Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Guest Post: It was an idea I’d never considered by Casey Proud

As this blog is oft to do... we have yet another wonderful guest post. This time by Casey Proud (Make sure you follow him on Twitter!) who happens to be a supporter of one of the most popular lower division clubs out there, the supporter owned San Francisco City FC.
"It was an idea I’d never considered" - Casey Proud

Since I’ve been a fan of American soccer - and I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in this - I’ve had that vision, that dream, of what that moment will be like if the US Men’s National Team won the World Cup. It’s gonna be pretty embarrassing to describe for me, but here goes: in it, I’m a father or otherwise an old guy, and I’m with my family and friends, either somehow in the stadium itself or otherwise watching from San Francisco in a huge crowd. The final whistle sounds and I scream with jubilation before breaking into tears. It’s a perfect moment of human happiness. I’m hugging everyone around me, screaming “We did it!”

That thought was especially riveting to me in late 2013. I was getting heavily involved with the American Outlaws, and there was a World Cup coming up the next year...I mean I didn’t think the US was gonna WIN IT or anything, but I was excited about the program you know? I was a large fan of the Seattle Sounders, and I read quite a bit of /r/MLS. I was part of that surge of optimism, that “believing”, that US Soccer was on a solid upward trajectory. Detractors? They’re underestimating us! Pro/Rel? Who needs it! We’re gonna (eventually) win it the American way baby!

Being leadership within AO, I had a sort of guiding principle that I would find and do what was necessary to help the USMNT win the World Cup. In building my chapter, I’d reached out to the existing soccer community, where I met Mike. Mike introduced me to the idea that, if we want the USA to win the World Cup, we’d need to have a competitive club in every community. It was an idea I’d never considered.

I mean, I knew that club soccer was related to the success of the national team, but that was the first time I’d really thought of club soccer outside of MLS. And it made sense: more clubs in local communities meant more local player identification, more development for those players, and more opportunities for those players to be identified for and moved to higher levels. This was how we could help maximize the talent pool for our national teams.

Obviously, my thoughts turned to the current state of club soccer in SF. At that point, in the City the only club even on my radar was the SF Stompers. Without getting too far into it, it was PRETTY not great. We wanted something special, for a city we thought was special. The Stompers were not that for us.

When SF City FC came together, those involved were talking about what we wanted in a club team. We’d seen the problems with San Francisco soccer clubs previously. In recent history, the San Francisco Seals, the California Victory, the Stompers, all hadn’t really figured out how to crack the SF soccer nut. The concept of supporter ownership came up; it was an idea that was *different*, and *fun*. We all had our own good and bad experiences with various other clubs, but here was a chance to build our own pizza with an infinite number of ingredients to choose from.

I was beyond excited. I was *doing* something for American soccer. We were trailblazers, in the SF tradition of gold rushers, immigrants, 60s radicals, and even those spiffy new tech companies. We were going to apply to the NPSL, an amateur league, and work our way up from there, hopefully to the NASL! The City was going to fall in love with us, I was sure of it.

Jacques, the club president, made up the application and submitted it. Boom, a new club all our own, ready to play in 2014. Done deal. We’re gonna be like Detroit. We’re gonna be like Sacramento. Someday we’re gonna be more popular than Portland and Seattle. We’re...denied?

Jacques had gotten word back from the NPSL. SF City FC was being denied entry to the NPSL based on...territory rights? Territory rights: where a league can decide that a club isn’t allowed simply because another club is already there and they don’t want two clubs to “split the market”. I thought, weren’t there cities with multiple clubs in them in the same league around the world? And weren’t those clubs flourishing? And aren't local rivalries the heart of soccer club culture? (NOTE: NPSL has since undone the policy that let this happen, fortunately)

But besides the territory rights, didn’t they just have great success with Nashville’s “supporter owned” club? Weren’t they excited about us? Frustrated, we talked it out: Jacques thought the BS territory rights were BS, and felt we could fight it legally. Meanwhile, we figured we’ll just have a go for next year, and use this year + the World Cup to ramp up excitement. I was part of the excitement ramping up crew. I went out to sell my new club. I spoke to my friends, to other Outlaws, and got up early to watch EPL games I didn’t care about to tell fellow soccer fans about the club.

