2020 REVIEW: WHAT THE BLEEP JUST HAPPENED?

Every year, I write a recap of our season with a focus on how we did financially and what we learned along the way. This is the fifth in that series.

Looking back, it’s increasingly clear that the only effective judge of things is time. This is true of a great many things: books, people, technology, even—especially–soccer clubs. How many clubs over the years have launched with mega hype, maybe even had a good first season, and then withered away?

This series has told our story from raw start-up, to aggressively growing, to established club. Time is judging us, and it seems pleased with what we’ve been able to do.

Time isn’t the only one. A friend showed me a text from his buddy who knows Rob Stone. “The little guy in your backyard has a lot of juice right now” Stone said, referring to us appearing in a BBC article about Manchester United’s new third kit. Or maybe the #UpTheThieves kerfuffle with St Louis City SC and our Futures youth program branding. Less likely, but not impossible, is that he read the three-page World Soccer magazine article about us.

Whatever reason he had in mind, Rob Stone nailed it. We do have a lot of juice right now.

So, as we look back on a year where we reached a milestone, faced down a pandemic, and suffered a cancelled season, we find ourselves stronger than ever…and at a crossroads.

 

HOW IT ALL BEGAN

“There’s 106 miles to Chicago, we’ve got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it’s dark out and we’re wearing sunglasses” – Elwood, Blues Brothers

The crazy thing is that this all started in the Minnesota Recreational Soccer League’s Sunday Third Division back in 2010.

My childhood friend Jon Bisswurm had moved to Minneapolis and convinced me that we should start our own soccer team instead of playing on one of the over 150 existing teams in the Twin Cities. He had a friend, Nick Sindt, he had met in Wisconsin who lived in town who would help. Jon described Nick as “good at soccer and paperwork” and therefore an important addition. We talked to our friends, invited them, invited their friends, and made surprisingly effective use of the internet to cobble together a team. We named it Stegman’s Old Boys after Tom Stegman, a legendary youth coach Jon and I had. He wore Sambas and high socks, those old school hatched Umbros, had a mustache of Selleck-ian lushness, and drove a Jaguar with the vanity plate STEGGY.

While the level of play that first year, it will surely surprise you to hear, was not particularly high, we brought a level of organization, effort, and fun to what we were doing that stood out. Our players had a blast. Other players were interested in joining. The next year, we added a second team.

As the years we on, we grew to where we had multiple teams at multiple levels of the adult recreational league and the very competitive Minnesota Amateur Soccer League—including, after merging with one of the most decorated clubs in that league’s history, a team in Division 1. Then we decided it was time to go national.

We joined what was then the Premier League of America and spent our first season playing against Minnesota United Reserves, Milwaukee Bavarians, Croatian Eagles, Cedar Rapids Rampage, and Madison 56ers. It was a fantastic, high quality league. That we played in a patchy field nicknamed “The Barnyard” took nothing away from the experience.

A year later, obviously, it was time for NPSL. That was 2017.

 

YOU ARE GOING TO FAIL

“If you want something different, you have to do something different.” – Just a quote from the internet

Since going national, we have done pretty well. Using just local players, with just volunteers, we have built a club that has won multiple trophies, qualified for the Open Cup multiple times, and won an award for our first logo design. We added a U23 team, a program for players 16-20, more than tripled our season ticket holders, and done the work to grow the club’s revenue every single year[1].

When we launched we were told by a big name in local soccer that we wouldn’t last more than two years.

I bring that up every year because there is nothing wrong with a little schadenfreude, but in truth his reasoning was sound: it’s not like there was a history of clubs successfully doing the lower division thing. There were some failures[2] and there were some clubs you forget about[3]. It was not unreasonable that we would just be another one of the same.

We knew the history and we didn’t want to repeat it.

Coming in with no baggage had a lot of positives. We weren’t big names in soccer[4], we hadn’t made a name coaching for decades, we didn’t even work in soccer as a day job. That meant that we weren’t beholden. It was liberating not to know whose ass we had to kiss, what unwritten rules we had to follow, and what decorum was in this milieu. We didn’t know it, didn’t care to learn it, and weren’t held back by it.

That allowed us to create a club so different than what had come before.

Our story is pure grassroots. We took our experience running Stegman’s, a $5,000 loan from one of our founders, a mission to create a club that made a difference for local players, and hope that we could build a community around that vision…and we got a Twitter account[5].

We worked hard to craft a unique voice for the club, one that would stand out in the world and especially in a metro with every major professional team, including a new MLS franchise, a Big 10 program, and well-supported minor league sports[6]. Sometimes we fucked up. There’s a fine line between being funny and being stupid. Hitting the perfect note every time, especially for something so personal, is difficult. And when the founding group is weird and dysfunctional in an It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia sort of way[7], mistakes are bound to happen. But everything we did came from a good place, was well meaning, and in service to creating a club that would last, would serve local players, and help the local community.

 

The sporting side worked hard, too. While we had the Stegman’s experience and could count on Stegman’s players, like Aaron Olson, Tim Wills, and “Big Game” James Neher, to anchor the team, we didn’t have an airtight pitch to potential players. We were starting a new thing, with no big-name backers, no big-name coaches, and we didn’t even know for sure then where we would play home games.

