"Assemble the Wolf Pack."
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It's the most wonderful time of the year AP readers! This is the time of year when several teams that I interviewed in the spring have wrapped up their first full seasons. And at least two of them have done second interviews that will be coming out in the next two weeks. This is the first of those two. This one is with Dan Hoedeman of Minneapolis City SC. Check it out.
Photos courtesy of Daniel Mick
How have things been for you and the team since the first interview in February?
I have felt all the feels, and I'm sure that everyone involved with the club has, too. I am happy to say that we are going to be back next year--and more than that, we met all of our pre-season goals.
Those were: 1. Stay in business (boom!); 2. Don't finish last (3rd in the league, 1st in the Twitter); 3. Do good (we made a difference in the community); 4. Have fun (check and mate).
So, while we are all completely exhausted, we're gearing up for the US Open Cup qualifying rounds, re-loading the team, looking at new stadium options and on and on. The excitement hasn't worn off.
That's a pretty big deal, qualifying for the US Open Cup. Qualifiers, and even actual games, are notorious for having low attendance among the lower league teams. What are you doing to draw attention to that game?
For a tournament with such longevity and rich history, the USSF's scheduling is particularly unkind. The final on a Tuesday at 9 CST? What? That said, we have a great opportunity to continue to momentum that we have with our 2nd round qualifier on 10/22. We will be in Minnesota, playing at Minnesota United's stadium (it's not in Minneapolis, but, like when Arsenal went to Wembley for Champions League games, sometimes big games require big stadiums). It will be the first USOC game in Minnesota for some time, it will be on a Saturday, and you can believe that we'll be working Twitter hard, getting out to community events to build awareness and otherwise asking nicely for people to come out and support us in the Cup. In fact, our SG The Citizens are already planning a "Class Up The Cup" formal attire day, and who doesn't like to suit up from time to time? It will be fun.
Photos courtesy of Daniel Mick
Very nice! Thinking outside the box is something teams should do more often, especially for the USOC. I know here in Kansas City, the Royals do a similar deal in the spring and everyone dresses up like it's the 1920's. A fun thing to do and a nod to the history of the game. How important was it to the team in the first year to have a supporters group like The Citizens behind the team?
It was hugely important.
Though it was funny, when they popped up on Twitter the guys in the founding group were all texting each other trying to figure out who was behind it. We kinda of couldn't believe that the group had popped up so quickly--and then they spent the season adding members and getting louder to the point that in our last home game they were singing songs about an opposing player with a man bun so hilariously that he told our players after that it was the best atmosphere he had ever played in.
And that support definitely helps us with player attraction and retention--our guys love to play in front of The Citizens. Also, it helps to attract new people to the club. Just yesterday I had an email exchange with a new member who said that he went to a game last season and was so welcomed by the group and had so much fun in that one game that he had to become a member this year. We haven't even gotten to the volunteering that the group does for us. They are a huge reason for our success and our momentum.
How many members does The Citizens have right now?
I'm not exactly sure, actually. I am sure that more people stand with them than are technically in the group.
Understandable. What is the relationship like between the Front Office and The Citizens? I know a lot of teams, even in the lower leagues, can have some serious issues.
We get along great. One of the benefits of the member model vs the rich owner model is that there isn't really a FO vs SG relationship because we're all members. We have really open communication--just last night we had a small event where we presented how the season went, financials, plans for next year, had an open Q&A and drank some beers together--so we're all in it together.
We have some funny stories that involve members of The Citizens from events, away trips and home games. It's been fun.
I like stories. What's one the funnier stories from an away trip?
Many of them are not fit for print! Though I particularly enjoyed our trip away to Milwaukee Bavarian's. After the game the players, staff and fans walked over to the Bavarian Beer Hall (complete with Oompah Band!) for beer and food and, next thing you knew, a teetotal player was driving one of our team vans, packed with members of The Citizens, mind, to hit downtown Milwaukee. Fun was had, dancing was done, and the next day it only took us 90 minutes past call time to track down every last person who traveled with us and head back to Minneapolis.
A Milwaukee version of The Hangover then?
There were a surprising number of similarities.
Now, how important do you think it is for a team Front Office and their Supporters Groups to have an open, honest relationship with each other?
