Fan Ownership: Paul Scanling of the ASFC Supporters Trust and Atlanta Silverbacks
"The personal connection to a sports team is unbelievable when you are involved in the operation."
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Today's interview was actually a surprise. Normally I stop doing interviews in early December because of the holidays and the added things to do, but this news was too big. The Atlanta Silverbacks actually reached out to me about doing this interview, connecting me with Paul Scanling of the ASFC Supporters Trust. A little overview: The Silverbacks, playing in the NPSL, are giving the Trust the chance to buy up to a 25% stake in the club, as long as they can raise enough funds. As you know, regardless of the level this is big news for any team. Paul took some time to talk with me last week about how this all came together. Check it out.
Let's start by telling readers about yourself. Who you are, where you're from, and what your role is with the Atlanta Silverbacks.
My name is Paul Scanling. I am a classically trained musician from Columbus, GA. I am the President of the ASFC Trust, which also puts me on the Board of the Atlanta Silverbacks FC.
How did you come to be a fan of the beautiful game?
I am in the generation that was inspired by the original NASL. I played as a little kid, and by played I mean that mostly I played in the dirt.
I have always watched soccer, but until the last 10-12 years, I didn’t pay much attention to club soccer, especially here in America. I found the Silverbacks and really enjoyed going to games. I like the smaller park, more intimate atmosphere, and I was hooked.
We'll come back to that NASL mention down the line. What's the story behind the Silverbacks? How did these guys come to be?
The original team was part of the initial rumors of MLS, although it never was seriously considered. The Silverbacks started life in 1995 as the Ruckus and changed their name to Silverbacks in 1998 to honor longtime Zoo Atlanta icon Willie B., a gorilla named after the same mayor as the airport. The club has had a lot of ups and downs through the years, and frankly mostly downs. We are organizing to help add some stability and direction to the club.
For those who don't know, can you explain what the ASFC Trust is, and what it's working to accomplish?
The Trust is a collection of fans that are putting their money where their mouth has been for years. We believe that we can help the club do much better. With a population of 6 million in the metro Atlanta area, we feel there is plenty of room for a strong Silverbacks club that can develop players, provide quality entertainment for soccer fans, and do so in a different manner than others in the market.
Our hope is that the structure of the sport in this country changes to the point that we can progress, attract further investment, and climb our way up. We will never have a 72,000 seat dome stadium with a retractable roof, but we’re perfectly okay with that. That isn’t our definition of success. Providing a quality experience for the fans, developing players, and having a stable club that we can pass along to our children is what is most important. I fully expect my five year old son will be able to tell the ref that he is a wanker once he gets old enough that it doesn’t bother me that he uses that language.
Recently the Trust and Silverbacks announced their will be up to 25% fan ownership of the club. How did that come about?
We reached out to the management of the club to start a conversation about how things have gone down the last year or so. The club is under new management since 2016. They made some changes for 2017 that did not go over well at all: earlier start times being the primary shocker. It killed the crowd. Nobody shows up at 3:00 on a Wednesday. Well, almost nobody. I was there.
We have been kicking this idea around for quite awhile. The initial conversations among the fans started in 2015 as we were facing being dropped from the NASL. The core of that group reached out to others and it grew from there. We proposed purchasing a portion of the club, negotiated terms, and settled on a deal. Alvin Glay, managing partner, agreed that we could be a huge asset to the club. We are excited about how it will develop.
That's awesome. Are there any parameters you have to meet for this to happen, or is your ownership stake just limited to 25%, regardless of how many people buy a piece of the team?
I need to clarify that members of the Trust do not own a piece of the team. They are members of the Trust. The Trust owns a piece of the team.
As for the percentage: That is the agreed upon percentage at this time. That could change in the future. We’re going to focus on stabilizing the club and helping it develop. We’ll deal with any negotiations about changing that number down the road.
Got it. So you become a member of the Trust, and the Trust owns 25% currently. Is that correct?
Yes. That is correct.
Who's idea was it to do the out of town membership? As a guy who doesn't live in Atlanta, I really like being able to join the Trust and not have a bunch of, say, unused tickets to games. That's actually a big reason I haven't become a Member of some other clubs. Paying for more than I need, when I'd rather the money just go to the club.
That is actually fairly common among lower division supporter owned clubs. We are in touch with most of the other supporter owned clubs here in America. I am also a former part-owner of Portsmouth FC. I joined the Pompey Supporters Trust and purchase a share a few years back. The PST did such a good job of righting the ship that Michael Eisner just bought the club. While that isn’t necessarily our goal here, I hope we can do as good a job of righting the ship and creating something that makes Atlanta proud.
I love the Portsmouth story. Not super common, but it shows there is a way forward. With the Trust now gaining a seat on the board, how are you hoping to help guide and steer the club moving forward?
We have always felt like the club was not run with supporters in mind. With attendances so poor last season, it was obvious something had to happen or the club would cease to exist. We found that unacceptable.
