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Frontier Soccer: A Conversation with FC Fargo CEO Tim Singleton

by on 26 January 2016

FC Fargo founder and CEO Tim Singleton worked part time dealing blackjack off and on for three years to raise the seed capital necessary to take a shot at his dream of owning and running a professional soccer club. In 2015, the Mean Green completed their inaugural season by playing an open schedule against any and all takers. We sat down with Singleton to discuss the team’s recently-concluded first year at FC Fargo as well as what its top man expects from the coming 2016 season.

This interview took place just prior to FC Fargo joining the newly reconstructed and rebranded American Premier League, where it will compete against five other clubs from Minnesota and Wisconsin in 2016. The interview that follows has been lightly edited for clarity and context.

First season under your belt, 6-1 in an open friendly schedule—what do you think went well for FC Fargo on the field?

Tim Singleton: Just about everything that could go right did, except for the one game we lost. I was scheduling friendlies before I even knew I had a team. We just had open tryouts, so imagine if you were to move anywhere for business and decided to do this—Vermont or somewhere. You have no idea how good your opponents are going to be or how good your team is going to be. I put the ad out there and we had 75 guys show up. Before you knew it, we were off and running. Our first game we beat FC Minneapolis 9-0. I was just happy we weren’t losing 10-0, because that sucks—the news-people don’t want to report it, so on and so forth.

As far as the open schedule was concerned, I was just happy we could play with people. On the field I really wanted to play Minnesota United Reserves, but they were a little bit too busy for us. That would have been a good way to gauge ourselves. But we did beat two NPSL teams, so that was good.

Touching upon the ad you mentioned—where specifically did you advertise your open tryouts?

TS: We started with the three youth soccer clubs in Fargo, we put something in the paper and we did something online. We also advertised at the Metro Rec Center, which is Fargo’s equivalent of Soccer Blast, where the city plays its indoor soccer during the winter. We put something up there around this time last year. I was expecting a max of 50 people to show up.

It was $75 to try out. I got probably 10 letters saying, “Yeah, that’s not fair. It should be free to try out.” Okay. Don’t come then.

Was the fee to cover field rental and similar expenses?

TS: We had to buy $2,000 of stuff before we even rented a field for tryouts. We had to buy 36 balls, two soccer nets, pennies, cones. We were starting from nothing. We were in for $2,000 dollars before we even got started. I had to say, “Sorry, we’re looking for serious players.” We didn’t want 300 pound guys looking like me showing up, slowing down the pace of play. “If you really think you want to play, come out. If not, we understand.”

As you advertised with several local youth clubs ahead of tryouts, what was the age spread on FC Fargo this past season?

TS: Our youngest to begin the season was 16, though he ended up quitting. If I remember correctly, he was a Bulgarian kid from Champlain that previously played with Minnesota United Reserves. He was unhappy that he was third on the depth chart, so he wasn’t even dressing. The oldest we had—Steve Harris, our starting goalkeeper—was 33.

Going back to the pair of NPSL sides you beat, how did those matches go? How did your team stack up?

TS: The better of the two was the Twin Stars match, as just a day or two before they had beaten Minnesota United Reserves 1-0, so they were kind of on a high. They had no idea who we were. When we first talked to them, they said they wouldn’t come to us but we could go to them. I figured it would be a good measuring stick, so we went there. Those guys were laughing and joking before the match. They started three or four of their first-choice players and three or four of their younger players, and thought they were going to handily beat us.

The first 15 minutes were bogged down in the middle of the pitch. We then scored two right in a row—the 29th and 32nd minute. All the laughing from the Twin Stars went away. I’m sure if we played them again it would be much different. They would expect a little bit more out of us.

It ended 2-0?

TS: 2-0. Yes.

And the other NPSL team you faced?

TS: We split with Eau Claire Aris. We beat them 3-0 at our house, then we lost 3-2 at their house.

A 6-2 victory on aggregate then?

TS: There you go. The funny thing was, when we went to their place, we only had 12 guys. I was effectively the backup keeper. I actually brought my gear with me in case Habib Beljulji got hurt—but I’m glad he didn’t.

What did you find was FC Fargo’s biggest challenge on the pitch?

TS: That was Tommy’s department, but I would say, we had 28 guys, and keeping the guys interested who usually didn’t make the starting 18 was probably the biggest challenge.

As FC Fargo is semi-pro, you are proving uniforms, meals, travel, etc. but you aren’t paying anyone a salary.

