"After all, how many times do high school friends with working class incomes get to buy a sports team in their 20s?"
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Welcome, once again, to American Pyramid! In case you haven't noticed, I'm not very good with intros. But I'm working on it. Big news before we dive in, I will be appearing on the Soccer Nomad podcast with Austin Long in the next couple of weeks to talk about what these interviews have shown me about the workings of soccer at the lower levels. It's going to be a lot of fun, and should make for some interesting reading. I will pull no punches.
Now let's get to it. Today's interview is with Nick Mendola of FC Buffalo, who play in the National Premier Soccer League. Thanks to issues with Twitter, this might have been one of the most difficult to finish interviews, simply due to neither one of us knowing when the other replied at certain times throughout the interview. But we made it work, and now it's ready for your reading pleasure. Check it out.
Welcome to American Pyramid Nick. Lets start off simple. Who you are, where you're from, and what your role is with FC Buffalo.
I'm Nick Mendola. I'm from Buffalo (Tonawanda), N.Y., and I'm the co-owner and general manager of FC Buffalo.
What got you interested in soccer in general and running a team in particular? Has soccer has always been apart of your life, or did you have a 'I saw the light' moment?
I played a little when I was very young, but it was indoor and it didn't take. After an injury playing American football my freshman year of high school, my friend encouraged me to try soccer again. In retrospect, it was a really awesome suggestion.
Running the team with my partner Scott Frauenhofer was born out of necessity. I was a season ticket holder for Queen City FC and Scott was the press officer for Buffalo City FC. Both clubs had some success on the field, but fell into some problems off the field. At the risk of losing the momentum, and also seeing the opportunity for a fresh start, we took a swing at it. After all, how many times do high school friends with working class incomes get to buy a sports team in their 20s?
Not many, that's for sure. That leads into my next question really well. How did FC Buffalo come to be?
The owner of the last NPSL entity in Buffalo was a British man who wasn't enjoying it. He had franchise/regional rights to the Buffalo market in the league, and we had the opportunity to start a new club if we bought those rights. Other folks were balking at the opportunity, but we believed in this market and this city. There's a big difference between dreamers and doers, and we wanted to be the latter.
So FC Buffalo is a continuity, of sorts, of the previous Buffalo team? There's not much of that in American soccer. You did say that you believe in the market and city of Buffalo. What about your city makes it something you can believe in, especially when it comes to soccer?
I wouldn't say it's a continuity. We're a completely different organization with wildly different aims from our predecessor. Closer to Queen City FC, I suppose.
Buffalo has continually boasted a place in the top markets for TV viewing of the Premier League and U.S. men's national team. We've seen more and more fans out in the seats every year, and we knew that if we could expose them to a real soccer culture, they'd be hooked. Buffalo's a diehard sports town, like many, but it also loves to back upstarts.
You're team is fairly renowned for having a robust supporter culture. What can you tell me about them, and what, if anything, did you do to build that culture for FCB?
It was more fostering it than building it. We had some vocal supporters almost from day one, so we did our best to promote them and make them love the idea of a bigger club in their city. But really we didn't need to goad them into singing or give them TiFo supplies; The Situation Room was an organic development. And they make us warm and fuzzy inside more often than not!
Well that's good. That's something really prevalent in the minds of soccer fans right now, the relationship between the Front Office and it's supporters. How do you interact with them to make sure the relationship remains mostly warm and fuzzy?
I like to think we stay open to their questions and suggestions, and try to speak with them at other soccer functions in the community. The only real difficulty is the timing. Our ownership group is five guys with full-time jobs, and we can't be out and about as much as we like. And a big part of our relationship is trust. The people in our SG know that they are ambassadors for an entire community, because they are a community. We don't need to worry about them using slurs or representing us poorly. We're cut from the same cloth.
Would you consider that to be part of the appeal of lower level soccer? That being cut from the same cloth and the almost natural trust and closeness that comes with it?
Sure, and at the same time fostering an appetite for growth that isn't scared off by progression. Ideally, as we grow, they grow. The last thing you want is a bunch of folks romanticizing inclusivity by exclusivity, and judging others by whether they fit some sort of preconceived lower-tier standard. Soccer is a universal community, and here in the United States we have a chance to respect rivalry and each other. I suppose that's a bit of a tangent, but we've always pitched people on being part of a ground floor, or my partner Ray's constant referencing of the rising tide lifting all the boats.
And at this point, we don't have to talk about the ground floor. Some may see it that way, but our supporters and partners who have been with us since Day One know how far we've come.
