"You don’t need a ton of fancy stuff to get your name out there. Keep costs low and use the hell out of social media. That’s where your fans will be anyways."
Today's interview is brought to you by MeritFit. MeritFit.co is a Kansas City based fitness and nutrition blog run by one of my good friends and certified Personal Trainer, Dustin Duewel. He played soccer for 12 years, inspiring his passion for fitness and nutrition. Check out his blog for all kinds of useful information to up your game and get ahead of the competition.
Hello again and welcome back to American Pyramid! I'm really pleased to be sharing this interview with you. There's a lot, and I do mean a lot, of information in here that is going to be incredibly helpful for the teams out there reading this. Zachary talks in great detail about how Tri-Cities has gone about securing sponsorship's, and how they've reached out into the community to punch way above their weight without even playing in a league. Check it out.
Tell readers a little about yourself. Who you are, where you're from, and what your roll is with Tri Cities Alliance.
My name is Zachary Sansom and I am a co-founder and current Operations Manager of Tri-Cities Alliance FC, an elite amateur/semi-pro soccer team based out of the Tri-Cities area of Washington state. I was born and raised in Arkansas but I had the opportunity to spend my high school years in Germany (my dad is a member of the United States Army) and that’s where my passion for soccer began. I was fortunate enough to attend the World Cup that Germany hosted in 2006 and I was hooked on soccer after that!
What's the 'origin story' behind the creation of Tri Cities Alliance?
TCAFC was launched after a stressful day at work. I had just moved to the Tri-Cities and I wanted to go watch a local soccer match. That’s when I discovered it just didn’t exist around here outside of high school and club soccer. I’ve never been scared of a challenge so I grabbed a good buddy of mine, JD Loveless, and we decided to remedy this problem. I know business and marketing - but not a damn thing about running the soccer side of a team. I asked around and was turned onto a gentlemen by the name of Ramiro De La Mora, who ran the local club league. We met with Ramiro at a Starbucks (because this is Washington and EVERYTHING is done over coffee), shook hands, and here we stand today. JD is the Business Manager of the club and Ramiro handles the soccer business as our General Manager. It’s been a wonderful partnership thus far!
What area is Tri Cities located in, and why the name?
Tri-Cities is located in southeastern Washington where the Columbia, Yakima, and Snake rivers converge. The name “Tri-Cities” comes from the three cities situated around those rivers: Pasco, Kennewick, and Richland. Our name came about for a couple of reasons. When we first started talking, Ramiro already ran a club team known as Alianza FC. Secondly, we wanted to embrace the diversity of our region and our varied communities. Thus, Alliance became an obvious choice for us as a team name. And, not to throw shade on anyone, but “united” is starting to become incredibly overused!
I've never been to Washington. How would you describe your state and local soccer scene to an outsider like me?
I, myself, am new to Washington also but it is probably the greenest, most scenic state I have ever been to. From the rainforests and mountains in western Washington to the scrub desert and farmlands of eastern Washington, we probably have every type of climate within these state lines. I enjoy fishing and the outdoors and Washington is perfect for that type of lifestyle!
Our soccer scene here in Washington is amazing. I know a lot of states claim that, but from the MLS down to local adult leagues, soccer is a way of life. Obviously, the state has a love obsession with the Sounders and the Reign and rightfully so. But even below those top tier teams we have nationally competitive teams with the Kitsap Pumas, OSC FC, and Spokane SC Shadow in the NPSL. We have regional leagues like the Evergreen Preimer League and the Northwest Premier League that have quality teams and dedicated fans. Our adult leagues across the state feature phenomenal players as well. We may not have the national exposure that some states do, but we have a soccer passion to rival any of them. If you ever want to swing by the Tri-Cities, I recommend the weekend of the Pasco High versus Chiawana High soccer match - the atmosphere and passion around that match captures everything soccer is about in our community!
As you've gotten Tri Cities off the ground, are there two or three things you found helpful for getting things together, and in reverse; things you did that actually didn't pan out that other new teams should avoid?
The best thing I can recommend to any founder, owner, or whatever you want to call yourself is to find a competent team to help you. No person can build something out of nothing without help. I had a guy tell me that he didn't want partners because he didn't want to split any revenue with anyone. There's so many things wrong with that statement! First, he didn't have any revenue. I'm not the best at math, but 25% of something is worth more than 100% of zero. Secondly, he got so overwhelmed that he just quit. And now that city is without a team still.
Another tip, especially for amateur teams, is to apply for 501(c)(3) status as a sports organization. In regards to sponsorships, it has opened up several doors for us just by the virtue that we are a tax exempt "donation." The IRS has made the application very easy and all online. It took about two months total to file for and receive tax exempt status.
