That isn’t damning them with faint praise.
Soccer in the U.S. is famously unstable, especially in the lower divisions. For all eight teams to return to both the NPSL and to the North Conference is notable. Though two years is hardly long term, it got me asking what it takes for a club to achieve long-term sustainability outside of the whims of a single, moneyed owner.
To get to an answer, I spoke to a mix of owners of successful teams, owners of start-up teams with significant momentum, and people who have been covering the lower division game as journalists. In other words, I spoke to people who know a thing or two about what works and what doesn’t, and their advice all coalesced around a few themes.
One thing connects all of the lower division clubs that have found success, and that is clarity — in who they are as a club and in who they aim to attract as fans. That clarity comes from knowing who they are, how they fit in their unique market, and to whom they are talking. Importantly, it requires clarity beyond the intent to win games, and the demise of all but four of the NPSL league champions is a testament to that.
Drew Weilgus of Atlantic City FC, a new NPSL club with significant momentum, has created a club that looks primed to do well on the field but operates with a greater purpose. It’s a player-centric purpose, a larger vision that fans can get behind, that helps to develop players’ education or career using the club’s resources and doing it while they are playing high-level soccer.
“The Tropicana Hotel and Casino [the club’s main sponsor] gave our players who plan on playing here long term a career path and purpose that’s far beyond playing soccer for a few months,” said Weilgus. “Also, Stockton University gave us tremendous help and will allow players who cut their education short to go back to school toward future career goals.”
“Players are attracted to the idea of not being a usable commodity…”
Weilgus notes this is important because, “A lot of athletes don’t plan for life after the game is over and we want to change that as a club. That idea is why we’ve had momentum. Players are attracted to the idea of not being a usable commodity who is one injury away from not having a paycheck — and in many cases that paycheck is not even a wage you can live on.”
It is a powerful vision, and a vision that supporters can get behind because, in this world where top-level soccer is on TV, is on-demand, and where just being “local” isn’t enough, the teams with staying power are doing something bigger than just playing to win games.
It is critical that clubs have a distinct voice and, as a corollary to that, it is critical that clubs have a way to get their voice heard.
I spoke with a writer who has spent years covering lower division soccer and he was pointed: “Make it easy for people to cover your team.” This is especially important because, aside from outliers like Detroit City that attract coverage from major newspapers, many of the people covering lower division clubs are doing it for no more than beer money and likely just for fun. As such, clubs do themselves a favor by giving publications the tools to cover them and to do it well.
The keys for clubs are obvious ones, but so often not done. Post photography on social media, especially of games, and let publications know they’re welcome to use those photos if they provide credit. Have up-to-date rosters on the website with correct shirt numbers. Tweet commentary about games, even just the highlights like starting lineup, goals, and final results. Provide media contacts on your website so publications know who to reach out to about interviews, press passes to games, etc. Simple, right?
Clubs that level up will pitch publications stories and work to get coverage, and the ones that do it successfully do it with positivity, and with a soft touch.
“Don’t expect someone else is going to make an effort if you can’t be bothered to make an effort yourself.”
As our experienced writer said, “I’ve crossed paths with a number of lower division clubs from various leagues that don’t much market themselves, but simultaneously complain about a lack of coverage from publications. Don’t expect someone else is going to make an effort if you can’t be bothered to make an effort yourself.”
If it were only about vision and promotion, success in the lower divisions might be easier. However, asking people to pay to attend games creates an expectation of entertainment, of amenities, of a legitimate sports experience.
Jonathan Wardlaw, president of Little Rock Rangers, an NPSL club that regularly draws in the thousands, gives a lot of credit to his success to the venue and its impact on the game day experience.
“I hoped that if I could put as professional-appearing a product out there as my budget would allow… the central Arkansas area would latch onto it. I was somewhat lucky with my timing and with the amenities available to me. Our stadium is massive. It was built years ago for the Razorback football team, though Little Rock has only hosted one game a year for the past few years, and many are worried that when the contract with University of Arkansas is up that it won’t be renewed. Therefore, when I approached the stadium about my project they welcomed it with open arms.”
With a top tier stadium, Wardlaw worked hard to staff it well, went out and connected with food trucks to bring local flavor to games and otherwise was successful in creating a professional-looking experience for the Rangers. Especially in their market, with only minor-league baseball in town, Wardlaw and company were able to create an experience that was meaningful and memorable.
After a club sets the stage, Wardlaw suggests letting fans create the experience that they want. While some clubs have tried to create a supporters group themselves, others like Little Rock let the fans they attract create the supporter groups that they want.
“Let it evolve organically.”
As Wardlaw said, “Clubs should not get involved with ‘creating’ the supporter group scene. Let it evolve organically. It did [for us] and we actually have two rather large supporter groups! I communicate with both pretty regularly and take their suggestions seriously, but I just let them do their thing.”
The truth is that a club with clarity and voice will attract people, and if they have done it right, they will attract the right sort of people who will become the die-hards.
Wardlaw has great advice for clubs. “Just create something that relates and appeals to your local community. Don’t just try to copy what other successful teams are doing, step back and think about the needs and wants of your fanbase.”
