League Maintenance, Growth, and Middlesex: Kevin Griffith of the Bay State Soccer League
"I think the promotion and relegation is a huge help to the league. It keeps the season interesting ."
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Hello and good morning readers of AP! First, apologies for no newsletter the last couple of weeks. We are working to create a more efficient and pleasing method of distributing these interviews and articles over email, so keep your eyes on your inboxes in the next couple of weeks.
Second, I'm really glad I was able to get this interview figured out. Teams from the Bay State Soccer League, and the League itself, have been incredibly open to talk with us here at AP and to share our stories. Kevin Griffith took the time to talk about the league itself now. It's history, growth challenges, and fun teams names. Like Middlesex. I hope you enjoy it, he's covers some great ground. Check it out.
Tell me a little about yourself. Who you are, where you're from, and what your role is with the Bay State Soccer League?
I'm Kevin Griffith, and I've lived in the Boston area my entire life. I have played in the league for a decade (since I graduated college) as a member of the Warehouse Gunners (formerly known as Battery Park Gunners, and before that Boyne Gunners and before that Phoenix Landing Gunners - yes, sponsorship's are a part of the league). While attending an annual meeting of the league on behalf of my brother who was managing our team at the time, I was convinced to take on the role of Secretary. After a successful coup in 2013, I became the President and have held that position for the last 4 years.
How did you come to be a fan of the game?
My love of soccer was a result of my family. As one of the youngest of seven kids who all played soccer their entire lives, I grew up on a soccer field. My dad never touched a soccer ball until my oldest brother was old enough to play the game, but he went on to coach youth teams of all ages for 25 years and become a huge fan of Arsenal and the game of soccer. The '94 World Cup, specifically the Nigeria-Argentina game that I attended in Foxborough, happened right at a perfect time to get me interested in soccer at higher levels.
What's the story behind the formation of the BSSL?
The BSSL was formed in the early 1970s and was originally formed as the Bay State Industrial Soccer League. The original name reflects the fact that most of the original teams were groups of employees of some of the large companies in the Boston area. Early champions included Polaroid and Honeywell. Joining soon after were college-related teams like MIT, who is the longest running team in the league. Rumor has it that the BSSL, with its Saturday games that continue to this day, was originally formed as an independent league that avoided the political nature (some things never change) of the USSF-affiliated Sunday leagues.
What are the five oldest teams in the BSSL, including MIT?
Good question. I'd be lying if I said I knew the definitive answer to this question. Our teams change names quite a bit and our pre-2000 records are a little scarce. Also, our teams are almost all independently run as opposed to being established clubs like you'll see in the Cosmopolitan Soccer League. Kendall Wanderers is a long-time member and currently has 3 teams in the league. Other teams around for at least 15 years are Cambridge Arsenal, Middlesex, Groton House and GPS.
So we're all in the loop, how many teams and divisions currently make up the BSSL?
Currently we have around 40 teams spread across three divisions. Divisions 1 and 2 have ten teams each with the remaining teams spread across Division 3 North and Division 3 South. Promotion and relegation are used among the divisions after each year.
Are there any particular challenges that arise from trying to co-ordinate all these teams and leagues?
The biggest challenge the league faces is around scheduling and our teams finding fields to use on Saturdays. Field space is limited, not to mention costly, and our teams are often at the bottom of the pecking order for usage. Another challenge is finding managers to organize and run the teams. With the growth of soccer in the US, there are increased players looking to continue playing into their adult years. But it's tough to organize those players into teams at the right ability levels and find individuals willing to manage the teams.
Cambridge Arsenal is a great name, and so are Middlesex and Groton House. When it comes to promotion and relegation, have you found the be a help or a hindrance to the league?
I think the promotion and relegation is a huge help to the league. It keeps the season interesting with a lot of games having significant meaning, not just at the top of the table. It helps align the competition at the various levels and makes the vast majority of our games competitive. A few years ago, we also added promotion playoffs to the structure. There are automatic promotion and relegation spots and then additional spots that enter a playoff to see if they will stay in their division or be relegated or promoted. Our website shows the structure of how that works through the coloring of the tables. This has added an additional element of excitement and meaning to the late year games and playoffs.
Are you hoping to grow the league further, or are you comfortable with where you're at?
We would love to grow the league, but only if we are able to do so while maintaining the quality of play and organization. We have done a little bit of that recently with extending toward Providence to the south and Worcester to the west, but our teams have also expressed the desire to keep the games within an hour of Boston when we are considering new teams.
Several teams in different north eastern states have mentioned a desire to compete in a higher level, regional league. Is this something you're aware of, and is there anything you think the BSSL can do to address that?
I think the BSSL has done a phenomenal job of attracting and keeping the best amateur teams in Boston and our teams would compare well with any of the "semi-pro" teams in the area.
Participation in competitions like the USOC and USASA National Cups have been great opportunities for our best teams to extend themselves to a higher level, and the success of those teams has been a great testament to the league. The human desire to reach higher levels will always be present and I'm sure some of our teams or players have some interest in it. But if we can continue to provide a league with an exceptional quality of play without the travel, expenses, and time commitment of regional leagues, I think that's a huge advantage. Quite frankly, I think most of our teams on a weekly basis would rather play across the city and then go to a bar with their teammates than spend the entire day or weekend traveling around the Northeast for a game or two.
If I'm looking to start a team near Boston, I've got a ton of options now. CSL NE conference, NPSL, PDL, and now UPSL. Why should I join the BSSL?