My memory of it was responses like:
· So are you like, in MLS?
· Are you going to be in MLS?
· Why aren't you/can't you be in MLS?
· I only really watch the USMNT/World Cup
· Yeah I stick to European soccer because of the higher quality.
· How will you grow if there’s no promotion and relegation?
· Oh we're watching baseball.

“No, but if we had enough fan interest we could maybe become popular enough to become big enough to maybe be allowed into MLS one day!” I’d respond in so many words, trying to make THAT sound exciting. People liked the supporter ownership model, they liked our brand...but the competition, and competition level, was *always* something that came up.

Long story short: we joined a regional league before the final decision on NPSL. We just wanted to get on with it. We had a club though, and through that season we became dedicated supporters. We made up ridiculous songs, drank too much, painted tifo and yelled bullshit at amateur players who maybe had never seen fans that weren’t parents. We played in local parks with maybe a single set of stands, and clubs routinely forfeited games against us, having trouble finding 11 players.

By the end of it we were beyond ready to move to a better league. We talked about moving up, and my fellow supporters spoke intelligently and rationally about pro/rel. They make me think about these questions: how would our club make it to the highest levels in the current system? Now how would our club make it to the highest levels in a pro/rel system? One certainly seemed to have a more straightforward answer than the other in terms of a visible, viable path.

I looked at the then lower league darlings Sacramento Republic, who seemed reasonably certain would be announced for MLS soon enough but hadn’t yet. Surely a club that looks ready to join MLS next year would rather be able to actually join next year than have to wait to maybe be the lucky one picked next for expansion, to then start play a few years after that?

I was wary about being on the pro/rel “side” though. I saw pro/rel folks being labeled as crazy, stupid, toxic, “truther” etc. by journalists, pundits, even my friends. I didn’t want to have that “flat-earther” association made about me, even if, as I learned more about it, pro/rel wasn’t actually looking so zany after all.

The club brought in new investment and we moved to the PDL. We were excited about the new challenge; we’d even potentially have a rivalry with the Burlingame Dragons! I was elected to the member board and became more involved with the operations of the club. It was there I really saw firsthand how totally fucking hard it is to make money and attract attention when your club isn't in - and isn’t in the discussion of the possibility to be in - MLS.

I started thinking with my degree from business school: Why should investors put competitive amounts of money into lower league soccer when there’s no clear path for growth? What would my club even receive, business-wise, if they won the PDL? Relegation for an MLS club is regarded as a death sentence because of how weak US lower leagues are, but how do you strengthen the lower leagues to make relegation not so bad without opportunity for growth (and penalty for stagnation) of those clubs? I couldn’t help but wonder why we're reinventing the wheel in America.

Meanwhile I saw this kinda stuff posted on /r/MLS:
· San Francisco won't support a minor league team [“It’s the community’s fault”
· Sac Republic is doing fine. More teams should be like them. [“To be successful in the lower
  leagues, you just have to always be trying to join MLS”]
· Why don't you just support the San Jose Earthquakes? [“You should stop trying, period”]

Then that year, we’d heard the news: a professional level club with lots more money than us was announced to be dropped into our community. They wouldn’t have to work their way up like we did, and, oh, they’ll be joining the NASL, where we’d originally wanted to go. COOL. We tried not to feel threatened; we felt threatened a lot. We’d done all of this work building this club we loved from the ground up and a new team could just parachute into the league above us because of money. Bonus awfulness: they were going to play in OUR stadium, effectively kicking us out. It seemed completely unfair. Where else in the world was a team allowed to buy their way directly into a league above another?