Pure hard work got us through that. Making calls, sending messages, inviting guys to a session–it added up. And making those sessions good sessions, with good players, in the best situation we could afford[8] kept them coming back. It worked. We pulled together a good team and every year we’ve gotten better and better.

We have been successful.

Our success has made a lot of people angry. Really angry. After all, we were nobodies. We didn’t respect the existing order of things. Who the fuck were we to do soccer this way, to be brash, bold, and, worst of all, successful. WHO DID WE THINK WE WERE?!?!

That attitude is the default in U.S. Soccer. Crazy, I know, given the state of the game in this country, but there is a deeply entrenched group of people who make their living in the game and they like it just how it is thank you very much.

 

WHAT WAS GOING TO BE

“The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley.” – Robert Burns

The wind was at our backs going into 2020. Off the field, we had smashed our previous record highs for Members, attendance, and merchandise sales. On the field, we had won our conference for the second year in a row and qualified for the Open Cup. More than that, we had a group of players who had grown over the past few seasons and were peaking together combined with some fearless, talented young guns. I have no doubt that the 2020 vintage was the best group of players we have ever put on the field. We were in rude health.

Because the club is self-funded and because we had big plans in the works that would need cash to execute, our plan for 2020 was to keep tight control of costs, budget extremely conservatively, and use the profits we hoped to earn to self-fund our next stage of growth.

A few FAQ-style notes on the budget:

  • Sponsors represents cash only and not the (significant) value of in-kind benefits
  • Gameday includes tickets and Memberships on the revenue side and cost of those things and non-facility rental items to host a game
  • Facilities includes training and stadium rental for our NPSL and UPSL teams
  • Travel includes the first round Open Cup game but not second (or third or fourth…) round
  • League fees include dues, player registration, referees, etc

Anyway, we went through the fall and into the winter serenely expecting that 2020 would be like any other year and were all systems go when COVID hit.

It was just a week away from our first round Open Cup match, against Chicago FC United in Bridgeview. The winner got Forward Madison in the second round, so everyone in the club was buzzing. We had been training multiple times per week for about 8 weeks, had hosted closed-door tune-up matches, had bought and neatly packed all of our new team gear, had players registered and insured, had our flights and hotel sorted. We even had our special Open Cup kits, now worn by Manchester United apparently, ready to go—we were officially in-season.

 

Action was happening off the field as well. We had people out at bars and restaurants putting up posters, giving out branded pint glasses, we had launched our new kit, had the store running, events scheduled, and community plans coming together. Club operations were, ahem, fully operational.

We were off to a good start.

Financially, we were already within 5% of our total goal for Annual Memberships and still had seven weeks to our home opener, with the two weeks before the opener always a big sales period for us, still to come. The only thing slowing down our kit launch was that we kept selling out, over and over. We had a number of new sponsors lined up and two premier friendlies that would have made waves.

We were going to far surpass our revenue forecast.

 

IT ALL CAME CRASHING DOWN

“And I didn’t even see it coming!” – Lloyd Christmas, Dumb & Dumber

The last week of March, just days before we were scheduled to travel to Chicago for our U.S. Open Cup match, USSF suspended the tournament, USASA suspended all affiliated clubs from any playing activities, and everything stopped. That put us in a precarious place. What if things didn’t re-start? We had already spent a lot of money.

Back in March, nobody was sure what would happen next. Our response was to turtle: we just stopped moving and withdrew into our shell. No practices, no club status meetings, no marketing efforts, heck we barely even tweeted. We just ate some of the 50 lbs of rice we hoarded[9].

We’re safe here.

Then, the NPSL cancelled the season. It was the first league to take decisive action. It soon became clear that either UPSL would follow suit or, if they wouldn’t, we would cancel unilaterally. That clarified our situation: we had (potential) money problems.

To date, we had spent $62,578.00.

We did have revenue locked in, mainly because we had the foresight[10] to launch a really popular new kit a few months before the pandemic. Merchandise sales and other smaller revenue sources meant that, of the money in the bank, $40,030.73 was ‘locked in’ insofar as it was not at risk of having to be refunded.

On the one hand, without a season there were costs that we would not have: stadium rental, training facility rental, travel, and other operational expenses related to gameday.

On the other hand, with the season cancelled and a pandemic clearly in full swing, we knew that we would offer Members refunds. We also knew that our sponsorship agreements would be in jeopardy, and in fact called our sponsors to tell them to keep their money and get through this. Between those two, we had $27,472.59 that just might disappear.

And we had revenue that would not materialize. We typically post big Membership sales the two weeks either side of our home opener, but nobody was going to buy a season ticket to a cancelled season! Further, our store was closed and our games were huge merchandise sales days. We had to re-think our merchandise strategy. Matchday ticket revenue, which is decent to good depending on the opponent and weather, was gone too.

There were question marks, too. What would happen to our donations, for example? It was impossible to say, but we didn’t have high hopes.

We gritted our teeth and re-worked our budget.

