As I draft this column, I’m sitting in the athletic center at Endicott College in Beverly, Massachusetts administering the final exam for my Sports Promotions & Marketing course (SM 203). I taught two sections of the course as a guest instructor this semester and it was a blast.
The course was focused on creating demand for minor league and developing pro sports, so we came back frequently to my four years as a start-up consultant and later General Manager for the Boston Breakers of the now-defunct Women’s Professional Soccer (2009-2011).
The students’ first graded assignment this semester was a case study about the Breakers’ start-up phase in 2007-08. At that particular time, WPS was trying to analyze the “mistakes of the past” (i.e. the failed Women’s United Soccer Association of 2001-2003) in order to create a sustainable business plan. Today, a new women’s league – the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) – is doing the very same thing. Sadly, the subject of this latest autopsy is WPS itself.
Take a look at the case study and think about how you might answer the eight questions I posed to my students:
After holidays at home with their families, many of my students are off to internships with the American Hockey League, box lacrosse teams, ski resorts and arena management companies during Endicott’s extended six-week winter break.
Unfortunately, none of my students are headed to work for the NWSL, which is ramping up operations this month for a spring 2013 launch after months of behind-the-scenes organizing. It’s too bad, because during the past four months these 42 young men and 7 young women have likely devoted more time to analyzing the history, challenges and opportunities of women’s pro soccer than any other business students in the country.
As they sit here this morning scribbling away in their blue books about variable pricing strategy and permission-based marketing, I think to myself:
If one of these kids was headed off to sell women’s soccer, what else would I share with them?
The first thing I would suggest to a young person learning the ropes with an NWSL club is to read Joanna Lohman’s recent blog “How To Market Our New Women’s Professional League. Joanna was a player for the Washington Freedom and Philadelphia Independence in WPS. She is perhaps the most articulate and insightful player voice when it comes to the marketing of the sport. Updating an eternal debate in women’s soccer circles, Joanna talks about the dream of a thriving Supporters culture versus the disappointing reality of a group sales-driven target audience of distracted youth soccer families. Should teams:
Keep targeting a proven audience that is demonstrably incapable of sustaining a pro league? OR
Cultivate a totally-awesome-sounding-but-possibly-mythical tribe of urban, childless, pan-ethnic, hipster fanatics?
Joanna believes the NWSL has to make a bold all-in bet on fostering Supporters culture or else be doomed to failure. I’m like 90% on board with Joanna’s direction, but I don’t entirely agree with her conclusion. She’s created a false dilemma. Teams don’t have to choose between these two approaches. In fact, they need to have both. Neither audience is sufficient on its own. Your stadium environment has to be inviting and thrilling to everyone.
Where I agree with Joanna is that too many inexperienced team operators confuse the idea of creating an environment “for everyone” with creating a “family environment”. After all, families are adults + kids, right? That’s everyone! Not so fast. Because “Family Environment” is a too often a euphemism for a Children’s Environment. And an atmosphere that bears more resemblance to Chuck E. Cheese than Old Trafford is bound to alienate passionate adult soccer fans.
Kids loved the Boston Breakers, but we probably did less for them than any other team in WPS, except MagicJack. I believe that kids need to have the following experiences:
A team to cheer for and believe in
An opportunity to meet one of their heroes, even if they’re too shy to say a word
A shirtful of autographs at the end of the night
A fun, safe place to play before the game, with rides, contests and activities
They need these things because they may go home disappointed if they’re missing. On the other hand, here’s what I believe they don’t need:
One Direction, Biebs, and Carly Rae Jepsen on the stadium sound system
P.A. announcers commanding them to MAKE SOME NOISE! every ten minutes. Or ever, actually.
An intern who can’t dance in a smelly mascot suit listlessly waving at them.
Halftime youth soccer games that thrill 40 parents in the crowd and bore the piss out of everyone else
Do kids like all the things on this second list? Of course they do. But will they miss them if they’re not there? No. And these elements tend to annoy more sophisticated soccer fans. You know – the ones who buy season tickets, and blog, and watch your blurry webcasts, and shell out for $8.00 beers and $80.00 authentic jerseys? The ones you always say you wish you had more of? Yeah, them.
At the Breakers from 2009 to 2011, every element of game production was designed for the enjoyment of adult soccer lovers. This included everything from the Afro-Brazil samba band, to the professional entertainers at halftime, to the creation of a permanent Pillars of Excellence installation to honor retired Breakers stars such as Maren Meinert, Angela Hucles, and Kristine Lilly. We even excluded youth groups from sitting in our most desirable midfield seating sections.
That was just our philosophy. I’m sure it had its flaws as well. You have to develop your own. Whatever that is, I suggest you memorialize it in careful detail, like we did for our sales & marketing staff:
So now our hypothetical NWSL staffer has considered the case study, read Joanna Lohman’s manifesto, downloaded a proper ticket sales manual, and perhaps even started to think about his or her own personal values about marketing. (Whether your boss agrees is a different matter, but part of being an intern is deciding how you will do things differently when your day comes).
What else would I put in my imaginary care package for this young man or woman? Here’s two things:
A copy of Jon Spoelstra’s Ice To The Eskimos: How To Sell A Product Nobody Really Wants. This is an industry bible, along with Spoelstra’s earlier Marketing Outrageously. Spoelstra was the President of the New Jersey Nets during the Dark Ages of the Derrick Coleman era. He has plenty of great advice for low-budget/no-budget minor league operators as well. All of our Breakers account execs read this book. Get it on Kindle for $9.99.
The phone numbers of Los Angeles Galaxy Senior Manager of Ticket Sales and Service Heather Pease and Columbus Crew Director of Ticket Sales Brett Zalaski. Consummate sales people who sold a very challenging product in WPS and used their success to make the leap to great jobs in Major League Soccer. If you’re an NWSL executive and you haven’t been on the phone to pick the brains of WoSo sales leaders like Heather and Brett yet, you are missing a huge opportunity.
NWSL Odds & Ends
Here’s ten impressions and crystal ball predictions for the NWSL after this week’s league announcements:
Thorns F.C. draws the best numbers since WUSA. That means better than the 6,298 per game claimed by Los Angeles Sol in 2009.
The Breakers will sell out the entire season at Somerville’s Dilboy Stadium for a second consecutive year.
The appointment of Cheryl Bailey gives the NWSL a top-flight administrator to make the trains run on time.
I don’t buy FC Kansas City President Brian Budzinski’s claim that his club is drawing “huge interest” from senior National Team players, unless he means Mexicans and Canadians. Only two USWNT players were willing to go to St. Louis in WPS allocation in 2008, just one of whom is still active. FCKC’s unknown head coach won’t help compensate for a general lack of enthusiasm about playing in Missouri.
More than 50% of USWNT players will select Portland or Seattle as their preferred destination in allocation.
Sydney Leroux headlines a list of surprising allocations, sent to Kansas City, Boston or Western New York when her lack of seniority keeps her out of a coveted Pacific Northwest allocation spot.
The Boston Breakers will have the largest contingent of non-North American imports, due to the club’s long-standing ties to Australian players.
Here’s hoping that 2014 sees a place for Charlie Naimo and Paul Riley in America’s top league.
After Year One is in the books, the national federations will demand more control in return for their subsidies. In particular, the federations won’t tolerate sending players to franchises with under-qualified, unorthodox or revolving door coaches.
I no longer buy into the cliche “if it fails this time, it’s never coming back”. There are now and will continue to be plenty of people willing to invest in the women’s game, particularly as the price has come down. The problem is that up until now, it’s been more attractive for new money to let everything die off and start all over again than it has been to buy existing clubs and take on their problems.
This was the last public image of Women’s Professional Soccer (2009-2011). At this time last year, WPS was in a state of massive organ failure: largely insolvent, under-staffed by those demoralized few who ignored the evacuation orders, slogging through internecine warfare with a rogue owner and forced to prove it even deserved re-sanctioning by the United States Soccer Federation.
Improbably – and perhaps irresponsibly – the league roused itself at the NSCAA convention in January 2012 to hold its fourth and final college entry draft. Budding USWNT star Sydney Leroux (left) was the #1 overall pick of the Atlanta Beat. Some unknown person snapped this picture of her for the Beat website, inadvertently becoming the last person to ever attempt to market WPS. Two weeks later the league bled out and it was all over. Leroux will never wear that Beat jersey, nor will anyone else.
2012 was a lost year for the women’s game in America in terms of a pro league. The loss of WPS was ameliorated for most fans by the USWNT’s Gold Medal triumph in London. 2012 was a great year for women’s soccer in America even without a pro league. But the success of the American women in London also sparked a renewed appreciation in certain influential offices (i.e. Sunil Gulati‘s) of why we need a viable women’s pro league.
The U.S. has now won back-to-back Olympic Golds in 2008 and 2012. Many of the key figures in those victories – Angela Hucles, Abby Wambach and Megan Rapinoe – may never have even made the National Team without the platform of the WUSA or WPS to showcase their talents. This isn’t about a pro league sitting atop the “developmental pyramid”. Get real. The USWNT and the Brazilian, Canadian, Swedish and Japanese National teams are the top of the Pyramid. Those are the Major Leagues in this sport. The purpose of a North American pro league is to be the equivalent of triple-A baseball, providing a proving grounds and a showcase to develop talent for international competition. Rather than sit back doing nothing and charge exorbitant sanctioning dues to the brave investors willing to invest in professional women’s soccer here, the USSF ought to be f*&*#ng thrilled that a bunch of rich guys want to heavily subsidize the USSF’s effort to bring home World Cup and Olympic championships.
Now there’s a third pro league in the works and this time – for the first time – U.S. Soccer is reportedly taking a lead role and planning to subsidize the participation of USWNT players, much the way that NHL and Major League Baseball clubs pay the salaries of their prospects in hockey and baseball’s developmental leagues. As the peerless women’s soccer journalist Jeff Kassouf reported this week, progress has been agonizingly slow and a series of “big announcements next week” have come and gone with silence. Women’s soccer die hards are concerned – as they should be – that Thanksgiving is nearly upon us and we don’t yet have a league in place. The time to sell tickets, close sponsorship deals and forge community inroads is ebbing away.
After reading Jeff’s article (linked above), I came up with five plausible theories about the persistent delays. Perhaps I should clarify. Five plausible buttotally speculative and uninformed theories about the lack of action. Then I reached out to a few veteran players and other sources close to the league to test my theories. Each of them asked not to be identified by name, but provided helpful insights. But before I share their comments, here were my initial scenarios on the lack of progress:
There is a split between league owners who want to push forward for 2013 and a group that wants to hold off until 2014. (This is what derailed the planned 2008 launch of WPS).
The key questions of USWNT player participation are unresolved: How much will they be paid? Will players have a voice in choosing the cities they play in, as they did in WUSA and WPS? Without USWNT commitment prospective owners might question why they should commit to the expense of an air travel league without marketable talent.
The league cannot be announced yet because of legal wrangling with the USL (W-League) or the WPSL who are upset over losing franchises to the new league.
The “herding cats” theory. The investors of the new league are not rich enough to give this substantial attention. They all have core businesses that require most of their day-to-day attention. Therefore, getting them together and on the same page for any type of coordinated announcements or commitments is extremely difficult
“Dan Borislow“. (I don’t even know that that means, but I guarantee someone out there assumes this is a sticking point.)
So…I have to say that after talking to several reliable contacts, I came away rather encouraged by their responses, which were pretty consistent:
Everyone is committed to a 2013 launch. There could be as few as eight but as many as twelve teams. Eight seems most likely – more on why in a second.