Finally, don't be afraid to fail. Our first game, we showed up late. How embarrassing is that?! Not only was it a bad look for this new soccer team, but I ended up paying for it financially too as it was only right to pick up the extra field and referee costs. But we learned from that and rebounded magnificently. You're going to mess up. Accept that!
A couple things we did too early in the process was file business paperwork. We filed our business paperwork under a team name that we ended up scraping and had to go back and pay to change. So take your time on that. No one is going to come in and steal your idea as long as you are actively working towards it. Also, be careful with merchandise. It may be tempting to buy cheap from China - but it's from China. We had a batch of merchandise come in that was nothing like what we agreed on with the manufacturer. And, of course, there was no one to get back in touch with them. I have had more good than bad buying experiences, so just be cautious.
And, on that note, you don’t need a ton of fancy stuff to get your name out there. Keep costs low and use the hell out of social media. That’s where your fans will be anyways.
I seem to recall that the teams goal is to join the Evergreen Premier League. Is that still the goal, and how is the process of joining the league going?
This is still accurate. The Evergreen Premier League is affiliated with the United States Adult Soccer Association and is the top amateur league in the state of Washington so obviously this is the ideal landing spot for us. We have our application in to the EPLWA and are hoping to hear a final word sometime in November.
We do have fallback options. We could always play another season as a tournament team. We have reached out to the National Premier Soccer League about joining their Northwest Division as well, so we have options out there. Washington is a soccer state through-and-through, so there will always be avenues for us. (The day we finished this interview, Tri-Cities Alliance were announced as a new member of the Evergreen Premier League)
You mentioned social media as a tool to reach fans. How has that been working out for you? Can you tell if it has or hasn't made a big difference in getting people’s attention, and making them interested in the team?
Social media, especially Facebook, has been great! One of the things we watch is the uptick in follows and likes immediately after a game or tournament. It has always been significant enough to demonstrate that we are connecting with fans on the right level. We understand that it takes time to build a fan base. We try to stay engaged with them and solicit input. By keeping the fans involved with the growth, they feel more connected to the team and social media makes that feasible.
It’s also useful for connecting to mentors, potential players, and potential sponsors. I regularly pick the brains of other team owners in our area. There’s a lot I don’t know – but I guarantee you someone on social media knows the answer to any question. That’s a powerful tool. We also get regular messages from soccer players asking about tryouts and showing real interest in the team. In fact, one of our original players who lives down in Oregon hit us up on Facebook Messenger within a few hours of us launching our Facebook page - proving that the reach is real. And, as for sponsors, it gives them an avenue to not only communicate with the owners behind the scenes, but directly engage our fan base via ads and posts. That’s extremely valuable when marketing your team.
Embrace social media. This modern age of marketing requires it. Spending money early on print ads isn’t a wise usage of limited funds. Facebook, Twitter (which we admittedly need to improve on), and all those – that’s where your fans are.
Where I live, in Kansas City, there isn't a whole lot of amateur soccer to watch outside of some pub leagues, and by extension, not a lot of players to see, well, play the game. What do you make of the quality of play among amateur teams in Washington?
I love KC! I went to college in Iowa City and my buddies and I used to road trip down to Chiefs and Royals games. Never had a bad time in that city. Also, and my southern heritage will hate me for this, but y'all have the best BBQ out there!
As for our local players and the state overall, Washington has a certain draw to it. People that come here tend to stay here. We have people from all over the world and that has helped grow the amateur scene immensely. Retired professional players still compete in local leagues across the state. Numerous younger amateur players have gone onto to bigger leagues like the USL and NASL and found success. All of that helps to legitimize the amateur scene.
One of the things I love about our area is the diversity among the teams. There was a large WSASA tournament recently - out in Tukwila - called the All Nations Cup. Teams representing Romania, Mexico, Palestine, Gambia, Somalia, and many, many more played and it was an amazing sight. Everyone who knows soccer knows that each geographical region has a certain style of play. England plays differently than Brazil, who plays differently than Japan. It’s what makes the game unique and exciting. We have that here, locally, in the state of Washington. Not many places can claim that.
And, here’s an open challenge to any amateur team reading this – come on out to Tri-Cities and we’ll show you personally why I say Washington has the best amateur soccer players in the country!
Nothing like throwing down the gauntlet with a little open challenge, and on behalf of KC, I accept your recognition of our superior BBQ. Have you had any issues with finding places to play in your area, and what does the process of finding a field to call home look like?
This has been the hardest aspect of our adventure, hands down. There aren’t any soccer specific stadiums anywhere in town. Like most teams our size, we have had to chat with churches, schools, city parks – anywhere that had grass and enough room. We also had to make sure whatever venue we did pick met the league requirements for size and amenities.