Looks okay, actually, except for the $27,472.59 sitting in the revenue column that might disappear. That goes away and, given that our only significant option to cut costs would be to close the store, we are looking at a five figure loss.

We took a look at a budget scenario where we lost all sponsor and gameday revenue, but continued to sell merchandise and receive donations up to our forecast amount. On the expenses side, we assumed we would get a full refund for travel not used and would close the store within the terms of our lease agreement. It was not a pretty scenario, but it was the worst case we were willing to put on paper.

In April we were still hopeful that we might be able to crush COVID and find a way to play in the summer (Oh, hope. You’re cruel), so we had a number of budget scenarios for that, too. No matter what was going to happen, we knew we were going to have to work hard to keep the club viable.

 

THIS ALL COSTS MONEY

“So you don’t know how expensive it is then, do you?” – Texeira to Turtle, Entourage

It’s easy to forget, especially in the fever swamps of Twitter, but someone needs to pay for the very real expenses that a soccer club incurs. There is always a Tommy from Staten Island-type who is raging at clubs, as though they can just wave their pro/rel wand and make the costs for facility rental, travel, equipment, gear, and all the very necessary things to play soccer just go away. They can’t. And I don’t think there even is such a thing as a pro/rel wand.

There are three ways that clubs at this level get the cash to pay their bills, and nothing that says a club can’t use more than one of these together—many do make it work by mixing models.

Pay-to-Play

Some clubs, like a youth club, charge players a fee to be part of the team. For clubs that use player dues to cover all costs, it can get expensive. To give an example, in 2018 I was told that an NPSL North Conference club was charging $1,800 per player for the summer season. That wasn’t necessarily gouging either. That is about what it costs to train twice a week, travel to games, pay referees and leagues fees, etc. for a team of 30 players.

Other clubs are actual youth clubs. They use a portion of the dues from the younger teams to pay for some or all of the expenses of running the senior team. This can make sense from a marketing perspective, as clubs with senior teams can pitch themselves as different than clubs without (and surely charge more, too).

Rich Owner

Some people just really want to own a soccer club. There are lots of reasons, good and bad, for this, and God bless the ones that want to for good reasons. For these clubs, their existence isn’t predicated on player dues, ticket revenue, sponsorships, or merchandise, though occasionally the idea is that the club will take the owner’s initial largesse and turn that into a sustainable business[12].

Own Two Feet

Among sponsorships, tickets, and merchandise, it is possible for clubs to stand on their own two feet as a self-funding, sustainable entity. The mix varies widely and, within this bucket, that is interesting in its own right. Some clubs lean heavily on sponsorship, often a large tentpole sponsor[13]. Others draw well enough that people through the gates keep their club going. Still others are merch machines. Most who choose this option rely on a mix of all possible revenue streams.

There is no good or bad model, there is simply finding what works to keep the club going.

I’ll take that back. The good model is to start a league. They all make money, with leagues, even at the amateur levels, supporting full-time staff, many on big salaries. They don’t do much for individual clubs, but they do well for themselves! To paraphrase Creed Bratton: “I’ve been involved in soccer, both running a club and running a league. You have more fun running a club. But you make money running a league.”

We can’t all run leagues, though.

 

INDEPENDENT & SUSTAINABLE

“They may take away our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom!” – William Wallace, Braveheart

Minneapolis City stands on its own two feet.

Our founding asked a question: could a group of regular people band together and create something that could live, grow, and thrive through our hard work and ingenuity? The question has been answered emphatically by the people of the Twin Cities, and the answer is yes[14].

 

We have a diverse set of revenue streams. Yes, if you break it all down, season tickets, merchandise, sponsorship, and gameday revenue all, foundationally, exist because of our incredible fan support, but it’s a lot more diverse than, say, “owner and/or player dues pay for everything” which is typical.

There is a man named Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a mathematician, scholar, hedge fund manager, Twitter warrior, and author. He has written a set of books on probability, uncertainty, and, above all, risk. The penultimate book in the set is Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder and it introduces the an important concept, which he terms antifragility.

“Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty. Yet, in spite of the ubiquity of the phenomenon, there is no word for the exact opposite of fragile. Let us call it antifragile. Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better.” – Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Taleb makes a distinction between fragile, resilient, and antifragile.

In soccer terms, a fragile club is like glass: strong enough under expected stress but stress it too much or in an unexpected way and it shatters. A fragile club might be one with a single revenue stream, say one sponsor or a rich owner.

A resilient club is like rubber: flexible enough to change under pressure, but able to bounce back once things are normal again. A resilient club might be one that can do enough to get through a crisis, no mean feat, but survival is the only aim.

The concept of antifragile is that the stress makes the club stronger. So not only is an antifragile club flexible enough to adjust to stress and pressure, it has the capacity and adaptability to use the circumstances of the stressing situation to become stronger. To put it simply, they are able to transform stress into strength.

 

OPTIMIZATION LEADS TO FRAGILITY

“It is perfectly possible to be both rational and wrong.” – Rory Sutherland

A few years ago, I began reading a lot of business and consulting books and articles. I was worried that my own experience and set of skills wasn’t enough for the club as it continued to grow, that perhaps there was this magical business knowledge I could acquire, like the Master Sword in Zelda or something, that would make all the difference. I told my aunt about this. She laughed at me, said I was suffering from “Terror of the English Major” and suggested that if we were growing by double digits and doing it profitably that we were probably okay[15].

