"A good problem I don’t remember ever having!"
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Hello, hello, AP readers! We've got another exciting interview for you today from a Bay State Soccer League club. This interview was cool, because Ramin and Derek both took the time to speak with AP about the team and the importance of marketing, finding sponsors, and generally working your hardest to create the best team possible. Fair warning, Derek goes of some crazy story telling, so be prepared to find out a lot about Sports Identity FC. Check it out.
Tell me a little about yourselves. Who you are, where you're from, and what your roles are with Sports Identity FC.
My name is Ramin Sabouri (go by Remi) from Melrose, MA. I work in digital marketing in Boston and am currently a grad student as well. One of SIFCs former players introduced me to Derek in 2009 and got me an internship with Derek's company, Sports Identity. Derek kept tabs on me while I was in college at UMass and finally brought me on in 2012. I was promoted to manager in 2014 to work with Derek as the team transitioned from Rock Point.
Derek and I are also from the same town in MA. The guy who introduced me to him played for SIFC and was a varsity soccer coach of mine in high school and grew up with Derek as well. All a small world.
What's the origin story behind the team?
Derek: The team started in 2000 as Que Pasa in Division 4 (the first year the BSSL started)
The team was formed by a bunch of guys from Melrose and neighboring Middlesex County towns like Stoneham and Burlington (these are guys that coached Remi as he mentioned). I grew up playing with or against most of them.
I graduated college in the Spring of 2001. I went to St. Michael’s College in Burlington Vermont and played soccer there as well. After spending about 7 extra months up in Burlington (amazing place), I finally reluctantly moved back to Melrose.
I joined up with the Que Pasa team in late Fall 2002. But then playing indoor over the winter I tore my ACL. So I was pretty much out all of 2003. I made my return to the team in 2004 where they were now in Division 2 having missed promotion to D1 by one spot the prior season.
When I returned, I brought along some guys with whom I played ODP and college ball. We went on to finally win the Division 2 title in 2004. The 2005 season in Division 1 was a big difference and we got relegated back to Division 2. Back then, there wasn’t as much parity. The league today has evolved to probably one of the best in the state. I don’t just say this with bias. I’m a high level referee and I work games in every league. Anyway, back then Division 1 was the elite teams and you had to have a fully committed team to make a run.
Now back in Division 2 to start the 2006 campaign we had made some changes. Many of the guys that started the team were ready to step aside and let us rebuild with a new crop of youth. This was the year we made a name change as well. I had started my own sports marketing company in 2003 and by this time we were doing pretty well. So one of my buddies on the team said “hey Derek, why don’t you buy us new uniforms and we’ll call the team Sports Identity”. I said as long as we don’t make my company look bad! We went on to gain promotion back up to Division 1 that season under our new name and look.
With a revamped squad we went on a 3 year run in Division 1. We spent the following 3 years (2010, 2011, 2012) in Division 2. Over that time we started to show some age and in 2013 we were back into Division 3.
As the BSSL has developed into the league that it is, you have to be constantly bringing in new young talent. If you fail to do that and stick with your buddies, you’ll just keep dropping and eventually fold. I’ll touch on other teams in a bit as there are great rivalries and teams still in the league now that started when we did. So falling to D3 can be the death of a team. Now for guys just coming out of college, if they can round up enough players they start their own teams and begin their journey in the league in Division 3. If it’s just a few guys, they tend to get recruited by many teams and the idea of playing in Division 3 isn’t that appealing if they have other options. The key is to lock up one or two young guys and as they integrate into the squad they start bringing their college and club buddies along.
Luckily we were able to bring in some talent and in 2013 we won the Division 3 North Title. Here’s the problem though. In 2013 the league changed the format from 4 divisions to three divisions, with division 3 broken up into north and south. The reasoning was sound and it’s made a huge difference in the development of the league the past 4 years as it was tough to recruit new teams knowing they had to begin at the bottom. And our season consists of both Spring and Fall so it would take 3 years for a team to get to Division 1. But there was a big glitch that we found out at the end of the season.