TS: We weren’t allowed to. We could give them a per diem on the road. You have to choose one or the other—you either have to have a semi-pro team or a professional team. It is a blanket statement. If you are a professional team, everyone on the team would lose amateur eligibility. Take a team like the Milwaukee Torrent, they pay everybody. If we’re going to not pay one player, we can’t pay any. We couldn’t bring in say three paid ringers and not pay anybody else. It has to be one way or the other.

If FC Fargo were to eventually become a professional team, how do envision making the transition?

TS: I don’t think we could move to becoming a professional team until we were averaging around 1,000 in attendance per game. And that’s probably two or three years away. I would like to do that, at some level. We start competing with college kids, then down the road, we start up a professional team and the team we have at the moment would become our reserve team where college kids could continue to play and get the level of their game up to the point they could start for a USL side.

Your manager Tommy Nienhaus is also the University of Jamestown head coach. Their season obviously doesn’t overlap with yours—

TS: —It’s against the rules.

Regarding rules, what governing body was FC Fargo operating under?

TS: We weren’t under any governing body our first year. We are going to be under the United States Adult Soccer Association in 2016.

I know that your club has been receiving some local media attention and have seen clips from Fargo’s local network affiliates reporting on the outcome of FC Fargo matches.

TS: All three of them, yes. It was kind of lucky on our part as I had no idea going into this. The town is stark raving mad for the North Dakota State University Bison, who just completed their five-peat in [FCS Division I American] football. But those guys play from late August into January. The town is just consumed with that football team. They also like their basketball team. But there is kind of a dead space in sports from March to August. So the local network affiliates are always looking for new material to cover between then. The only other team they have in Fargo that play during the summer are the Redhawks, who play baseball [in the American Association] along with the Saint Paul Saints. So, having more live events to cover was a blessing for them. They called us up and said, “Oh, FC Fargo plays in the summer? Sure, we’ll send someone.”

So they actually contacted you?

TS: Yes. We did some advertising with KVRR and one of their top brass loves soccer, so he is always coming out and watching the games.

What was attendance in general like your inaugural campaign? Did it build as the season went on?

TS: Not so much. I had no idea what to expect from our fan base. I was hoping we’d get gameday attendance up to 600 or 800 by the end of the year, but we probably averaged about 250 to 300. I have been told for our first year, that’s phenomenal. But our fanbase, they know soccer. If you sit in the stands, they are arguing about offsides, so-and-so would be a better centre-back than a wing-back, stuff like that. They aren’t just people going out to see something, they are actually soccer fans.

Establishing a core of soccer fans has to be encouraging. Hopefully it portends future growth.

TS: We had an assistant coach sit with us one time when Tommy was out of town. He was a goal keeper at Minot State and previously played in the NPSL. He told me he once played on a team where the owner dumped half of a million dollars in and there was nobody in the stands—say 20 people. Could be worse.

Any specific plans to grow the fan base in North Dakota?

TS: We want to start a four-team North Dakota cup this coming season. When I looked for competitive teams in North Dakota before I started FC Fargo, I found none. But, I found out after we started, we took five or six players from what was the best team in North Dakota, called Fargo United. They would just play tournaments here and there, and nobody could beat them. We played them last year and beat them 3-0. So, we wanted to put it out there that we’re the best. We can’t say that we’re professional because then our college kids would lose their eligibility. So, we wanted to say that we’re the best team in North Dakota. Pretty quickly, a bunch of guys in Bismarck said, “We can beat ya.” We tried to arrange and friendly with them, but we couldn’t make it work. But, what we are thinking of doing is start up a four-team North Dakota cup. South Dakota already has a men’s league—so have a three-game, four team event. Then, maybe play the champion of South Dakota for the best team in the Dakotas. Considering no team from South Dakota or North Dakota has ever played in the US Open Cup, apply to have the winner of that game gain entrance into the US Open Cup. If you look at it, there are a number of states that have never had a team in the US Open Cup.

Have you looked into the requirements for entrance into the US Open Cup?

TS: Not yet, that is something we’re shooting for in 2017. Remember the year the Des Moines Menace beat Minnesota in the US Open Cup? Our best player last year, Jade Johnson, was playing for the Madison 56ers that season, and he scored two against the Menace when Madison lost 3-2. He said it was a lot more fun than league games. So, he’s all for it. We definitely want to get in that, eventually. Bit late for us now in 2016, but 2017, that would be our goal.

Looking around at facilities in Fargo, you are presently at Sid Cichy Stadium?

