"Regarding the name I felt like if you have the opportunity to represent one of the worlds greatest cities then why dilute it."
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Good morning everyone! I'm going to apologize upfront that today's intro is a little longer than normal. Firstly, as I'm sure most of you are aware of by now, I have partnered with the fine group behind American Soccer United to create an association for non-league clubs, regardless of league or size, called American Soccer Clubs United. It's a free, voluntary association to help unite teams to push for change and reform while leveraging the size of membership to get discounted goods from vendors. If you are with a club and reading this and haven't yet joined, you can do so by clicking Here.
Second, a little context for this interview. About a month ago, I started to engage with Nick Swinmurn via Twitter about his efforts to bring the USL to San Francisco. Things had started to break down a little, as they often do on the internet, as the discussion turned to the soccer scene and fans in San Fran. Thinking I might be a little too optimistic, I mentioned doing an interview to discuss the soccer scene and its challenges.
This turned into what I consider to be a very enlightening interview covering not just the scene and it's challenges, but Nick's fairly unknown involvement in the non league scene in Northern California. I know some readers might be off-put by the fact that I'm interviewing a USL guy, but withhold judgement until you've read the whole thing. Check it out.
Tell readers a little about yourself. Who you are, where you're from, and how you came to be a fan of the beautiful game.
I was born in Swindon, England. Grew up walking to Swindon Town games as a soccer crazed kid. Went to see Spurs when they came to play Swindon in the league in 1980. Seemed unbelievable to see big stars like Ossie Ardilles and Ricardo Villa in person and have been a Spurs fan ever since. We moved to the US a few months later, finally made it to White Hart Lane for the first time this past season.
There were no organized leagues for my age before we moved so was super excited toplay AYSO and begin my journey to professional soccer stardom. Unfortunately still remember my first practice in US (2nd grade) when we took penalties (prob from about 10 feet) and my shot didn't reach the goal line, my dreams shattered. Enjoyed playing through elementary and junior high school, didn't make high school team so pro career was over for a second time.
As I became more and more American each day, watching England play on TV over the years was primary reminder I was British as memories of being a kid, collecting Panini stickerbooks and seeing Wembley as a magical place, would come flooding back. I stared at the screen in my SF studio for a good hour without moving after England lost to Argentina in the 98 World Cup.
The following year I started an online shoe company, Zappos.com. As the EPL became more and more available on TV I was able to watch Tottenham regularly, still holding steady in my second favorite team of all teams spot behind the Warriors.
How did you wind up involved with the San Francisco FC USL bid?
Read an article about the financial struggles of the SF Seals PDL team in 2006, so reached out and offered to invest, with contingency that they move to Redwood City, as I felt they had best chance to succeed in an area with no other team to support. That was ultimately a deal breaker for the owner so nothing materialized.
During the 2014 World Cup I got the soccer bug again. Began working on a plan for a Bay Area league but soon realized might be better to do one team before attempting a league and applied for a franchise in the PDL. The Quakes had the rights to San Mateo county, even though their PDL team at the time was playing a couple of hours away in Turlock, so were told not possible without their permission.
Set up a meeting through my Quakes ticket rep and as our goal was to build a team in Burlingame and their only goal was player development, we reached a deal where they sold us their franchise for the $50k expansion rate at the time (about $50k more than they had paid - see profits are possible in soccer, lol). We rebranded as the Burlingame Dragons and handled operations, the Quakes supplied the coach and players, and we began play in 2015.
We made the playoffs each of our first two years, losing in the Western Conference semifinals in Tucson both years. This past year we missed the playoffs for the first time. While the Dragons is a fun project for the community and have been able to watch a lot of great players (4 players from last year's Dragons team have started in MLS this season), the three month schedule and challenge of an amateur league make it hard to grow beyond where it is. USL has always been intriguing so we decided to stop thinking about it and just go ahead and apply for a 2019 expansion franchise as SFFC. The Dragons will continue tom play in the PDL.
One of the main reasons I wanted to talk to you about not just San Francisco FC, but the soccer scene in San Francisco period, it that there seems to be a lot of information, not all of it true, and a lot of deep battle-lines in place that make this whole situation intimidating for an outsider. Let's lay some ground work before diving into the tough stuff. How would you describe San Francisco to an outsider who hasn't been, like myself, and what does the soccer scene look like in the city?
I think as with any scene you have different levels of passion and inclusion. The majority of people I have interacted with in and around San Francisco that are interested in soccer are just that, interested in or passionate about soccer, and enjoy interacting with other people with that shared interest. It's an interest, whether it be at the local or global level, but within their life just one of many. This group in general has yet to embrace a local soccer club.