Once we finally narrowed in on a field to use – in our case Lampson Stadium in Kennewick – we then had to go through the process of securing it for our use. Ensuring field availability, getting the right insurance since it was a school facility, doing walkthroughs to determine where we could set stuff up at, signing paper after paper. It all took a lot more time than we ever imagined. And, like most school facilities, we STILL have the potential to be bumped with a moment’s notice if something school related conflicts with our games. In order to help plan for this, we have an agreement in place with a couple other stadiums and fields but it’s a major inconvenience for the players and fans to move around mid-season.
On the subject of sponsors, how has that process looked for you? Have you found it difficult to secure sponsors, or have they been pretty opening to supporting what you're doing?
We’ve been really lucky in this department. The desire for higher level soccer in Tri-Cities has been brewing under the surface for a decade or more. Once my group brought it into the open and showed we were willing to make it work, we’ve met with very few closed doors from sponsors. The more we get out and about in the community and participate in tournaments and become recognized in town, the more phone calls and emails we receive from sponsors.
I understand this is probably not the norm for most of the new teams. The thing that has helped us the most has been the passion shown by our owners and players. Once we get into a meeting with a potential sponsor, we make sure that they are just excited about the soccer team as we are PRIOR to even discussing numbers. I picked ownership partners based off of two criteria: they had to strengthen my weaknesses and they had to be as passionate as I am about the sport and this team in particular. I hit that out of the park. In fact, I’m probably playing catch-up at this point!
My best advice for owners seeking sponsors is to know your team and what your team can do for the sponsor. You want to overload them with things that you’ll do for them – on-the-pitch jerseys, fan replica jerseys, ads, mentions, swag giveaways – all this stuff means brand awareness for the sponsor and that’s what they really want. Bring some free team logo t-shirts for them. Even if they don’t hand you a check, you might have earned a fan. And, it seems small, but delete “sponsor” from your pitch. This is a “fiscal partnership.” A partnership implies we’re in this together and creates a tighter bond. It’s the little things that will make or break the sponsorship – excuse me, fiscal partnership – pitch.
Fiscal Partnership. I like the sound of that a lot more, especially when you're discussing an adult side, not a kid’s team. Do you have any particular packages or other things you say to these businesses that you would be willing to share with the teams reading this?
We do. We offer what we call the “Gold,” “Silver,” and “Bronze” packages (we need to work on those names a little). Basically, each one is highlighted by a logo on the jersey – either front, back, or sleeve. But everyone expects that so you need more. That’s where the fun begins because you can get creative. Our packages include a ton of extras: Logo on our Facebook page with link back to their website, on field signs, logo on game day merchandise, logo on marketing materials/press releases, PA announcements during the games, player appearances, replica trophies and medals, signed photos, and free tickets. All this stuff costs us nothing or very little but means a lot to a potential partner. It’s all stuff you would probably do anyway so by putting it on paper, you visually make that package seem so much more enticing.
Also, don’t be stingy with things. If you offer the potential partner 10 season tickets and they want 50, give it to them. That’s 50 people in your stands – with at least half of them buying something. You’re coming out ahead in EVERY aspect on this deal.
Unfortunately, I can’t publish the prices for our packages. However, I have no problem disclosing them to interested parties via social media messaging or some other form of communication. Just reach out and ask!
One other thing to mention is to try to sell every piece of real estate you have. Look at marketing training jersey logos, season tickets, the backs of game day tickets, pocket schedules. Anything and everything that has an open space could be a little sliver of your financial pie.
How do you guys currently go about recruiting players? Does having a team, and not a league, make that difficult at all?
It is definitely harder without a league. Players want to be part of something and, while they have that as a team, they want to compete against a known quantity. Playing in tournaments are fun – but it doesn’t compare to taking on a league champion in your home stadium. Our players know that. We fully expect that, by joining a league, we’ll see player interest increase dramatically. That’s why that’s the main focus of our efforts right now.
Recruiting players is hard for me to talk on since our GM handles that. He’s very good at it so I stay out of the way. I do know he recruited a bunch of players from with the local club leagues around our city. He has been a fixture in that scene for years so it was easy for him to know names and it was easy for those players to trust him. As we started playing we started to get messages from interested players on Facebook and Twitter and all those avenues. We hold open practices where anyone interested can show up and train with our guys. That gives the coaches and the GM a chance to watch them interact with the current squad. It was very successful in uncovering a couple “hidden talents” in the cities.
Back on the topic of Fiscal Partners, are there any particular packages they seem to be really, really interested over others, and do certain types of companies respond more so than others?
Anything that puts the logo in front of people. Obviously, the prime real estate is the uniform. That forever links the fiscal partner and the team. Other things that have been popular include uniformed player appearances and match day giveaways. One thing that surprised us on its popularity - and was advice from our local minor league baseball team, the Tri-Cities Dust Devils - was to advertise on pocket schedules. 10,000 pocket schedules are relatively inexpensive and they reach a huge range of people. To our surprise, the fiscal sponsors loved that!
What did the application process for the Evergreen Premier League look like?