I'm not sure how it is possible to be successful without a close partnership with the club's most engaged supporters, especially in the lower divisions. As I think about all the great work that our members have done to raise awareness, encourage people to come to games, make games fun, give time and expertise to the club and on and on, if we had to pay for all that we would have gone bankrupt.
Photos courtesy of Daniel Mick
A fair point. Now, you guys are actually partly supporter owned, correct?
We are a non-profit, so there is no equity in the traditional sense. A better way to put it is that we are member-run and have controls in place, like a Member Board and mandatory all-member votes on specific items, to make sure that the club is always run by community vs controlled by a single (rapacious) owner. One only needs to look at Nashville FC to see where things could end up if we're not careful. Happily, we have no designs on riches or an MLS spot. Running this as a community club and building it into a generational institution is the goal.
How does that Supporter Ownership model work, A to Z? I know a lot more people are looking to start or support teams under that model, and it would be really helpful for them to have a breakdown of how that process works.
There are a few ways to make the model work. For us, we are a non-profit that is funded by our members and backed by Stegman's Soccer Club, which is itself an LLC that is literally supporter/player owned. The idea was to diffuse ownership both to protect against the urge to sell and to ensure that we had a large base of people who could truly, meaningfully say that the club was theirs. We're micro funded, the Bernie Sanders of clubs, and we rely on cobbling together a lot of people to make the sums work.
In exchange, they get things like member vote and such, but the power of how we do it is that we are radically open to including members in the inner workings of the club itself and over the past year have had more than a handful of members just sort of volunteer their way into doing big things for us--Sarah Schreier who is now our Business Director and met me by trolling me on Twitter, Nate Morales who does the podcast, Daniel Mick who is our in-house photographer, Keith Martinson and Kate Sophia and so many others who find things that need doing and get them done.
We are also radically transparent, which makes it easier to open the doors to people who join up. It's that type of thing that really makes our model work, for the club and for the members. Ownership is about more than having a piece of paper that says "one share", at least in our model.
If you don't mind sharing, if I were to say I want to become a member and own a share of the club, what does that look like from a financial stand point on my end, and what kind of responsibilities does it entail?
Well, again, because we are a non-profit there isn't equity as such. We have an annual membership that gets you vote, makes you eligible to be on the club board, season tickets and a scarf. No real responsibilities for you because it's not an LLC or anything where we are passing through taxes and such. Non-profit FTW.
Ownership is a tricky concept in lower division soccer. It is my firm belief that longevity comes from a large group of people committed to the club's success, and that that comes not from trying to scratch a living out of a lower division soccer club but by running it as a mission-driven passion project that is open to like-minded people. That's what we try to be.
What are some big things you've learned about running a team in the lower levels? Is it cheaper then you thought? Easier? I mean, what should someone reading this, wanting to start a team, expect to run into?
The reality was my expectations turned up to 11. A few things I learned...
1. Going it alone isn't an option. I had two other founders, a men's club of over 100 guys, committed members and a wonderful family behind me...and I just about made it over the finish line. It was an intense amount of work, a massive number of hours, and all the emotions and feelz.
If I hadn't had that group of people to rely on, and if they hadn't been reliable, committed, passionate, resilient and good natured, there is no way Mpls City could have happened. Not to mention that the different skills, viewpoints, networks and interests of everyone who helped build it meant that we were so much smarter and more accomplished than a single person could possibly be.
Advice part 1: Assemble the Wolf Pack.
2. Our biggest advantage, especially in a major league market with a well-run and strongly-marketed pro soccer team, is that we were purpose driven and interesting. It was part true purpose: we call ourselves the Athletic Bilbao of the North because we only use Minnesotan players, giving local kids opportunities, and we are active in the local community with inner city clubs and financially challenged players. We are trying to use soccer to make a difference. But it was also purposefully trying to be interesting. From the, ah, challenging logo design to the aggressive use of cat memes, to trolling other teams at our level, we acted like the people we are instead of a boring corporation and that made a big difference. Especially the first part.
People were interested in the community thing and wanted to be part of it. But they wouldn't have known we were out there if we hadn't gotten the word out like we did.
What kind of effort did you put into marketing, and what seemed to work out best for you?
Overwhelmingly, we used social media and being present at soccer-related events to get the word out. In both cases, they were opportunities for conversations, and given what we were doing we really needed the time to talk about our vision and ourselves. Though there were a lot of people who saw us on social and straightaway signed up to be members--at that point we though we might be on to something.
