Cindy Spera: “People are so passionate about soccer. Sometimes we forget that it’s a business and it has to be run effectively as a business.” (Photo by Bethanie Dardant)
By Michael Lewis
Several years ago, Cindy Spera’s life dramatically changed while she was representing the New York Athletic Club at the Annual General Meeting of the National Premier Soccer League.
“Someone turned to me, ‘We need a treasurer. Do you want to be treasurer?’ Sure, I’ll do that,” she said. ” ‘You work in banking, don’t you? Don’t you know numbers?’ I said, OK, sure.”
Three years later, she was named the NPSL director of operations and last week the Northport, N.Y. native was unveiled as the league’s managing director. Spera succeeded Jef Thiffault last week.
It almost seemed Spera has worked her entire life to assume that responsibility.
After all, she has had a lifelong passion for the beautiful game, playing it at several levels. She also has a background in soccer management and just as importantly has managed billions of dollars for a major Wall Street company — most recently as COO of Global Operations for Morgan Stanley.
“Having a good business background and a good financial background is so valuable and I am glad I was able to have that experience at Morgan Stanley,” Spera said in a recent interview. “I loved working there. This is running a business. It might be soccer. People are so passionate about soccer. Sometimes we forget that it’s a business and it has to be run effectively as a business. So, that definitely helps me a lot.”
Spera saw several similarities between Wall Street and professional soccer.
“This might sound a little crazy, but I find the dynamic of Wall Street a little similar to the soccer world in one [aspect]: the different personalities,” she said. “You have your operations people, you have your crazy traders, and your commodities guys, your sales people, all different personalities. Mostly men. Now you transfer over to soccer and you have the different ethnicities and different types of markets you operate with and the crazy coaches and the calm coaches and the experienced ones. Again, it’s a men’s soccer league, so it’s very male dominated. So, there are, believe it or not, those similarities. It’s the experience of having to deal with all different people, the stable people and the crazies and whatever all the time. It’s definitely not boring. It’s definitely not less interesting or exciting than it was working on Wall Street.”
Not many women are employed in major positions in soccer, especially in the men’s game. Kathy Carter, who ran for U.S. Soccer Federation president, probably had the highest profile of any woman before she stepped down as Soccer United Marketing president April 13.
Asked if she thought she was a pioneer, Spera replied, “That’s a tough question. I think pioneer is a little bit of a strong word. I think that hopefully, down the road, that becomes an irrelevant question. The business world is catching up. There are a lot of women having so much success becoming CEOs and heads of companies. Some industries are going to lag behind a little bit. In soccer, it’s always been heavily male dominated. But I think at some point it’ll catch up to the rest of the world. I’m glad to do my part with that but at the same time it’s really focusing on who is the most able and skilled person to run a small business. I’m thinking of it as a small business. It doesn’t matter if you’re a man or a woman really, right? It’s really just your business acumen, having a background and understanding the game and understanding how to deal with those different personalities. … I can do my part with that.”
As for her soccer background, Spera played for the Northport/Cow Harbor Chargers in the Long Island Junior Soccer League and for John Glenn/Elwood High School. She attended Cornell University, earning some Ivy League honors before joining the Long Island Lady Riders and helping the team capture two W-League championships.
While working in New York City — first for Chemical Bank (now Chase Morgan) and then for Morgan Stanley, Spera became involved with the New York Athletic Club, first as a player — and then on the pitch, becoming chairperson of soccer and winning three national championships. The men’s team played in the NPSL when the league had about 40 teams. It now has 100 clubs.
“I always wanted to figure out a way to keep involved with the game after I wasn’t playing anymore,” she said. “It stinks when you get old and not to be able to play the way you used to, but I wanted to stay involved in soccer.”
And she is, as one of the driving forces of the NPSL.