Welcome back, faithful readers of AP! It's been a long time since I've done one of these. Today's interview with Oakland Roots SC is actually the first since this May, and the first since the baby was born.
There are going to be some changes at AP moving forward. I am going to continue doing interviews, but they will be fewer and farther between, as I'll be focusing on trying to make sure interviews are higher quality, to make it worth the wait, while also doing more op-eds, which seem to draw a lot of interest.
Now, back to today's interview. I've actually worked with Benno on doing an interview to discuss his project in Oakland once before, and we didn't get it all worked out. This time we did. You'll also hear from Mike Geddes of Street Soccer USA and Edreece Arghandiwal, two of the other guys behind Roots SC. Oakland Roots SC also have an affiliate playing in the US Open Cup this year, Oakland Leopards, and they're first game is against Oakland Stompers on Saturday, September 22, 7:00pm PST at Castlemont High School in Oakland. Details of a live stream should be forth coming. And now, without further ado, I give you the Roots.
Tell readers a little about yourself. Who you are, where you're from, and what your role is with Oakland Roots SC?
My name is Benno Nagel and I am a born and raised Oakland native, who first and foremost has to say that I'm very glad to be in Oakland, and to be involved with this exciting project. In my role with Oakland Roots I will serve as Club President and Director of Soccer. Roots is almost a two year journey at this point, but prior to this I had been a soccer coach, equally ambitious, and fortunate to have been able to make my way into professional soccer most recently with Rayo OKC of the NASL as well as with two stops in Europe in the youth academies of FC Twente and GNK Dinamo Zagreb among a few other very formative experiences within college soccer and the US Development Academy.
How did you come to be a fan of soccer, and what got you interested in starting a team?
Benno: My first exposure to soccer was on the schoolyard of Hillcrest elementary school, playing at lunch with my friends. Soccer really hadn't hit the mainstream at that point in the early 90's and nobody in my family had a very strong background in it which meant that it really wasn't until I got older that I developed a real love for the game and an identity as a soccer player. The concept for this project actually began when I was still actively playing during my early and mid 20's, with several of the local NPSL sides of the time (NorCal Lamorinda SC, Bay Area Ambassadors and Real San Jose as well as then SFSFL side El Farolito). Even then, it was easy to see the high volume of raw talent that existed here, and my frustrations both as a player and teammate was often in seeing that despite playing in some great teams with great players, that there wasn't really a club who was providing a platform for something more. And that isn't a criticism of the extremely dedicated people running those teams, as they were amazing in providing an environment, especially in a club like El Farolito that was at one time US Open Cup champions, it was more about there not being a financial model figured out to where the great work being done on the field could translate into success off of it.
What's the origin story beyond Oakland Roots? How has this club come about?
Benno: There's been a few stories which have come out relating to our origin so I won't dive to deep into that, but essentially, myself and my co-founder Edreece Arghandiwal, began with an idea of a club built around pro soccer of course but just as importantly, a club capable of harnessing the power of soccer to utilize it as a force for social good in Oakland. We we're really struck by the ever increasing emergence of social enterprise in both business and also in sport and were curious about how to integrate principals from that world into what you would typically see in a traditional professional sports organization. There's been a number of twists and turns along the way, which included a period of almost one year where we were partnered with a few commercial real estate developers looking into a mixed use soccer development which also brought on some introductory conversations with MLS and rather in depth engagements with the USL and the NASL. The landscape has changed a bit recently and which means we have now turned to NISA and potentially the NPSL Pro division as they are the only two pro leagues for us to explore expansion into.
Your big M.O. is soccer for social good. We've seen some of that here in the US already with teams like Detroit City and San Francisco City working in their community to support certain initiatives and organizations, and even encouraging fans to volunteer and help out. To me though, it sounds like you're a little more ambitious. What does soccer for social good mean to you and this club, and are there two or three specific things you have in mind to really live out this vision?