Awesome, that's a good way to put things into perspective. Now, what can you tell me about the league you are currently in, the National Premier Soccer League. What do they do differently that convinced you to join them rather then, say, the Premier Development League?
Honestly acquiring rights to the team here were a bargain, and the NPSL is already more affordable for an independent group than the PDL (at least in 2009). Leagues are more about individual teams than some overarching governance. The PDL has some exceptionally successful teams, but so does the NPSL. Of course we like our league, but to pretend that either league is vastly superior to the other is an absolutely unnecessary argument. When you meet the sort of political fan or businessman that wants to have that discussion, you know you're walking into empty suit territory. Head to a courtroom, cause the sport doesn't need you.
I like that. A lot of the time I feel like it's simply arguing semantics, rather then anything of significance when it comes to actual differences between leagues. This is going to be something of a silly question, but it's on my mind. A lot of teams, if they have the initials FCB, wind up going with the red and blue stripes ala Barcelona. Why not do the same, piggyback off the hype sort of thing?
That question is a first! FCB just kinda happened naturally. It's just an easy way to acronym FC Buffalo. Bayern Munich sells some FCB stuff, too. Until we're in a Club World Cup final with one of them, or a high-profile friendly, let's hope it doesn't matter.
I only thought of that question because of the team in Brisbane, Australia. There was a movement for a while to have them re-brand as FC Brisbane and go with the red and blue stripe look. Someone had mentioned FCB as something of a unifying marker for teams that want that look. Anyway, you guys made some waves a couple months back about wanting to move up to the USL or NASL. Now, I'm not interested in asking your preference, they each have pros and cons, but there's a general perception out there that all it takes is money to move up. Can you address that perception in any way, because it's so much more then just money.
It is so much more than money, but money is the universal fix, right? You can look at literally every league and see teams that were put into a market or conference because of the up-front $$. Expansion fees are a real thing.
That said, we've heard a lot about responsible growth from at least one league. And that's attractive to me. Are you bringing interest in our market because we'll succeed, or because we might know someone who can write you a check? I realize it's naive to think money isn't very, very important, but we can bring you a crowd of 1500+ without being able to serve beer or bring players with big name recognition. That's a start I think most would prefer, all things equal, than just a fella with a massive, open wallet.
That's a big bonus, especially when you start thinking about how that could explode once you have the ability to sell beer and sign big name players. Ideally, with or without a move up, where do you want to see FCB in 5 years?
1) Longer season
2) Beer at the venue
3) Challenging for multiple rounds of the Open Cup
If you don't mind my asking, is there any reason in particular you guys aren't allowed to sell beer right now? And what would it take to change that?
New York State has a law regarding alcohol usage in relation to schools. Our stadium is on the property of a local high school. We'd need authorities who wanted to capitalize on the money in order to change such a law.
We'll probably need to go to private venue to make that happen, and it's something we'll keep exploring
Okay, that does make sense. How has it been watching the explosion of soccer from the ground level, particularly in the Midwest and Great Lakes? Your area of the country is booming with new teams and support right now.
I think we've gone from a sort of coming clean about our love for soccer, where folks realized there were far more people watching than they initially realized, to seeing random sports fans invigorated by this "new to them" sport. Soccer is a very similar sport to hockey and basketball in a lot of ways, and most of the taboos of soccer have been faced by other sports. Divers/floppers? See the NBA. Cheaters? See the NFL's Patriots. Slow moving? You can play two matches inside some baseball games. It's a wonderful sport and there's always room for growth.
So it's been fantastic to watch. Buffalo has a soccer-only pub called Mes Que to watch the games, and there are multiple other bars in the area who praise the game and put it on a pedestal. You can now point to an MLS player from most communities, and ours is not separate. It's a thrill to have so many others recognize and catch the fever we caught in earlier World Cup cycles, European championships, and even MLS seasons.
I remember growing up in Southern Indiana and watching soccer games being played for the first time at the YMCA. There where some really talented kids even then, and something about it felt primed for a take off. Now there are two teams within two hours of where I grew up, in Louisville and Indianapolis. Who would you consider to be FCB's biggest current rival?
Our fans (and us, of course) have a rivalry with the Erie Commodores (formerly the Admirals) that I would put up against any rivalry in the second, third and fourth tiers of American soccer. Even if I wanted to argue personal distaste for Cleveland, or the possibility of new expansion side Rochester -- just making examples, not claims -- the passion our supporters show at home and on the road against Erie makes the job worth doing
Erie was not the team I was expecting to hear in response to that question, but it does makes sense. Ho would you like to see your current NPSL conference grow over the next 5 years?