There is a second obviously smaller group who are passionate for San Francisco soccer specifically, as it is where they currently live or are from, and they'd like to see their city represented on a broader scale. Some of this group has attended a local clubs game but the majority, for whatever reason, haven't yet been spurred into action.
Thirdly, as we can see on social media, is a small group who are very vocally passionate about not only soccer in San Francisco, but the particular way they want soccer in San Francisco to be, and who they want it to belong to. Its no different than any subject, whether it be music or beer or politics. In any scene there will be people who feel they've invested more time and passion into it, or were there first, and as a result should be able to define who is or isn't allowed into that scene, or who has the correct intentions or is legitimate.
It's a tricky thing to discuss, because nobody can really own a scene, and it would be wrong of me to dismiss any of the different levels of feeling about it. I respect the casual fan and I respect the "diehard". That doesn't mean I'll agree with them on every matter or not want to argue with them, but you have to respect their passion and the experience and perspective they have. I hope we attract our own group that feels responsible for the well being of our club and drives all the other clubs crazy as well. Everyone wants the same big picture ideal, for San Francisco to have a club that can grow into a big club and properly represent the area. We each just have different definitions of what that looks like and our future role in it. To make it even trickier you have the whole does the name of a city only represent people within the city limits or as in our case does it also represent the smaller surrounding cities. The Giants, A's, 49ers, Warriors, Sharks, etc all draw more fans from the suburbs than the cities they are named after.
Where it gets confusing at times is when people preach inclusion while not realizing they're simaltaneously saying "all welcome.. as long as you think and act exactly like us". It's also very subjective. For example, in the case of our PDL team the Burlingame Dragons vs SF City. The Dragons play in a suburban environment and the fans skew toward families, the fan base is slightly larger than SF City's, but also less passionate. SF City has a small but very vocal group of supporters more in line with how you'd envision a traditional "supporters group". In an ideal world you'd have both.
A lot of the fuss online is generated by the City supporters group referring to the Dragons as "fake", "suburban" or "corporate". I don't take it personally. I just see it as passion combined with frustration that a team founded in 2014 can be considered by "outsiders" to be at same level in same league as a team founded in 2001 (the Dragons have also made the playoffs two of our three seasons and dominated the head to head matchups which can't help and I can't resist mentioning). The Dragons are owned by myself and David Ebersman. SF City is to some extent supporter owned (which I think is great), but also counts Venture Capitalists and tech investors among its investor ownership group. We both "bought" our way into the PDL by paying the league franchise fee and as it's an amateur league neither club spends more than the other on players, travel, amenities, etc. Some of the City supporters group that yell "suburban" the loudest live and work in those same suburbs outside of San Francisco. The club has also looked at potential stadium sites "in and around" the city. So what is really the difference between the two clubs that they're yelling about? From a business perspective, nothing.
Ultimately the passion comes from the same place as ours. We all want our team to be the dominant team in the area and wish no success to our rivals. Whether it's a team we started three years ago or next year or a team you support that someone started 16 years ago, we're all just teams and fans trying to be the best of the bunch. As different as some like to say we are we have the same ultimate goal in common.
I guess it's as intimidating as you let it be. If you focus on your own goal, understand that we can't all win if each of our goals is to be the best and take everything with a grain of salt it's actually a lot of fun. I can laugh at myself if someone makes a good joke about me and I can learn about myself if someone points out a flaw in my thought process or actions (which I'm sure this interview will lead to). But just because you disagree with me doesn't mean you're right either.
Soccer is a sport and sport is about competing so let's all get after it and compete with what we have. None of us have the divine right to fans for our club. Each fan or future fan will choose who they want to support and why, and if we aren't getting where we want to and providing what they need to maintain and grow their passion then someone else probably will.
The common thinking I encounter online is that San Franciscans are very much locally minded and centered, and so won't travel far to see a sports team, or be interested in a team that isn't 'major league' because of how they see their city. What do you make of that assessment? Is it true, false, or somewhere in the middle?
I think there's two components. In general it seems true that fans who live in San Francisco are reluctant to leave the city limits for entertainment. I was that way when I lived in SF as well. The second side, is that the majority of the fans who attend San Francisco Giants games or San Francisco 49ers games (when at Candlestick) or who will attend Warriors games when they move to San Francisco don't live within the city limits. Fans from cities both north and south of San Francisco have been raised considering themselves to be included as real fans of San Francisco named teams and don't feel that they or the team have to be located within the city limits to represent San Francisco or the San Francisco Bay Area. There is a vocal group within the city limits that would prefer reality was closer to an island but that's not the reality to the majority of SF supporters.