Not believing her, I went deep reading blogs and ‘thought leadership’ pieces from the best and the brightest business gurus and management consultants in America. I even read stuff on LinkedIn. I was desperate.

Thank God I didn’t listen to a word of it.

Business as described by the people paid millions to advise businesspeople is a mix of simple ideas presented complexly[16] and anti-human bullshit that you would hate if someone did it to you. It’s all yield management, profit maximization, extreme optimization: the sort of behavior that sees fans as nothing more than ‘potential revenue.’

Spreadsheets are a fun way to monetize people!

Fans are people though. People who don’t want a big corporation owned by some of the richest people in the world to treat them as a mark: aggressively upsell them, harangue them to do more to support the club, or rope them into a season ticket referral scheme. People who don’t want to be priced out of watching sports because the average yield of a regular family pales in comparison to another corporate box. People who see authenticity not as a marketing buzzword but as an actual thing that humans, and the occasional company, do when they act in a genuine way toward other people.

Minneapolis City would fail a business review by a high-priced consultant.

We work hard to keep ticket prices low, to keep merch prices low, to get to know our fans in person at games, and we don’t even try to pressure them into buying a season ticket when we do! We hand write holiday cards and thank you cards and all that to our supporters because it’s the right way to treat people–even though there is no offsetting revenue for it and our hands hurt badly after. We don’t have ticket reps, we don’t have lobbyists, and we haven’t once thought about how to maximize the total value per customer—even though every other bigtime sports company does.

Optimization is a trap for the scared. Everyone in the sports and entertainment category has the same data, the same spreadsheets, and the same best practices and they are all going to optimize to the same conclusions. If you’re scared of failure or of your boss thinking you’re an idiot, then you best practices the shit out of it and slowly optimize your way to being exactly like your competition. Hope you’re already the market leader![17]

Optimization also makes companies fragile. It leads to extremes in efficiency, specialization, and risk. We are supposed to run this club like an MBA would and optimize our operations at every step to maximize value. Not only is that desperately inhuman—looking at a person like ‘potential revenue’ to ‘yield manage’ is bullshit management consultant-ism at best and rapacious profit-ism that takes advantage of people’s love of sport and city—but a single focus on ‘maximizing share of wallet’ is stupidly short sighted. It might work well at squeezing out incremental dollars when everything is going perfectly, but the moment the situation changes…

When our season was cancelled, we offered every Member a refund on their Membership (a full refund minus the cost for the scarf, stickers, magnet, and shipping costs for what that they already received). Only 6 people took us up on the refund[18].

That meant that $16,757.58 of revenue that had been in jeopardy wasn’t anymore.

Had we not treated our fans like people, we wouldn’t have had their support when the pandemic hit. It would have been over. We would have traded a bit more profitability over four years for bankruptcy in year five.

Instead, our supporters saved the club and they weren’t done yet.

 

DON’T BUY KNOCKOFFS

“Get in loser, we’re going shopping.” – Regina George, Mean Girls

Merchandise sales are an under-appreciated revenue stream for clubs.

Just how critical was made apparent this year when Leyton Orient were forced to forfeit their Carabao Cup match against Tottenham Hotspur because of COVID. Orient were due to lose the gate and television revenue, a massive blow to the small club. Spurs fans, though, stepped up. They made purchases from Orient’s club shop of more than £20,000. An incredible gesture, and hugely meaningful revenue for the club.

In a similar way, when City was facing a revenue crisis it was merchandise sales that made a huge difference. This was unexpected.

While we did launch a new scarf, sweatshirt, and t-shirts in the fall, we drastically scaled back the merchandise launches. Nothing in the spring. One new t-shirt in the summer. After all, with no home games and with, for a time, our store closed what was the point?

The real story though was our kit launch.

Matthew Wolff, Minneapolis native and high school classmate of club captain Aaron Olson, designed the kits. He is, to paraphrase Jacobim Mugatu, “so hot that he could take a shit, smear it on a t-shirt, and sell it to the new USL team as their home kit”[19]. The kits he did for us, especially the home shirt, have just sold and sold and sold. We couldn’t keep them in stock. They are still selling fast today (and go check ’em out for yourself).

As of August 31, we have sold over 900 of our 2020 shirts between the club and Classic Football Shirts, which sells our jerseys in Europe (online and in their shops in London, Manchester, and Liverpool). While we were shipping jerseys all over the country and world, the vast majority were sold in Minnesota. Most to people who hadn’t bought from our store before.

We nearly doubled last year’s merchandise revenue, which was previously our highest ever.

It is not an exaggeration to say that these shirts were magic.

It is because I know just how important merchandise sales is to clubs, I get enraged at the cottage knockoff industry that has sprouted up in soccer. Every day, especially on Instagram, I get served ads from some smalltime company that is kinda sorta maybe doing enough to circumvent intellectual property laws to sell knockoff gear. Like these two I was served today:

Neat designs, and with Football Town maybe even cooler than what you can find directly from the club.

