"At this level it’s about the community and not money."
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Good morning AP readers! The weather outside in most of the country is nasty, so it's a perfect day for reading today's new interview. I was fortunate to connect with Jonathan Collura, one of the men behind Bugeaters FC, a future rival of Santa Fe Wanderers, and got to ask him some questions about the team and what he hopes to accomplish with it. Turns out, Jonathan has a long history with soccer in England that is shaping what he's doing here. A lot of good nuggets in here for you to enjoy. Check it out.
Tell readers a little about yourself. Who you are, where you're from, and what your role is with Nebraska Bugeaters FC.
I’m from Nebraska and a third generation Husker. I grew up in Omaha and graduated the University of Nebraska in ’98. I have lived in Dallas, Texas since 2000 and built my career in finance. My career kicked off as a broker and I moved to the bank side managing entrepreneur’s investments and lending needs. In 2011, I left banking to become an entrepreneur much like the people I had helped. 1836 Capital, LLC was the company that I launched. We handle complex capital structures, debt placements and management solutions. In 2016, I launched SAF Capital Partners, LLC. SAF is a management and holding company. Right now, I am Chairman/CEO/President of one of SAF’s investments. It’s an oilfield logistics company here in Texas focusing on pipe and sand hauling. We have about 80 employees.
In 2015, I made my initial investment in to football. I negotiated an investment in to Alfreton Town FC which was in the 5th division of English football. I believed, and still believe, that there is a sustainable model in England. The Chairman of the club, Wayne Bradley, was open to an investment and new ideas. We built an academy partnership with Rolls Royce which has yielded some excellent talent. Wayne has excellent connections in the football community and Alfreton’s location (between Derby and Nottingham) makes it a potential hot spot of development (in my opinion). I exited the partnership in 2017 (my partners still have an investment in the club) to focus on my own ambitions. Right now, I am building an academy and development model. I am partnering with a 6th division club to launch an academy (ultimately to tie to the Bugeaters). Also, I am buying a small club in England to focus on a second academy and winning the FA Vase and ultimately the Trophy. It’s in a community by a 5th division club that I almost bought at the end of 2016 and will be announced in the next month.
In 2017, I joined the team that launched Napa Valley 1839 FC in the NPSL. We launched the team in 90-days. I helped on the business side. The local partners (Josh Goss and Arik Housley) did all of the heavy lifting. Those guys are the ideal partners with the connections that they have and the amount of time that they put in. Today, I help Josh with some business questions and we discuss partners (such as kits, etc).
I wanted to put something back home. The community needs something like we launched in Napa and I was introduced to Tim Pendrell via his interest in NISA. I told Tim that I would love to build a 4th division club (depends on who you ask what division it is) that focuses on the community in Lincoln. We made some phone calls and got some interest and I decided to fund it. UPSL gave us the “quick and easy” to launching the club. Tim has been a fantastic partner, helping develop partnerships in Lincoln. I am exceptionally excited about what we are building and will be developing. Really, we are just stewards of what we expect to be a community asset.
How did you come to be a fan of soccer?
I grew up in Omaha and went to a lot of Creighton games in the 90’s. A buddy of mine and I would get Soccer America and also the old Eurosport catalogs (to see the newest kits). When the FIFA games launched, I was hooked. My team has always been Crystal Palace. The internet was in its infancy and I launched one of the team’s websites (there were no official sites at the time). It even won Soccernet (which became ESPN FC) site of the week. I launched the 1st Crystal Palace international supporters club and dove fully in to the game. I had hoped one day to own my own club. This was all in Lincoln while I was in college so you can see my affinity to the city. Today, football is my hobby and I like being able to be involved on the business side of it and using some of the skills that I use daily with my companies.
What's the 'origin story' behind the creation of Nebraska Bugeaters FC? And what's with the crazy 'bugeaters' moniker?