TS: That’s the Shanley High School field. We had three choices for this coming year. Shanley is in the southern part of the Fargo-Moorhead metro and Moorhead high school is northeast of there. Shanley is a better location but it is four-times more expensive. We didn’t want to bounce around—we don’t want to be the Fargo Wanderers. So we ended up deciding that we are going to play all our games in Moorhead this year. In addition to saving some money, it is also a good way to connect with our fans in Moorhead.

We also want to make a stadium in West Fargo. Just start real small. Take a field, fence it off, put up bleachers and a scoreboard.

You are literally going to try to build your own field?

TS: Very grass roots. Try to add to it every year. We’re talking with West Fargo right now to lease—they have a soccer complex that has enough room for eight fields but they only use three. So we would borrow enough room for a stadium-ish kind of thing. So, that’s the plan.

Working towards your own field, do you think you could eventually achieve some sort of financial benefit after putting capital into it?

TS: My goal was always to make enough to do this for a living. Not really care if I make a whole bunch of money, but if I could make $40,000 a year doing this, that would be phenomenal. It would be more economical to try and get our own place. Plus, you never know, there was a team in Fargo, the Fargo-Moorhead Beez—an amateur basketball team—that sold for over a million dollars to the Golden State Warriors. So, you never know, someone could want to buy it. The Miami Heat’s Chris “Birdman” Andersen played for them.

Earlier you mentioned needing to draw around 1,000 fans per game to field a professional team. Currently drawing around 300 per game, that jump to 1,000 seems tricky. Is it insurmountable?

TS: One of the reasons I chose Fargo is that it has the Fargo Force—a junior hockey team—and the Fargo-Moorhead Redhawks. Both of them draw over 3,000 per game. I know soccer is a little different, but that’s what I was going off of. I want to get to the same level that they’re at. The big part for us, is that even though Fargo has a third of a million people, it still kind of feels like a small town. If you talk to anybody, “This place over here?” “Oh, yeah, I know that place.” Everywhere I went, I would ask, “Do you know who the Redhawks are?” I don’t think I got one, “No.” Ever. I would ask, “Do you know who FC Fargo are?” “Nope.” So once we bridge that gap, once we get to the point where everybody knows who we are, which will probably take until the next World Cup. When everyone will say, “Hey, we’ve got a local team.” And by then we’ll have enough money where we can advertise all over the place, at the same time soccer fever is hitting again. I really think that’s when we’ll make the jump to 1,000 to 2,000 fans a game. As far as things to do, there are a lot of street fairs. People will say, “What do you want to do tonight—oh, the Redhawks are playing.” We’ll get more of that. “Let’s see if FC Fargo is playing tonight.” That’s kind of what I’m going on, not just let’s roll the dice and pray for the best.

The local media coverage has to help, even a mention on the six o’clock news. You need to schedule some more games if you are only getting mentioned seven times a year!

TS: Yeah, we definitely do. We’re very lucky in that case. That’s one of the reasons I chose Fargo—we’ll make the news. You think we’d make the news in Minneapolis-Saint Paul? Not even close.

In terms of time on Fargo’s network-affiliate local evening news broadcasts, it seemed like your games were getting as much time as Minnesota United did in the Twin Cities, respectively.

TS: Probably even more, so we’re very lucky in that regard. I think the Fargo fans are fairly loyal. So once we get them out to the game—it’s a very family-friendly environment. This year—I have gotten some complaints from the guys who want to drink, as we have no alcohol at the stadium—we’re going to have a Dark Clouds-type section on the other side of the field. So we’ll have the F-bomb section and the family-friendly section, which I think will be good. We’re talking to Summit Beer right now. Hopefully they will become a proud sponsor of the Green Army next season.

I think it’s important, since we didn’t play for anything last season, this year we are hopefully going to play for three pieces of hardware. First, the league trophy—whatever league we join—second, the North Dakota Cup which we would like to make ridiculously big [Singleton gestures using both arms as if lifting a large, cumbersome trophy over his head] and third, we are playing SSC Minneapolis City for the Summit Keg. We’re going to have a travelling trophy like Floyd of Rosedale. A big, giant Summit Keg. Winner gets to drink it.

In Fargo, you have a few options to the east. Start going west…

TS: There’s nothing. If you are looking west of Fargo, I think I saw a group in Boise that wants to start up a team. There is a group in Bismarck that will probably play in the North Dakota Cup against us.

The funny thing is I have heard rumblings of two or three people wanting to start a team because they saw what FC Fargo did last year. I would say, “You might want to take a look at our balance sheet.” I had to put in, probably three years of part-time work to pay for that first season in the hopes that we’ll create enough buzz where we can break even the second season. Because we probably lost 26, 27 last year.