Mike: I think the most exciting thing about this project was the opportunity to take a common civic purpose - let’s do as much as we can for the City of Oakland - and approach it through the lens of a soccer club. If you look at many of the top teams in Europe, this is how they started – as social programs for underserved communities, like factory workers for example. The roots of those clubs are founded in tens and hundreds of years of community participation long before commercial success. One of the things that amazes me about soccer in the US is how many leagues and teams don’t see that a deep connection to, and engagement in, their community is an essential business strategy when you are trying to build a lasting relationship with the fans and not just a nice-to-have once you have first established success on the field (which is tough to do).
There is a broader movement in society towards social enterprises that prioritize more than just the bottom line and I don’t believe you could find a better place to explore these models than Oakland, which is home to so many truly disruptive enterprises and entrepreneurs who are placing community equity at the heart of their business models. We don’t believe that sports should be any different. Detroit and SFCFC are amazing examples of this, and I would also namecheck clubs like Kick4Life F.C. in Lesotho, Right to Dream in Ghana and FC Nordsjelland in Denmark as inspirations to us.
I think it’s too early to start making specific promises or setting targets, on or off the field, because we are just getting started and we still have a long way to go. But we definitely see ‘soccer for social good’ as meaning more to Oakland Roots than having an official charity partner or donating some tickets. We see it as part of the DNA of the club across every aspect of its operations. This is something that attracted me to this group from the jump – of course they want success on the field but more than anything they want this club to be an important community asset for the city. That’s sadly not always (or even often) the case in American soccer, and I see it as a great opportunity.
Edreece: There are no shortages of soccer clubs in the states. I do, however, believe that there are a shortage of soccer clubs that put the people of their respective communities first. I think clubs try, but we have to recognize that it goes beyond fan engagement and online presence. When you put the name “Oakland” on a crest, you can’t just sit back. You have to be on the ground, you have to give back. It’s about actually doing something that positively impacts the youth and social landscape of the city. Our tagline is “Oakland first, always.” Soccer is just our vehicle on this journey, because it’s the second thing we love. The political landscape in Oakland is quite interesting, and we hope to stay focused on what’s important. We are not politicians. We are also not billionaires. It’s about soccer, culture, and the love for Oakland. It’s as simple as that. We believe that Oakland has a lot to offer to this world, and we hope that our efforts add to and aide the collective well-being of our community.
Do you feel like that the soccer for social good 'moniker,' if you would call it that, is something that Oakland will really get behind?
Edreece: Social good does not need much to get behind. It’s innately a part of all of us…to do good, to be good. The people of Oakland care much about Oakland, and we believe that it is important that any community initiative (sports, arts, education, etc.) gives back some way somehow. I strongly believe that a sports team’s success transcends beyond revenue. It’s about the supporter's connection with a team. It’s about the crest, and what that crest symbolizes. Branding is a big point of conversation within our group. It’s the intangibles that often make the biggest difference. It’s the mood of our team, the feeling of our game day, the voice of our players and staff. Everything matters.
Benno: To add to that I would say that it is not only a thing that Oakland will rally behind but something that is a requirement for any new Oakland sports team. The Warriors, A's and Raiders have done amazing things in the community which extend well beyond the field. We would simply be the latest group to be doing similar work in Oakland. With that said, we would be a lot more progressive, building off of the great work that the other pro clubs have done here in terms of developing permanent, not transient, revenue mechanisms which directly route to our community impact partners. So in this way, the more successful we are the more resources we can develop and deliver to our community. This also gives incentive to the community to participate in our success so that funds can continue to develop and flow into the organizations and projects we're working on together.
You guys have also mentioned design and branding quite a bit in establishing the feel of this team. How important is design not just to you, but to the people of Oakland, your potential fans?
Edreece: Yes, it is as important as any of our other initiatives.
What kind of work have the other teams in Oakland done in the community that have inspired you? Obviously I'm not in Oakland, so I don't know the kind of things they've done that have inspired you.
Benno: Despite the unfortunate reality of two of our major three sports teams leaving Oakland (Raiders and Warriors), they are still leaving behind them a history of amazing work within the community. The Warriors have partnered with the NBA on several basketball gym/education center openings in Oakland recently which demonstrates the importance of linking academic and athletic development as a hand in hand thing. For youth, sports can be a vehicle for a lot of great things but one of the largest is certainly the need to remain focused on school and education to open pathways for your athletic talents.