Buying it, though, means that you’re sending money to some shameless profiteer instead of to your club. Your club needs that money.

More than that, your club deserves that money. It’s their intellectual property, created over years of hard work on the field and off to create something meaningful—so meaningful that fans around the world are willing to pay for merchandise that reps the club. The knockoff artists may somehow do enough to skirt copyright laws, but what they are doing is wrong. They’re profiting off of something that isn’t theirs, that they didn’t build. They’re thieves and they are stealing directly from your club.

Especially now, when so many other revenue streams are impacted or impossible because of COVID, this money is critical. If you love your club, buy from your club.

 

IT WAS A BAD YEAR BUT ALSO IT WAS A GOOD YEAR

“And it all worked out” – Sarah Schreier

This year sucks, I think we can all agree on that.

We lost a season, and not just any season. Sports are about timing. There is a window where players and teams peak, and our 2020 vintage Minneapolis City team was in the middle of that window. I’ll always think back wistfully about this season, about what could have been given the group we had and how damn good they looked a few days before the U.S. Open Cup first round that never happened.

While, if you told me that fate would find a way to make sure that we didn’t play in the Open Cup again, I would believe you, I would not believe that with a cancelled season (and all that entails) we would set a new record for total revenue—and beat last season’s record number of Members. But we did.

The money didn’t come from where we thought it would and, again, holy jersey sales Batman.

A few FAQ-style notes on how things ended up:

  • Sponsors represents cash only and not the (significant) value of in-kind benefits.
  • Gameday includes Tax, since we are taxed on tickets and Memberships. Our tax bill for the 12 months of this fiscal year was $1,339.
  • Donations as expenses (money we gave away) isn’t broken out separately because it includes cash donations (like fundraisers donated to, both from cash donations and percentage of profit of items sold), donations of goods (either good donated and purchased for donation), and purchases from affected businesses and therefore is across a number of different line items. That giving is primarily represented in the Marketing line item, and also in Ops & Shop and Merchandise expenses.
  • Donations as revenue includes donations to the Futures Scholarship Fund, which is held separately and to be spent only on the Futures Program. As of August 31, 2020 we had $4,460.35 in the Fund. It has continued to grow at the same time that we have already begun awarding scholarships to players.
  • We paid full league fees for both NPSL and UPSL, with the NPSL amount offset by a credit related to playoff travel. League Fees as a line item also includes the $1,000 performance bond we paid to U.S. Soccer for the Open Cup which they are keeping until the next Open Cup, which we, for the moment, remain qualified for.
  • Since we use the cash accounting method, the numbers can slightly misleading.
    • For example, we have $658 in the travel line item which is reimbursements paid out for the 2019 season.
    • Equipment went over as a line item because we had to purchase items for the Futures Program in this fiscal year to ensure that they were delivered in time for the program to start in November.
    • Mainly, though, this method overstates our profit. For example, we haven’t been invoiced for all of the rental costs for the Fall 7v7 league we are running (which, at the time, was $6,728.67).

We were profitable this year. More profitable than we ever have been, in fact. Turns out the path to profit is selling season tickets to a cancelled season and having basically nobody request a refund[20].

Jokes aside, this is a powerful commentary on the Minneapolis City idea. The support from Members was inspirational because it showed belief the community, the club, and the mission—and it drove us to action. We had to do something to live up to the trust placed in us.

 

WHAT WE DID WITH OUR TIME OFF

“If you vote for me, it will be summer all year round.” – Napoleon Dynamite

Two years ago, Members had voted to approve the club moving forward with plans for a U19 team. This addition would allow us to completely bridge the gap between youth club soccer and college and professional soccer that exists in Minnesota. We had to do it carefully though. We had to ensure that local youth clubs saw us as a partner in player development and not as a competitor. The cancelled season gave us time to work hard on finalizing the plan for this program.

While that was in progress, Derek Chauvin kneeled on George Floyd’s neck and we had to focus on our community.

We’re just a soccer club, so we’re unable to take on big structural and social issues. But that doesn’t mean we can’t do something. From helping to clean up South Minneapolis to a weekly food and home supply donation drive and neighborhood pick-up, the volunteers, players, and fans of the club did what they could to live our mission of community action[21].

Technically, the terms of the lease at our shop did not allow the food donation and pantry that we were doing and after just over a month our landlord politely asked that we stop. We did and turned our focus back toward what became the Futures Program.

Our dream is to win a national title using only Minnesota-based players.

Therefore, it is in our interest to ensure that the top Minnesota-based players are the best they can be. Which is good news if you’re a top Minnesota-based player. Our interests are aligned.

One of the advantages that other countries have in player development is the clarity of progression through youth to adult soccer. That becomes especially clear when working with American players at ages 18 to 20. The only clear next step is college soccer, but that serves so few players that the knock-on effect is to dampen interest in play for older teens who view themselves as having reached the end of the road. There is a huge drop in participation at those ages and youth clubs have a difficult time filling out teams at U19, let alone ensuring a vibrant and competitive environment.