The USWNT players – or at least a critical mass of them – are committed, which is crucially important to the league’s relevance. It appears that the mechanism for allocation is not yet in place.
Early on it looked like the USL might manage the league and/or take an equity position in ownership. This didn’t pan out and now U.S. Soccer has become the dominant player/de facto Commissioner’s office. USL will not be involved, but there seem to be no over-hanging legal issues holding things up with migrating franchises.
The “herding cats” theory is the one that seems to hold some water. U.S. Soccer is vetting the franchise applications and set an early October deadline for interested parties to submit business plans. Not just skeletal W-League-style plans for fielding a soccer team, but actual business plans for balancing revenues and expenses while maintaining acceptable standards of professionalism. Although numerous parties were interested, few met the early October deadline and U.S. Soccer was compelled to extend the timeline, contributing to the delay in meaningful news. Although there are now enough applications to select as many as a dozen franchises, one source expects Gulati will only approve eight for the first season.
Dan Borislow. - “Haha. No, he’s not remotely an issue at all. He’s not interested or involved,” one source said.
The reported expense budgets in this league are still going to be around $500,000 – $700,000 per year. Franchises will be responsible for the salaries of non-USWNT players, but U.S. Soccer will reportedly pay the salaries of the USWNT players. One player said she expected “strong” participation from the Canadian National Team as well, although who would be responsible for paying the Canadians is not clear.
All in all, the behind-the-scenes news seems encouraging. My more dysfunctional theories were consistently shot down by those in the know. Of larger concern is the tight window that new teams will have to sell tickets and sponsorships. Established clubs like the Chicago Red Stars and Boston Breakers should be okay regardless. Even in a worst case scenario of dropping back to WPSL Elite, they have established fan bases that will support the teams at certain scalable levels. More challenging will be the brand new teams that need to forge relationships and launch organizations with only four or five months of ramp up.
UPDATE! (11.15.2012) – Charles Boehm at SoccerWire.com reports that the eight 2013 franchises will be: Boston Breakers, Chicago Red Stars, Sky Blue FC (New Jersey), and Western New York Flash – all formerly of WPS – along with new teams in Kansas City, Portland, Seattle and Washington, D.C. It’s possible but unconfirmed that the D.C. franchise will be a revival of the old Washington Freedom brand.
When I had a chance to interview Jeff Eisenberg last week, I knew it was time to revive the Fun While It LastedBreaking Into Sports interview series.
I first met Jeff ten years ago when I interviewed for a PR job with his Manchester (NH) Monarchs hockey club in the American Hockey League. I lived in the neighboring town of Merrimack, New Hampshire at the time and the Monarchs were the hottest ticket in minor league hockey back then. 8,000 hockey fans packed the Verizon Wireless Arena for 40 nights each winter. In 2004 and again in 2006 the Monarchs were the top minor league hockey draw in all of North America, besting more than 90 other teams, many in much larger markets.
Prior to working for the Monarchs, Jeff was President of the AHL’s Portland Pirates, and held executive sales & marketing positions with the Buffalo Sabres, Milwaukee Brewers and Philadelphia Phillies. But in keeping with the format of the series, we’re not interested in any of that today. We’re looking back at Jeff’s first job(s) in minor league baseball, as a 12-year old clubhouse boy with the 1968 Memphis Blues in his native state of Tennessee and later as a grad student working for the Holyoke (MA) Millers of the Eastern League.
You don’t see too many LinkedIn profiles that go all the way back to age 12, but I noticed you’ve listed “Clubhouse Boy” for the Memphis Blues baseball team in 1968. Is it fair to say that baseball was your first love when it came to sports?
Oh, far and away. I only played football and basketball during the off season when I couldn’t play baseball. That was pretty much what we did – my friends went from one sport to the other. But baseball was far and away my first love.
Who were some of the memorable players and personalities that you remember from that boyhood summer with the Memphis Blues?
Well, probably the one name that you might know is John Milner who went on to play for the Mets and the Pirates. He was on that ‘68 Blues team. I don’t know if I can even recall any other guys who made it from that team. I mean, I remember Chico Diaz, of course. Every minor league team has a Chico Diaz – a fan favorite who never makes it to the Majors.
Our stadium was still called Tim McCarver Stadium. Tim McCarver is a Memphis native.
What brought you up to Holyoke, Massachusetts? Was that connected with attending the University of Massachusetts?
Yes. I was at UMass and I was up there for the summer. The owner of the Millers back then was Tom Kayser. Tom reached out to the sports management department looking for some students to come down and work in the boiler room. We were making calls to sell buy outs for Mackenzie Stadium, basically. We were selling the stadium to companies for $5,000 – for that amount you got every ticket in the place for the night.
I was completely dedicated to working in professional baseball. When they asked us “what do you want to do?”, I said “I’m working in pro baseball.” I went to work on the phones every day trying to get companies to buy the stadium out for $5,000. And then Tom hired me for the summer out of that job.
And was that the first time in your life that you had to sell anything?
No. The summer before I drove the Tasti D-Lite van around Nashville, Tennessee selling ice cream.
That really doesn’t count, does it? So besides that, yes, Holyoke was the first time I ever sold anything.
I drove by Mackenzie Stadium a couple of years ago. It’s hard to believe today that a Major League team would have put their prospects there back in the 1980’s. It really does look like a high school field. What are your memories of that ballpark?
Well, the most vivid memory is the cinder track that ran through the outfield. Did you know about that?
The ballpark doubled as Holyoke high school track stadium. So this cinder track ran right through the outfield from halfway down the left field line straight across to the right field wall. It was the weirdest thing.
Other than that, it was just a non-descript, nothing fancy kind of place. It wasn’t exactly located in the garden spot of the world either. It was challenging to promote that franchise in that building.
Was there anything that people in Holyoke responded to, such as 10-cent beer night or other types of promotions that would get them to turn out for Millers games?
Listen, I was a grad student, so it’s not like I had a ton of experience at this stuff. Tom was trying to sell the stadium out for five grand a night. It was a small staff – it was Tom, me and this other woman in the whole office. I defined my own job. I basically created things to do and would ask Tom “could I do this?” and he would say “sure.”
I walked in one day after a couple of months and asked Tom: “Can I be Assistant General Manager?” I was building my resume, you know? I’m planning to go on and do great things, and I want that to be my title.
And Tom said “Yeah, sure, sure, that‘s fine. Now go finish the popcorn.”
I used to make up stuff to do. Group sales and PR and press releases. I did a community project – a kids fair and fun day, with hit, pitch and catch contests. That stuff wasn’t around as much back then. It wasn’t a tremendously structured situation. It was really just before minor league baseball boomed and went to the next level.
In fact, I had a 13-week internship lined up with the Phillies after grad school but there was no commitment that I would have a job after that. When I first started in Holyoke that summer, I knew that Tom Kayser was selling the team. The asking price was around $75,000. I started to call people, like friends of my older brother’s to see if we might put together a group to buy the Millers.
It didn’t happen. The Phillies offered me a full-time job and I said well, this was my goal, to get to the big leagues.
One of my brother’s friends was a pretty prominent banker type in Philadelphia. For years later we had fun with that one. It was an “I told you so” and we used to laugh about it a lot. Because, of course, the value of that franchise soon became exponentially higher than the $75,000 asking price in 1980.
When I worked for the Brockton Rox, the Commissioner of the Can-Am League was a guy named Miles Wolff who owned the Durham Bulls when Bull Durham was made. He bought the Bulls in 1979 for $2,417 as an expansion team in the Carolina League. He sold the team in 1990 and the rumor was it sold for around $4 million.
Oh my God. That is amazing. Well, that is classic. Back then, that’s what the business was. The boom was just around the corner.
But even now, minor league baseball is still all hands on deck for everything. For me, it ranged from making the popcorn to writing the press releases to making group sales to pulling the tarp with the grounds crew.
That was a great summer. We actually won the Eastern League championship, that year.
Kevin Bass played for that Millers team. He was probably the biggest name. Great guy. We had David Green, who later played for the St. Louis Cardinals. He was wildly talented but we thought he might have lied about his age. He claimed to be only 19 or something and we didn‘t believe it.
Who else? Steve Lake made the Major Leagues. Frank DiPino was on that team and had some good years with the Astros as a pitcher.
Here’s a funny thing that happened. The Millers won the Eastern League and then right afterwards I joined the front office of the Philadelphia Phillies, who had just won the World Series. So I was at the Phillies when everybody on the staff got their World Series rings. And I had my ring!
Well, my ring didn’t exactly hold up compared to theirs. But I was just as proud of it as they were of theirs. Mine looked kind of funny – I still have it. It had some sort of loose stone in the middle – I don’t really know what it was. And it was kind of shaped like an old box TV. The head of stadium operations for the Phillies was a really funny guy and he used to ask me where the vertical hold was on my ring. He’d flash his World Series ring in front of me and then he’d look down at mine and ask where the volume knob was.
I’ll never forget getting my ring while they were getting theirs.
Was there anything you learned selling Holyoke Millers tickets that helped you sell Philadelphia Phillies tickets?
I mean, God bless Tom but…he was a baseball guy and that’s where his focus was. We were making it up as we went. He didn’t vend concessions. One night I said “How about I sell beer in the stands tonight and see if it works?” And he said “Go ahead.” That’s where we were at.
I was 23 years old. I’d do anything. I had the best time. I loved it. Going through the stands hawking beer yelling “Last chance for romance!” I was trying to get his attention. I wanted to push the envelope to be a little bit more aggressive with revenue. I was probably a little over the top.
But in terms of selling tickets, no, I didn’t learn much there.
It was just before the day of real aggressive, progressive sales techniques in the minor leagues. They just weren’t around then. And we didn’t do well. At all.
But I knew it had potential. And that’s why I considered putting a group together to buy the team. I just sensed that a real organized sales and marketing program had never been undertaken like it could have been.
But Mackenzie was not a great facility at all and that would have been an impediment.
During your career you must have brought a lot of young people into the industry either as interns or entry-level hires. I think a lot of kids trying to get their foot in the door struggle to differentiate themselves. What qualities stood out for you when hiring young people into the industry?
Three things come to mind.
One is…hiring for salespeople, I didn’t always pick the top sellers. I looked for someone certainly who was in the top 20%, but it was very important to me how that person helped others and participated as a team member. It’s important to know that sales are critical, but it’s not the only thing. I’m looking for good team members and people who are going to help each other. I’m looking for the team player who might give up a sales in a controversial situation – such as a dispute over where a lead came from – for the good of the team.
Number two: volunteer for anything and everything.
I remember we lost our graphic designer at the Manchester Monarchs who put together our game program in house. There was a kid on the staff who stepped forward and said ‘I can do this. I know this enough – I’ll do it until we can find someone else.’ He didn’t ask for more money, but I’m sure I gave it to him. He put in a lot of extra hours. I said ‘thank you’ and he said ‘it’s my honor. I’m happy to do it.’
You always notice the people who put themselves out there to do something extra. To do that community appearance on a weekend. Because so few people do it. And if you love what you do, it’s not a problem.
The third thing – and I did this at the Phillies and it worked out very well for me – is do a market research project. It’s very simple isn’t it? And very simple is nice.
When I was an intern at the Phillies, I went to a guy named David Montgomery who is now a part owner of the team. I said ‘I’d like to do a survey. Can you give me ten ushers for ten games from doors open until the 2nd inning?’
I made a questionnaire, the ushers collected it, I collated it all and wrote up the results and turned it in. And where do you think it goes? On to everybody’s desk, right up to the top, including the owner Bill Giles. So I got to author something that showed off my enthusiasm and energy and ability to write and work and think and have it seen by key people right up the organizational ladder.
