"We are an inclusive club with an open welcome to anyone who wants to be a part of soccer in San Francisco through our model"
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Good morning AP readers! I'm really excited for you to read this interview. I got to speak with three members of San Francisco City FC management, covering what makes the team unique, how supporter ownership works, and whether or not they might have a future in the North American Soccer League. And read all the way to the end for a special video. Check it out.
Photo Courtesy of Shannon Cole
Tell me a little bit about yourselves. Who you are, where you're from, what your roles are with the San Francisco City FC.
Charles Wollin: I am originally from London England, but moved to the Bay Area when I was 10. My parents are Americans and I grew up in Marin County, just on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge. My role within the club is the Vice-President of Communications, meaning I oversee content, website, social media, pr/comms strategy, broadcasting and group sales/membership activation. We wear many many many hats!
Steven Kenyon: I was born and raised in San Diego, but moved to the Bay Area in 2005 for college at UC Berkeley. After graduation from Cal, I picked up a Master's degree in Sport Business from the University of San Francisco. I have been working in sports business for over 10 years primarily in team operations, marketing and sales. I most recently served as the Director of Marketing and Sales for USF Athletics from 2010-2014 before leaving my position (and the country for 5 weeks) to the Brazil 2014 World Cup. It has been SF City full-time ever since, which meant working for no pay throughout the remainder of 2014 and all of 2015 -- we are a very dedicated group! I currently serve as the Vice President of Community Development and oversee our efforts to grow Membership and market the Club.
I last played organized soccer in 4th grade, but found myself enamored with the global conversation around the game throughout college and beyond. I've always wanted to connect my immediate community with bigger communities in authentic ways that generate a positive impact. I gave up on my allegiances to American football after having worked for both a college football and NFL organization and realizing that my values and aspirations no longer aligned with the sport. I definitely see soccer as a global language that allows different demographics to communicate and build something positive beyond the game itself. My goal in life is to change the way people perceive and interact with sports organizations in America, and I am starting with SF City.
When did you first get interested in soccer in general and working in the sport in particular?
CW: I grew up playing it in England and used to attend a weekend clinic with a Jamaican coach named Maurice Jewels. Legend. I've been kicking the ball around since age 5 and have played everything from goalkeeper to striker. I still play to this day for the SF Spikes, which is an LGBT soccer club based in SF, which was founded in 1982. Love to get my run out on a Sunday.
I was interested in working in sports media from a young age. I helped start rec. leagues in high school, did PA for baseball and basketball and was heavily involved in building the student section at the University of Arizona, ZonaZoo. I started ZonaZooTV, the first student section media station on YouTube back in 2007. Upon graduation I worked at the San Jose Earthquakes from 2008-2011, first as an intern, then as a sponsorship and ticket account executive. I've been commentating college soccer since 2009, where I covered the Stanford Women's soccer team. From then on, I've been broadcasting/announcing for theW.tv, Comcast, Street Soccer USA and now SF City FC.
How did SFCFC come to be? Basically, what's the teams 'origin story?'
CW: The team has been around since 2001, when Jonathan Wright founded the club. In late 2013, a random email chain was circulated with subject line "NASL to SF," my best friend and colleague Steven Kenyon (our current VP of Community Development || cc'd) Jacques and Mike Gonos (board member) attended the meeting, where then they decided to continue these meetings in early 2014 in Steven Kenyon's backyard, which a few other voices were included. The decision was made to try to bring all the soccer voices together and take SF City FC up a level to professional status through a supporter owned model! This model is of giving the fans a real voice was crucial in us developing the club in SF. We started selling Memberships in August 2014... We then entered our team in and played in the NorCal Premier League (a regional Northern California league) from 2014-2016, where we qualified for the U.S. Open Cup in 2015... In early 2016, we announced some minority investors had joined our club and that we'd also be joining the PDL this year. We just finished our season at 3rd in the Central Pacific Division at 6-6-2. We have over 8+ Bay Area colleges represented and many players that have been with the side since 2014.