That’s where the Futures Program comes in.

 

Since the club was founded, we have been been dedicated to providing opportunities for Minnesota soccer players and to help bridge the gap between youth soccer and college, pro, and professionally-amateur soccer. To build this bridge, the Futures Program attempts to help solve the following 4 problems:

Structure: Opportunities for players nearing age 18-to-20 often fall apart or do not exist outside of college soccer and many players lose interest at this age 18-to-20 because there is not another level of competitive soccer beyond U18/U19 to aspire.

Expense: The cost of elite-level youth soccer can exceed $4,000/year. This cost can exclude talented Minnesota players who do not have the financial means to participate, essentially shutting them out of “the system”.

Time & Travel: Elite teams typically involve extensive travel. Minnesota’s young players often spend more time traveling than playing on the field. The 20 and under age group also have jobs and social commitments that start to make such travel prohibitive or undesirable.

Roadmap: An immediate jump to USSF Division 1 (MLS) or professional soccer abroad is often unattainable. A large number of Minnesota youth players still lack awareness of Minneapolis City and the competitive play opportunities (USL, NPSL, UPSL) that may exist for them beyond high school, club, and college.

Members approved launching the program and we got it started this November.

Futures is such a good model that Minnesota United, who we spoke with about this program, have picked it up as the replacement for their Development Academy team. It’s validating to have that happen[22]. Other clubs around the country have spoken to us about the model and I expect to see more clubs roll out this or something very similar in the coming year. I hope it works for everyone![23]

One day, when we have our own stadium, it’s full every week, and our latest Matthew Wolff-designed kit is worn by everyone from Minneapolis to Manchester to Mindanao, we will be able to fully fund the Futures Program from club revenues. Until then, it will cost money. However, we have worked extremely hard to keep the costs low (especially for what you get) because we want it to be accessible.

Not only does Futures provide great value for competitive, on-field time, but players get all of their training gear, match gear, an athletic trainer, and opportunities to play with and against the senior teams for free.

More than that, we set-up the Futures Scholarship Fund. Member donations, sales of specific merchandise items, and a feature on our online store where people can ‘round up’ their purchase to the nearest whole number have given us over $4,500 to use on scholarships for players who cannot afford the program.

Our supporters gave us a gift by keeping the club not only afloat but in rude health during this pandemic. Hopefully, we’ve been able to do things in and for our community to thank them for their gift.

 

CHANGE IS GOOD

“The only constant is change.” – Literally everyone famous, if you believe Google

From the beginning, we have been an all-volunteer group. All of us. Even the coaches.

The club has asked a lot of everyone. I would estimate, though nobody leak this to their employers, that we have at least 10 people who volunteer with the club and give it 20 hours per week (or more!) pretty much all year. Nobody gets any money from this. Most, in fact, are volunteering and also donating money and necessary items. Even the coaches.

It’s one thing for someone like me to do that. I don’t make less money because I spend evenings and weekends on this quirky-and-totally-awesome volunteer project, but the coaches do. There are only so many hours during the day that are ‘coachable hours’ and we take lots of those up. That means that they’re not just volunteering when they coach City, they’re giving up income to coach City. It’s incredible commitment.

Our growth means that we don’t have to ask that of them anymore. In 2021, with the approval of our Members via a vote, we are going to begin to pay our coaches stipends.

It’s a little less catchy to be an all-volunteer-except-for-coaches-who-get-a-small-stipend club but it feels really good to get there. We’re growing up and our 2021 budget reflects it.

The timing of this is good, too. We’re expanding our coaching staff across the board and the stipend helps make it work for these talented, dedicated people. Also, I’m proud to say, we are bringing in two women to join the coaching staff. Alli Lipsher joins as Director of Goalkeeping. Tori Burnett joins as an assistant coach.

Both Alli and Tori have top tier playing and coaching credentials and will help make our players and team better. We are lucky to have coaches of their caliber in the club. They will make our team better. We’re also lucky that they’re willing to kick down some doors. They will be the only women coaches in the North Conference and, I think though don’t quote me on it, the entire NPSL.

They join Sarah Schreier, who is in our front office, and Board members Becky Rothmeier, Sarah Waterworth, and Rachel Slivken as vital members of a club that is much, much more than goofy dudes with a Twitter account. Also, I should mention that the stipends are the same for the women and the men because it’s about damn time for equality, isn’t it?

 

IF ONLY PROGRESSION WAS POSSIBLE

“Everything is possible, even the impossible.” – Mary Poppins

A group of friends talking together in a bar founded Minneapolis City SC. We’re not the only one. Giants of the game like Aston Villa[24] and Chelsea were founded by small groups talking and planning together in bars, too. Where could we be in 100 years, we asked?

The answer, sadly, is somewhere between “in the same spot” and “in whatever similar spot exists after 95 years of league flux, failure, infighting, and intrigue” because there are two giant limiters placed on American soccer clubs: the United States Soccer Federation and the National Collegiate Athletics Association.