The format was for the top two teams in the north divisions and top two teams in the south division compete in a 2 game aggregate playoff to see which two teams got promoted. We were the top seed in D3 North and we played the 2nd seed in the South division. So like I said, we won the Division 3 North title. and we actually clinched it with 3 games remaining in the season. So we didn’t really keep our foot on the gas and guys took games off and enjoyed their weekends and what not. So the regular season ended. Then there was a built in weekend for makeup games. At this point, heading into the first game of the playoff tie, we essentially hadn’t played a meaningful game in 5 full weeks. We came out flat and got beat by 3 goals. We won the second leg 3-1 but lost on aggregate and therefore got stuck in Division 3 for another season. At the annual league meeting where they give out the awards and vote on rule changes, it was so awkward. They called us up to get our trophy for winning the Title and then the next topic was how everyone felt about the format. At this point everyone realized what the problem was. At that meeting the league voted to change the Division 3 promotion format so that the winners of both North and South automatically got promoted. So two teams go up and the 2 bottom teams come down from Division 2. But to keep it interesting in D3 what they did was create a playoff where the two 2nd place D3 teams had their playoffs against the 7th and 8th place D2 teams. Creating the possibility of 4 teams changed divisions.
So while it did suck to spend another season in Division 3, in hindsight it might have been the best thing for us. We had started to build a solid core of new players, but we weren’t quite ready for a strong run in Division 2 and we might have fallen right back down. For the 2014 season we continued to add talent and we finally got promoted to Division 2 via the playoff taking out the 8th place D2 team.
2015 was really a big turning point for us. We made tough decisions and had to let some guys go that had been on the team for a long time. Many of my friends actually. But fortunately, I keep myself in shape and I was still able to play at the level needed. I tell Remi that he will be the one to tell me when I got to step aside!
We had ups and downs in 2015, including a revolving door of keepers or defenders playing keeper! But we held our ground and finished in the safe zone.
That brings us to this past season. With Remi taking on more responsibility as a manager, it really made a huge difference when making decision of letting guys go. Remi did an amazing job recruiting. He was reaching out to random players and going down to the field to see how they performed during pickup.
We solved our keeper situation and actually finished the season with 3 top quality goalies. A good problem I don’t remember ever having!
We started the 2016 campaign off fairly well. We had a win and 2 ties before heading into the first round of the League Cup. Unfortunately we drew the best team in the entire 40 team league - GPS Omens. GPS actually went on to have an unprecedented undefeated BSSL season. But we came out strong in the Cup game. It was actually 1-1 at the half.
But then the second half is when our season started to go into a tailspin. We didn’t have many subs that day and then I tore my other ACL. We ended up losing the Cup game 3-1. A strong showing against the best team in the league. Unfortunately, we went the remaining 6 games of the spring without a win. I joked almost every game with the guys that we were undefeated all the way up until I tore my ACL. I wasn’t say I was the reason, but I was just saying! Guys hated hearing it. And I was going to keep saying it until we turned it around.
So during the summer break, the core group of about 5 of us had a meeting and made some tough decisions. We had a really full roster. So many players that it was detrimental during the games because everyone wanted playing time. I actually tracked back over the preview 3-4 seasons and noticed that we did not win a game if we had 17 or more players show up to a game. It wasn’t because the talent wasn’t there, it was more so that we had guys that weren’t team players. They’d complain about playing time, or they’d show up late, or show up even though they didn’t respond saying they’d be there. So we ended up trimming the roster. We let go of about 3 guys with real talent but just didn’t fit in with the team. And then we also moved about 5 guys to our reserves list that we could call if we knew we’d be shorthanded.
Then we added a former player that just moved back to Massachusetts. Our enforcer at defensive center mid. And Remi somehow managed to sign a player from England before he even moved here! And he turned out to be a big missing link on the defensive right flank where we like to attack from.
To make the transformation complete, Remi secured us a sponsor that paid us a large amount of money that got us 2 full home and away kits - probably the best looking kits in the league!
This transformation changed everything. Every guy was in it for the team. We didn’t have “as much” complaining about playing time and we had versatility in personnel. The guys we kept for the most part can play at least 2 or 3 different positions and different formations. Which is a huge asset given a slimmer roster. But the guys we kept were the guys that showed up week after week and showed up for training. We started to gel and went on to have one of the best records in the division during the fall. In 11 games (including 2 playoff games) we only lost twice. We found our core and we found our formula.
