"We felt compelled to come together to formulate a model that was going to make it easier for clubs to participate at very high levels but without having to spend unnecessarily."
Today's interview is brought to you by the newest partner of the American Pyramid, MeritFit. MeritFit.co is a Kansas City based fitness and nutrition blog run by one of my good friends and certified Personal Trainer, Dustin Duewel. He played soccer for 12 years, inspiring his passion for fitness and nutrition. Check out his blog for all kinds of useful information to up your game and get ahead of the competition.
A good, cold morning greeting to you, AP readers! The temperature has plunged here in KC, but soccer keeps rolling along. Speaking of KC, still not sure how the Swope Park Rangers got past the Orange County Blues in the USL playoffs being down two players for over thirty minutes.
Anyway, today's interview is about a brand new league launching in Minnesota this coming spring. They have a unique take on how a league should function, and are thinking about to improve the soccer experience for teams on the state level, not just the regional or national level. Check it out.
Let's start really simple. Who you are, where you're from, and what your role is with the American Champions League?
My name is Aron Gastafus, Secretary to the ACL.
You from Minnesota?
Yes I am. I live and work in the City of St Louis Park.
Nice! How did you come to be involved with soccer in general, and the ACL in particular?
Well, I moved here from Uganda to Bemidji State before I began working with FC Minneapolis (the Founder of the APL). I had already been involved with soccer in Africa at a professional level since, as you know, the game is already fully developed in that there.
As I worked with FC Minneapolis, I interacted with coaches and team owners that didn't know if their clubs were going to be around the next season and this was due to the very expensive nature and model of the leagues they were participating in. We felt compelled to come together to formulate a model that was going to make it easier for clubs to participate at very high levels but without having to spend unnecessarily. That is how the ACL came to be and that is how I came to begin working with it.
What is it that makes the ACL different from the other leagues around it, like the American Premier League?
Good question. The ACL is structured to be a State based league with a professional model. This coming year we are launching in Minnesota and expecting to launch in five other states by 2018. The purpose of doing this is to address the geographical challenges by reducing travel time and expenses to games during regular play. Once a team wins at a State level it can then travel to play with other Champions in different States to determine the overall champion of the league.
Okay. So the goal would be Minnesota this year, then, say, Iowa and North Dakota in 2018. The winners of all those state leagues would then play each other at the end of the season? Hence the Champions League branding?
That is correct. In order to accomplish that we have to first do this at home and following our success we replicate the model in those neighboring States.
Of course. How many teams do you have ready to go for the upcoming season, and when does the season kick off?
We have seven clubs ready and excited to go. These include: FC Minneapolis, Granite City FC, Hennepin CFC, SC Saints, Hopkins City Royals FC and Park United. Our Season is set to kick off on May 6th and close by July 30th
Here's a complete link to all our games for the following season:
Are those teams all around or close to Minneapolis?
Some are. For example: FC Minneapolis is based out of Minnetonka, Saints are out of Saint Paul, Hennepin CFC is based in Minneapolis, and Granite City are from Saint Cloud.
Okay, so a little more then just Minneapolis. What states are you hoping to be in come 2018?
As soon as we kick off next year, we will be sending off representatives to Wisconsin, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Iowa to begin discussing possible expansion to their regions for 2018.
This seems like a really good idea for states with smaller, more spread out populations like the Dakotas. What's the story behind the creation of the ACL? What's the leaguess 'origin story?'
You may already know that FC Minneapolis started the American Premier League back in 2015. We wanted to have a league that's competitive but affordable. As you also know most clubs in these leagues don't make any money out of their investments. They are in it for the passion of contributing to the growth of the game. Recently you saw that FC Fargo, the Champions of the APL in 2016, folded. Many other clubs have contemplated that decision and this is due to the high cost of either joining the league or operating a team in the league depending on its model.
That is why ACL was created. To provide that alternative to not only our clubs here but many more across the Nation that share in our challenges as small clubs. To make it easy for clubs to join the league and spend less doing so, allowing them to keep their money and rather use it in the growing of their brands and development of their players. That is what ACL is all about. That is our story.
If I'm looking to start a team to join the ACL, what would you tell about why I should do it, and what type of cost would I be looking at?