We didn't have much of a budget, so interesting Twitter posts and turning up at watch parties was the way we went. Seemed to work too, though this upcoming year we'll have to find a way to do more. Still kicking that one around.
What are some goals you have laid out for Year 2? Another USOC appearance, a league title, anything like that?
We have a few goals. On the field, we want to build on our first year. That means at least a playoff berth and we very much want to challenge Bavarian's for the title. Definitely want to be back in the USOC and go beyond however far we go this year.
Off the field, we want to break even budget-wise, we want to move to a better stadium (we have two we are negotiating with), and we want to make a bigger impact in the community specifically by more closely partnering with inner city clubs to help their operations, coaching and their kids. We had a great start with one club and know we can do more.
Are there any particular hopes for what those kind of partnerships might look like, for improving kids access and for increasing awareness of the team?
One specific thing that I'm really excited about is helping elevate the level of the clubs' coaches. Right now, unlike the well-funded suburban clubs or the DAs, it's not paid professional coaches but parents who are coaching these teams. Using our coaches and players to help train the parents will make them better coaches, more able to engage and work with kids. More positivity, better training sessions, you name it. That makes soccer more fun, keeping more kids in the game and helping the kids who really want it to improve more quickly.
If nothing else, it helps eradicate those boring drills where kids line up and kick the ball!
Half the drills parent coaches 'teach' are worthless. Actually, one of the USSF coaching licenses is free, can't remember which one though. Why are you guys looking into changing stadiums? And what does securing a stadium look like? You know, the process behind it, from scouting to discussing to securing. Are there particular steps you need to take, or hurdles you have to clear?
I think it's the base license, the E maybe? I have a C license I believe but, honestly, the course didn't teach me anything that I didn't learn from playing at a reasonably high level (so I could see how legit coaches ran sessions), BUT if you're just a Dad trying to help they would be valuable. But these guys, many recent immigrants, don't have four figures and two weekends to do it. That's where we can help.
As for a stadium, it's a long process. In Minneapolis, stadiums that meet PLA standards are owned either by a local college, Mpls Public Schools (and rented by a different bureaucratic entity that keeps the rental fees for some reason called Mpls Community Ed), Mpls Parks & Rec, or by private high schools.
Despite being a large city, in the city limits themselves the number of available stadiums are really limited. Luckily, from our men's league experience we knew the contact information for those groups and we started talking right away.
The process is labyrinthine and relies on your personal network and luck to even start the conversation with a stadium about you renting it. It's a lot easier in the suburbs, but we wanted to play in our hometown.
Alright. Now, here's something I really wanted to ask you about that was covered in the Flakoglost Podcast. How important is it for a team to not only have a good crest, but a crest that really personifies the team? I know you guys have really worked to cultivate the punk rock, DIY, rebel team image, and your logo really reflects that.
I think it's critically important--not just the logo, but being thoughtful about what you are going to be as a club and then representing that visually. The players are going to wear it, you're going to hope supporters buy t-shirts and such with it, and it's the lead element for raising awareness of your club. Super important.
We purposefully chose an, ahem, challenging logo because we wanted to be DIY, different, maybe a little provocative, and used the logo and surrounding Twitter storm and cat meme response, to raise awareness of the club. When we all first saw the logo we didn't love it, but loved the other elements of the "brand"...and then over the days we started to really dig it. That was perfect! We are trying to be different and we knew it would get noticed.
So, to answer your question for us the logo did everything you said about representing who we are and we were also able to use it to get noticed, which was really important for us (obviously) right at the beginning. We had to break through in a major league town. The logo really helped.
So did our throwback logo. I mean, why only have ONE logo (says the ad agency guy)?
Why do you think logos seem to be such a neglected area for most lower league teams? It really feels like for every one good logo there are five that are just something else.
That is a good question! I'm going to think about that a little...it is interesting though. We spent a lot of time on it. Had four top designers take cracks at it. We went with something really different and maybe not everyone's taste but it was purposeful (and whatever, we love it).
What are three do's and don't that you learned from both getting the team up and running and finishing a full season?
