Soboroff heads effort for ‘Chai’ Maccabiah

While global sports fans are gradually shifting their attention to the Aug. 8 start of the Olympic Games in Beijing, Eyal Tiberger and Steve Soboroff are focused on the July 13, 2009 opening ceremony in Israel of the 18th Maccabiah.

Tiberger is the executive director of next year’s Maccabiah and of the Maccabi World Union, so his preoccupation is understandable.

Soboroff is an influential and politically well-connected Los Angeles real estate developer, who envisions the next Maccabiah as not only a celebration of Jewish sportsmanship and solidarity, but also as a profit-making enterprise.

He was actively involved with the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee in 1984 and watched closely as top organizer Peter Ueberroth transformed the games’ accounting ledger from a predicted sea of red ink into an unbelievable surplus of $225 million.

The Maccabiah is sometimes dubbed the “Jewish Olympics,” and the comparison is not completely out of line. It ranks as the world’s third- or fourth-largest sport event, following the Olympics and Asian Games, and tied with the World University Games.

Tiberger expects some 10,000 athletes, divided into junior, open, master and paralympic categories, at the opening ceremonies at the Ramat Gan stadium, hailing from 60 countries and competing in 35 different sports at some 75 venues.

The quadrennial Maccabiah represents a major boost for the tourist industry, Israel-Diaspora relations and Jewish unity, but it costs a lot of money — $27 million for the host country alone.

Finance is a subject with which Soboroff is thoroughly familiar as chairman and CEO of the extensive Playa Vista multiuse real estate project, a one-time Los Angeles mayoral candidate and former president of the L.A. City Recreation and Parks Commission.

He was also the driving force behind the creation of the Staples Center sports and entertainment stadium in downtown Los Angeles, for which the office supplies chain store paid $120 million to have its name on the venue’s portals.

So when Soboroff learned that the 2005 Maccabiah made only $2.5 million from combined naming, television, sponsorship and merchandise rights, his entrepreneurial instincts were aroused.

“There is no reason why we can’t get greatly expanded TV and radio coverage, get primary sponsors for each separate sport, and others for uniforms and running shoes, just for starters,” he said.

To put concept into action, Soboroff recently formed The Committee of 18 (for the 18th — “Chai” — Maccabiah), with members selected from the vast pool of entertainment, media, marketing, advertising, business and philanthropy talent in Los Angeles.

The know-how and contacts of these experts is priceless, but in addition the 18 members will pay for the privilege of dispensing their free advice and efforts.

The plan calls for each committee member to give or raise $50,000, which would bring in $900,000. The money will provide scholarships for 200 teenage junior athletes from poorer communities in the former Soviet Union, India and Latin America, who otherwise could not afford the trip.

Earlier this month, Tiberger joined Soboroff in Los Angeles for a 10-day visit to pitch the idea to 20 carefully selected prospects.

“No one turned us down, and we have nine definitely signed up,” Soboroff said. “We won’t give out the names until we have all 18 aboard.”

His project is not the first attempt to broaden the public outreach and financial underpinning of the Maccabiah, said Joseph Siegman, the Los Angeles-based founder of the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame and author of four books on Jewish athletes, from biblical times to the present.

“Back in 1985, ESPN had agreed to do two one-hour shows on the Maccabiah, with Budweiser beer as the underwriter, but we couldn’t quite put it together,” Siegman recalled.

The 1984 Olympic Games, for all their financial success, met with some criticism that excessive commercialization and corporate sponsorships had detracted from the higher ideals of the international sports competition.

Might the Maccabiah be similarly put down if the Committee of 18’s ambitious plans succeed, a reporter asked.

On the contrary, Siegman responded, since most of the foreign athletes must now pay their own way to compete in the Maccabiah, a steady source of outside money would give athletes of limited means a better chance to attend.

Soboroff agreed that, in a perfect world, athletes from wealthy and poor families would have an equal chance to participate. Until that time, though, some commercialization is necessary and would pose no threat if handled “with respect and taste.”

For his part, Tiberger gave assurances that the organizers will strike a balance so that commercial promotions will not overshadow the sport events.

Organizers of the 18th Maccabiah, headed by Israel Carmi and Jeanne Futeran, chairman and president, respectively, of both the Maccabi World Union and the International Maccabiah Committee, expect a series of tangible and intangible benefits from their efforts.

Israel counts on some 25,000 foreign spectators, who, together with the 10,000 athletes, will pump around $80 million into the national economy.

The athletes range from 15-year-old juniors to master tennis players 75 and older who are expected to consume 450,000 kosher meals, 200,000 meals-to-go, and 1.5 million quarts of mineral water. Some 400 buses will shuttle competitors from and to events and an additional 400 buses will be available for guided tours to all parts of Israel.

About 3,000 police, soldiers and private guards will provide security around the clock.

As is customary, Israel will field the largest team of 2,500 athletes and officials, strengthened by Russian and Ethiopian immigrants. The United States will be second largest with 982 members, followed by Australia, Canada, Great Britain, Brazil and Mexico. Germany will send a 200-member team.

Some 35 percent to 40 percent of participants will be women, and soccer, as always, will have the most participants, with 70 competing teams — men, women, junior, open and master.

Besides the customary Olympic events, there will be Maccabiah competitions in lawn bowling, cricket, 10-pin bowling and futsal (indoor soccer), as well as bridge and chess.