Social media was always central to the marketing plan of Women’s Professional Soccer (2009-2011). Initially in 2008 and early 2009, the league misfired on a clunky and unlamented platform called Ning, but by late 2009, Twitter was the new big thing for WPS. The league rapidly built up a then-noteworthy network of 250,000 followers (more than MLS at the time).
The league got some nice pub for its early-adopter Twitter strategy. But by the time the second season of WPS kicked off in April 2010, it still wasn’t clear what the payoff was going to be. The social strategy was not complemented by an effective marketing mix nationally or at the franchise level. WPS started to become all Twitter, all the time. And despite the eye-popping numbers for @womensprosoccer, the individual WPS franchises and their star players toiled in digital obscurity. All nine clubs had fewer than 5,000 Twitter followers at the start of the 2010 season. The league’s stars had comparable numbers back then – Hope Solo of St. Louis Athletica was near the top with about 4,500 followers. (During the 2011 Women’s World Cup, the USWNT players separated from the pack. WPS club followings stayed stuck in the low four figures while stars like Solo and Alex Morgan surged into the hundreds of thousands).
Most of the Twitter content was also deathly dull and self-serving. Teams begged on Twitter for Facebook Likes…so that they could turn around and ask their Facebook fans to follow them on Twitter. Funny, inspiring and compelling player tweets were lost in an ocean of cautious cliches about team performance or summaries of take out orders from Panera Bread.
Sometime around the spring of 2010 I tweeted to my @BreakersGM followers that I was looking forward to the next breakthrough – the day that WPS fined or suspended a player for a controversial tweet. Privately, I had two likely suspects in mind. One was the former USWNT midfielder Natasha Kai who appended vaguely profane, self-consciously outrageous hashtags (#BOOM BAM MADA FAKA, #SEXINACUP) to the most mundane of daily activities, such as going to Starbucks or getting her laundry. The other – edgier and more authentic – was Solo, whose competitive process seemed to require the presence of off-the-field adversaries, either real or manufactured.
It was an emergency addition to the WPS schedule, added in late May after St. Louis Athletica owner Jeff Cooper defaulted on his payroll and abruptly folded his club in mid-season. The Breakers were scheduled to play Athletica at home on Saturday, June 5th the week after the team shut down. A strong (by WPS standards) pre-sale of around 5,000 tickets went up in smoke and the match was cancelled.
The only available date to plug the hole in the schedule was on a Wednesday night in August against the Beat. The marketing budget was gone. The game didn’t appear on any of our team’s printed marketing collateral, produced months before the season. The Wednesday night date was such a loser, we instructed our sales staff to ignore the game altogether and focus all of their efforts on our remaining weekend dates. We would have drawn better playing on the moon on New Year’s Eve.
It was the smallest crowd in the history of the Breakers – about 1,500 fans. Among those few who did show up were 20 or so core members of the Breakers supporters group, the Riptide.
Supporters culture really doesn’t exist for women’s soccer at the club level. It’s a group sales driven business, with most fans attending only one game a year and no opportunity to follow all of a team’s games on TV. Unlike the USWNT fan base, the core audience of WPS (and WUSA before it) was defined by its casualness, with too little passion and too little knowledge of the game and its players to foster much genuine fanaticism. Turning that argument on its head – there’s a strong case that the sport’s investors have shown too little staying power to allow deep bonds and fanaticism to take root.
Small independent groups in a few WPS cities tried to change this. LaClede’s Army in St. Louis, Local 134 in Chicago and the Riptide in Boston created dues-paying memberships, established their own websites, and turned WPS matches into day-long parties, starting with tailgating and ending with organized chanting, signing, drumming and opponent-baiting during the matches.
The Riptide were one of the biggest and loudest of these groups. Most were veterans of the Midnight Riders, the largest supporters group of the New England Revolution in MLS. Like all supporters groups worth their salt, they were independent of the front office, but I met with them once or twice a year to see what they needed. We gave them their own standing section, where they could stand and sing for the whole match without having casual fans ask them to sit down.
For their part, they pledged – without me really even asking – to tone down some of the more profane aspects of MLS supporters culture, in recognition of the fact that much of the Breakers audience was families and young girls. Specifically, they promised that “YSA” would have no place at Breakers games. YSA is supporters short hand for the You Suck, Asshole chant that accompanies opposing goal kicks at some MLS stadia and has become the symbol of an ongoing identity debate within the men’s league.
For all their spirit, the Riptide were small in number – maybe 50 fans in the 8,000 seats we used for Breakers matches. So at the start of the 2009 season, I hired a Brazilian band director named Marcus Santos and his percussion group Afro Brazil to stand behind the Riptide and augment their sound. I wasn’t sure how they’d get along – Afro Brazil could raise a ruckus and easily drown out the Riptide if they pleased. But during the very first match, despite some language barriers between the Riptide and some of Marcus’ drummers, they learned to coordinate Afro Brazil’s beat with the Riptide’s chants.
From that first night they were locked in. The chemistry between the Riptide and Afro Brazil was immediate and powerful. Fans (and broadcasters) perceived them as one unified supporters group and I was careful to always be coy about that fact that we paid Afro Brazil to be there. It felt like a joyous, multi-cultural party of professional musicians and soccer fans that organically broke out in Section 15 every night and it created this cool effect that made every Harvard Stadium crowd feel much bigger than it was.
One night in 2009 I was standing on the field with Mark Kastrud, President of the Boston Cannons of Major League Lacrosse, who also played at Harvard Stadium. He could eyeball-count a crowd as good as anyone. The Riptide/Afro Brazil were roaring along in full rhythmic fury across the stadium.
“There must be 10,000 people here tonight,” Mark said.
The real number was about half that.
There were less than a thousand people in Harvard Stadium when the Beat game kicked off that Wednesday night in August. And it felt like even less because Afro Brazil couldn’t make the date on short notice. Perhaps two dozen Riptide members showed up, standing very much alone in the front two rows of Section 15. The Revolution played a Mexican team in the semi-finals of the SuperLiga tournament at Gillette Stadium that night, and many of our regulars went to that match instead, since they were also Midnight Riders. Harvard Stadium was a morgue that night – dead, empty, lifeless. To use a cliche you could hear a pin drop, let alone a racial epithet screamed.
You can hear the subdued crowd noise on this scouting video, shot from the press box. At the 0:34 second mark, you get a brief glimpse of a lonely group of about 15 chanting fans standing along behind a banner behind the corner flag. These are the Riptide supporters at issue in the story, and you will also see the Redbones hospitality tent referenced below.
But if me and my front office team wrote the game off, the Breakers did anything but. Our English striker Kelly Smith scored on Solo forty seconds into the match to put Boston up 1-0. She added a second goal in the 62nd minute and the Breakers pressured Solo all night, while Breakers keeper Alyssa Naeher held the Beat scoreless.
During the first half, I sat a few rows behind the Riptide with Alyssa Naeher’s dad. At halftime, the teams changed sides. Mr. Naeher followed Alyssa to the other side of the field and I descended down to the hospitality tent behind the goal in front of the Riptide and Section 15. There were a couple of guests who stood out in the tent that night. 2-3 guys who were friends of Hope Solo and were somehow connected to the equipment management or athletic training staff for U.S. Soccer. They were hard to miss, or rather one guy was. I really don’t know if I can do him justice. He had this rural meth cook thing going on that was so contrived and over the top that a few of my staff members suspected he came straight to the game from a costume party. If you were looking for a guy to sell you bad weed in the parking lot of the Oklahoma State Fairgrounds before a Night Ranger concert in 1985, you would make a beeline for this guy’s El Camino.
Anyway, I can’t remember if he and his crew crashed the VIP tent or if we offered them a courtesy upgrade knowing they were guests of a player, but it didn’t matter. We had plenty of Redbones barbecue to go around in light of the tiny crowd and I was happy to see them knocking back Budweisers at the cash bar to fatten the evening’s meager concessions take.
Late in the match, with the game sewn up 2-0 for the Breakers, I wandered down to the other end of the field and struck up a conversation with Fitz Johnson, the owner of the Beat. The whistle blew while we were talking and the players began their warm down. After a few minutes, players from both teams started trickling off the field towards autograph alley. Solo walked over, said a few pleasantries to Johnson and gave him a quick hug. He told her “good game” or “keep your head up” or something along those lines, and she casually walked off the field toward the Beat locker room.
My post-game ritual was to lock myself in Harvard’s hockey rink box office with our banker, a police detail, a case of cold beer and the night’s game receipts. As the other Breakers staff members closed out their areas, they would come by for a cold one, to pick at whatever leftover BBQ was to be had from the VIP tent, and to decompress. On a good night, the money count might take two hours. Tonight it took 20 minutes. The number on the bank deposit slip made me nauseous. Pass the beer please.
Half an hour after the game, there were still a handful of Breakers players signing autographs outside. The staff started to trickle in. A PR assistant twiddled with her iPhone and said:
“Wow. Hope Solo is blowing up on Twitter right now.”
“No kidding? What’s she saying?” I asked. This is what she was saying:
“To all the Boston fans and especially the young children that I didn’t sign autographs for I’m sorry. I will not stand for … An organization who can so blatantly disrespect the athletes that come to play. Perhaps the WPS or Boston themselves … Can finally take a stance to the profanity, racism and crude remarks that are made by their so called ‘fan club’ … To the true fans, I hope to catch you at the next game. Thanks for your support and love for the game.
Whoa. The “R” word. The nuclear option. Was this the same person I saw amble off the field less than a half hour ago?
“That’s crazy. I just saw her. Walked right up to Fitz Johnson, gave him a hug and didn’t say a word.”
At first I was perplexed. I’d been near the Riptide all night. First sitting in their section for the first half, then down in the VIP tent right in front of them. I radioed John Cunningham, the Breakers Operations Director and a respected ops guy used by FIFA for tournament work around the globe. During games John sat at the fourth official’s table, right next to the visitors bench. The Beat bench was about 15-20 yards from the Riptide section and on this night, both the bench and the fourth official’s table were within easy earshot of the only 20 people singing and chanting in the nearly empty stadium
John just started laughing in disbelief. “Are you serious? I didn’t hear anything besides the usual Riptide stuff. You know, telling her she sucked and chanting “Brianna would have made those saves” at her.
I asked Leslie Osborne, the Breakers Captain, to ask around the locker room. The Breakers dominated play that night and spent most of the evening in the attacking half. Whatever Hope heard or experienced during the second half may well have been heard or experienced by some of the 7-8 Breakers who spent most of that half lining up shots at her. Leslie was stupefied.
“Just ask,” I said.
Nothing, Leslie reported 20 minutes later, other than a few “Hope being Hope” comments from the peanut gallery.
By the time I got home after midnight, I was moving from puzzled to pissed. Because it began to dawn on me that determining the “truth” of this situation was neither possible nor material to what was now happening. There were two ways this could play out and neither was about any kind of objective truth. Both were simply exercises in public relations followed to their natural and inevitable conclusions.
The first scenario was that Solo would wake up the next morning with a cooler head and admit through a team spokesman that she used a poor choice of words to express her frustration with the match. And we would basically say “No problem, these things happen.” I sent an email to my buddy Shawn, the GM of the Beat, requesting a formal retraction and copied Fitz Johnson. I also forwarded the email to the league office, requesting a fine and suspension to Solo for material damage to the Breakers reputation and business if the retraction was not forthcoming. I wasn’t optimistic.