Photo Courtesy of Nap Ba
What sets the SFCFC apart from the other teams in the Bay Area, like the Deltas or East Bay Stompers?
CW: Really good question. SF City FC is a real organic soccer movement. We have been working on this project since late 2013 and there have been many voices involved since Day 1. We have taken our time to unite the soccer forces together under one umbrella since they have been yearning for unity for a long time within San Francisco. We are a supporter-owned club, which sets us apart from most. We are not owned by a sole proprietor or millionaire. 51% of the club is owned by the fans, meaning they have a real voice. They vote on key issues throughout the year and elect a 7 Member board that oversees the non-profit side of the club. We don't sell season tickets or VIP suites, yet we are focused on growing our Membership. When you become a Member of SF City FC, you're not only invited to come to games, you're invited to be a part of our community and social events, of which we do 1-2 per month. For Pride month, we partnered with SF Spikes and went to the AIDS Memorial Grove as part of their monthly clean up, which was an amazing experience for everyone involved.
Lastly, we are an inclusive club with an open welcome to anyone who wants to be a part of soccer in San Francisco through our model. No matter if you're a diehard Arsenal supporter on weekends, Seattle Sounders flag waver, followed the German National team on your study abroad trip, have a deep family connection to the Mexican National squad, your kid plays youth soccer, play on a gay soccer team, in a Street Soccer USA program (a club partner), interested in soccer every 4 years because of a World Cup, or a casual USA or Quakes fan, you have a spot with us! #AllOurWelcome
SK: Charles did a great job responding to this question in regards to diversity, inclusivity, and explaining the business model. I would say that the best part of our Club is the people we have involved. Every single person, from player to president, wants to be involved. No one is here for the money or the fame, instead we are all here because we love San Francisco and the beautiful game for one reason or another. The players love playing for the fans, the staff believes in proving that our supporter ownership can/should/does work in America, and the Members want to be a real part of building the next great SF sports organization. These people are real and the relationships we are building get stronger every day. This Club belongs to the City and we are here to stay.
Your team is currently allowing fan ownership. How does that work for your team, and what's the one big lesson you've learned from it, whether learned from a success or a failure?
CW: The Supporter-ownership model is an exciting prospect within American sports. Most clubs in Europe (Spain and Germany in particular are great examples) use this model. We are always very enthusiastic and fired up about presenting it as one of the biggest parts of our brand! One of the challenges is always going to be communicating effectively what supporter-owned means, why its important to the club and why we are the pioneers in the U.S. trying to do it within such an innovative city such as San Francisco. So far it has been working extremely well, as we've doubled the amount of Members this year from 2015, and are on pace to make it to over 1,000 Members for the year!! Every Member is important from our newest to our first one. It's really about them. Through our passion, energy and love of city, we strive to encourage others to sign-up for just $25 as a Member of the SF City family!
SK: Competing for brand relevancy in an extremely saturated market like San Francisco is very challenging. Supporter ownership allows us to build an authentic community of folks who consciously want to be a part of something bigger than themselves. We are an organization that transcends weekend events, online browsing and chatter, buying and selling goods, opening and closing a storefront... Instead we are a living and thriving community of individuals who, together, make up a strong force of skills, ideas, and aspirations. One big thing I have learned in this process is how valuable human resources are, especially when people are involved for the right reasons and working on something they believe in. Our model of supporter ownership has brought out the best in people involved with the Club. We haven't needed to rely on large advertising budgets when supporters are gladly engaged in grassroots efforts. Our fans are committed to growing supporter ownership in America and this passion cannot be bought.
Photo Courtesy of Nap Ba
Since the Deltas are joining the North American Soccer League next year, what's the next step for SFCFC? Would you still entertain joining the NASL and creating a San Francisco Derby?
Jacques Pelham: With the Deltas joining NASL SF City joining the league as well probably isn't in the cards. We most definitely look forward to playing the Deltas on the field though be it in Open Cup play or in friendly matches.