Even the best positioned club, with the most-effective PR department, and most-fun gameday experience, still needs to create connections with people, and still needs to get out into the community and introduce themselves in a relevant way.
Frank Spaeth, general manager of Rochester, Minn.’s Med City FC, thinks that engagement with the Rochester community was one of the keys of their success.
“Our players did a wonderful job of getting out into the community and promoting the team. We did a lot of community service work with kids and families and we also were present at several events over the summer. We plan on doing the same thing this year. We want to get players out to practices for teams in the area to interact and maybe even help out and give some pointers. It’s those personal relationships that create the desire for people to come out and support the team.”
It was also about ensuring that fans who were attracted to the club were engaged with it.
“Fan involvement is key to success.”
Spaeth continued, “Fan involvement is key to success. We had fans nominate nickname ideas for the team last year and we received more than three dozen entries… we’re working on designs for our new scarf and we’re going to get the fans involved sharing their opinions of the options.”
That personal outreach, and personal touch, is something that major pro sports franchises simply can’t do, or at least they can’t do it at scale. Focus on engagement allows lower-division clubs to separate themselves from major-league competition and make it more personal. It is about people because, as Spaeth said, “without supporters, you simply don’t have a team!”
What leads to sustainability is a club’s viability as a business, both financially and in terms of the level of effort to keep it running.
What leads to viability as a business is successfully executing against the four principles above.
The principles are flexible enough to encompass clubs like Med City FC, which focuses on creating a family-friendly game environment catered to youth players and their families, and Minneapolis City SC, which is a social media machine focused on 20-to-30 something die-hard soccer fans with a game day experience to match.
In their approaches, these clubs couldn’t be more different and yet there is a clarity of purpose, a distinctive voice, a defined experience, and a community connection that each club have, and based on that it is no surprise that together they lead the conference in the most key measure of health: attendance.
But attendance, as an indicator of financial health, is only the beginning. How do clubs ensure that they last beyond the honeymoon period?
Sweat equity is a key component of any new business, and, outside of the occasional plaything of a very rich owner, this is especially true of lower division soccer. Assuming that a club is off to a great start, has put in the work to get the attendance and all that follows from it, how do they become truly sustainable?
“We wanted to create ‘The People’s Club'” said Minneapolis City’s Dan Hoedeman. “We wanted people building the club with us, making decisions together, putting in time and ideas and effort to create the club we all wanted. We called it DIY soccer because it was homemade and purposefully different than billionaire-driven pro sports. We started there because that’s the club we want. It had an added benefit in that our members, me included, are our doers and the lengths to which they will go to do things for the club is incredible.”
It is easy to underestimate just how much time goes into running a club . “There is so much work to be done. Many clubs use volunteers to do small things like take tickets. Our business director is a volunteer, she found us on Twitter! So did the two-person team who is working on social video for us. Both found us on Twitter and are putting in hours of hard work to move us forward. I have a list of people a mile long who have dedicated so much effort for the club. It’s awesome.”
It’s also the sort of thing that is necessary to keep a club growing, and is necessary that the effort is spread out among people to avoid burnout.
“As long as we have the people of ‘The People’s Club’, we can keep this thing going forever.”
“We would have folded if we hadn’t found people who felt the same way about the club as I do,” continued Hoedeman. “We would have folded if we hadn’t created a huge open tent for them and invited them in to create their club. As long as we have the people of ‘The People’s Club’, we can keep this thing going forever.”
As often is the case with the North Conference, it’s so very complicated. The longest-running clubs are Minnesota TwinStars and La Crosse Aris and neither fit within these principles — with associated youth clubs and sheer bloodymindedness the reason for their longevity. A betting man would bet that these two will stick around.
Dakota Fusion has significant wealth behind it and a connection to a large youth club, so its stability seems assured for as long as its owner remains interested. Duluth FC has a decent sized market to itself and seems to be building a solid foundation in many ways.
Med City FC and Minneapolis City SC, as articulated above, are clearly being built for the long run.
Viejos Son Los Trapos FC is a little bit of a cipher as, on one hand, it didn’t charge admission last year and I had expected a larger impact in the community but, on the other hand, has an interesting approach to pricing this year and is active with local businesses to build awareness and support. Not to mention, VLST has an existing club that fields multiple teams in the Minnesota Amateur Soccer League. It is one to watch, in a positive way.
Sioux Falls Thunder is the biggest question mark. It has major assets in terms of its market, its connection to a local university (the University of Sioux Falls), and the fact that it made it through its first year with a fanbase that seemed to grow by the week. There are some warning signs though, and they are across the four principles. It is one to watch, with a little bit of trepidation.
Overall, the prognosis for continued stability in the North is good, both in general and relative to other conferences and divisions in the NPSL and other “Division 4” leagues (the PDL and UPSL). We’re spoiled for choice locally, and that looks to be the case for a while longer.
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Tags: Atlantic City FC, Dakota Fusion FC, Duluth FC, La Crosse Aris FC, Little Rock Rangers, Med City FC, Minneapolis City SC, Minnesota TwinStars FC, NPSL, NPSL North, Sioux Falls Thunder FC, Viejos Son Los Trapos FC