, so that's a lot of fun. It's definitely not competitive -- it's very recreational -- but it's great exercise, and it's a lot of fun.
espnW: That's great! I didn't even know mommy leagues existed. What position do you play?
JN: It's a small-sided game, so kind of all over.
espnW: Did you watch the Women's World Cup this summer and, if so, what was your reaction to Team USA's performance?
JN: Yes, I did watch. They played fantastic. Obviously, the result was a little disappointing for us, but I still think it was unbelievable for the sport and for the awareness that those athletes got during the World Cup and are still getting today. I think they're incredible role models, and we're very proud of them.
espnW: You have two young daughters. From a parent's perspective, why are sports important in the lives of young girls?
JN: They are extremely important. In a lot of ways, sports emulate life. You can have great individual efforts, but ultimately, to be successful, you need to be a part of a team, and you need to surround yourself with good people. To understand the dynamic of team sports and knowing that you can't go it alone is really important. It also teaches children that you may win some days and lose other days, but to win gracefully and lose gracefully are both really important lessons in life because you are going to have to deal with both success and failure, no matter who you are, so I think sports are an incredible way to learn those lessons.
I also think that girls are not always as nice to each other growing up but when you're on a team, there are special bonds and alliances. I think it's really important for girls to have that and to look out for each other on the field because I think that translates to the way they treat each other off the field.
For more information on MLS W.O.R.K.S., please visit www.MLSSoccer.com/works.