Good question, and I would definitely encourage anyone wanting to join to ask. This is because ACL has low entry fees, teams play within their State to reduce travel expenses, winner takes home a cash prize, and the league provides clubs with the right platform to generate income through ticketing, merchandising and sponsorship's.
Cool. I've got a big question for you. Why do this? Why start a league and put in all this time and effort, especially at the amateur level?
Actually we do not look at ourselves as amateur. We run our league professionally and however small we may be now, we believe that with time we are going to be one of the finest soccer brands in the country, but to answer your question, we are putting in all the effort and time to start a new league for three reasons.
First, because we want to provide a clear, meaningful and affordable path backed with the guarantee of sustainability for Clubs and Players to enter onto the professional platform of the sport of soccer
Second, we want to address the geographical challenge that has hindered the sport from exponential growth by creating a league where clubs play within their State in the regular season to limit their travel expenses.
Third, we want to help clubs stay in business longer by ensuring the cost of registering and participating in the league remain reasonable, thereby allowing them the opportunity to spend more developing their brand and their players.
Sounds like you really want teams to invest more into youth and the community. Would that be a correct statement?
That is correct. As a matter of fact, by 2018 we are launching the ACL U16 Youth Development Program, where all teams participating in the league will be required to have a Youth team in the Developmental program.
That's a good idea, there needs to be more of an emphasis on youth at the lower levels. How are you helping teams engage their community, outside of the youth sphere?
We want to work with clubs in their efforts to settle in their communities by providing them with tools through which they can engage with local businesses, community groups, and the public sector. We also want to enable clubs with resources to help them get rooted in their communities and be consistent there. This means having a stable home where a club plays throughout its existence. Today in America an average semi-pro soccer team would have played on more than 5 home fields in a space of 3 seasons and with that kind of inconsistency it's hard to win over a community
Very hard, and that's a very interesting stat about the home fields. What kind of tools are you giving teams to help them really dig in and become part of the community fabric?
Clubs have difficulties maintaining themselves at these High School or College Stadiums. We are working with them to forge partnerships with Stadiums directly or the relevant districts to help enable them to pay less to use these facilities and get extra support from these institutions.
We are helping to train our clubs in Front Office Management, and recommending resources through which these clubs can have their coaches certified. We are learning about the communities represented by our clubs and suggesting different ways through which each club can identify with the way of life in that community, hence increasing participation among others things.
What would some basic front office management advice or teaching look like? There are a lot of people reading this blog who are running, or want to run, teams, and I know they would appreciate whatever you can share.
We mainly focus on three areas: match-day, merchandising and sponsorship's. The kind of training we offer to clubs focuses on mainly those 3 areas to help them prepare for the demands and challenges of organizing a professional match-day experience for the fans and to learn about successful ways to boost ticket sales, reach out to new sponsors and establish credible relationships with communities and business owners and expand their brand through merchandising. Other areas of study include training in basic marketing, including website design, social media and e-mail.
Social media is crazy important. If you don't have it, or aren't using it properly, you are way behind the eight ball. Ready for some short questions to wrap things up?
What's your favorite league and or team to watch?
My favorite league is the English Premier League, and my favorite team is Arsenal FC of North London.
Who are your favorite players, one past, one present.
For the past player I will say Thierry Henry (14) who played with France, as well as Arsenal FC of England, FC Barcelona of Spain and New York Red Bulls of the MLS. Barcelona's Lionel Messi is my present favorite.
Would you rather attend the World Cup or the Euros?
I would definitely attend the World Cup. It has a broader experience that comes from variety of communities.
To wrap this up, what would you like to say to the people reading this about why they should get and support their local teams, especially the ones in the ACL?
I would honestly like to say to the American Soccer Fan base that the only hope small pro and semi-pro clubs have is them. Most of these clubs operate from the income of their owners with the only viable source of income being ticket sales, especially due to little or no sponsor interest in small clubs Having members of any given soccer community participating in these clubs whether by buying a ticket or two, volunteering during match days or forming supporters groups would be helpful to clubs like those of ACL. Finally, the most meaningful way of supporting small clubs is advocating for promotion and relegation and this is one topic I can do a full interview on because I know that without a system that rewards the hard work of small clubs in this country, our sport is always going to be in serious trouble.
That's a great close. Aron, 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.