The second scenario was bad. In this scenario, Hope doubled down in the morning and stuck to her story. At that point, the Beat organization would have no choice but to back their star. That’s the code. And the Breakers would have no choice but to issue some sort of carefully worded statement about abhorring racism in all its forms, thus implicitly admitting something must have happened. Our only option would be to say we were very concerned and would take steps to make sure this – whatever this was – would never happen again.
As the saying goes, you can’t prove a negative. Tom Cruise will always be gay, Barrack Obama will always be Kenyan and Mitt Romney will always be a tax cheat. Denying you Tweeted a photo of your penis always means you Tweeted a photo of your penis.
Hope doubled down. I got an email from Shawn the next day with Hope’s specific allegations. They were quite detailed. (One of my great WPS regrets is that my computer crashed three days before I left the Breakers in September 2011 and I lost this archival material). Hope claimed the epithets were aimed primarily at the Beat’s Japanese player Mami Yamaguchi, who subbed out 16 minutes into the second half, which was the half when Solo defended the goal in front of the Riptide. There were a few very specific and nasty lines attributed to voices from Section 15, including people screaming that Yamaguchi should move back to Japan and go to work in a rice factory.
In addition, there were some racially insensitive remarks allegedly directed at Kia McNeill, a top flight Atlanta defender with local ties as a Boston College grad.
There were also few things that were undoubtedly true and that I heard myself, such as bullet points about our fans yelling “You Suck” at Hope. That struck me as an oddly wimpy complaint for a player who has played in highly charged stadium atmospheres in world class venues all over the globe (let alone the atmosphere in college soccer), but I can’t fault her for being thorough, I suppose. The strangest accusation was that Hope was pelted with coins from the stands, which would have been easy to detect both during the game and in the post-game clean up of the field. There was simply nothing to support the projectile claim.
She also had some affidavits from two “fans” supporting her claims. Her fans, to be specific. Night Ranger guy and his buddies. There were also a couple of far more carefully worded comments from – if I recall correctly – Kia McNeill and reserve GK Brett Maron stating that they may have heard some insensitive language coming from the stands. Yamaguchi herself was curiously absent.
Oh well. The point wasn’t whether it was all true anymore anyway. The point was Hope was wedded to her story and there was little left but to conduct an investigation and then collaborate with the Beat on the messaging.
The league office more or less told me: Welcome to our world. Figure this out with Shawn. We don’t have a role here right now, and they were right. He said. She said.
The Riptide, meanwhile, were in agony. Because here is one thing you have to understand about club supporters. They HATE you when you come into their house wearing the colors of another club. But they LOVE you when you wear the colors of your country and, to a person, the Riptide membership were USWNT superfans who revered Hope Solo as the National Team goalkeeper.
The Riptide are also rude, crude, immature, loud, obnoxious, not as funny as they think a lot of the time, whiny when calls don’t go their way, occasionally poor winners and often poor losers. In other words, they are what fans are allowed and encouraged to be in just about every male sport.
One other thing about the Riptide which they never got any credit for in all this kerfuffle. They have considerable ability and track record to be self-policing. As promised to me in 2009, You Suck Asshole never reared its head at a Breakers game and the leaders of the Riptide, on at least one occasion, shushed a “newbie” who tried to get it going. Together with Afro Brazil, the supporters of Section 15 were pretty small in number. But as a group they were multi-racial and multi-lingual. They featured a considerable number of passionate female fans, along with males. There were openly gay members. There was an Asian man in the group. The notion that this specific group would allow fans within their small ranks to spew hate speech at Asian player (or any other nationality) throughout a match was simply beyond belief.
At this point Hope Solo leaves our story. She lit the match and walked away from the ensuing conflagration, never clarifying her Tweets or mentioning it again for two years until her memoir came out this week.
So what’s happens next is that Shawn and I get on the phone. Now that I have Hope’s list of allegations, I promise to undertake an internal investigation, attempting to leave aside my own proximity and personal recollections to the best of my ability. It took a couple of days. I interviewed the Riptide fans in attendance, police detail officers assigned to the match and the 3rd party food service workers in the hospitality tent and Section 15 areas, who worked for outside concessions companies. I called on various season ticket holders in the adjacent sections and game day volunteers at the field and seating levels.
I can’t say I found nothing. As mentioned above, some of Hope’s tamer claims (people saying she sucked) were true – like every night at a Breakers game. In interviewing the police details, I learned of an incident in the hospitality tent after I left the area late in the match. A couple of young men – “appearing intoxicated” – moved over to the wall in front of Section 15 and began acosting the Riptide. The detail officer in the tent felt it was getting a bit chippy and moved them out of the area. Hope’s pals – the Night Ranger rides again.
The most compelling revelation involved Kia McNeill. McNeill is the lone intersection where the two sides of this story come together, but through very different lenses. McNeill, as I mentioned, went to Boston College. She had a great reputation in WPS as a hard-nosed defender and had the yellow and red card accumulations to prove it. She is also black and she also had family at the game that night, apparently only a section or two over from the Riptide.
At some point, presumably in the second half when Solo was on the Riptide end, McNeill committed a hard foul. Several Riptide fans yelled out, calling McNeill a “thug” and a “convict”. A couple of Riptide members matter-of-factly recalled this to me and then rattled off various statistics and anecdotes about McNeill’s red & yellow card history – hence the “convict” tag – that only a truly obsessive, sports talk radio junkie kind of fan would know about. And WPS really didn’t have that kind of fans….except for these guys.
I’d heard a report that McNeill’s family heard comments to this effect at the game and were unhappy about it. Whether it was because they perceived it as despicable racial stereotyping – black person = convict – or just that it was negative trash talk directed at their daughter, I don’t know. I asked Jackie, a soft-spoken 24-year old graduate student at Brown University and the President of the Riptide, if it occurred to her that fans calling McNeill a “thug” might appear to be racially insensitive.
“I suppose I could see that now, if you didn’t know us,” she replied. “But we also call Holmfridur Magnusdottir of the Philadelphia Independence a thug.”
Magnusdottir is from Iceland.
I can see where McNeill’s teammates would be concerned for her, because the typical atmosphere of a WPS match was so laid back due to the lack of game knowledge of the average fan. On the other hand, I don’t think any NFL fan calling Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison - an African-American and one of the league’s most physical and heavily penalized players – a thug would cause equal concern and consternation. It’s a tricky thing. Personally, I think it was an insensitive thing to say. At the same time, I think the Riptide fans are casualties of a very antiquated notion of how a women’s sports fan is expected and allowed to behave.
In the end, Shawn and I collaborated on a joint statement that went up on the WPS website. In it, I acknowledged that insensitive comments appear to have been issued from the stands (re: McNeill, in my mind, not Yamaguchi) and pledging that we would bring on additional security to monitor fan behavior. The Riptide howled and fumed that we had betrayed them. Understandable. I felt bad for them.
I asked Shawn for a quote from Hope stating that she regretted using Twitter to raise the issue publicly before addressing her concerns through proper channels. Shawn told me that was a non-starter – Hope wouldn’t say a word. This was everyone else’s mess to clean up now. Instead the Beat organization itself would say that it was regrettable that Twitter was used as the means of communication for such a serious matter.
I sighed. “Shawn, I hope you understand that we feel like the party that has been attacked here, and yet we are the ones extending much further towards you than you are towards us in solving this thing.”
“I get that,” he said and that was fine with me. He was my friend and was in a lousy situation too.
The statement was intended to be the carefully negotiated final word, but neither of us stuck to it. We couldn’t help playing to our constituencies, tiny as they may have been. A single mercurial superstar in Shawn’s case and a couple of dozen season ticket holders in mine.
A couple of days later Shawn gave interviews to a Georgia newspaper and to the blogger Jeff Kassouf stating that racial epithets had been directed at Yamaguchi (something I categorically rejected) and “giving props” to Solo for standing up for her teammates. I punched back with a new statement basically saying Hope was full of it, while staying within the rhetorical straitjacket of accepting responsibility so as not to be accused of denial.
Shawn and I hugged it out (metaphorically) the next day, which was made easier by the realization that nobody cared anymore.
Solo signed the next season with Dan Borislow and MagicJack, the only guy still throwing around big bucks contracts in WPS’ third and final season. The Breakers immigration attorney gave me a recommendation to a court reporting service he liked and I planned to hire a stenographer to sit in Section 15 and prepare a transcript of all cheers, chants and songs for Hope’s return engagement. But she never played in Boston again due to National Team duties and a subsequent injury.
“They called me ‘The Undertaker’,” Rudi Schiffer, 75, told me by way of introduction. “Because I buried so many teams. When I walked in the door, people said ‘Uh-oh…we‘re done‘”.
Every once in a while we get an interview subject here in the Fun While It Lasted archives who has little need for questions. I imagine this is what it was like for rock writers to interview David Lee Roth back in the day. Just let the tape roll. Such was the case with long-time Southern sports promoter Rudi Schiffer when I tracked him down in Tennessee last month.
Across Schiffer’s four decade career in pro sports, there were hits and there were misses. Schiffer promoted a string of sold out NFL exhibitions in Memphis, introduced the sport of indoor soccer to sold-out crowds in the Deep South, and promoted one of the most popular franchises of the United States Football League, helping to sell 25,000 season tickets as Vice President of Marketing for the Memphis Showboats in 1985.
Along the way Schiffer encountered assorted crazies - sometimes players, often owners, by his telling - and banked many tall tales (and pointed lessons) about promoting pro sports out on the margins of public awareness.
A soccer team called the Connecticut Yankees. I had a small PR & marketing firm in Simsbury, Connecticut in the early Seventies. I was looking for clients and saw that a soccer team was coming to play in Hartford. The Yankees were owned by a guy named Bob Kratzer, who owned a machine shop in Bridgeport, Connecticut. He was a tough little German who played soccer and wanted to have his own team.
We played at Dillon Stadium in Hartford. Kratzer recruited all kinds of players that he got out of the local leagues, mostly foreign-born players. We used to have workouts and they would come in and inevitably say: “I play feerst dee-vee-zhion een my country.” We used to laugh – everybody played first division in their country.
Some of the memorable stories for the Yankees… we were in Cleveland and we stayed at the hotel where they had the state convention for “Parents Without Partners”. I don’t know if you know anything about them, but they’re mostly single ladies looking for a husband by any means. We got back to the hotel and the players were filing down the hallway disappearing into doorways left and right. We had a hell of a time getting them out of bed in the morning and getting them on the plane.
You know, like any team of that type, you become chief cook and bottle washer. I took tickets at the gate, got the laundry done, wrote press releases. It was good basic training actually. That led to me joining the Hartford Bicentennials, a rival team that played in the same town.
This was the Bicentennials of the North American Soccer League, the league that had just signed Pele and brought him to the United States, right?
Yeah. The Bicentennials were owned by Bob Darling, who I knew from Simsbury. Our kids played soccer together. Darling was a nice guy, but kind of naïve. He was very wealthy and he wanted to own a soccer team.
The first year of the Bicentennials was the year Pele signed with the New York Cosmos. We hosted the Cosmos at Dillon Stadium in Hartford which was just a rundown place. I mean, I’d go in the locker room and all we had for lockers was a peg on the wall. Pele was in there with his clothes on the peg and must have been wondering “What the hell is this all about?” That was the first big crowd we had.
Darling picked that Bicentennials name in 1975 because 1976 was going to be the American bicentennial, right? I said: “What about after 1976? What are we gonna be then? The 19-seventy-seven-tennials?”
It was a terrible name. Not much meaning to it and too long to fit in headlines. So we became known as the “Bi’s” in the papers, which I didn’t care for because it sounded like the team was bi-sexual. But you know, having been around professional sports all these years and around so many different teams with terrible names, by the second year it just becomes accepted. It just falls into the common usage and people forget what a terrible name you have.