In a different country, this year we would start offering our players a stipend. It wouldn’t be a lot, but a per-game stipend would be possible—except USSF only lets you operate a club where you pay players if, among other things, at least 35% of your club is owned by someone with $10 million+ of net worth[25]. While some people on Twitter are certain that I possess extraordinary wealth, I can assure them that, much to my dismay, I do not. Even if USSF relaxed the rules, the NCAA is there to ensure that college players don’t play on the same team as guys who are getting paid. That means that if we want any college players involved, and we do because our mission is to help elevate local talent, then we can’t pay anyone at all.

Our progression could be linear and include player payments that increase as we go. It’s just that it’s not allowed.

A number of our major expenses are, once we reach a certain level, fixed. For example, as our revenue has grown over the years we have added hours for training time. Eventually, though, we don’t need to add any more training time. That cost becomes set and doesn’t vary relative to our revenue.

That means that, once we satisfy the basics, we have budget available to take on new expenses like stipends for coaches–and, if it were allowed, for players.

In the chart above, I assume a basic 25% increase in revenue from 2021 to 2023. So, in 2021 we can afford to spend 11% of revenue on stipends/salaries. In 2022 that moves to 15%. By 2023, that’s 22% and we have a budget of over $55,000[27] for this line item.

Imagine that, as well as regulatory reform,[26] we had a functioning pyramid in this country. A crazy pro/rel wand type of thought, I know, but bear with me for a second.

What if we could grow from our regional summer amateur league into a truly semi-pro extended season league? For sake of example, consider going from a May-July league to a May-October league. We could afford that and would benefit from the extra games, especially if they were against higher profile clubs. That alone, and the revenue that comes from it, would supercharge our growth cycle, allowing us to put even more into the club, and into the people who make the club go: coaches, players, staff. Maybe we hire a full-time general manager. Now we’re getting sustainable!

Assume, for the sake this hypothetical, that we remain successful at the higher level. Our growth continues and we are able to win promotion to the next level up: a fully professional league equivalent to the USSF Division 3 level. Travel is more expensive, but depending on the geography, perhaps offset by the gate from bigger clubs coming to town and the sponsorship boost from being in a professional league. Maybe we stay up, maybe we can’t quite afford to compete and go down, but a progression like that, linear, organic, and possible does not exist in American soccer today.

So instead of a plausible path to professional we are faced with a giant, artificial financial cliff to scale to get to professional.

Like this, but made of net worth requirements and insurance fine print.

We would not go out of business if we were promoted organically to a professional league and then relegated out of it. We would go out of business if we sold to an investor, spent, I dunno, $3 million in a season, and the investor either lost interest or lost money.

The power of a functioning pyramid is that it allows clubs to find their level. Right now, much of what is driving the Soccer Warz league fights at the “Tier Four” level is clubs trying desperately to find a league that gives them competitive, well run, geographically close, opponents. It’s who you play that really matters—they’re the results in the table, they’re the draw for fans, they’re the ones you have to work with behind the scenes, they’re the logos that appear on your schedule.

Right now, the leagues rope together a bunch of clubs at different operational levels and with different visions because they’re desperate for scale. This doesn’t really help the clubs because the mismatch creates friction. Would you like being stuck in a conference with a club that operates on 10X or more of your budget and wins all the time? It’s no better to be the club operating on 1/10th the budget and losing all the time.

It’s hard enough to work positively through the challenges of lower division soccer without also layering on the major mismatches, but soccer in America works the way it works. 🤷‍♂️

 

WHAT’S NEXT FOR THE MIGHTY CROWS

“Stay hungry. Stay foolish.” – Steve Jobs

The upcoming season will be our sixth and, though that qualifies as middle aged in the lower division soccer world, we’re as energetic as a frisky teenager on prom night.

Beginning a new launch sequence

The vision for City is filling the gap between youth club and collegiate/professional soccer with a sustainable, people-powered, community club. With the Futures Program launched, we have the pieces in place to realize that vision for our players. We did it ourselves, all of us, by building slowly, surely, bit-by-bit and dollar-by-dollar to create something that can serve and elevate local players from high school on.

It was harder work, more expensive, and took longer than we thought, but we have the model built out. We have the concept proven on the men’s side.

We believe that we can serve local women and girls with the same model.

From the very beginning of Minneapolis City SC, a women’s team was in our plans–and we talked about it every year in our Annual Member Meeting. It was just a matter of getting the foundation in place so we could execute it, not as an afterthought, but as a core element of the club. Completely equal, and completely awesome.

This year, Members voted to have the club pursue building out a women’s program.

With the sustainable base we have built, we believe now is the time to develop our vision–and put it into action–for how Minneapolis City can serve local women and girls through soccer. We know that it won’t be exactly the same as what we have done before. The women’s game, in terms of infrastructure, club involvement, and other foundational elements, is too different from the men’s game (here in Minnesota, at least) for us to take a cookie cutter approach. As always, we want to be additive to what already exists–and different.

Building a ‘professional ready’ club

That vision will continue to drive us on the men’s side and as a club overall.

Tier Four, where we are now, is a decent but imperfect fit for realizing that vision. Could it be a better fit a level up? We talk regularly about aspiring to be the soccer version of the St. Paul Saints and, as soccer evolves, that could mean we are most comfortable at professional level. Having seen clubs from the NPSL like Detroit City make the leap it’s easy to dream.