First and foremost, I don't want to sound like some sort of league renegade: I very much trust what the league is doing under new managing director Jef Thiffault, who has impressed me a great deal.
Where I take a bit of umbrage is with teams who look out for their travel budget more than what's best for the growth of the league. Our attendance improved noticeably when we started hosting Detroit and Cleveland, giving us markets and connections that already exist. Any market can bring a great crowd and love for the sport, but what is playing in front of 35 fans on the road going to do for our fans or our league? If a team is a glorified offshoot of a U7-18 team, basically a U-20 one that's made to milk more money from parents for one more go-round, then I'd say no thanks. Bring on teams that want real soccer culture, that yearn to grow a club that will be around in some capacity within 30, 40, 50 years. Let's have and be the sort of owners who care about a team's legacy more than getting money out of Bobby's mom and dad who own the local car dealership.
Safe to say there's some growing pains that go with the increase in interest?
Of course. We're still our own merchandise designers and distributors, our own PR team, marketers and partnership finders. Our budget means we have to help with scouting and "signing players", driving vans or chartering buses to away games, etc. The logistics are all on us. So yeah if there's a mistake, it's probably literally the ownership's fault. Cause if we blame it on another position in the company, we probably hold that position.
There aren't many teams at the NPSL level that can afford hiring people to do those jobs. Guess that's what interns are for. This might be another left field question, but if you had to choose one or the other, would you rather be able move up via buying an expansion slot, or earning it through promotion and relegation?
If you do it the right and legal way, you're limited on interns too. If we bought an expansion slot because we deserved it through winning and, mostly, success through crowd size and renown, then I'm all for that
But the idea of winning via pro/rel is kinda intoxicating. I have a big, big fear that the geography of our country will limit pro/rel to what we see in England's non Football League flights, because winning a league where you're traveling max 8 hours to taking on trips to Puerto Rico, Edmonton, Sacramento and Oklahoma City could just devastate a club's budget for other important and necessary employees and items.
I agree with that 100%. It's an incredibly intoxicating idea, but there is a lot to consider. Really seems like if it's going to work, we will need more teams in the areas that don't have any right now, and there are still some sizable gaps out there. And it will have to start from the bottom. City league to state, state to region and so on. I want to be respectful of your time, so let's move into the shorter, rapid fire questions.What team and league do you enjoy watching in your free time?
Given that I've long supported Newcastle, I can't speak to enjoyment of watching teams, but the Premier League and the MLS are the leagues I most often see. I'd say my second favorite team is the USMNT, but FC Buffalo is the club I support. Not kidding. Have to look at it that way
Newcastle? Man, I'm sorry for you're level of suffering. But kudos to the loyalty. Who are your favorite soccer players, one past, one present?
Well, I love Messi, but also Fabricio Coloccini. In the past it's between Carlos Bocanegra and Alan Shearer. Yep.
You really are a hardcore Newcastle guy, aren't you?
I've tempered my enthusiasm since I started writing about the Premier League for a living, but yeah the club has a lot of allure to me.
Do you have a favorite soccer book and/or podcast that you would recommend?
I'm a big fan of the Football Ramble podcast. As far as soccer books... hmm.... a lot to consider but "This Love Is Not For Cowards" by @robertandrewp is a favorite. Also "Soccer in Sun and Shadow" by Eduardo Galeano
Where can people find out more about you and FC Buffalo?
http://Fcbuffalo.org , http://twitter.com/fcbuffalo , http://facebook.com/fcbuffalo ,
http://npsl.com , and http://instagram.com/fcbuffalo/
Alright, and now for the last question/closing statement. What would you like to say to the people reading this article about why they should get out and support the lower levels of American soccer?
Too often we look for the readymade solution, and that's terrific. I don't begrudge any city or fan who had a terrific team given to them, but I think about the clubs who started because there was a need, and have done it for the right reasons. Soccer is one of the few avenues of our sporting world where we can continue to support the virtues and ideals of building on a foundation. We love this sport, right? Why should it matter if you're with 30,000 people or 300 people? Or 30? Treat the game well and it will treat you even better. Or treat it how you want it to treat you. It's the Golden Rule, in sports form.
The Golden Rule of sports. That's something we should all try and remember. Nick, thanks for taking the time to do this. I really appreciate it, and good luck on in the upcoming season. 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 even more content coming your way on the regular, click here and sign up for the weekly newsletter, containing fun articles and videos, sometimes covering soccer, sometimes not. Make sure to spread the word. Share interviews, tell 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.