Do: 1. Have a reason to exist (beyond playing soccer). There are a ton of ways for people to spend their time and entertainment dollars, and with the expanding coverage of soccer there is almost limitless top level soccer on TV. So if you start a team and expect that people will care just because you're there and playing soccer, you are going to fail. There needs to be something else, a bigger purpose, a point of view, if people are going to care.
2. Manage costs with a CFO-like fanaticism. Revenue is always going to be a question mark--how many people will you draw, sponsorship's will you sell, etc--but costs are under your control. It's easy to get your head turned by how much fun it is at the beginning, designing kits, renting a stadium, and it's the clubs that overspend that fail. So don't overspend. Easier said that done but worth saying over and over and over again.
3. Build personal relationships with local 'influencers'. At this level, it is impossible to live separately from the local coaches, players, clubs and fans. If you're not out there in that community, and not selling but actively part of what is happening with the sport in your area, then you won't get the support or positive influence that you need. These are the people who others are going to ask about your club. You need them on your side. Desperately. It's one thing for a billionaire to buy a top division team and spend enough to get marketplace attention. But if you're a billionaire you're not reading this are you?
Well, even billionaires need some advice from time to time. What are three 'do not's' that you learned from both getting the team up and running and finishing a full season?
1. Don't give away free tickets. Pricing is an indication of value. When the price is $0, that is all the value indication people need. Over and over, teams try it and over and over they find that it doesn't work. Learn from the other teams that have tried it. It doesn't work. One caveat: free tickets to sponsors or to underprivileged kids who are, say, involved in free clinics or other analogous scenario makes sense. As long as there is a value exchange, there is a value to your product.
2. Don't have your buddy design the logo. (unless he's a pro) It's worth the investment to have a strong logo and brand. And yes, I know that our logo isn't everyone's cup of tea...but it sure go us noticed, didn't it?
3. Don't think it will be easy. I fully expected this to be time consuming and expensive. I was right. While I am completely open to the idea that I am a relatively ineffective lower division soccer executive working in a particularly challenging market, doing this is difficult. It requires a lot of hours, a lot of favors from talented friends, all the hope you can muster, all the luck in the world, and unflagging optimism. All that, before anything has even gone wrong. I love doing this. It's still WAY harder than I ever expected.
Photos courtesy of Daniel Mick
Free tickets is a great point. All you need to do is see all the trouble that caused Rayo OKC. And they're a professional team making that mistake. How has the first season changed your five year goals, or have they changed at all?
Yeah, was a disaster. I don't get why people give teams such a hard time on attendance in year 1.
Our whole approach was to earn the support of a hardcore group of people who would be with us through thick and thin and help us to attract other die hard supporters organically, because it's fun and because we have people out in the community telling people to check us out.
So maybe we could have artificially boosted attendance but what's the point?
I always think about the Simpson pilot--80% of the test audience thought the show was bad, but 20% LOVED it. Intensely loved it. If you go back and see the 1st season you can see how bad the show was, it took a few years to hit its stride. Feels like we're similar. We will get better and better, but we need that 20% of people who love us to build from. Anything less than love and people drift away, there are just too many other fun things to do in the summer.
Which is a long way of saying that dinging teams for their first year attendance always struck me as silly. If they have diehards, they have a fighting chance. Certainly a better chance than a team with casuals who are there for a free ticket.
Sounds kind of like Kevin Kelly's theory of 1,000 True Fans. Get with the people who love you, and they'll do more to create more people who love what you do then you ever could. Now, I know in your season recap on FiftyFive.one, you touched on sponsorship's some, and the need for more information on securing them. What can you share about the sponsorship process for City? What worked, what didn't work, do you expect to have an easier time this coming year?
I didn't know the Theory of 1,000 True Fans, but I like it. We'll get to 1,000...
As for sponsorship, we didn't really know where to start so, outside of existing relationships, we didn't really start. We only had 5 months from idea to first game so we were way behind the 8-ball. We are spending this off-season trying to figure out the right approach. Wish I knew! It will help now that we have a year of success behind us and we have a profile, but I would be lying if I said that I knew what to do. Maybe someone else you interview can give us the silver bullet!
I don't know if I'll find that silver bullet. I've been looking for awhile and so far, nothing. What are you looking for when it comes to sponsor, even if you've only been working local and personal connections so far?