The Raiders sponsor countless organizations in the Oakland area and through their foundation have just recently partnered up with national sports retailer Dicks Sporting Goods to donate to the Oakland Tech and McClymonds High School Football programs, as an example. The narrative there is naturally to view the power that engaging large corporations and how doing so can direct valuable resources to local community groups and programs.
And the A's, as part of their larger efforts to build a new stadium have launched the "Rooted in Oakland" campaign which has brought a lot of positive fresh air into the community through various fundraising and direct donation efforts. I think for us, we're looking a bit deeper in so far as designating permanent percentages of revenues to community groups and social impact projects. In this way, we can tie our success to community success. The more we are able to achieve, the more the community can receive from us to drive further investment in community based projects. Through creating this type of symbiotic relationship we feel that we can provide a foundation for additional projects that we would look to take on, whether that's renovating an old soccer field or hosting fundraisers or different community events.
Do you feel like know is a good time to be doing this, not just because soccer for social good is a positive thing for people to get behind, but with the upcoming departures of the Raiders to Las Vegas and the Warriors to San Francisco?
Benno: There's never a better time to launch a sports endeavor in any sport than right now. That's a bit of a joke but in soccer it really is the time to do it as in ten years, or less, these projects will be much harder to do with new teams only continuing to populate cities across the country. We see soccer as a sport of the future in Oakland given that Basketball and Football aren't coming back, and baseball has a more limited reach in terms of cross cultural appeal. Oakland is an international city and a place where people from all walks of life and all types of cultural backgrounds have come together to form this very identifiable culture and vibe of Oakland.
With that said, we feel that soccer, the world's sport, is something that quite frankly should have already been in Oakland years ago. We had the Stompers of the NASL decades ago, but it's really a shock to us that pro soccer hasn't been attempted in Oakland in recent years. As we look at the community overall and the growth happening here in terms of economic growth, it really drives home the understanding as to how soccer has to happen now. And beyond the tremendous pace at which Oakland has been developing over the last several year for the good, there still remain countless social issues that people here are struggling with, many of whom are long time residents now questioning how they can remain in Oakland with the rising costs of living here.
So at a time when social gaps are clearly growing and social inequality is clearly happening, we see soccer as a vehicle through which to unite the community and help to retain the social bonds that only sports can bring. You could have a million dollars or no dollars but you can go and watch a team play and have their performance inspire you and give you a feeling of belonging to something larger than yourself. That's what this project is all about.
With the US soccer landscape changing on what feels like a weekly basis, how has that impacted your decision making when it comes to finding a home for the team so you can really get to work and launch Roots SC?
Benno: There's definitely been a lot of rumors, a lot of possibilities and just now we're beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel with NISA going for sanctioning on 9/1 and NPSL Pro now beginning to come out into the public domain. We've been blessed that the investor group we have committed are committed to Oakland first and foremost, and while we have to find a league pathway that makes sense, we at least have a group with some legitimate financial credentials on board to make a go at things. At the very least, we will be in a semipro league for the Spring of 2019, and we will also be announcing some plans for a bit of a soft launch this Fall on the soccer field, so the train is definitely leaving the station.
You guys have been pretty public in who you've talked to when it comes to leagues, from NISA to MLS to amateur leagues. Can you provide any updates on what league you'll be joining and when we can expect to see you take the field?
Benno: For any startup you have to fully understand the landscape which in this instance means doing our due diligence to engage all of the league stakeholders and try and assess what makes the most sense for Oakland. There's obviously been a lot of instability in the league landscape but we are confident that the US soccer community is only gong to be better for having gone through this period of the last two years. It has made it tough on the financial investment side, which I'm sure a lot of projects similar to ours have experienced, but again we're only all the more fortunate to have brought on a group of people who believe in the Oakland community and are willing to bet on the long term soccer prospects that Oakland possesses.
For us, in Oakland, the USL territories are spoken for. We are again very fortunate that the owner of the USL rights to our area is a very well intended, open minded person who is in soccer for the right reasons and is going to be a very amazing addition to the US soccer landscape through his very diverse business background. But as their efforts aren't focused specifically on Oakland, and are rather centered on a very exciting project about 20 minutes outside of Oakland in Concord, we still see a huge opportunity with placing something in Oakland proper.