How was your first year in the Premier Development League? Would you consider it a success?
JP: We're very proud of what we achieved in our first season of PDL and definitely consider it a success. We were competitive on the field all season, our membership and fan base grew, and we provided a great platform for our players to continue their development. Most importantly, the Club was able to continue providing service to the San Francisco community through well attended volunteer events, raising resources for local charities, and raising awareness for local charitable organizations like Best Buddies SF, Street Soccer USA, and America Scores Bay Area.
What are the most important lessons you've learned about running and maintaining a team, both from success and failure?
JP: PDL presents a set of unique challenges in terms of playing a large number a games in a very short season. We carried a very large roster and there were some challenges associated with having players come in and out of the squad, maintaining consistency game to game.
With the compressed schedule (all 7 of our home games were played over a 1.5 month span), it was also challenging to reach folks in the SF Soccer community to get them out to matches and have them engage with the team.
Despite those challenges, we were able to put a professional quality team on the field and put on a great show for everyone who came out to the matches. To our credit, I think we were committed to remaining flexible and learning quickly to keep things moving forward and operate at a level on par with some of the longstanding, most successful PDL clubs.
When it comes to growing the team's membership, what do you typically do to encourage people to become full members?
JP: We were most successful having folks sign on as members with folks signing up at the matches. I think the energy of the matches with the quality of the team, the quality and passion of the Northsiders supporter group and the energy and commitment of the staff was contagious and those things really came together at the matches. We have close to 700 members now and a very large percentage of those folks signed up at a match.
Photo Courtesy of Nap Ba
What is your favorite league and/or team to watch?
CW: SUCH... a hard question! EPL is my jam. I was born in West London, I'm a Chelsea fan, even when the team was not very good and had little to no money to buy players pre-2003. Now it's just nuts what the club has evolved into. Having worked at Charlton Athletic FC in South London during the Pardew years, I have a huge soft spot for the Addicks and Valley Floyd Road (attached photo). My heart goes out to the fans and the supporters going through the turmoil of relegation and very non-transparent ownership. Finally, I worked at the Quakes from 2008-2011 and I'm always tethered to my work experience there and extremely grateful to the club.
Who are your favorite players, one past, one present?
CW: Another really hard one!
Current: Eden Hazard and Johannes Demarzi (SF City's #10)
Past (gotta have 2 here): Zidane, Michael Owen
Are there any books you'd recommend, soccer related or otherwise?
CW: How Soccer Explains the World by Franklin Foer. So many great stories in there about football all over the globe tying us together and humanizing the game.
Would you rather go to a World Cup or the Euros?
CW: I have not been to a Euro, but would love to! I attended and covered the 2014 World Cup in Brazil for 5 weeks. Steven and I went together, one of the best experiences I've ever had. Ever. Do it if you can! Travel is necessary and important. (Attached Photo of Steven and myself)
What would you like to say to the people reading this about why they should get out and support the lower levels of soccer in America?
CW: I think the lower level is just gaining tremendous legs now and running at a canter. There are many cities in this country that are starting to takeoff (some at 35,000 feet already) in building their soccer community, providing opportunity, representing them and allow working people & families to above all enjoy the beautiful game! In terms of SF City, it's a beautiful organic movement. However touched by it you may be, be a part of it, above all else, be you and have your voice heard.
Charles, Steven, Jacques, thanks again for taking the time to do this interview, I really appreciate it. Remember, if you are enjoying the content I'm putting out, I'd encourage you to click here to Follow me on Twitter, or here to Like the page on Facebook. And if you'd like to read these interviews before everyone else, and make sure you aren't missing anything, click here and sign up for the newsletter. You'll be the first to know when articles are released and learn about other exciting content down the road. Make sure to spread the word by sharing these interviews, telling friends about the blog, those kind of things. I can't accomplish my goal of maximum exposure for all levels of the American Soccer Pyramid without YOU. Until next time, Stay Loyal, Support Local.