We've already touched on several of the league's best selling points. BSSL has been around for almost 50 years, so there's a lot of history with the league. Promotion and relegation help us maintain a high level and prevent even the best teams from resting on their laurels. The competition level is really high, as evidenced by the success of some of our league's teams in the Amateur and US Open Cups. PDL is great for college players, but the season is obviously limited for that reason. CSL NE and UPSL are brand new in New England and starting a new team in a new league involves a lot of risk. NPSL is the most stable option, but creating a viable, sustainable team from scratch that can compete with NPSL's regional format is no small task. I think we're very good at doing what we do, and the four biggest advantages we have over other leagues are stability, quality of play, cost, and convenience.
What are two or three things you've learned from success and set back in running the league?
Our league is very "team-centric" in that league fees are very low, but the teams are responsible for finding fields, paying refs, etc. (as opposed to some leagues where you pay a big fee up front but they take care of everything for you). So you have to trust that the managers are going to take their responsibility seriously and do the things that are necessary to keep their teams, and thus the league functioning. We've had a few misses on that front over the years, but by and large we do a good job ensuring that the teams who come in are ready for the commitment. We've also had hits and misses with flexibility. We stick to our bylaws, but there are times when a situation isn't black-and-white (rescheduling games, for example) and we exercise our best judgement, but invariably we can only make so many parties happy. The keys for us are consistency and clear communication.
Is there anything you do at the league level in terms of support that has been really helpful for your teams?
Related to a few items that we've touched on already, we do our best to support teams that enter competitions outside BSSL, for example, by rescheduling league matches that conflict. And we were able to give Southie FC some modest financial support when they advanced to the 2nd Round of the US Open Cup last year and traveled to play Rochester Rhinos of the USL. And within the league, we try to strike the balance between being flexible to help teams as much as possible and enforcing the bylaws that are designed to keep everyone on equal footing.
We also provide the administrative and organizational support to our teams such as player registration, insurance, referee assignment, etc.
Ideally, where would you hope to see the BSSL in five years?
Honestly, I'd be pretty happy if the league was in a pretty similar place in five years. If we are able to maintain our place as the go-to league in Massachusetts for top amateur soccer and keep teams that could easily compete at a higher level, we would be satisfied. At the same time, we'd like to grow to 50 teams in the next year or two. We'd also like to improve the visibility of the league and generate sponsorship opportunities for the league and teams. With the increased presence on social media and the membership of over a thousand 20-35 year old's (a desired target group), I think there can be a significant value shown to sponsors. We need to find ways to tap into that opportunity and it starts with getting all our players and teams involved on social media. Along those lines, a relationship with the Revolution would be a great start, especially once they have a stadium in the city. I'm sure that'll happen in the next five years, right??
If someone handed you $1,000,000 to put into the league, what would you do with it?
Will a million dollars buy a good turf field around the Boston area? Probably not right? I think I'd like to see the league do three things with that money if we were ever lucky enough.
First thing would be to become more active and supportive of social causes using soccer to promote social good in the Boston area. Especially close to our hearts is the Ucal McKenzie Breakaway Foundation. Our annual league cup competition is named after Ucal, a player in our league that tragically died of a heart attack during a BSSL game in 2009. His wife Suzanne has created and grown the foundation to provide soccer and health education to city youth.
Secondly, we would like to subsidize the cost of fields to our teams or find efficient ways to partner with Boston and surrounding towns to allow our teams to use the fields. As discussed earlier, finding convenient, quality fields to use on Saturdays is the biggest headache for the league and its teams.
Lastly, we'd like to continue to support our teams financially to participate in state, regional, and national tournaments. Our teams would love to travel and play across the country, but being primarily self funded by the players, it's not usually possible. One example of that is the USASA Soccer Fest that will be held in Nashville in July. We would love to have a couple of our teams go or put together an all-star team to travel there for the tournament, but it's just really hard to make work financially.
What are two or three important lessons you've learned from running the league?
Biggest lesson is probably just to expect the unexpected and try to be prepared to deal with it. There's a lot that goes into organizing and running the league. Things will come up on game day or as a result of games that we need to deal with quickly and appropriately. Given that we are all pretty much volunteers, it can be tough and it's necessary to have as many dedicated people on the board as possible to help deal with the issues in a timely fashion. From there, it's all about transparency and communication. While it's impossible to satisfy every team with every decision and we have had teams upset with some of our decisions, being consistent and clear with the rationale of our decision goes a long way.
Here's some easy questions to wrap all this up. What's your favorite league and or team to watch?
EPL - Tottenham.
Favorite player, one past, one present.
Sticking with the Americans and going Past - Tab Ramos, Present - Clint Dempsey.
Do you have books or podcasts, soccer related or otherwise, that you would recommend?
Unfortunately haven't joined the podcast world yet and not much of a reader, but a couple soccer books I would recommend that unite the game with larger societal issues are Finn McCool's Football Club and How Soccer Explains the World.
Would you rather attend the Euros, AFC Nations Cup, or Gold Cup?
Who's the one person from soccer history you'd like to meet?
Maradona, might have a decent story or two.
What would you say to the person asking you, 'why should I support teams in the Bay State Soccer League?'
It's the best combination of grassroots and quality soccer in the country. And you don't have to travel out to Foxborough to see the games.
Kevin, thank you for taking the time to do this. Remember, if you are enjoying the weekly content coming out on AP you can Follow AP on Twitter, or Like AP on Facebook. And if you want make sure you never miss an interview, and want to read articles before everyone else, click here and sign up for the Newsletter. You'll be the first to know when articles are released and learn about other exciting content down the road.
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