Why did you choose the moniker FC, and not something else? And who did the logo, because I really like the font and look of the interlocked FC.
I did the logo myself. I had a clear vision of what I thought would resonate and so figured why not sit down and just do it myself. Regarding the name I felt like if you have the opportunity to represent one of the worlds greatest cities then why dilute it.
Since you've had the chance to see another pro team in SF, the Deltas, play half of a season, what are one or two things you think they've done right and wrong, that you hope to emulate and avoid to ensure success for your team?
I don't think it's up to me to critique the Deltas. They have a plan and a point of view that they feel is their best path to success. I have a different view but it's not based on what they are or aren't doing and there's no proof that my view is better or worse. One thing that's undeniable is they've had great success on the field, which i hope is one day true of us as well.
A lot of people I converse with online are adamant that a SF team has to play in a centrally located stadium to succeed. So the Deltas go to Kezar, which at least according to Google Maps looks centrally located, but they struggle to break 2,000 a game, and people complain 'it's too old.' Then you say you want to build a new ground, potentially outside of the side, and people say 'it's too far.' What is the deal here with this thinking? I know traffic is terrible, but it seems like people want to have their cake and eat too, and it might not be realistic,
It would be great to be in a place like Tucson where there is a ton of land and fields as far as you can imagine. That's not the reality for the Bay Area. Any team, ourselves included, is limited in their options. I think easily accessible by car and public transport is more crucial to a great fan experience than centrally located.
Currently SF does have the aforementioned Deltas and also San Francisco City FC, who's goal is to go pro and play in the USL. Why did you choose to start your own venture from square one, rather than buy into one of the existing teams? Is part of that rooted in your history of building things, like Zappos?
I like starting things from scratch. All of the companies I've been involved with in last 18 years have been ones I've started and funded myself. I don't really invest in outside companies, I've only invested in four or five outside companies ever, including the Warriors. Not because my ideas are better than others, plenty of mine haven't worked out, but just because I feel more comfortable taking risks that I am responsible for and I'm hooked on the feeling of an idea becoming reality. I wasn't approached by any of the SF clubs to invest and am guessing each already had their own point of view and plan, which wouldn't have been the same as mine.
In the Jordan Gardner SocTakes interview announcing the team, one of his biggest complaints about Deltas is their lack of local players, and he's hoping to have more locals on SFFC. Since starting a team from nothing is hard work, but is also like a sandbox, what are you planning to do to get more San Francisco players, well, playing, and do you think you could build a majority San Franciscan team in Year One and really be competitive?
I think a lot of what Jordan said in that interview sounded louder than he was speaking. He's a very thorough and down to earth guy in real life.
I don't think we have a goal of fielding a majority San Franciscan team, we just feel that there are a lot of talented players locally that could excel in the right environment and as the local professional club we'd need and want to support that.
As a guy who's founded a 'disruptive' company, I'm really curious about why you chose USL. NISA is going to be launching soon, with a stated goal of promotion and relegation with the NASL and lower leagues, and USL is more of the AAA/AA/A set up of MLS. It doesn't seem like the type of league a disrupt-or and innovator would choose. So why USL? Why not NISA or NASL? Or are you hoping to bring a certain level of disruption and innovation to the league?
There were two reasons we chose USL (and hope they choose us). One, we've had a great experience with the Dragons playing in the USL operated PDL. We're excited about the future of the league and see it as the most stable option moving forward. As with any relatively new company there will be some growing pains and as partners each of us will have a wish list of things we'd like the other to improve or change, but that's natural. I don't think the league needs disrupting. Teams in the league are having success that we'd be thrilled to have. Although we wouldn't cry if calling your team "2" was banned.
We certainly don't have the attitude that anyone- whether it be the league, the city or the fans - is lucky to have us. It's quite the opposite, we're the ones who have to impress the league to let us in and the potential fans and cities to support us.
I have no special background or qualification that means I'll succeed in soccer. I'm just hoping to get a chance to try. It also won't be me that succeeds, if we succeed it will be because of a lot of people, most likely least of all me.
To me that's the confusing part of the SF City uproar online. You can't be an amateur team for 15 years, not apply to a professional league, and then complain that it's not fair the professional league isn't supporting you and giving you a spot. You have access to everything we have access to. Your ownership group is made up of venture capitalists and tech entrepreneurs. We can both only work within the system that exists. A club has to apply to the league above with a plan if you want to move up. We can all dream of playing our way up and a new system down the line but that's not today's reality unfortunately.