The process itself was pretty easy. It was an expected application. Explain your ownership structure, where you recruit players from, where you plan to play your home games, and all that kind of stuff. We commissioned a freelancer to develop a professional looking proposal as an added touch. Also, if you haven’t tried it yet, utilize Fiverr and Upwork for freelance work. Very talented people on there. We do all of our social media banners and smaller artwork projects through Fiverr and our more in-depth projects through Upwork.
But what really mattered was everything we did prior to that application. We reached out to team owners for advice and mentorship, but it also let them know who we were and what our plan was. We played in tournaments and friendlies to show that we could travel and compete. We created merchandise and stayed active on social media. All of these things helped grow the brand so that when we finally did apply to the EPLWA, we were a known entity. Hopefully, that works out in our favor.
Would you advise other teams looking to join a league to do something similar? Scheduling friendlies, being active on social media, introducing themselves to existing teams and asking for advice?
Absolutely! Think of it like this: you are the new kid at school and you want to go to that big, end of the year party at Popular Jock’s house that all the “cool” kids go to. You don’t just show up and expect to be accepted. Life doesn’t work that way. You have to establish your brand before you ask others to accept you. You have to be a known commodity.
Look at it from the league’s perspective. If you have a successful league, why would you want to gamble on a team of guys that say they are capable of playing a full season competitively, but they haven’t even stepped foot on the pitch or reached out via phone call or email? It doesn’t make business sense for the league.
This could be a touchy question for some readers, but it sounds like you're running Tri Cities in a very business like manner. Do you see your club as a business, just as much as, if not more so, than a sporting team? And why do you think it's seemingly passe for soccer clubs, especially at the lower levels, to admit they're running a business, first and foremost?
I think you have to run it as a business to be successful. You have to cover both aspects of the franchise - business and soccer - but at the bare bones of it a team is a business. Look at our ownership group. We have one guy filling the role of general manager and handling the soccer side of things. We have TWO guys on the business side. That’s not to say that the business aspects are any more important than soccer aspects, but I firmly believe that you can’t be successful at one without the other.
I think soccer clubs in general just lack a certain business acumen and that’s what scares them away from describing themselves as a business. What I have seen with small clubs is that it’s a bunch of buddies that enjoy playing together and are seeking higher competition. While there is absolutely nothing wrong with that and I applaud and support those guys, that’s not a recipe for long term success. That’s why I will always advocate for partnerships in the soccer world. If you know business, get a partner that knows soccer like we did. If you know soccer, reach out to a local business person and bring them aboard.
For some reason, Americans want to view sports as strictly that. But look at the top with the MLS, the NBA, the NFL, the MLB – and probably the NHL but I’m not a hockey guy. Those franchises are run at the top by businessmen, not players. General managers and team shot-callers tend to have playing experience because it’s needed there. There is a defined structure for professional sports. All we are doing is following that template.
What should people expect from the club in the upcoming EPL season?
I love telling this story. When I first hatched the idea of bringing semi-pro soccer to the Tri-Cities, everyone turned me onto this guy named Ramiro. Everyone! He was the soccer guy in this town. So I met him at Starbucks and, long story short, I promised him the ticket into the EPLWA and he promised a competitive team from the jump. He has delivered so far so I fully expect an EPLWA title within the next couple years!
Let's wrap this up with some short questions. What's your favorite league and or team to watch for fun?
I’m a Bundesliga fan far and away. Bayern Munich has always been my go-to team.
Favorite soccer players, one past, one present.
Presently, Thomas Muller. Past, Landon Donovan.
Do you have any books or podcasts, soccer related or otherwise, that you would recommend to people reading this?
Man, that’s a good question. I am a fan of short podcasts, 5-8 minutes in length. Some of the ones I prefer are Social Media Marketing, Beyond the To-Do List and a few others. I don’t get into sports podcasts too much because it’s mostly opinions. Though I am a fan of soccer blogs like GoalWa.net, Non-League America, and, of course, American Pyramid.
If you could meet one person from soccer history, who would it be?
This one is easy. Pele. Everything he did, not only for world soccer, but specifically American soccer during his time with the Cosmos. Phenomenal player and an even better person.
Where can people find out more about you and Tri Cities Alliance online?
Facebook is the best bet right now. https://www.facebook.com/TriCitiesAlliance/. We will be launching a website this month so be on the lookout for that. It’ll be www.tricitiesalliance.com. And we are always around on Twitter at @TriCityAlliance.
What would you say to someone asking you why they should get out there and support their local non-league team, like Tri Cities Alliance?
Non-league sports are all about the community. It’s not always about the score or who is on the field - it’s a way to get a group of people who share a common interest to spend a couple hours enjoying the event. Of course it always helps the players when you have a bigger crowd cheering you on.
Zachary, 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, I'd encourage you to click 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.