'With my background in the sports industry, Kevin and Dan's experience in finance, and our collective relationships in the community, we thought we'd be crazy NOT to give it a shot.'
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Good morning everyone! Today is one of those special interviews, as it's with a team that doesn't yet exist on the field or in a league. Lionsbridge FC is a new team starting in Virginia's Peninsula region. If you're keeping track, there's been a sudden rise in teams interested in, or getting ready to start playing in, more national leagues. Aromas Cafe FC looking to join NPSL, C-Ville FC in the UPSL, and now Lionsbridge FC (League TBD). And there's also Motorik Alexandria looking to play in the Washington Premier League.
Mike Vest digs into the soccer scene in Virginia, and the hope that they're step forward will lead and inspire others to start teams in the Commonwealth. Check it out.
Tell readers a little about yourself. Who you are, where you're from, and what your role is with Lionsbridge FC.
My name is Mike Vest. I'm one of the three co-founders of Lionsbridge FC, along with Dan Chenoweth and Kevin Joyce. We live on the Virginia Peninsula, a market of about 500K in the southeastern part of the state that includes Newport News, Hampton, Poquoson, York County and James City County.
What's the 'origin story' behind the creation of Lionsbridge FC?
It's a fantastic community with a ton of spirit and pride. It's an incredible place to raise a family. There is a great sports culture and great soccer culture, specifically at the youth and university level. But amazingly, there are no professional sports teams of any kind on the Peninsula. We have no major league sports or NCAA "Power 5" schools -- even though we're in a top-50 market from a population standpoint.
That is one of the reasons why Dan, Kevin and I decided to start Lionsbridge FC. Between us, we have 7 boys between the ages of 4 and 15. They're all into soccer, and we wanted to be able to take our kids to a high-level soccer match here in our community during the summer, but that option just doesn't exist today.
After reading about the fantastic success of certain teams in both the NPSL and PDL, and after talking to Kingston Stockade and Tormenta FC, we started getting serious about building a team from scratch right here on the Peninsula. With my background in the sports industry, Kevin and Dan's experience in finance, and our collective relationships in the community, we thought we'd be crazy NOT to give it a shot.
What is your sports background? I'm curious to know about what you've done and how that will help Lionsbridge FC moving forward.
I've been extremely fortunate to spend my entire career in sports. I started at the University of Kansas and Wake Forest. When I was at Wake, I worked with the soccer team for four years. That was a tremendous experience working with phenomenal people -- coaches, support staff and players who are incredibly accomplished at the international, MLS, NCAA, ACC and youth level: Jay Vidovich was the head coach (won a national title at Wake; now at Pitt). Our assistant coaches at various times were Bobby Muuss (now HC at Wake), Paul McDonough (Atlanta United), Paul Forster (CASL), Jason O'Keefe (UNC Chapel Hill) and Carson Porter (Wilmington Hammerheads). We had dozens of players who went onto play professionally and internationally, many of whom are still involved in the game.
I left Wake Forest in 2007 to help launch the Big Ten Network, and later held roles at IMG and the Atlantic 10 Conference. Through the years, I've been fortunate to experience all sides of the sports business and I am beyond thrilled to use that experience to bring high-level soccer to the Peninsula with Lionsbridge FC along with our co-founders Kevin Joyce and Dan Chenoweth.
Since you started the teams Twitter account, I've been wondering where the name Lionsbridge comes from. Why is that the name?
The Lionsbridge FC name has strong local, historical significance. Since 1932, the Lions Bridge has been an iconic landmark in our community. It's located within The Mariners' Museum and Park on the banks of the James River where some of the first settlers came to North America from Europe. For the past 85 years, the bridge has served as a gathering place for our entire community. Our club plans to build upon that Legacy and create a fully inclusive soccer experience -- a team for everyone. That's why we say, "This Is Our Bridge".
As you look into joining a league in 2018, what are you looking for from the league itself in terms of support, cost, competition, etc?
When we look at league opportunities, our criteria is probably similar to most people in our situation. Geography, level of competition, like-minded fellow ownership groups and expansion costs are all factors -- not necessarily in that order.