Everyone had the same opportunity and as us to apply. For me it comes down to your front office and how badly everyone wants it. We wouldn't have gotten to this point without Jordan doing all of the diligence and him driving us through potential hurdle after hurdle. Even where we are today, we still have a huge hurdle remaining with the stadium piece. There is no guarantee we can pull it off.
It would be crazy to feel that dibs on professional soccer in a city as big as San Francisco in an area as big as the Bay Area is your right simply because you've existed as an amateur club for a time. I respect the passion of the fans and also their longevity. A number of the accounts who have recently taken aim at us have been very consistent in their views and beliefs over the years, which you have to respect and admire. We're just the latest threat to their club's potential future dominance and they are doing all they can to help ward off the threat which is part of being great supporters.
In SF, there seems to be a very genuine desire for collaboration, and the Deltas are very vocal about being collaborative. What do you make of this mindset, especially in the soccer world, from a competing team in a competing league?
I think we'd welcome the opportunity to collaborate and share best practices on fan experince and operations areas. If they have a more convenient way for fans to buy tickets or a more cost effective travel process we'd love to share that kind of information. I don't think teams should collaborate on the soccer or fan side of things. Fan support is earned, as is success on the field. You can't assume fans will support anyone and everyone and can be cross marketed to. We don't want to steal anyone else's fans, they already have a favorite team, they don't need us. We want to find people that are ready to be passionate about our club and help lead us down our path to success.
You mentioned that you had worked on a plan for a Bay Area league. What was the plan for that league? I'm really interested in what you thought would make a good soccer league for San Francisco.
It wasn't very far along. Concept was a winner take all competition between all the cities from San Francisco south to San Jose.
The VP for USL's new league, D3, has mentioned promotion and relegation within the USL a couple of times. You had mentioned on Twitter that you'd rather play your way to the top. There's a chance that in the USL in a few years time, you could actually play your way to the bottom. How do you feel about that, since the common argument against promotion and relegation is more or less relegation itself?
Relegation and promotion is to many, including my uneducated opinion, the best way to maximize soccer's potential. The country is so big and it makes no sense that huge portions of it will never in their lifetime have the possibility of a team representing them at the highest level just because five guys in a room say so. You can't be for it because you want to play your way to the top and at the same time be afraid of going down.
On the other hand, a lot of those assuming it will immediately benefit the little guys who claim people are leapfrogging them just because of money are forgetting how it works. If you aren't making the playoffs or winning your league now, how will you suddenly earn promotion in a system that will encourage even more spending at every level and attract even more deep pocketed competition? Being there first won't earn you promotion.
Ultimately though it would be nice for everyone to at least know its possible.
What's your favorite league and or team to watch for fun?
Being English I've always been partial to the EPL and try and watch every Tottenham game.
Favorite players. One past, one present.
I'd have to say Dele Alli at the moment. I always liked watching Beckham play for England. Felt he went from being overrated based on the off field persona to being underrated because of it. As a kid I was a fan of players like Glenn Hoddle, Kevin Keegan and Kenny Dalglish but a lot of the memories are hazy.
Do you have any books or podcasts, soccer related or otherwise, that you would recommend to readers?
I enjoyed 'The United States of Soccer' and recently finished 'Sounders FC: Authentic Masterpiece'. I'm currently reading 'The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck' and about to start 'The Smart Money'.
I recently started a podcast with UFC Light Heavyweight Champ and Fox Analyst Daniel Cormier, 'Talk and Talker', that's now available on iTunes and at talkandtalker.com. It's not soccer specific, and will not inspire a ton of confidence in me, but we have a lot of fun sitting around talking. Hopefully we can keep it going.
If you could meet one person from soccer history, who would it be and why?
With all due respect to the past, I'd be more interested to sit down with the next generation of future stars, and feel the excitement of the start of their journeys, rather than relive the past.
Where can people find out more about you and San Francisco FC online?
You can sign up for updates regarding SFFC at SFFC.com. I started using @swinmurn on Twitter recently to try and be more available for interaction related to SFFC and can also learn more about other projects at Luchaventures.com.
How would you respond to someone asking you why they should get off their couch, go outside, and support their local team, whether it's Deltas, San Francisco City, or San Francisco FC?
I'd tell them if they're looking for a local professional team to support to put those plans on hold until 2019. Hopefully we'll be in a position to take it from there.
Nick, 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.