So what was the next stop for you?
I abandoned my PR business in Connecticut. I wound up in Memphis where there was a NASL expansion club going in, the Memphis Rogues. I flew down to Tennessee around New Year’s 1978 and met the guy who was running it – Bill Marcum. Marcum was from Tampa, where he helped get the NFL to expand there in 1976. He convinced a guy named Harry Mangurian, who was a horse breeder and owned the Buffalo Braves of the NBA, that he should buy the soccer team in Memphis.
Marcum hired me on New Year’s Eve for the Rogues marketing and PR job, but he was drunk. When I called him a couple days later to get my airplane ticket, he’d forgotten who I was. Which gives you a hint of what was to come.
I finally got down to Memphis and I didn’t have any money. I think Marcum paid me about $15,000 a year. I didn’t have any money to live or get a car, so I stayed with Marcum and I’d ride to work with him every day. He was so absent minded that we’d run out of gas all the time because he’d never look at the odometer. I’d be sitting around the apartment and the lights would go out because he forgot to pay the bill. I had nothing to do except he had these huge boxes in his closet – he had every Playboy that was ever printed, which he carried around with him. Which made for good reading. Sitting there in the dark reading Playboys.
The Rogues were out of control. In Memphis I was constantly getting calls from the police to come down and get the boys out of jail. We had a theme song called “The Rambling Rogues of Memphis“. The theme of the song was Off the field and on the field, we’re the Rambling Rogues. The English players in particular were just wild.
I was a young guy then. Well, I wasn’t that young. We had parties all the time. I got close to the players, which was a mistake, but I didn’t give a damn. We were in last place, we had no money, the lowest budget in the league. Harry Mangurian was tight as a drum. Our total budget for 18 guys was $365,000.
The biggest moment in Memphis Rogues history – and one of the best in soccer history, really – was when the Cosmos came to town with that All-World Cup team of theirs…Beckenbauer, Chinaglia, Carlos Alberto. They came down here just expecting to beat the hell out of us. It was the Rogues first season and we were something like 1-10 at the time. What the Cosmos didn’t realize was that the Liberty Bowl pitch was only 56 yards wide. It wasn’t the 70 yards that they were used to. We packed it up in the back and just played defense and frustrated ‘em. They were getting angry. We had an English player named Phil Holder who was about 5’ 6”. Carlos Alberto was so frustrated he came up kicked Phil right in the groin and got thrown out. Late in the game, we had a young kid from Chelsea named David Stride. Speedy kid with a great left foot. The key of the game was Stridey took off down the left wing, took it deep in the corner, and crossed it into the middle. At the top of the box was Tony Field who had played for the Cosmos the year before. They didn’t want him any more and we got him in a trade. He put a one-timer right in the back of the net and we beat the Cosmos 1-0. It was shocking.
What was it like working for Harry Mangurian?
Well, Harry really never did want to own a soccer team. Bill Marcum talked him into it. Harry had a lot of money. Harry owned the Buffalo Braves and later the Boston Celtics and he had like 30,000 buildings in Florida, three or four jets. He was tight with a buck. He probably fired me fifteen times, accused me of stealing from him and so on. He called me once and said “Rudi, how many glasses of beer do you get out of a barrel at the stadium?”. I said “It must be sixty, Harry.” He told me, “Well, you’re only getting fifty eight. Are you stealing from me?” Then he sent me a special pump he found that would pump out the last couple glasses at the bottom of a keg.
But when the season was over and Mangurian was done, I got a call from his right hand man. He says “Rudi, why don’t you come down to Florida? Harry wants to play golf with you.” So they fly me down to his place in Boca Raton. He had this beautiful, immaculate white house on the beach. We’re playing golf, coming up on the 17th fairway. Harry turns to me and says “Rudi, how’d you like to go back up to Boston with the Celtics.” I says “What?!” He knew I grew up in Boston and was a Celtics fan.
He says “Yeah, that son of a bitch Red Auerbach is stealing from me.” Everybody was stealing from Harry! He was paranoid.
I said “Harry, I can’t go to Boston.” I mean, Red Auerbach was the living legend. He was surrounded by a coterie of four or five guys known as the Irish mafia guys. I said “I can’t go to Boston and watch Auerbach! Are you kidding me? They’re going to know what I’m up to. They’re going to hand me a pencil and tell me to sit in the corner and shut up. Either that, or they’re going to walk me down to the Mystic River with a pair of cement shoes on!”
Of all of these speculative start-up teams and leagues that you promoted, what do you consider to be the best promotion job you ever did?
There were a couple. One was the indoor soccer team for the Memphis Rogues. We brought indoor soccer to Memphis when the sport was just starting in this country <in the winter of 1979>. We played at the Mid-South Coliseum. We played indoor soccer there when no one knew anything about it and we sold out every game. We won the Western Division championship and had a heckuva team. We did that with a lot of promotions and it was wild and exciting and everybody loved it. We sold every ticket in the house. But that all faded when the team moved to Canada.
The other was the Memphis Showboats. Logan Young was a millionaire in Memphis who originally bought the team in 1983. But he fell on tough times and had to sell it and Billy Dunavant bought it from him. Billy was a cotton merchant known around the world. I had moved back to Memphis and was working with an advertising agency that had the Showboats account. Billy Dunavant liked me and the work I was doing for the team. He hired me away from the agency and put me back on my feet. Paid me $50,000 a year, that was good money back in the early 1980’s.
We put the team together and got some real good players like Reggie White from the University of Tennessee. When the league went bankrupt a couple years later, 18 of our players went to the NFL. It was a decent team.
The second year in this upstart league, we sold 37,000 tickets a game with 25,000 season tickets. All paid. It was very promising, but the league went down.
After the USFL, I did some work for Fred Smith who owned Federal Express and Pepper Rodgers who had been the Head Coach of the Showboats. Pepper was working with Fred. We staged three NFL exhibition games at the Liberty Bowl in Memphis and we sold all three of them out. We knew the NFL could play in Memphis – it would get the support. But unfortunately the city didn’t want to put the money up to build the stadium and the NFL expanded to Jacksonville instead, which had also had a popular USFL team.
I buried the Connecticut Yankees, buried the Connecticut Bicentennials, the Memphis Rogues and the Calgary Boomers. I buried the Showboats and the Shreveport Pirates of the Canadian Football League and helped bury the Memphis Mad Dogs. There was another basketball team in there somewhere. These teams just weren’t going to make it. To me, it was just another job. Usually they were under-funded and the owners just didn’t want to be in it. There was a bunch.
<The owners’> ego gets them into it through other sources. Like in the case of Bernie Glieberman who owned the Shreveport Pirates in the Canadian Football League, his son Lonie wanted a team. Bill Marcum talked Harry Mangurian into buying the Memphis Rogues. Avron Fogelman’s right hand man Dean Jernigan talked him into buying the Rogues from Mangurian. But they were successful businessmen. Once they got in and saw they weren’t going to make any money, they lost interest. They stuck their toe in the water to see what the temperature was and then they got out of the pool.
Their ego got them into it and the bottom line got them out.
I joined the Boston Breakers of Women’s Professional Soccer as a start-up consultant in the first week of October 2007, and left almost four years to the day later, after serving a little over two years as the team’s General Manager. With the news today that the league will cease operations for at least a year forever, I thought about some of the indelible memories that will stay with me forever from those thrilling four years in WPS. In no particular order, here are some of my standouts…if you enjoyed the Breakers and/or WPS, please leave a comment and add your own.
Breakers President Joe Cummings inducting 2003 WUSA MVP Maren Meinert as the first member of the the Breakers Pillars of Excellence on May 17th, 2009. I got to pick the music for Maren’s video tribute.
Being introduced as Breakers GM at the 2009 WPS Cup Board of Governors meeting in Los Angeles by Breakers owner Michael Stoller. Followed 15 minutes later by a Chicago Red Stars investor roaring “Pardon me, but F**K THE GM’S!!!!” in the middle of a diatribe about something or other. (That guy later paid my bar tab for the evening and turned out to be one of my favorite WPS owners).
Trading Amy Rodgriguez to the Philadelphia Independence for the draft pick that would become Lauren Cheney. The deal got hung up when Philly owner David Halstead objected to a minor clause in A-Rod’s contract guaranteeing her a host family. “We don’t have a host family program here,” Halstead said. “You don’t need a ‘program’”, I explained. “You just need one rich family with a nice house that wants to host an attractive National Team star. You’ll have to fend them off with a stick”. Nevertheless, this minor issue held up the trade a couple of days.
My first major free agent signing. Inked Leslie Osborne to a mid-five figure deal on a day when the Breakers had $67 in the company operating account.
Leslie Osborne walking onto the war room floor at the 2010 WPS Draft to (successfully) lobby Tony DiCicco and Lisa Cole to draft Santa Clara’s Jordan Angeli with our 2nd round pick.
WPS Chief Operating Officer Mary Harvey accepting the Angeli pick and telling me to get Leslie Osborne the hell off of the war room floor.
Christine Latham handing in receipts for Victoria’s Secret and a $250 steak dinner in Illinois as “relocation expenses” to Boston in 2009.
Basically all stories involving Christine Latham.
The clueless league marketing consultant who directed me to handout 2,500 free tampons in Boston as a gate giveaway for Playtex Sports’ “Be Unstoppable” sponsorship campaign. “That will happen over my dead body” was my response. She made considerably more $$$ more than me and that was the only time I heard from her in the nine months she apparently worked for the league.
“‘Unstoppable’ is the last word I want associated with that product” – Breakers equipment manager’s response upon seeing the Playtex field board for the first time on opening night.
Skorts Part II: The Revenge. Our meeting with PUMA in late 2009, when they showed us mock ups of the “uni-kit” planned for 2011. Players would wear unitards with the jerseys sewn into the lining of the shorts. To get into them, they would need to unzip zippers at the shoulders and step into the kits like a potato sack. We didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
The unsinkable Liz Bogus who had to fight every day for two years for her spot on the Breakers and out-hustled and out-fought every competitor for her job.
An unforgettable 4-0 dissection of Sky Blue FC – the team we could never beat – before 6,100 fans at Harvard Stadium on August 15, 2010. Arguably the most complete and dominant performance the Breakers ever had in WPS.
An otherwise forgettable Sky Blue FC hack named Patrizia Panico shattering Breakers captain Leslie Osborne’s collar bone in the waning moments of that same match, dealing a crippling blow to the Breakers’ WPS Cup hopes that season.
Kristine Lilly’s retirement tribute night in Boston 2011.
Joe Cummings tribute night in Boston 2009.
The Breakers conducting an impromptu clinic on Harvard University’s indoor track on a soggy evening in June 2010 for the 200 or so disappointed families who braved the elements & showed up expecting to see the Breakers play St. Louis Athletica that night. (Athletica abruptly went out of business a week earlier.) The players were always such good sports.
Alyssa Naeher‘s parents, who came to every home game and moved from end to end at each half to watch her in goal. I always enjoyed meeting the parents of our players. They were so proud.
Moving Amy LePeilbet, Sarah Walsh and Liz Bogus’ rental furniture into their high rise apartment with the help of Breakers ticket manager Matt Lopez in exchange for a case of Harpoon IPA because we didn’t have the cash on hand to hire a mover.
6,125. The Atlanta Beat‘s May 15th, 2011 official attendance after distributing 10,000 free tickets for a match at KSU Soccer Stadium.
6,128. The Breakers’ May 22nd, 2011 official attendance after I decided that no team that couldn’t outsell us was going to outrank us in WPS paid attendance reports. I added 1,600 empty seats to our number that night.