It’s impossible to know the future, though, especially in American soccer. Therefore, our ambition is to get to ‘professional ready’ while remaining laser-focused on being the club we set out to be. Both are possible. Getting to ‘professional ready’ is about growth, operational excellence, and being a really fun experience for people who like soccer enough to check us out. We would do that anyway! So it’s more about stating it as our ambition than changing anything.

Did we impress at the investor meeting?

We have been approached by professional leagues and we have been approached by investors. We’ve had great conversations with both. We want to keep the club moving forward, and we will, but we’re going to do it our way. We’re going to do it on our time. We’re going to do it with our people, and community and mission.

It’s all we know how to do.[28]

 


[1] We look at things on a fiscal year basis (and we use the cash accounting method), with the fiscal year running from September 1 to August 31 to give us the best possible snapshot of how we did in a given season.

[2] More than a few in the Upper Midwest. I won’t name them because it’s damn hard to make something like this work and I wish it had worked for them. You can probably find them with Google though.

[3] Like he did when he said that everyone from around here who had tried had failed. There are a few clubs in the Upper Midwest that have lasted a long time. I won’t name them because it’s damn hard to get noticed doing something like this. You can probably find them with Google though.

[4] Locally or otherwise

[5] It’s @mplscitysc and you should give us a follow

[6] The St. Paul Saints, an independent minor league baseball team, has a downtown stadium and averages over 8,000 fans per game, just to give you an idea of what I mean by ‘well-supported minor league sports.’

[7] Dan is Dennis, Adam is Mac, Sarah is Sweet Dee, Bizz is Charlie, Matt is Schmitty, people who cross us are the McPoyle’s, and everyone argues over who is Frank.

[8] We started prepping for the 2016 season in the winter. In Minnesota indoor time is expensive and largely booked by youth clubs that spend hundreds of thousands of dollars booking out entire facilities, leaving scraps and odd times to smaller renters like us. For those first sessions, we played in a far suburb in a dome that was sort of heated and it’s memories like that which make me laugh and wonder how we pulled this all off.

[9] This did not actually happen

[10] Narrator: Luck is not foresight but often looks like it in hindsight.

[12] And the risk, as we have seen over and over again, is that the rich owner loses interest in the team and/or in giving money away to soccer people, many of them rapacious, no-talent assclowns, and folds.

[13] At least one NPSL North team does this and one just hopes, since a lot of eggs are in that one basket, that the sponsor stays supportive as long as they want to keep playing.

[14] Probably more of a ‘fuck yeah’ but I’ve been told by Very Important People in Minnesota SoccerTM that my language offends them, so shrug.gif

[15] She’s incredibly accomplished. She started her first company with my uncle while finishing her MBA at Kellogg. They did well, sold it, and started another. And another. She’s been successful across categories while raising a family and making it all look easy. She also said having an MBA was like being in a club that people outside of the club thought was really valuable but people inside the club thought was expensive. My wife, who also has her MBA, mostly agrees. I just have an English degree though so what the fuck do I know?

[16] All the better to bill you for, my dear

[17] Because if you’re not, copying the leader won’t make you #1. You might avoid blame for trying something novel that your bosses don’t understand though.

[18] And, given how hard this pandemic has been on those whose jobs have been impacted, we are glad that they did and hope that they are able to get to the other end of this okay. It’s a hard time.

[19] And it would get rave reviews on Twitter, lauded for its St Pauli-inspired color, the daring originality of its swirls, and for the fact that Matthew Wolff is so damn good at design he would make it look cool. It’s almost unfair to be so talented, but he is.

[20] Right now one of those vaporware jersey club Twitter accounts is hatching a plan for virtual season tickets and, honestly, it’s not a terrible idea.

[21] Special thanks to Matt vanBenschoten for leading the clean-up efforts and to Sarah Schreier for leading the food pantry.

[22] It’s also validating that competitors are talking shit about it to influencers in the Twin Cities soccer scene. You know you’re arrived at something when your haters feel like they have to trash your initiatives.

[23] Not least because we’ll be able to claim some credit for the inevitable United States World Cup victory powered by a bunch of players who came up through Futures Program-like models.

[24] I haven’t validated this one on the internet, but a friend from the Midlands told me it was true and now it’s on the internet so if we just re-wrote Aston Villa’s history at least we did it together.

[25] And you can’t pay players in a USASA-sanctioned amateur leagues because of insurance issues, as the NPSL Pro (hell yeah, brother) group found out.

[26] I know lol right but this is a hypothetical and in this hypothetical USSF and the NCAA don’t stand in the way of people making a living in sport.

[27] All else being equal, of course, which assumes that we don’t encounter circumstances where we also need to buy more training hours, take a more expensive mode of transportation to away games, etc and so on.

[28] Fact check: false. Adam makes the ultimate enchiladas, Sarah is a Super Mario World savant, Jon won at least one bags tournament in Wisconsin, Matt is a legit marriage therapist, and Dan uses an above average number of footnotes.