For us, we are looking for a partner. I know that sounds buzzword-y, but we've had such success working with Summit because they are not just giving us money but partnering with us so we can do joint events, activate them at our events, and be part of their team--for example, at their big Backyard Bash instead of us having a tent to sell merch like other teams/groups they sponsored, our guys actually volunteered and worked the event to help supplement the Summit team. So there is value for them from marketing and they can see the sales impact (to a degree at least that matches the sponsorship level) and they see us working with them. For us, we get critical funding to help the club, better events, and a relationship that we can grow vs something more trans-actional.
And I'm sure that relationship will help open more doors for similar opportunities down the road. Lets talk about attendance really quick. What was your average attendance in season one, and how are you planning to grow that support?
Well, in a classic Mpls City move our attendance clicker broke during our first game and we never fixed or replaced it...so I'm not all that sure.
On a side note, attendance has been a weird stick with which to beat lower division teams with. We've had taunts "all 8 of your fans will be disappointed when you fail" and "just look around and count them, how many can there be?" for 'local soccer supporters' on Twitter. Which is weird. We didn't expect 10,000 fans. That's not really our point of appeal anyway. And isn't it kind of incredible that in America we are pulling hundreds of fans for lower division clubs all over the country? Why shit on, say, Oakland County for "only" drawing 400 fans to a game. Only? That's super cool! They're in their second season. That's fantastic.
I would guess we drew somewhere between 200 and 500 per game, with the lower numbers coming when we had some weather issues (not surprising that a tornado warning the hour before kickoff would damped attendance).
Tornado warnings tend to deter people from attending any event. How do you feel about the growing level of transparency among lower level teams? Just this month, there's been your article on FiftyFive.one and the Dennis Crowley article. Seems there's a real spirit of co-operation starting to grow between teams, if not the leagues themselves.
I love the transparency. As I said in my article, when I started the club even a year ago there was nothing out there to help me. Even the leagues didn't give a whole lot to help. I am a believer that a thriving lower division scene helps everyone and I encourage new clubs, even in my own backyard. Having our write-up and Dennis' is, I hope, a huge help for people thinking about starting a club and, hopefully, information that helps other clubs get better. I want healthy, successful clubs at this level--it only helps us, and it helps grow the game. We should help each other get better.
I will admit to poring over Dennis' article with some members of our Board and taking things from his article that we didn't think of or that he did better than we did. I think that there is a growing spirit of collaboration among clubs, though some are, of course, more open than others. I hope it continues.
Would be great if the leagues themselves and the federation would help to facilitate that, but baby steps right?
Always baby steps. And the good news is the Premier League of America is the unique position of being new enough that they can really get ahead of the curb and start offering resources like this to new existing clubs. There's a question for you. How you hope to see information like this help the PLA get it's teams ahead of the game?
Great question. In my opinion, lower division leagues--leagues that should exist for the benefit of the clubs and not the other way around--could do a *lot* more to help their clubs be successful. I would love to a package of information for new teams to the league that give best practices for operations and financial expectations. I know that at owners' meetings there is a lot of discussion and sharing of things that work, but a conversation is one thing, having something written with hard numbers is another.
I hear you there. Where do you hope to see the PLA, especially in Minnesota, in the next few years?
I would love to have a thriving division here in The North, building on the current set of clubs, all of them well run and good at soccer, and adding a few. Personally, I would like to add a team from St Paul should MNU Reserves move to USL and from a city like Duluth or Rochester. When we originally talked, I made a lot about regional rivalries and I believe that is an area of interest for the lower divisions that the top, national level can't match.
I do think that the PLA has been smart by building around clubs with history. Even our side, with its strong ties to the Stegman's teams that circuitously go back to 1977, has a history and an infrastructure that can hopefully save the league from the upheaval seen in other lower division leagues. Not to say that it is true of every team or that needs to be the screen-er, rather that having that core as the foundation seems smart.
Dan, thanks again for taking the time to do this interview, I really appreciate it. Remember, if you are enjoying the weekly content coming out on AP you can click here to Follow AP on Twitter, or here to Like AP on Facebook. The easiest way to make sure you never miss an interview, and get to read interviews before everyone, 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. AP can't accomplish the goal of maximum exposure for all levels of the American Soccer Pyramid without YOU. Until next time, Stay Loyal, Support Local.