Why do you think there hasn't been a soccer presence in this area of Virginia in so long? I know there used to be the Hampton Roads Mariners, and Virginia Beach City currently plays in the NPSL, but the area seems like it could support even more teams than just the two of you.
Totally agree. We need more high-level soccer here in Hampton Roads and think there's room for several more teams. This market could support that. It's a large geographic area -- 77 miles from end to end -- with an overall population of about 1.8 million (~500K on the Peninsula, ~1.3M on the Southside). Looking at the data, this is a fantastic soccer market. As a state, Virginia has the 7th most registered youth players in the nation. Specifically in Hampton Roads, there are numerous successful youth clubs. We have 4 NCAA men's soccer programs in this market, 25 programs within 150 miles. Christopher Newport University is an NCAA Division III school in Newport News that averages more than 1,000 fans to their weekend home games. At the Division I level, Old Dominion and William & Mary both have great tradition. From a demographics standpoint, Hampton Roads was recently cited by Time Magazine as the fastest growing market for millennials in the nation. There are so many positive data points that show that this market is capable of supporting much more soccer than is currently being played today.
Do you think getting Lionsbridge FC off the ground and successful will inspire more people in the area to start teams and create player opportunities?
We hope so. One of the things that makes sports special is the close, geographic rivalries.
Having never been to the Peninsula, how would you describe it to an outsider? What makes it special, and why is it becoming such a hot bed for millennials?
The Peninsula is a wonderful place. It's part of a major metropolis but it really feels like a small town. The people are so friendly and welcoming. We have great weather, beaches, boating, fishing, world-class amusement parks and some of the most important events in American history have happened right here.
One thing that makes it unique is the significant percentage of our community that is active or former military or have a job related to the Department of Defense. That also feeds into the growth of this area, but overall, it's attractive place for people of all ages to live. Who doesn't want to live near the beach?!
Is the water actually warm off the coast of Virginia?
Depends on the time of the year.
Why do you think there is such a gap in player development on the Peninsula?
I'm not sure if there's a gap -- there's a lot of talent. There is just a shortage of player opportunities relative to the number of teams at this level. We are hoping we can help fill that.
Do you feel, as you look at a league to join, that they have distinct advantages and disadvantages, or is it really more like comparing a green apple to a red apple?
That's something we are still evaluating. For us, it's been helpful to talk to clubs who have been on both sides of the fence and hear about their experience. Every club will probably measure that differently depending on their own situation.
A good point. Every team has a slightly unique experience, regardless of league. I'm always interested in seeing what a team has to say when I ask this. Why does Lionsbridge FC exist? Without promotion and relegation, opportunities for the team as a whole are limited, so why do this? Why start a team, put your money into this, and have a go at building something?
This may sound simple, but it's about passion. We love soccer and we love our community. We haven't had high-level soccer in our community and so we are building the thing we want to see.
So that goes to our mission: being the Peninsula's team. That means adding to the existing community spirit by fielding a team that we can all rally behind, providing opportunities for young kids growing up here to interact with positive role models, helping to lift up the community and providing a first-class experience for our players.
Our mission is not dependent on being in a specific tier within the pyramid. Of course, we are just as interested as everyone else about the future structure of soccer in America. It seems like there's a major new development every month. But we believe that if we focus on what we're doing: fulfilling our mission and running a financially sustainable operation, we'll have opportunities to be part of the overall landscape no matter what the future holds. And we'll always be the Peninsula's team.
Is there a strong community spirit in the Peninsula? I've noticed you mention being the Peninsula's Team, and I'm always curious about how much tribalism resides in a community, especially when soccer is involved.
Definitely! The source of that spirit goes back centuries. Living here, we're keenly aware of the history of the Jamestown Settlement, the Revolutionary War and Civil War battles at Yorktown, the Ironside battles on the James River and so on. Our community has contributed so much to American history, and that continues on today with the presence of every branch of the military, plus Newport News Shipbuilding, Jefferson Lab and NASA just to name a few. There is a strong awareness here that our community helps power and protect America. Because a huge portion of our population and/or their families have direct ties to those institutions or employers, those feelings exist here naturally. It's almost in our DNA.