Pursuing Lindsay Tarpley as a free agent in 2010. Several teams were interested. When I reached her by phone, she was in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Without thinking, I said ‘I bet you can’t wait to get the hell out of there’. Guess where she grew up? We managed to get her anyway thanks to Tony DiCicco and our owner Gary Loveman, a UNC soccer parent & booster. And no thanks to my bungling.
Boston Breakers & PUMA Project Pink Nights jersey auctions nights to benefit Making Strides Against Breast Cancer in 2010 & 2011.
Meghan Klingenberg’s game-winning grudge goal against MagicJack on June 5th, 2011, days after she arrived from Boca Raton via trade. Intensely competitive player.
Katie Schoepfer’s euphoric goal celebrations.
Breakers account exec and later Sales Director Heather Pease. In her first job in sports, she sold more tickets than anyone else in league’s three-year run. When she was hired away from us by the L.A. Galaxy in early 2011 to run their Season Ticket Sales group, it legitimized everything we tried to do and aspired to be as a sales organization in Boston.
38-year old Kristine Lilly destroying all competitors in the annual training camp beep fitness test.
The 2010 WPS All-Star Game in Atlanta. A fun game and the Beat staff led by Shawn McGee were wonderful hosts. Lauren Cheney was struggling at the time, but scored a goal and that All-Star performance seemed to turn her season around – and the team’s. We were unstoppable that year in the second half.
7,000 fans turning out in Boston to see World Cup heroes Abby Wambach, Megan Rapinoe and Hope Solo of MagicJack on August 6th, 2011. We knew that MagicJack owner Dan Borislow did not like athletic trainers and refused to provide one for his team. During pre-season, we taped their players in an exhibition match. We debated whether we would do the same on this night, in a crucial match with playoff implications. Sure enough, Christie Rampone and others asked if we would tape them. In the best interests of the game, we helped our opponents. We lost 2-0.
Witnessing Jordan Angeli’s spirit, kindness and leadership – and enjoying her inspiring rookie season.
Women’s Professional Soccer, at one time my employer of four years, shut down at 1:00 PM EST this afternoon. Formally, the league suspended the 2012 season (i.e. there will not be one) while leaving the door open to return in 2013. The official line is that the distractions and financial ramifications of the league’s legal wranglings with enfant terrible Dan Borislow and his MagicJack franchise need to be resolved before WPS can return to the day-to-day business of operating a Division 1 soccer league. And this part is certainly true. One league source told me this afternoon that Borislow is indeed the central issue, with only the Boston and Western New York franchises willing to share the sandbox with him.
Coincidentally (or maybe not), those are also the two franchises already reported to be exploring semi-pro alternatives for 2012 (WPSL, W-League). So interpret that as you will, as far as to what extent Dan Borislow is the sole cause of today’s announcement and to what extent he is a convenient bogeyman.
So who are some of the success stories, qualified or otherwise?
The World League of American Football & NFL Europe (1991-1992, 1995-2007)
The World League of American Football played two seasons in 1991 and 1992. Teams were split between second-tier North American markets (Sacramento, Orlando) and major European cities (London, Barcelona, Frankfurt). The league never gained traction in the U.S. and folded in September 1992 after two money-losing seasons. But the European teams were quite popular.
The league took two years off and re-launched in Europe only 1995 as simply “The World League” and was re-branded as NFL Europe in 1998. As a developmental league for the National Football League, NFL Europe helped launched the early careers of Jake Delhomme, Adam Vinatieri and Kurt Warner and others who later became stars and Super Bowl performers. This, of course, is very similar to the developmental system that both WUSA and WPS provided for the U.S. National Team and which is now threated by the loss of a Division I women’s league.
The NFL closed down NFL Europe after the 2007 season, but its relaunch after suspension lasted a healthy 13 seasons.
One key difference with NFL Europe is that the league, in its various incarnations, was always owned by the NFL. So while it went away for a couple of years in the early 1990′s, it was not truly a complete shutdown of a business like most leagues are. A better analogy was that it was simply one piece of the NFL product line which was taken off the market for a few years, re-worked in the laboratory, and then re-launched.
The Arena Football League (1987-2008, 2010-Present)
The Arena Football League played twenty-two seasons before collapsing in December of 2008. As close women’s soccer observers know, the last Commissioner of WPS, Jennifer O’Sullivan, cut her teeth as the VP of Legal & Labor Affairs for the Arena League during it’s suspension period in late 2008 and 2009. After months of wrangling and labor union concessions, the league’s owners failed to agree on a new business model and declared bankruptcy in August 2009. But that was not the end of the story.
While the league’s high profile owners departed – Jon Bon Jovi, Jerry Jones, Pat Bowlen - a group of lower profile owner re-grouped and purchased the league’s assets out of bankruptcy for $6.1 million dollars in late 2009 and formed a new business called The Arena Football League. While technically a new league, the sport of Arena Football did return in 2010, featuring many of the same cities, brands, owners and players. However, many fans noticed the difference. Player salaries and benefits were slashed by huge amounts, front offices shrank considerably, and marketing for many franchises was reduced to practically nothing. These budget cuts have driven away some former supporters of the sport – something that WPS die hads may identify with as well. But for the vast majority of indoor football fans, they can say that their game came back to them and they’re happy to have it in any recognizable form.
The (new) Arena Football League is now back to 18 teams and heading into its third season in 2012.
Interesting footnote. Before the original Arena Football League collapsed in December 2008, the Los Angeles leveraged buyout firm Platinum Equity nearly closed on a deal to purchase a 40% controlling stake in the league for $100 million. Platinum Equity planned to restructure the Arena Football League as a single entity business. The league, $14 million in debt, suspended operations after the deal fell apart. The following year, Platinum Equity was one of two rumored buyers for the Los Angeles Sol when AEG handed that franchise back to WPS, but nothing ever came to fruition there either.
But the whole thing collapsed and died in September 1997. The league took a year off to re-organize and did manage to return in 1999. But the sport itself had little following and the league was practically invisible upon its return. (I can’t even find a logo for it online these days). After one more season in 1999, the league suspended operations again and this time did not return.
When RHI shutdown the sport itself basically went away, in terms of being anything more than a playground game. For women’s soccer, the game is going nowhere, so WPS or a successor first division league doesn’t face this risk. But it does face the risk of returning invisible. If the league doesn’t re-capitalize – and returns as the kind of stripped bare independent operation it was going to be in 2012 – it will face the same anonymity and irrelevance that RHI faced on its return.
Oh, the irony. The story of the future MagicJack franchise probably provides the most realistic roadmap for some/all of the five remaining WPS franchises to navigate the WPS shutdown allegedly caused by MagicJack.
The Washington Freedom were the only WUSA club that never died. They outlasted their failed league, continuing to take games where they could find them as an independent club and later as part of the semi-pro W-League. When WPS emerged six years later, they jumped back up to Division 1 status under the same owners they had on Day One – John & Maureen Hendricks.
The Freedom’s journey from 2004 to 2008 wasn’t glamorous. Mia Hamm and Abby Wambach were long gone from those teams, as were the days of playing in front of crowds of 10,000 plus at RFK Stadium. But the important thing is that they kept the lights on for the entire game of women’s soccer and the notion that it ought to be played at a world class level within the boundaries of the United States.
This path is now available to all five WPS clubs, presuming that either the WPSL or the W-League (or both) are agreeable to expansion at this late date on the calendar. WPS clubs can also follow the more recent example of the Chicago Red Stars, who found a happy home in the WPSL after dropping out of WPS in November 2010.
I’ve been waiting to do an interview with long-time pro soccer executive Peter Wilt since I launched this blog in February 2011. I met Peter at the Women’s Professional Soccer Cup in 2009, when he was the President and CEO of the Chicago Red Stars and I was the GM of the Boston Breakers. He’s a terrific storyteller and has worked in a quite a few leagues that we write about here on Fun While It Lasted. Frankly, I didn’t want to waste an interview with Peter early on when nobody was visiting the site. I decided to celebrate the New Year (and much improved site traffic) by finally re-connecting with him.
Peter has run franchises in men’s, women’s and indoor soccer, highlighted by eight years as the founding President and General Manager of the Chicago Fire of Major League Soccer. He has won a MLS Cup (1998) and was instrumental in the construction of Toyota Park, the soccer-specific home of the Fire, in Bridgeview, Illinois. As the chief executive of five franchises, he has launched countless careers in the sports industry, which made him a perfect fit for our Breaking Into Professional Sports interview series.
Only I didn’t want to talk about soccer. Peter began his own sports career in 1983 as a Public Relations assistant with the Milwaukee Admirals of the rough and tumble International Hockey League. Peter was kind enough to share his memories of the 1980′s Admirals, along with what he looks for (and guards against) when hiring people into the sports business.
Can you tell me how you landed your first job with the Admirals in 1983?
After I graduated, I couldn’t find a job. For about eight months I was working on a book which was really a way to stall things and convince my mother to continue sending me money for rent. It was a book about the history of trades in baseball. Anyway, I then got a notice in the mail from the Assistant Dean of the journalism school at Marquette who was helping me try to find a job.
It was a notice for a general assignment reporter at the Kankakee, Illinois newspaper and I had zero interest in it. But, serendipitously, on the back was a job notice for the Milwaukee Admirals of the International Hockey League hiring a PR assistant. So I said to myself, I don’t want to go to Kankakee, but the Admirals job is exactly the type of job that I am looking for.
I called up several times and eventually got an interview with Phil Wittliff, the Admirals GM. Phil was really curious about my usher’s job at the Milwaukee Brewers. I’m sure he was disappointed when I quit the Brewers job a couple of months later and took away his opportunity to sneak into County Stadium.
It was a jack-of-all-trades position, which was exactly what I needed because I didn’t go to sports management school. That barely existed as a concept when I was in school. I had the strong desire to go into the business, but I didn’t have the formal training. With the Admirals, which was a very small organization of seven employees at the time, I really got the opportunity to learn the business from the ground up.
When you got to the Admirals in the mid-80’s, where did you think they stood on the totem pole of Milwaukee sports at that time?
The only team below them was the Milwaukee Wave indoor soccer team that started in 1984. In Milwaukee, you had the Packers, the Bucks, the Brewers, Marquette and the Badgers over in Madison that were all bigger deals.
Interesting thing about the Admirals – we were maybe the only pro team in history to have five beer sponsors. This was back when Milwaukee was truly a brewery city. We had Pabst, Budweiser, Schlitz, Miller and Old Style. We only averaged about 3,500 a game at the MECCA Arena. The Bucks were playing there at the same time and selling out just about every game at about 11,000 fans a game. And we were selling more beer each night than the Bucks!
Who were some of the more memorable or outsized personalities who were involved in the IHL in that era?
The Admirals had a player named Barry Scully and we traded him. I drove him to the airport. Back then there was no security. We were late for the plane and I was trying to get him to run, but he refused. And he also refused to get onto a propeller plane. He kept saying to me ‘this isn’t a propeller plane is it’? And he finally got to the gate agent and demanded to know if they were trying to put him on a propeller plane. And the agent looked at him with a straight face and said ‘No, it’s a turbo prop’. And that calmed him down and he didn’t realize a turbo prop and a propeller plane were the same thing until it was basically too late.
Then there was Danny Lecours. He was a five-foot nothin’ Frenchman who was a superstar at the IHL level. He scored 75 goals one year in the IHL! He could never get a call up to the NHL because of his size. Great guy. And his career basically ended because of the Blackhawks affiliation. He had scored 57 goals for the Admirals the year before the Blackhawks came in, but they didn’t want him.