And happily I was finally able to shut up about not winning without me. While it sucked to not be able to play (and not be able to Ref as well which is a whole other story) I showed up to every single game and I think I enjoyed this season as much as I’ve enjoyed any season as part of this team. It made a huge difference having someone there that wasn’t playing and being able to see the game clearly, make changes and keep subs rotating smoothly. I loved seeing the new guys gel and become a really strong team. To put it into context, if we had the same record in the spring as we did in the fall, we’d be starting next season in Division 1. I don’t know what the future holds for me as a player, but I do know I’ll still be involved because I love this team. At our end of season awards banquet, Remi gave me the equipment manager / physio of the year award since I was the one washing the kits every week, taping ankles, stretching guys out, etc.
Even though I’m feeling strong and already getting back onto the pitch, I’ll be turning 38 in March. So with all our young studs, there definitely won’t be too many minutes for a “veteran” with two surgically repaired knees! But i do know I will get myself onto the pitch at some point because I need to get a chance to wear our gorgeous new kits and pull on my #10 shirt at least a few more times!
With everything in place and two new additions coming on board for next year, we’ve assembled probably the best team we’ve had since 2007/2008. We’re primed for a run back to Division 1 and hopefully a nice long stretch in the League Cup.
And before I forget, I mentioned how this league has other teams that have been around as long as we have. There are some great rivalries that go all the way back to the early 2000’s. And what makes some of those rivalries interesting is that they’ve gone through similar transitions over time. So it actually seems like we’re always in the same division. Some of them have changed names as well, some have fall so far down or even out of the league. And there are a few that have managed to stay ahead of the recruiting curve and hang in Division 1 for 6, 7 or 8 years.
Tell a little about the league you are in, the Bay State Soccer League?
Derek: The league is definitely the best amateur men’s league in the state. And I hate when people troll and call it a rec league. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. Teams from the BSSL have made runs in the US Open Cup, we had a team win the US National Amateur Cup (the championship game in Chicago was actually televised on Fox Sports).
To add one last piece before I leave it to you to ask questions… Social media has made the league even more exciting. Every team is updating, the league is posting it on the site. We have friendly banter with teams, sometimes there’s a little hostility. But it’s great for the league.
This question is for Remi. As manager, what do your responsibilities as a manager normally look like?
Remi: So my responsibilities as a manager start with roster management (recruiting, player relations, cuts, just overall team management). This is something I took over from Derek in 2013, and I took it upon myself to bring in buddies of mine, proven at different levels (college, club) and use that as a basis to build the new core. Together, Derek and plan in the few days leading up to match day the tactical sheet (yes, we make an actual PDF) with a game plan based on the studies I do on other teams (I go out of my way to learn about other team’s threats, formations, etc.). Derek does a great job doing the in game tactics, changes, etc. We also work together on team finances/budgeting as well as kits, equipment, etc. Sponsor relations: I manage the relationship with our current sponsor (McGreevy’s) and prospective relationships. I used twitter to reach out to as many prospects (typical sales tactic) until I found someone interested. Social Media: I manage our Twitter but oversee pretty much all the social streams.
Something important for us is really build a type of interaction between not just amateur clubs in our league, but across the country. We talk with, follow the action from other leagues in the country from areas like in California. We even started a “poster” competition with club out in California, Get Better FC and developed great relationships with teams in our league (Providence City FC – I know you worked with Rego on the other piece and Washington Square FC – recently promoted to our division). We even organized a mini preseason tourney for all of us! The whole social scene is something that was not around in the past, and we feel growing it for the lower leagues is important for the progression the game in this country. This type of support goes a long way between clubs, even between the occasional trash talking and banter!
Either one of you can answer this question. As the team grows, are there any ways you feel limited in how big you can grow your club?