We have volunteers who will be putting Silverbacks apparel in every sports bar we can get to. We will be marketing ourselves on social media to the types of supporters we want: passionate soccer fans who want to sing, chant, play the drums, wave their flags, set off flares, etc. There will be room for families, like my own, as well. For too long, the club simply opened the doors and hoped that people would show up. That clearly wasn’t working.
We also bring a bevy of volunteers to assist with ticket taking, clean up, selling merchandise, etc. That level of support is crucial to the success of the club.
So this isn't just about owning a piece of the club for the Trust, it's about creating a volunteer talent pool that help the team grow and thrive? Like what they've done in Britain with Wimbledon and Exeter City.
Supporters had already done a really good job of marketing the team last year. Is that going to continue, or will you ramp it up?
It will ramp up.
Good. What would you consider a successful first year to be for the Trust? An increase in attendance, better game times, better atmosphere, or something else?
A successful year for us would be a stable club that attracts more fans and doesn’t lose $100K.
How do you arrest some of those losses at the club? Or is that something you'll have to figure out?
Some of that will have to be figured out. Some of that is moving the kickoff times back to the evening, eliminating some overhead by providing Trust members as volunteers for jobs like ticket taking, parking, selling merchandise, etc.
So just giving the Silverbacks a volunteer pool for those kind of game day rolls will help cut cost?
Absolutely. The amount of Game Day Operations staff is impressive, even for a small club like ours. MLB teams usually have over 1,000 people working every day. That doesn’t include the people who work for vendors. Reducing that kind of overhead is vital right now. Hopefully as the club grows, that will be less important.
The team currently plays at Silverbacks Park, that opened in 2006. Does the team own the stadium right now, or does it rent the ground?
It’s a little complicated. The same group that owns the brand also owns the stadium. We do not own a portion of the stadium. They are separately managed. The park hosts Adult Leagues most nights of the week which are very profitable. We do not currently pay rent to play at Silverbacks Park.
Well that's good. Is there anything the Trust might be able to do to help improve the Park moving forward, or is that out of your hands?
We have definitely had discussions about the condition of the park. The turf is poor. The bathroom situation is poor. It is our intent to do what we can to improve the game day experience for everyone. We are limited in what we can do in that regard, though.
What's wrong with the bathrooms?
There are only one set of bathrooms and they are located near the entrance. If you sit on the far side, you have a long walk. They have had portable bathrooms on that side in the past, but not recently.
Maybe the Trust could volunteer to build some more?
We will definitely address the situation. Plumbing is expensive. We have to figure out a solution.
Plumbing isn't cheap, that's for sure! Let's circle back to one of your earlier statements about the NASL. Just finished reading Rock n' Roll Soccer, so I'm excited to dig into this. What about the league got you interested in soccer, and were you watching the Chiefs or the Apollos?
I went to Chiefs games at Atlanta-Fulton County stadium. I even have a pennant my parents bought me. I may have a ball with the Chiefs logo on it somewhere. I played soccer in the old NASL era as a kid. I wasn’t any good.
Must have really enjoyed that game. What do you think made the old NASL so appealing, and gave it such a long lasting effect on the soccer landscape?
It was my first introduction to the game. I loved it from the beginning. Big names was part of the appeal. The old NASL has taken on almost mythical status.
Do you think there's anything they did right that you might be able to recapture with the Silverbacks?
I’m not sure. That’s a good question. We definitely aren’t signing Ronaldo, so that’s out.
Strikers tried that. Didn't turn out so well for them. To soon for that joke?
Not for me. Flight 19 might not appreciate it, though.
That's true. Ready to wrap things up with some short questions?
Yes, gotta run soon.
What's team to watch play?
If the Silverbacks aren’t playing, I watch Pompey. I watch Bundesliga pretty regularly as well.
Favorite player, past and present.
Past: David James
Present: Christian Pulisic
Ah, David James. I remember him. Do you have any books or podcasts, soccer related otherwise, that you would recommend to the people reading this?
I’ve read quite a few books. I’ll send some recommendations when I get home later. As for podcast, I listened religiously to WorldSoccer Daily with Stephen Cohen. I still listen to World Soccer Talk occasionally.
If you could meet on person from world soccer, who would it be and why?
Living or dead?
Mourinho. He fascinates me with his psychological games.
Where can people find out more about the Trust online?
Online at www.ASFCtrust.org & on Twitter @ASFCTrust
Last question. What would you say to the person asking you why they should get involved with the Trust and support the Atlanta Silverbacks?
The personal connection to a sports team is unbelievable when you are involved in the operation. You think you care about a sports team now? Buy a portion. Be financially invested in the success.
Paul, thanks again for taking the time to do this interview, I really appreciate it. Remember, if you are enjoying the content I'm putting out, please consider supporting us on Patreon by Clicking Here. Or you canclick here to Follow me on Twitter, or here to Like the page on Facebook. Make sure to spread the word by sharing these interviews, telling friends about the blog, those kind of things. I can't accomplish my goal of maximum exposure for all levels of the American Soccer Pyramid without YOU. Until next time, Stay Loyal, Support Local.