His wife Jan was from Milwaukee and had a good nursing job in the city, so he couldn’t really relocate to another city. So he ended up getting a construction job building the Bradley Center, the new arena in Milwaukee. The Bradley Center was built with money donated by Jane and Lloyd Pettit, the Admirals’ owners. What a lot of people don’t realize is that it was built as a hockey building. They wanted an NHL expansion team, but once they saw the going price they lost interest. Not that they didn’t have the money, but they just didn’t think it was a good investment and they kept the Admirals instead.
But Danny Lecours went from a star player on the Admirals to literally building the new arena for his team.
You mentioned that Mike Wojciechowski was your mentor at the Admirals. What lessons did you take from Mike – or self taught lessons perhaps – that you have applied in your subsequent jobs in the sports industry?
Wilt as Abraham Lincoln, circa 1985
In general, the lessons I learned from Wojo were about how it all revolves around sales. He essentially told me to follow the money.
Later on in my career I was working with the Milwaukee Wave indoor soccer team. I had an opportunity to move to the Cleveland Crunch of the Major Indoor Soccer League for a pure public relations position for considerably more money. And I turned it down because it didn’t have a sales aspect to it. I remembered that Wojo told me that to grow in sports, you need to be tied to the revenue stream.
The reason I left the Admirals in 1987 was that I had nowhere to move up in the organization. The only logical job for me to take was Wojo’s and it didn’t seem like he was going anywhere. And I was right. That was 1987 and now it is 2011 and he is still there!
And, of course he taught me that sports was entertainment. There was a year when we tried to have a mascot for every single game, beyond the Admirals normal mascot. One or both of us would dress up almost every game. If Disney On Ice or Sesame Street Live was coming we would get the costumes shipped in advance and borrow a couple. For President’s day I dressed up as Abraham Lincoln and he dressed up as George Washington and we had him pop out of a birthday cake at center ice. My dad was a Lincoln-o-phile and I think his proudest moment during my career was seeing my out on the ice dressed as Abe Lincoln refereeing the Pee Wee hockey game between periods.
Mike Wojciechowski & Peter Wilt 2011
Last question. Later in your career, you’ve been in a position to provide a lot of first jobs into the sports industry. What are some things you consistently look for in a job seeker trying to get their foot in the door and conversely what are a few red flags that a job seeker might put out that would cost them an opportunity to work for a Peter Wilt organization?
For better or worse, when I interview people I know within two minutes if I want to hire them. The rest of it is a song and dance to justify their time with me.
The things I look for are personality, character, intelligence, desire. To delve a little deeper, experience is important. I really don’t care about are education.
As far as red flags, I don’t like Notre Dame grads and I don’t like attorneys. I hate getting resumes from attorneys who are convinced that they are ready for a life altering experience and job and I’ll be fortunate to hire them. You get a lot of those. I’d rather have a hungry 22-year old than a fat and sassy 35-year old.
Even the venerable NBA got into the act, with its protacted lockout and the petulant Fantasy League Commissioner that invaded David Stern’s body to void all reasonable attempts by the New Orleans Hornets to trade Chris Paul.
But ladies and gentlemen, we have a dark horse candidate this year. Don’t let the fact that you’ve never heard of it keep you from gaping slack-jawed at the transcendent dysfunction of the North American Lacrosse League.
The concept for the NALL seems reasonable. Take a legitimately entertaining sport with “Best in the World” ambitions that bleeds money - pro box lacrosse and its major-market National Lacrosse League - and reboot it with non-union players in second tier cities playing in minor league hockey arenas. That blueprint has basically worked for the”new” Arena Football League and indoor soccer has been doing the downgrade mambo for over a decade now. Somewhere in suburban Chicago tonight there’s a bunch of dudes playing a Major Indoor Soccer League game for tips in the yoga studio of a YMCA.
The NALL originally announced five charter franchises for the 2012 season, set to debut in late January and run through April. Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania was announced as the first franchise in June 2011. Charlotte, Jacksonville and Louisville followed during the summer and Hershey, Pennsylvania was the last club to join the league in September 2011.
The first bump came in September when the NALL’s Board of Governors fired Commissioner Phil Evans, the former President of the NBA Development League (D-League). Not a good sign, but teams and leagues replace their chief execs all the time. League legal counsel Anthony Caruso took over as (Acting) Commissioner to replace Evans. The league proceeded with player signings and drafts throughout the fall.
Things didn’t get funky until New Year’s Eve. That’s when the league abruptly cancelled a supplemental draft scheduled for later that day to round out team rosters. Word leaked that the Hershey Haymakers franchise was placed in suspension, after failing to secure a lease to play at the Giant Center. Opening night for the NALL was now less than three weeks away. A dissident faction of league owners, led by Wilkes Barre-Scranton’s Jim Jennings, leaked word to bloggers that the league was scrapping the winter season in favor of a September start-up.
Not so, said (Acting) Commissioner Anthony Caruso. The season was still on for January. Dissident clubs Charlotte and Jacksonville were out, but the Kentucky Stickhorses were still in, along with the Wilkes Barre-Scranton Shamrocks, the club purportedly owned by Jennings. How could that be? According to Caruso, Jennings was no longer the Managing Partner of the Shamrocks. Allentown businessman Aaron Musselman controlled the club and he was in Caruso’s camp. Still, two teams does not a league make. So who else did Caruso have? Well, now he indicated a Boston-area 2013 expansion franchise awarded in December to a pair of kids who graduated college in 2008 could be ready to go for January. And maybe somebody in Tampa, Albany or Montreal could be ready to go in the next couple of weeks as well. Say what?
Caruso fired back on January 5th, filing suit against the dissidents clubs and individuals: the Charlotte Copperheads, Jacksonville Bullies, Jim Jennings, Bullies owner Brett Vickers and Copperheads owner Graham D’Alvia. This led to the amusing headline “NALL Is Suing NALL” on the well-connected In Lax We Trust national lacrosse new source.
SO….here we are on January 7th - exactly two weeks before the planned opening night - with two groups purporting to be the North American Lacrosse League. Within those two groups, we have two teams purporting to be the league’s model (ahem) franchise, the Wilkes Barre-Scranton Shamrocks, who may have sold as many as 2,000 season tickets (but reportedly have one secret and very big problem, revealed below).
Now, let’s back up a second and meet the cast of characters…
The Dissident Camp
Consists of the Charlotte Copperheads, Hershey Haymakers, Jacksonville Bullies and (maybe) the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Shamrocks.
Their leader is Jim Jennings. Jennings is a fascinating character. He started out selling tickets for the New York Cosmos in the dying days of the North American Soccer League, long after the glory days of 50,000 person crowds at Giants Stadium had passed. He reportedly turned a post-NASL job parking cars into a massive valet parking franchise that he sold for $4 million in 1992. In the late 90′s, Jennings bought a couple of minor league basketball clubs for $50,000 each in the low rent United States Basketball League. Jennings told Forbes magazine that he sold both clubs – the New Jersey Shore Cats and Pennsylvania Valley Dawgs – for $800,000 each in the summer of 2000. If true – it seems a preposterous amount for a league whose teams often played in small college gymnasiums – it neatly foreshadowed the unique knack for franchise salesmanship (some would say a knack for finding and wooing Greater Fools) that Jennings brought to his next and defining gig: Commissioner of the National Lacrosse League.
Jennings joined the NLL in 2000 and presided over a massive run-up in expansion fees, raising the cost of entry from $500,000 in 2000 to $3 million by the middle of the decade. In many ways, Jennings tenure at the NLL mirrored that of Commissioner C. David Baker at the Arena Football League during the same era. Both men oversaw continuous expansion into new markets. But the steady flow of expansion money papered over serious cracks in the core business in both leagues, as teams failed to solve the revenue & expense challenges of playing as tenants in other people’s expensive buildings. Franchises dropped out of the NLL as quickly as they entered. One disgruntled late-era Arena Football investor accused the league of being little more than an expansion-fueled Ponzi scheme in a 2010 lawsuit. The NLL briefly faced an anti-trust lawsuit (later dismissed) from its collapsed Chicago Shamrox franchise. Shamrox investors lost an estimated $6 – $7 million dollars in just two seasons after paying a $3 million expansion free and claimed that the league obstructed attempts to sell the team in order to bolster its own expansion business.
Jacksonville Bullies owner Brett Vickers is a long-time Jennings associate. The two men both worked in the front office of the Florida Beachdogs of the Continental Basketball Association in the mid-1990′s. The club lost a CBA record $2.5 million during the 1996-97 season and shut down. Vickers was subsequently involved in two other short-lived minor league basketball efforts in Florida and a failed minor league hockey team in Chicago in the 2000′s. Throughout this time, he was also employed by the Jennings’ NLL as a sales and marketing exec.
Graham D’Alvia headed up the Charlotte Copperheads franchise. A long-time exec at U.S. Indoor Lacrosse, overseeing the Team USA program. Like Jennings and Vickers, he is named as a defendant in the lawsuit filed by Anthony Caruso and his allies.
Ted Glynn is the founder of the Wave Dog Lacrosse clothing line. Jennings recognizes Glynn as the Managing Partner of the Hershey Haymakers franchise. The Caruso camp views Hershey as a suspended franchise with no standing.
One thing is not in doubt about the dissident group. Jim Jennings has the most pro sports operating experience in the league. He has stated in various forums that the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Shamrocks (which he may or may not own) have sold between 1,400 and 2,000 season tickets for the 2012 season (whenever that may or may not happen).
But sources close to the league revealed today that the Shamrocks team has no box lacrosse carpet on which to play at Mohegan Sun Arena. It seems a confounding oversight for an experienced operator and for a team that’s properly organized to sell upwards of 2,000 season tickets.
“I control the Wilkes Barre franchise and our first game is March 15 against Team Ireland and we plan on playing in September,” Jennings told me on January 7th. ”We already released our arena dates <at Mohegan Sun> for the winter. Hershey will be playing in September.”
The Commissioner’s Camp
Consists of the (Acting) Commissioner Tony Caruso, the Kentucky Stickhorses, an un-named Boston team, and (maybe) the Wilkes Barre-Scranton Shamrocks.
Caruso originally joined the NALL as the league’s legal counsel. He assumed (Acting) Commissioner duties when Phil Evans was fired and apparently he really, really likes it and is fighting against his ouster with a Kung Fu grip. He is a former Jennings ally, having served as counsel for the National Lacrosse League during the Jennings era and for Jennings own firm, Waterbucket Media. Interestingly, he was briefly on the other side of the table, as plaintiff’s attorney for the Chicago Shamrox in their briefly active anti-trust suit against the NLL mentioned above.
Jennings insists four members of the Board of Governors voted to oust Caruso: Charlotte, Hershey, Jacksonville and Wilkes Barre. And that’s a pretty undisputable 80% of a 5-team league. Except that Caruso doesn’t recognize Hershey (suspended) or Jennings’ right to vote as Wilkes-Barre.
Caruso seems to count his new Boston area expansion group as a voting member, which would give Caruso a 3-2 edge among HIS Board of Governors.
Tyler Low and Jason Wellemeyer were teammates on the Babson College lacrosse team outside Boston. They graduated in 2008 and currently run PrimeTime Lacrosse, a camp and clinic business in Massachusetts. They are firmly in Caruso’s camp, despite the fact that Caruso seems to expect them to turn the expansion club they bought last month into a fully functioning franchise with an arena lease, a roster and a staff sometime in the next 14 days. Points for enthusiasm, guys.