As you mentioned, there are lots of changes going on in American Soccer right now that might deter people from investing and starting teams. What has convinced you that now is the time to start a team?
Every objective trend line around soccer is positive -- media exposure and consumption, sponsorship, participation, attendance, etc. It's the world's most popular sport and the fastest growing one in America. And we're heading into a World Cup year, and that always provides an extra boost. The changes and growth make it an exciting time for soccer.
Do you think more people in Virginia are on that wavelength? I know there is at least one group looking to join the UPSL, and Aromas Cafe FC are looking to join the NPSL, so you might be entering a boom period for Virginia soccer!
It's exciting to hear that other ownership groups are forming here in Virginia. The more, the merrier!
Are there two or three things, other than getting the team off that ground, that you hope to accomplish to consider Year One a success for Lionsbridge FC?
Certainly, our focus is on having a successful Year One that positions us well to have a successful Year Two, Three and beyond. Tangibly, that means laying the foundation for a sustainable business, in addition to a quality on-the-field product. To put a product on the field, we first need a sustainable business. So initially, our focus is on building the brand, developing a fan base and building a network of community partners. That network includes people who are passionate about Lionsbridge FC and want to help it succeed, as well as sponsors and other marketing partners.
Based on what you've seen from other teams in similar levels, do you think it's actually a little more important to do things like build the brand, develop fans and create a partners network then it is to win right off the bat?
In my experience, that's true at every level in every sport. It's not even close. Winning is awesome but it is not a marketing strategy.
This could be really helpful for the teams reading this, especially since you've been involved in media. How important is it for clubs to really work on establishing an identity and story for connecting with fans, media and potential sponsors?
It's really important, but it has to be totally authentic. It's important to be able to tell your own story and share your passion. That kind of energy becomes contagious. It's been amazing to see what can happen when you put yourself out there, tell people what you're doing and ask if they want to help.
In your opinion, what should teams be doing that will help them increase their chances of securing sponsors?
That's a hard question to answer because it's different in every market, and it's a question we're tackling, too. There are so many variables. How much do you need to generate? How big is your market? What companies are headquartered there? What other teams, universities, events, clubs are also competing for sponsorship dollars? What sponsorship assets do you have to offer? How long have you been in existence? Every team will have different advantages or disadvantages based on their situation. The best thing a team can do, probably, is to just listen, try to put yourself in their shoes and find ways to be a good partner. Listen to what other teams are doing in your league, at the major league level, outside of soccer, at the NCAA level. Listen to the needs of the local business community. And read Sports Business Daily!
Let's wrap this up with some short questions. What's your favorite league and or team to watch?
Favorite league: English Premier League
Favorite team: Today, it's USMNT. Growing up: Kansas City Comets.
Favorite soccer players, one past, one present.
Favorite past players: Can I cheat this one and say the entire 2002 Wake Forest Demon Deacons? Won the ACC regular season, had 5 games with crowds of more than 3,000 and a roster that featured 9 future MLS players: Brian Carroll, Will Hesmer, Michael Parkhurst, James Riley, Stephen Keel, Amir Lowery, Scott Sealy, Jeremiah White and Justin Moose. And one media relations assistant Johnny Andris who now works for the MLS Players Union. A truly loaded squad.
Favorite current players: Michael Parkhurst and Brian Carroll.
Do you have any books or podcasts, soccer related or otherwise, that you would recommend to people reading this?
Recommended podcast: Soccer Down Here. Those guys do a great job of covering lower-level soccer and their interviews with various club executives have been a fantastic resource for us as we've developed Lionsbridge FC.
If you could meet one person from soccer history, who would it be?
Persons from soccer history: The Leiweke brothers. They were the marketing masterminds behind the Kansas City Comets of the old MISL when I was a kid (Amazing YouTube link about the history of the Comets.
Where can people find out more about you and Lionsbridge FC online?
Where to Find Lionsbridge FC online: Website | Facebook | Twitter | Instagram
What would you say to someone asking you why they should get out there and support their local non-league team, like Lionsbridge FC?
Why support non-league teams: There's nothing like supporting your hometown team.
Mike, 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. And if you'd like to read these interviews before everyone else, and make sure you aren't missing anything, 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. 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.