As I mentioned, I met Tim via NISA. I told Tim that I would fund a team but it needed to be sustainable and so we decided to launch one. I have always had family in Lincoln and used to go down to visit my grandparents who had a horse farm on the edge of the city. I grew up in Lincoln alongside Omaha. Tim told me his idea about the nickname which made immediate sense. Most Nebraskans will know Bugeaters. It is said that in the late 19th century that bugs ate all of the corn and that the Nebraskans only had bugs to eat. The University’s (American) football team used the nickname prior to becoming the Huskers. It’s an homage to the community and its agricultural history. My family has a history in Lincoln and helped with some of the sculptures at the State Capitol Building. I wanted to tie in to the community and my family’s history there. I selected a tractor as the icon that we use in the badge. It’s based on the 1950’s Ford model that my grandfather had. As Tim and I discussed, the tractor is to Nebraska as the cannon is to Arsenal!
Tim is a native Nebraskan as well and lives in Lincoln. He’s a good partner to have in the Bugeaters with his connections and love of the game. Anything that we make in the club will be donated to community development programs in the game. One thing to note is that football in Nebraska means something else. It’s King Kong. So with the Bugeaters, we needed the badge to identify that it wasn’t (American) football. The tractor on the ball is a 1950’s style beacon on the globe look (minus the lightning bolts). It’s also symbolic of the global game and the state feeding nations. When it was all said and done, we both loved it and felt that it was something that would get fans behind it.
Old Gold Knights would've been a cool name, too. I've only driven through Lincoln on my way to Cheyenne, Wyoming to visit my sister. How would you describe your city to an outsider like me? What makes it unique, what's the soccer scene like, why is it a good place for soccer team?
Lincoln is a family community and a college town. What makes it unique is its people. The development of Lincoln is quickly expanding and home to a loyal fan base. It has many up and coming businesses, many successful national companies and has an excellent music and budding brewery scene. The family base of the community has quickly built the game locally and the talent pool is fantastic. Youth programs are beginning to get national attention and we are excited to call Lincoln home. It ticks all of the boxes that any partner in a club would want. Not to mention that Nebraska as a whole has fantastic schools and colleges.
Based on your experience with soccer in small communities in England, what are two or three things you learned there about connecting with the community that you believe will be helpful with the Bugeaters?
Local clubs in England (specifically non-league clubs) were decimated by the progression of the Premier League. Supporters stayed home to watch the EPL on TV rather than spend money on a local community club. This meant that the clubs needed to find outside income and winning seemed to be the only way to win back income at the gate. This expanded playing budgets which meant that most clubs lose money and many have gone bust. The fan base is aging and there is a need to find new fans.
I believe that there is a sustainable business model with a focus on community partners, youth development and focusing on a young fan base. That is why I’m building my academies to help these clubs and also helping with new ideas to build lasting partnerships. How does this impact the Bugeaters? The systems that we plan to implement in the US will also be utilized in England. We will have development partnerships and identify coaching tactics to help us develop both on and off the pitch. I am also looking in to the business of football and launching an ‘executive’ exchange program with some of the office staff. We also think that this will be beneficial to the local programs in Nebraska as well. There are many talented athletes in English academies who would like to play in the United States at the college level.
Is there anything you think could be done to help grow the game in Nebraska even further, getting more people and teams involved? Is that something a cost effective league like the UPSL can help facilitate?
There is quite a bit of development in Nebraska at the youth level and a lot of solid programs. Right now the focus is on getting people involved in Bugeaters FC and seeing how we can help further that development.
Omaha is a fantastic community and we know that there will ultimately be a club at some level in that community. We want to see quality teams launch in the state with sustainable business models. We cannot succeed without quality teams to play. That said, we have to keep the focus on making Bugeaters FC the absolute best that it can be and doing all that we can to give Lincoln a team that it can call its own. We believe that “cost effective” may not be the best solution. Ultimately, we want to play clubs who have the ability to fund themselves.
On the topic of the UPSL, what did you look for in amateur leagues when considering which one to join? There are a lot of options out there, and I'm curious as to what things make guys go one way or the other.
Obviously you have 3 leagues here (PDL, NPSL and UPSL). It all comes down to 2 things: 1. money, and 2. competition. What we want in Nebraska is the best possible level of play. Ultimately, its all about development and that only comes with quality competition. Do we play quality teams and how close are they? Keep in mind that these are bus leagues. Local competition also helps develop local rivalries although we do expect to develop at least one rivalry match with a club outside of the Midwest. You also need the league to be effective in communication, management, and its representation of the club.