Thousand dollars?

TS: Yeah. I knew we were going to lose money. There is no way you’re going to make money as a soccer team the first year.

Hopefully some of that spending was comprised of capital costs that you won’t have to put back in the second year?

TS: Oh sure, equipment was probably in the neighborhood of $4,500. That we won’t have to pay for next year. A lot of it was stupid mistakes that I made.

Let’s touch on some of the things that didn’t go well off the pitch and some of the things you learned from.

TS: I would say, not the biggest financial mistake I made but the dumbest financial mistake I made was—so Shanley has a beautiful stadium where we played the Green and Gold Game last year. Right next to it is the Diocese of Fargo. In between there is an eight-acre plot of land that nobody uses. I asked them if we could use that as a practice space. They said, “Sure, if you mow it.” I though, cool, no problem. We went there for our first practice and the guys said, “Come on, let’s just go into Shanley.” You can’t. I bought two goals, put them out there, lined the field, and it’s not the perfect pitch, but they all wanted to play at Shanley. So, they’re on the phone—a couple guys knew the athletic director. Anyway, they found another practice field and they went and played there. Only problem was, I told the diocese that I would mow this eight-acre piece of land all summer. So I had to hire somebody to do it, and it probably ran me $1,200. God, that was stupid. If I had any clue as to what I was doing that wouldn’t have happened.

I also ordered 1,000 programs and sold about 300 of them. I got stuck with 700 of them. “Here, I’ll sign you an autograph. My picture is on the inside cover.”

To an extent, live and learn.

TS: And it is such a small community, now that I know a few people—you’ve heard of six degrees of separation? Everything in Fargo is probably two. My accountant and strategist probably know just about everybody in town. So, things should be a little bit easier this year.

Were there any other memorable off-the-field challenges FC Fargo faced?

TS: I got hate mail from some of the guys who didn’t make the team. That was kind of entertaining. I told them, I’m sorry. I don’t sit down with my coaching staff and make decisions. I’m not Jerry Jones. I told Tommy, I said, “That’s your domain. You take it.” Not my call.

That seems wise. Surely, there is plenty to do on the business side of things. How many hours a week would you estimate you put in during the season?

TS: Probably in the neighborhood of 80. That’s just the way it is. Last year we had a home-and-away scheduled with a South Dakota team that folded about a month beforehand. Minnesota United Reserves said they would play us. Then said, “We’ll call you when we’re ready to play.” And then never called. Then we had WSA Winnipeg who said they would come down, and then flaked out at the last minute. So scheduling was a bear. You’re trying to keep it consistent and tell people we’re going to do this, this and this, but it was constantly changing. People constantly backing out on us. Which will be much nicer once we actually join a league because they have cancelation policies.

When one of our opponents backed out, we played Fargo United, which was the best team in town before we got there. We played them in a game and beat them 3-0, which was nice because my guys didn’t want to play them. They kind of have this rough way of playing. They’re going to play cheap and its going to be bad. But, it was a game—it was 1-0 in the 80th minute. We then slotted two home. Then it got a little chippy. But it was nice because I heard a lot of the whispers, “Oh, we could beat FC Fargo,” went away after that happened. A lot of people said, “Oh, they’re not that good.” Then we take the best team in town, which has been the best team for 10 years, and we beat the crap out of them.

I am sure it is dictated to an extent by personnel, but what type of style does Nienhaus like to play? Do you have a base formation? Do you typically sit deep and counter? Are you focused on retaining possession? Or… ?

TS: He doesn’t really have a set formation. He keeps four at the back. That’s always good. We usually had one guy up front—usually Jade. A typical nine. I think if you were to describe it number-wise, it would be like a 4-5-1. The wingers would attack pretty well. Ben Eastwell, our centre-back, would also run the whole damn field. He would go on an adventure. You just put another quarter in him and he’ll keep running. The guy can run a four-minute mile, practically. We had a couple guys make it look like we had 13 guys out there.

Specific plans for the coming season—what do you have in the works?

TS: The only thing I can tell you is that we will join a league. We have it narrowed down to three choices. And it might not just be one. It could be two of them actually. Then, we are probably going to have the North Dakota Cup. We’re going to play the Green and Gold game again, which was a lot of fun.

Is that an intrasquad scrimmage?

TS: That’s exactly what it is. We put it on like it’s a real game. There are only three subs, we use a scoreboard, we have the introductions and all that. So it looks like a real game. But it is absolutely free for the fans, so they can come and check it out. I think we had 600 or 700 come out to that game last year. Then again, we also rented inflatables and all this other fun, free stuff that they could do.