Tony Chase used to own a low-level minor league basketball team called the Kentucky Bluegrass Stallions. He charmingly named his NALL club the “Kentucky Stickhorses”, which perpetuates a bizarre regional minor league fetish of melding horses to sporting goods, following on the American Hockey League’s old Kentucky Thoroughblades. But I digress. Tony Chase is a staunch Caruso-ist:
“The REAL North American Lacrosse League is well funded, owns the intellectual property and controls the website,” Chase told me on January 7th. “The actions of a select few has slowed the progress, but has in no way, hampered the future of the NALL.”
Herein lies the Caruso camp’s best argument, so to speak. They have the website, which is kind of like controlling the capital city’s television station in a banana republic coup d’etat. And I guess they control the intellectual property, or so they keep saying. They also have games on the schedule and dates booked at arenas - no matter how unrealistic those appear to be – while Jennings’ camp has nothing but a vaporous promise to play in September. But that’s the Catch-22.
Caruso’s best arguments – I got the website, I got the arena dates, I got the games – are also his worst arguments. If Caruso thinks it is possible to begin in the next two weeks with Kentucky, a homeless/nameless Boston club and a carpet-less Wilkes-Barre team embroiled in an ownership dispute, then he is either a madman or a buffoon. Caruso might have the levers of power, but Jennings & Co. have the saner plan.
People that I like seem to like watching Community.
I am philosophically supportive of the professional rehabilitation of Chevy Chase.
Odds seem good that NBC will replace Community with a show that is simultaneously less original and equally unpopular.
All sitcoms are a buffer against the encroachment of scripted reality programming.
I was already conceiving this column and it seemed like a convenient rhetorical opportunity.
Doing so committed me to absolutely no current or future obligation of attention, money or effort whatsoever.
I believe I’ve watched Community twice. It was okay. For reasons #1 through #4 above, it would be nice to live in a world where Community is on the entertainment menu, particularly if this would benefit other people (e.g. Chevy Chase and/or my friend Karen) and it will cost me nothing. I can’t imagine watching Community next spring if it stays or missing it if it goes. Adding my name to that petition was truly the least I could do. My pledge is practically meaningless and intellectually dishonest.
That’s why I am largely unmoved by the petition on change.org to pressure U.S. Soccer into sanctioning Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) as a Division I professional league again this year. If U.S. Soccer fails to provide the sanction, the league will be unable to keep its best and most marketable players – the members of the U.S. National Team – and there is a strong possibility it will fold. The league assures everyone it will be fine if it gets the sanction. Other bloggers – notably Beau Dure on Sports Myriad and Peter Wilt on Pitch Invasion - have provided good summaries of the situation and I won’t regurgitate that here.
Suffice it to say, the negotiations between WPS and USSF appear to hinge on a particularly stupid sideshow debate about the number of teams in the league. U.S. Soccer wants WPS to have six franchises committed for 2012. WPS has only five. Why is this a problem? Because the sanctioning guidelines state that Division I leagues must have eight clubs. (Wait…oh, never mind). Honestly, who cares? The NHL did quite nicely with its Original Six franchises for several decades with an equally restricted geographic footprint. If U.S. Soccer would seriously consider shutting down a women’s professional league with five thriving franchises just because they didn’t meet a bureaucratic blueprint drawn up for men’s leagues God knows how long ago, then shame on them. But that’s not exactly the situation here, is it?
Because what isn’t being discussed - seemingly – is that the Division I guidelines also call for various other standards of infrastructure to qualify for Division I status, and here is where I believe the jury is truly out on WPS. There are standards related to the quality and quantity of full-time staffing at the league and front office level, for example. WPS has done very little – virtually nothing – to mobilize its fans in support of the league this offseason, with the modest exception of Western New York Flash President Alexandra Sahlen starting the Change.org petition. But the league does trumpet those results – about 48,000 petitioners – periodically through Twitter. Which nicely mirrors the actions taken by the petitioners – for both the signers and the WPS league office alike, this petition is literally the least they can do.
Here’s how I believe the WPS – U.S. Soccer conversation could shift this week in a more challenging – but ultimately more productive – direction:
Thank you for your presentation, WPS. We are truly impressed (cough, cough) by the 47,000 petitioners you have that don’t want to see the dreams of young girls crushed under our bootheels. We are going to issue a waiver on the number of teams issue and grant to you provisional Division I status for 2012…provided 1.) that each of the remaining franchises can present signed pledges for a minimum of 1,500 paid season tickets for the upcoming season. And 2.) that the league can provide contracts showing that you have actual sponsors lined up to professionally outfit each of the clubs and financially sustain a suitable league office in 2012. We would like you to provide this to us by February 1st.
What?! We’ve been arguing this whole time about six teams, and now you are pulling a bait and switch on us at the 11th hour! This is both unfair and not in accordance with your own sanctioning rules. There is nothing in there about season ticket pledges.
Nor is there anything there about sanctioning a six-team league. Since when have we ever made you adhere to the written word of the sanctioning rules? We’re kind of flying by the seat of our pants here. You ask for the bull, you get the horns. Anyway - this should be no sweat for you. After all, you have those 47,000 petitioners and you keep talking about the unprecedented wave of interest from sponsors and fans in the wake of the World Cup. Don’t tell us…show us.
Honestly, this would be hard for WPS. Really hard. But not impossible. And at some point, the league needs to prove its own assertions that it is healthier than ever and that the turmoil and austerity of the last two years have helped the league turn a corner. The simple demand that WPS and its members prove that they can sell 1,500 season tickets in each market and sign an apparel sponsor to replace PUMA, will force the league to show its hand in terms of infrastructure. If they can do that, then the staffing is suitable in size and experience. If they come close, I think you give them a pass and say nice effort. And if they can’t even get close, then what does that tell you?
When the WNBA awarded six expansion teams for the 1999 and 2000 seasons, each club was required to sign up 5,500 season ticket pledges before final approval of the expansion application. Each of the six clubs hit the goal and it’s worth noting that several of the clubs used celebrity in a creative fashion to fuel the pledge drives. Teams such as the Miami Sol and Orlando Miracle strategically used sponsors and celebrities to make benchmark pledges during the campaign thus fueling more publicity for the sales effort. Miami Heat star Tim Hardaway rode into an outdoor Miami Sol press conference by Jet Ski in September 1999 to plunk down a check for pledge number 4,500 in the Sol’s ticket sales drive. This type of example is a much more creative, effective and realistic example of leveraging celebrity support than the desperate “GET ELLEN/OPRAH TO SAVE THE SOL/RED STARS/WPS” tweets that fly around the interwebs. It’s human nature for fans to generate this kind of nonsense. It’s damaging and deluded when league employees and players encourage and re-tweet these messages.
Forcing WPS to step up on the revenue side will have a trickle down effect on fans as well. The first place WPS should look to for season ticket pledges is those 47,000 petitioners who say they would be devastated if U.S. Soccer shut down their league. Really? Well, now you have the opportunity to do something about it, if you live in a WPS market. Will you? Or are we going to hear the same old excuses about the time demands of your kids’ youth soccer schedule again?
Now, having proposed all of this, I am fully aware that the hurried ticket sales campaigns that would ensue would surely promote WPS as a cause. Gross. Look – paying mostly very well-educated women to play a game for a middle-class wage & benefits doesn’t stack up against cancer, poverty and hunger. It just doesn’t. During my four years in WPS, nobody argued more forcefully/sarcastically/rudely against cause marketing than me, particularly when I was misquoted (but only slightly) in a New York Times article that pissed a lot of people off for a day-and-a-half.
But I just don’t see a way around it this year. One way or another, WPS is going to be up against a nasty season ticket sales deadline this year like never before…either my hypothetical U.S. Soccer “show me” scenario above, or (realistically) the cold hard truth of an opening day that is going to sneak up on a lot of teams that have spent the whole autumn hedging their bets with the sanctioning debate. The sales pitch is going to be whatever has the most short-term effectiveness for this year, and a lot of that is going to be capitalizing on fear…fear that the league almost folded and needs to be saved. Rather than providing a great value proposition that promises enticing outcomes for fans who purchase tickets.
Beyond this year, the cause call-to-action isn’t sustainable from a business standpoint and doesn’t contribute to a passionate & knowledgable fan culture in the stadiums, the pubs and online. At some point, the league and its fan need to come to a consensus – a Grand Bargain – on the value proposition of supporting the club. Today, the league and its potential fans do not agree on the value proposition of WPS and therein lies the rub.
Our mission is to be the premier women’s soccer league in the world, and the global standard by which women’s professional sports are measured
WPS has done as much as it can do to fulfill this mission on the pitch. It has attracted – sometimes at unreasonable expense – a quorum of the best female footballers on Earth. The on-field product is skillful and entertaining. And there IS a market for the best women’s soccer on Earth. The problem is that WPS’ target audience who fuel that demand see that product elsewhere. They see it in the World Cup and international competition, not in a domestic league. Adding more “stars” to WPS is not going to change that. After three years of the WUSA and another three of WPS, it seems clear that this value proposition on its own – See Extraordinary, if you will – has maxed itself out. It’s not enough.
I don’t have the answer to what this Grand Bargain is going to be. Nor do I suggest it can be created in time for my hypothetical February 1st deadline for WPS and its ”unprecedented” wave of post-WWC supporters to demonstrate an audience for 2012. It will take years, but it can be done.
Minor league baseball in the 1970′s was all but extinct, killed off by television, declining interest in baseball relative to other sports, and crummy facilities. By definition, the sport could not promote stars (they got called up) or promise winning teams (good teams were quickly broken up by the advancement of their players up the developmental ladder). When minor league baseball emerged from those dark ages and into its renaissance, it did so with a consensus between its operators and its fans. The Grand Bargain of minor league baseball was this: if you buy one of our (inexpensive) tickets, we will keep you well-fed and entertained for less money than you would spend on dinner and a movie. Purists blanched but the sport thrived.
It’s really too late for WPS to go all-in after the affordable family entertainment dollar. That market is saturated, and perhaps unsuitable to the non-stop play of soccer anyway. But it is not too late for WPS to re-articulate its own unique value proposition. Maybe this new Grand Bargain has to do with girls specifically or maybe it doesn’t. Maybe it’s access to training or facilities – something that could solve one of WPS’ great sales challenges, which is that so many potential supporters view attending WPS matches as conflicting with their own soccer lifestyles and schedules. Maybe it is a form of (limited) democracy that allows season ticket holders to have voting input into select areas of franchise management and direction.
At the Boston Breakers, we toyed with a unique value proposition from inception, but I didn’t have the courage of my convictions to push it all the way. We branded season tickets as “Memberships”. We rarely used the word season tickets, because I believed the time commitment implied by that term turned off many of the very busy families who would potentially buy from us. I used the following analogy for our young sales staff:
I have a monthly gym membership which I renew every month for $117 dollars. Some months I only go once or twice, but I still renew my “membership”. However, if you sold me the same exact product and called it a “Daily Workout Pass”, I would have cancelled a long time ago.
We sold the most Memberships in the league, by a good margin. But in hindsight now, I wish I had pushed the Membership concept much, much farther than I did. Although we had some great “Members Only” special events, like a fantasy camp for adults with the entire team, we really didn’t push the boundaries far beyond what most teams offer to their season ticket holders. We were conventional. Frankly, we had so much of our budget tied up in player salaries and benefits, there wasn’t much money left for marketing – AKA raising the membership benefits and access to truly ground-breaking status. If I had it to do all over again, I would be much more aggressive in that area.
If and when this negotiation with U.S. Soccer is resolved to WPS’ benefit, someone else will now get that opportunity to innovate.