You guys have been doing a great job on the merchandise front. How important do you think it is for teams to have not just good branding, but good product to offer fans, and how have you gotten your own merchandise game on point so fast?
Thank you. We feel that good merchandise is essential to developing an identity. We got on point quickly because I know what I like and I find that simplicity sells. It all begins with a good logo and we have found a lot of people feel that we have one. My wife has input as well. She was a Brand Manager with a Fortune 500 company and while most of the selection and designs have been mine, she always gives me good feedback and suggestions. I also tend to bounce ideas off of people in the community.
The latest addition is a hat made by Legacy. I love the hats they make and I wanted something with just the tractor on it; it’s kind of a “in the know” thing. All of the sales go in to the club budget. If we can sell all of the Legacy hats that we invested in, that will help pay half of the team’s kit costs this season as an example. What I’m pleased with is that we have been selling Bugeaters merchandise coast-to-coast. We think that the kits this season will be a big hit. They have a nod to the Bugeaters of the 1890’s and the designs are not like any kit that we have seen.
What are two or three things you hope to accomplish this year, on or off the field, to consider year one a success?
Get 1,000 fans to a single home match. This requires that we put the absolute best match day on that we can and have both community engagement and involvement.
Engage the youth clubs. This club is about Lincoln and hosting events that fans can enjoy. The youth community in Lincoln is fantastic and it needs something at this level that they can enjoy going to while watching the next level of play.
Balance the budget and not take a loss. The goal is obviously my own but I feel that it is important as I am solely funding the team.
Sounds like you have a lot of good plans, so what's the goal for Bugeaters five years now? Where do you hope to see the club then?
By 2023, we will see the Bugeaters as a mainstay in the Non-League scene in the US. I am confident that we will be one of the best in attendance and also have won some divisions along the way. The goal that we have is to go deep in the US Open Cup and play a top level club being at a minimum in the USL. We should also have an academy by that time. Right now the focus is on building the team and having a single successful season, but we have spoken with a couple of potential academy partners. My goal is to develop a foundation by then and use it to help kids who can’t “pay to play.” Lincoln has some amazing talent that needs attention and we want to be that partner. If we can be regarded as a top community partner and something ‘fun to do,’ then we will have succeeded.
You were recently able to come to an agreement on a home field, and it's pretty impressive. An actual soccer specific field. How did this partnership with the Lincoln Sports Foundation come about? Was working all of this out a difficult process, or did it come together fairly easily once you outlined your vision?
Tim led the discussions on the stadium. We contacted most facilities to see if they would be open to hosting us. The only facility that gave us the time of day was Abbott and the Lincoln Sports Foundation. It needs a lot of help but it has all of the makings of a top notch facility. It was the former home of the Nebraska women’s team and the infrastructure is in good shape. We expect to have it up to speed by May to kick off the season. A lot of time and money will go in to the facility to make it a home not just for us but also the community. They definitely bought in to the vision and its beneficial to them as well to have a tenant. We know that its not the best today, but it is what you make of it.
Let's wrap this up with some short questions. What's your favorite league and or team to watch for fun?
Any league at any level in England. I love the non-league and both levels of the National League. My club has always been Crystal Palace since I was young. Nothing beats going to Selhurst Park.
Favorite soccer players, one past, one present.
Claudio Reyna and Alex Morgan.
Do you have any books or podcasts, soccer related or otherwise, that you would recommend to people reading this?
Podcast-wise; the Cooligans (a can’t miss) and Men In Blazers.
Book-wise; Soccernomics and Inverting the Pyramid.
If you could meet one person from soccer history, who would it be?
Pele. I loved Escape to Victory as a kid.
Where can people find out more about you and the team online?
The website is bugeatersfc.com. We are also on all social media channels. We will be doing what we can to get content to fans via both channels and also will be on Podcasts and blogs (thanks to people like you).
What would you say to someone asking you why they should get out there and support their local amateur team, like Nebraska Bugeaters FC?
At this level it’s about the community and not money. Local clubs offer fans an opportunity to celebrate the culture of soccer and provide local talent with the next step to becoming a pro athlete and possibly represent at the international level.
Jonathan, 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 can 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.
Read last weeks interview: Finding The American Vardy: Tikal Jonson of Madison Dragons SC