But then we saw them making REALLY weird branding and marketing choices. Seeing their struggles, I felt a sense of relief that, if anything, we had the chance to get mistakes out of our system at a low level where the stakes aren’t very high. Funny how being forced to start from the bottom and working your way up can do that! Of course, we all saw what happened with the Deltas. They were a one year wonder: winning the championship, then folding due to poor business, taken down after being forced by our system to hit the ground running but stumbling instead.

The real shock, for us, was when it was announced the Dragons were folding too. Our rivals of the past 2 years, we assumed they’d had plenty of money available to continue on. After they folded, the Dragons’ owner did a podcast expressing his frustration with the American soccer system, saying part of why he pulled his money is he didn’t see a way for his investment to grow. His money’s in English soccer now instead of American soccer.

SF City’s 2017 and 2018 seasons saw us building - building slowly, but building. More people are becoming members, more people are joining the supporters, more people are understanding what we’re about. Sure it’d be nice to have more money for marketing to get the word out about our club...but also, marketing what? When I think about what we’re selling, so much of it, unfortunately, is not the soccer competition. It’s everything around it. We’re not pitching the competition of PDL, we’re pitching things like “support local soccer”, supporter-ownership, and our club identity. Why does the next match matter to someone I’m evangelizing to about my club? Why does it matter if we win the PDL?

I wonder why, over and over, local investment seems to constantly overlook soccer, the world’s favorite sport. Our club lives in the Bay Area, where money gets thrown around at some of the dumbest things possible. Oh you reinvented the juicer? Here’s $120 million! Vending machines...reimagined?? Press C2 for millions more of our stupid dollars! And yet, soccer in my City has had trouble attracting and/or keeping that kind of money. If San Francisco won’t support a “minor league team”, won’t giving my club a clear-cut path to be a “major league team” help the cause? And won’t making our move to the next level to be based primarily on on-the-field results improve the American soccer competition?

Are we scaring people away who might want to put their investment into American soccer because there’s no clear path for growth, or there’s territory rights, or they’ll lose everything if they don’t get it near perfect from the start, or there’s an arbitrary “expansion committee” made up of billionaires that could just say “no”, or the whole league they want to join might be de-sanctioned, or there’s no league available for them to join, or they aren’t in a “big TV market”, or the federation won’t really care about them if they aren’t in MLS, or people won’t care about them if they’ll never have access to MLS, or they’ll need to pay a gigantic expansion fee and/or give up their IP to a single entity, or someone could buy their way into a league above them, or they’ll have to sell almost EVERYTHING ELSE besides the actual competition of soccer?

And where’s our current system gotten us? The USMNT has missed the World Cup. #SaveTheCrew is happening, #StandWithChatta is looking to be a warzone, Sacramento Republic are still outside looking longingly in the window of MLS, MLS is still doing woefully on TV, multiple lower league clubs are folding every year, leagues are warring and lawsuits are flying, youth participation is dropping, $2 billion Soccer United Marketing is completely opaque, the US Open Cup is treated as a third-rate competition, and soccer is still fantastically inaccessible to play, watch, and care about in the United States.

So what are we doing to win the men’s World Cup? Are we telling people active in the game they need to sound “nicer”? Are we telling us to wait and see if the current system that’s failed us time and again for almost 50 years (since the beginning of the first NASL) maybe won’t fail again? Are we going to keep rejecting the system we’ve *never* tried and has produced all the World Cup winning countries? Do you really want to “wait 20 years” before we start the change in our system that could make us a soccer super power by then? Where will you *be* in 20 years?

I still want the USMNT to win the World Cup, but now I also want the club and community that I love to have a shot at the highest levels of soccer. I want my club and community to have decent shot at contributing to a World Cup winning USMNT. In my men’s World Cup winning fantasy land, when I think of why my mind decided on my screaming “*We* did it”, I think it’s probably because I’m thinking about everything that has to happen, the whole massive undertaking of a nation coming together to find a way to be the best in the world at the world’s favorite sport. And what I “believe” now, based on my experience in American soccer, is that promotion and relegation with independent clubs puts the steps in place to get there.