We’re going to have eight or nine home games: one or two friendlies, two cup games and five or six league games.

Are you bringing back a fair share of players from last season?

TS: I talked to Jade personally, because I think Jade could play at a higher level. I really do. I think he could probably play on a USL team. That’s just me. Which is really nice, because if it wasn’t for us, he would have stopped playing. Just have said, “Yeah, I’m done. Time to go to work.” So, I am hoping we get half or so back. I’ve been contacted by about seven or eight guys asking, “Do we have to try out again?” There’s always a lot of turnover in minor league soccer. Ben Eastwell is now in Saint Could, studying for his masters. So I’d say maybe about half.

Then as far as player recruitment for the coming season, to replace your losses?

TS: That actually depends on which league we are in. We are talking to the NPSL right now. If we get in there we’ll definitely meet a higher level of play. Our team last year would probably go 3-5, somewhere around there. Tommy is a pretty good recruiter. He would probably go out and look for people who are NPSL-quality to come in.

If somebody around the Fargo-Moorhead area wanted to join the team, is there an avenue available for them to do that?

TS: Absolutely. Open tryouts on March 5th at the high school in Moorhead. As long as we’re around, we’ll always have open tryouts. We want local guys. Even if we get to the point where we’re a fully professional team, I would still like one or two Fargo guys on the roster. Just because it’s their team, and they’ve got a proud soccer history.

That is one thing I’d like to be able to do—to have one of my players get noticed while playing with us and then make the national team, or something like that. That would be phenomenal.

FC Fargo seems to be headed in a good direction. Hopefully you’re building momentum towards something greater and have learned from some of the missteps over the past year?

TS: A lot of financial missteps. Advertising last year was so hard—getting advertisers. I was going around this time last year with no team. “Hey, we’re going to play soccer. Do you want to give us money?” “No.”

We have a pretty good web guy who said our website traffic was way higher than he thought it’d be. So a lot of people coming and checking it out. We put our video clips online. I have a podcast I put on there.

Was there anything interesting you tried with your marketing?

TS: The Founders Club. I love that idea. That came from two different thoughts. One, I didn’t think anyone would put down any money for season tickets having never seen the club. Not to mention, we had teams canceling on us. We had no idea how many games we were going to have. It was a mess. Two, there is a club in Ireland called Drogheda United—the only reason I know about them is because they were the worst team in Football Manager, ever—they have something called the Claret and Blue Card which you pay for by the month, and then you’re basically part of the club. I said, if people pay eight dollars a month—kind of like a Netflix subscription—they get free tickets, always. They get invited to parties. We send them free gear. Right now I think we have 36 Founders Club members. It generates decent offseason income, so we treat them like gold. They can sit wherever they want.

Last year, it was kind of cool, one of the members came up and said his daughter wanted to meet the players. So we just marched right on the field. They didn’t have anything for the players to sign, so I gave them a practice ball. “Here, sign this.” So we get to do cool stuff like that for the people that support the team. Hopefully we’ll get that number closer to a hundred this year. It helps with the bills that keep piling up over the offseason.

The club must be incorporated as an LLC?

TS: Yes. Actually, I’m not sure I’m happy I did this—we’re FC Fargo North Dakota LLC. That’s the official name, because I’m a fan of Bayern Munich—FC Bayern München, even though everyone just calls them Bayern. We practically have the same logo, just green and gold. I hired a guy to do the logo. I gave him the NDSU Bison logo and the Bayern Munich logo and said, “Put these two together.” First try, he got it. I said, “Yes. That’s perfect.”

I’m hiring a general manager this year. Someone to help with the grunt work. I get bogged down too often handling complaints. There is more drama with a football team than in a soap opera.

Lastly, long-term as a business, what is your aim?

TS: My goal is not to make that much money. Just to do this for a living. That would be phenomenal, to be able to do this year round. That first year was horrible. I was expecting to lose $10,000, maybe $15,000. But I worked at Mystic Lake for a year leading up to the season. Last year, I worked from August to just a week before Christmas. I was really lucky because we got to keep our own tips there and I went on a tear. In four months I think I made $17,000. That helped. Having a teacher’s income, that covers food, rent and daycare and that’s about it.

Thanks, Tim. Best of luck with the coming season and on into the future.

Readers can find FC Fargo on the web at fcfargo.com as well as on Twitter @FCFargo and follow their coming season in the American Premier League at aplsoccer.org.

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