Soccer exec alters city's sports course
Pro sports executives often come with a resume stuffed with a wide array of credentials before arriving at their destination job.
Then there is Mike Golub, who fills up the proverbial wheelbarrow, and then some.
Golub, president of business for the Portland Timbers and Thorns, worked for the NBA and Nike and major league baseball and the Oakland-Alameda Coliseum and with teams in the NBA and NHL, all before landing with the Timbers as chief operating officer in 2010.
The common denominator through a 35-year professional career: sports.
"I feel lucky and fortunate to have made a career in something I love," said Golub, 57. "Sports has been central to my life from my early days. To be involved in something that brings people together and brings happiness has been a blessing."
The Westchester, New York, native and Dartmouth graduate grew up in a family that embraced athletics.
"My dad grew up near Ebbetts Field," Golub said. "My mom grew up near the polo grounds. They were huge baseball fans. We became die-hard Mets fans after they came to town. I followed the Knicks and Rangers, and when I was old enough to get to the city on my own, we'd hit the U.S. Open (tennis) and the Cosmos."
While at Dartmouth, Golub was on track to pursue law school. But a mentor got him thinking.
"I decided it would be better to go for something that's a passion, something you'd like to eat and breathe and drink," he said. "If you can make that your career, it sure beats the heck out of working."
Golub started as a production assistant for MLB productions in 1983, helping produce such shows as "This Week in Baseball" with Mel Allen and films on the 1985 "I-70" World Series between Kansas City and St. Louis and an All-Star Game featuring a 23-year-old Roger Clemens. After three years, he turned in a new direction.
"I realized as much as I enjoyed (TV production), I wanted to be on the business side of sports," he said.
Golub got a master's degree in business at Stanford, then spent three years as director of marketing for Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum before returning to New York to work for the NBA from 1991-96.
"I joined as part of the events team, and ultimately ran the group," said Golub, who was responsible for putting on NBA events such as the All-Star Game, the draft and international games. By the time I was through, I was running a group of about 25 people. I remember taking Charles Barkley and the Phoenix Suns to Munich to play in the McDonald's Open. I went to the opera house with Charles. That was a night to remember.
"It was a great learning experience working under Commissioner David Stern. He was one of the most important people in my career in terms of being a mentor. I worked with virtually every NBA team — amazing learning ground for a man in his late 20s and early 30s."
Golub was in charge of staging the Tournament of the Americas for USA Basketball in Memorial Coliseum in 1992, the qualifying event for the Barcelona Olympics that featured the original "Dream Team."
"I was in Portland on and off for several months," he said. "That's how I fell in love with the city."
Golub moved here in 1996 to become a founding member and director of Nike Sports Entertainment, creating and administering Nike-owned sporting events.
"We did events with the Brazilian soccer team around the world," he said. "I took Tiger (Woods) to a tournament in Japan. Took Jordan, Barkley, Gary Payton and a few other players to Japan when Michael was at his zenith. It was a wild experience to travel with our modern-day Elvis Presley. I dealt with a lot of different sports and Nike's biggest athletes. It was a fun two years."
Golub's dream at that point was to work for and help operate a professional team. He spent five years with the NBA's Grizzlies, helping them through a move from Vancouver to Memphis, and a year with the NHL New York Rangers. "But I always wanted to come back to Portland," he said.
That happened in 2006, when he returned to become COO of the Trail Blazers during a period when the "Jail Blazers" era was winding down.
"It was something I couldn't turn down," Golub said. "It was a challenging time for the Blazers. I'm proud that, in a small way, I helped steer the course for the franchise to get back on stronger footing, which it clearly is now. I admire the folks who run the Blazers now. They do a great job."
Golub joined the Timbers in 2010 after owner Merritt Paulson — "in a weak moment," Golub joked — hired him as COO. A year later, the Timbers embarked on their inaugural MLS season.
"All of us are really proud of what's happened with the Timbers, and subsequently, the Thorns," Golub said. "It's been really fun to start a club in a city that we love and be embraced the way we have."
Golub said working with the Blazers and Timbers "is very similar."
"It's about building a community of fans, sponsors and media members," he said. "It's creating something that the city and fans can be proud of, something that can bring people together, to create compelling, entertaining moments of drama and to create a fan experience at the stadium/arena that's really enjoyable. That's at the heart of what we all do with our teams.
"But soccer is a relatively new sport in this country, at least professionally. Doing that from the ground up with the Timbers was a real challenge. There are some nuances around soccer that make it different from the other sports. I had to learn about the sport and our fan base, which are unique in some ways."
Portland became "Soccer City USA" in the late '70s during the Timbers' first iteration in the North American Soccer League. In 1984, due to financial problems and fading interest, the league folded. Golub said that can't happen with the MLS.
"The MLS is in its 24th year," he said. "Teams are selling at record prices. Fans are coming to games in record numbers. We've sold out every game we've ever played. The value of television property is growing. If pro sports were stocks, we'd be a growth stock.
"Soccer is here to stay in this country. It's inarguable. It's more universal than any game anywhere. It resonates with kids. It resonates with the multicultural population that is our country. We have a long way to go as a league, but we're growing rapidly. The vital signs are amazingly healthy. All you have to do is look at Portland. Every game, we have 25,000 screaming fans. I have no worries about the MLS going anywhere but up."
Golub's duties include oversight of the National Women's Soccer League Thorns, who are averaging nearly 20,000 fans per game at Providence Park, far ahead of the next best team (Utah at 10,992) and nearly triple the league average of 6,770.
"It's quite magical what's happening with the Thorns," Golub said. "They are really on the vanguard of what's possible in women's sports. The league is in its seventh season. The two previous attempts at women's league both lasted only three years.
"The league has been going through some growing pains. We're nine teams now. We hope to go higher, but with any upstart league, there are challenges.
"People saw the excitement around the World Cup this year in France. We have a lot of work to do, but the future of women's soccer is very bright."
The Timbers' payroll is listed at a little more than $11 million, which ranks as the ninth-highest of the 24 MLS clubs. With revenue from an expanded Providence Park, might the Timbers sink more money into player acquisition in the future?
"Published payrolls are not always a complete picture," Golub said. "We have always been in the top third in payroll in the MLS. That's not easy for a small-market team. The reason we can do that is we've had a very successful business run.
"Merritt is committed to putting a winning product on the field. Our track record speaks for itself. If we do things right and take care of our fans and are well-supported, we have more resources to pour back into the team to bring even better players into the fold."
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