That really leaves us with either NPSL Pro or NISA, which as you know are still two entities which are taking shape as we speak. Our commitment will be to whichever league we see as providing the highest level of soccer, with long term viability, and I think that both NISA and NPSL Pro offer exciting potential. Clearly different models in so far as one being under USSF and the other not planning to be, so we will have to wait like everyone else to see what happens. We will 100% have a team in the Spring of 2019, even if that means playing at the semiprofessional level. That leaves us with the NPSL, UPSL or PDL and any decision we would make there would be based on how we see the semipro league progressing us into a professional league.
I know I just said a lot without really saying anything, but that's really the most transparent and honest answer I can give at this time. It's a day to day thing at this point, but regardless of league, Oakland Roots SC will be in Oakland as a club in the Fall of 2018 and as a team, with men's and women's teams, beginning in January of 2019.
When can people expect to start seeing more of a visual presence from you guys? A logo, t-shirts, hats, jerseys, that kind of thing.
Benno: We've signed on with Matt Wolff who designed the now world famous Nigeria World Cup kit and has also done, among many things, the brand identities for LAFC and NYCFC. Matt has also joined our project for the long run as a Creative Adviser so we're excited about him coming up with our crest and initial merchandising items, and beyond that to continue to have him creatively involved with the various visual representations we will look to take on as we go. You can expect to see the crest and colors in the public domain by the end of October at the latest.
On the community involvement front, are there any plans to work with local designers on team gear, and even donate a portion of proceeds to local charities?
Benno: We are 100% doing this. We will be partnering with Soccer Without Borders for our first year to designate a % of all club revenues to SWB. Soccer Without Borders recently won the 2017 FIFA Diversity award recognizing them as one of the top nonprofits in soccer in the world. They are based in Oakland and their Director Ben Gucciardi is a testament to what can be accomplished when soccer and sport is used as a vehicle for building community. So any dollar that comes in, a % of that goes to them, regardless. Beyond that we will do "one off" type fundraisers where we partner with SWB and additional nonprofits to raise funds for good causes here in Oakland. We will likely do additional merchandising where 100% of proceeds go to a non profit, with SWB being a starting point for that.
Mike actually introduced us to some past work he had done where non profits could visually tell their story of existence in a wearable art t-shirt or clothing piece. So we will build upon that to partner with non profits, beginning with SWB, to visually represent their story on a shirt or even as a 3rd kit for our first season. There are so many possibilities when it comes to projects like this to find creative ways to bring the community into the actual sports business operation and we feel that in Oakland that this can actually lead us to being a more successful business on the profit side.
Social enterprise is very much an emerging field but here in Oakland, its a way of doing business that is already accepted and bought into by the community. So we wish to set up an arrangement where our success and ability to impact the community is symbiotically linked with the community itself. When we are successful, the community is able to reap the benefits of that and resources derived from our success are able to go to the community and further strengthen our roots there.
Let's wrap this up with some short questions. What's your favorite league and or team to watch for fun? (All answers from here on are from Benno)
Too many to choose from. I enjoy the Premier League for its tempo of play, La Liga for it's style, Germany for it's pressing schemes and Italy for it's tactics. Liga MX is fun sometimes also.
Favorite soccer players, one past, one present.
Present: Casemiro or Kante
Do you have any books or podcasts, soccer related or otherwise, that you would recommend to people reading this?
Anything John Wooden. David Halbertam's "The Education of a Coach" which profiled Bill Belichick was a great read for any aspiring Manager or sports enthusiast.
Where can people find out more about you and the team online?
We have a pretty simple splash page set up at www.oaklandrootssc.com and will be revamping that in the coming month or two after we reveal our brand identity, crest and colors.
What would you say to someone asking you why they should get out there and support their local non-league team, like Oakland Roots SC?
You've spent more money on worse things. And honestly, there's few things like sports to bring people together. It's really a throwback to a era of social capital and civic pride that exists less and less each year in the modern world. Sports provides a lifeline to that and so to be able to form that type of bond with people in your community is something special whether as a club front office member, owner/investor, player, coach or fan.