Remi: On a personal level, work/life (and grad school for me now) is always something that limits me on doing more. Any free time I have goes back into the club, looking for business opportunities, scrimmages, indoor facilities, player moves, anything that will help us compete at a higher level. Looking at the team itself, I think we are limited by the funding/attention that goes into the regional/local game. I wish there was more of a tie to all the clubs in New England, a system in place to all play in a league setting (not just the Open Cup, etc.), with funded travel, home fields, etc. I think that would be pretty cool and a goal that should be in place for all teams. But for us specifically, I want us to be a staple adult soccer program, and hopefully lead to the creation of a full club (with youth). You can combine what I said with whatever Derek adds in as well if you want.
Alright. I had a reader request that I start asking questions seeking practical solutions. Seeing as you are not the first team in your region to mention a desire for a higher level league, what are a few practical steps you think your team and the leagues around you could take to create a larger regional structure?
Remi: As a team, an initial step we can take is continue to instill the professional, club-level focus that has been around since SIFC began. As more and more local teams catch on and begin treating their squads the same way (as I think people are starting to see with our presence across the various new media outlets – through sponsorships, player signings, year-round training, etc.), I think that’s when more businesses will get involved, creating more of a scene for the amateur game with the added funding and more exposure locally. Those teams with the leadership in place to make this happen have the potential to garner that type of attention. Once that base is established, that’s when I think serious clubs from other leagues can use social media, our own networks, etc. to make more of a regional structure. It takes more effort than most know to run just a single club, but in order to take it to the next level, there has to be the same type of commitment and constant communication from all teams that want the larger regional structure.
Derek: I do want to point out that Mass Soccer (the new name for Massachusetts Adult Soccer Association) has in the past couple years been working on building out a state level Cup if you will. It has included the champions from the top division of each of the primary leagues in Mass as well as the Cup champions for each of those leagues. So right now it’s an 8 team mini tournament. I believe as they grow it, there’s an opportunity to branch out regionally. But this is something that will need resources behind it. My background is in Sports Marketing and Remi and I talk all the time about ways to create new opportunities for grassroots soccer. It’s been something we’ve started discussing more frequently now that the BSSL has began to grow its social presence.
As a team that uses social media quite a bit compared to most amateur teams, how important is social media for a team at this level to generate interest and gain a following?
Remi: Massive. The role of social media has helped us, the BSSL and all local amateur soccer grow. We’ve had some friends of our players all of a sudden think they have signed professional contracts after seeing a “poster” of them from our Facebook/Twitter/Instagram. With no marketing budget, we lean on social media to not just generate the interest in us, but help spark relationships with other clubs both in BSSL and across the nation. Without it, clubs would not have a reason to push each one another to get better and ultimately grow the amateur game. While it also helps that we have Derek’s graphic design and marketing expertise from running his own business, the role social media plays is something that keeps us going, motivates us to keep exploring new ways to grow the club and hopefully open up more opportunity for us to recruit both players and sponsors and set the ceiling higher for our growth.
We actually signed a player from a BSSL Division 1 side not too long ago, and our social media presence was actually part of that discussion. He recognized us all over Twitter and our league’s website. We even made the signing announcement on Twitter at the same time as the likes of NY Cosmos and Tampa Bay Rowdies! Just really, really cool stuff that the power of new media has in our day and age and what it can do for amateur soccer both here and around the nation.
Derek: I'd say it's very important. as I mentioned before, recruiting new players to stay competitive is very important, and one piece of that is how the organization is run and appears.
But also since this is an amateur league, we all pay to play. Having a sponsor that covers costs of kits, fields, etc. makes a big difference in getting quality players as well as being able to run the team in a smart way (i.e. sometimes guys won't get as much playing time as they would like) so with sponsor dollars, there is less complaining by guys saying they paid as much as anyone else.
So having a social media presence is huge for us. our sponsor this year was tagged in every post. Their logo was on every graphic/poster we created. Not only were they getting impressions from our social media, but the league retweets and posts each team's stuff on the league home page, so that's extra exposure, and add to that each other team reposting as well.
Remi has done an awesome job at building our following and whenever I create a visual, I make sure our sponsors are included as well. Gives them real exposure and gives everyone more creditability. Sponsorship was never a huge thing in the league. Sometimes guys would get maybe $500 bucks or something, but with social media, they're willing to up the ante.
And more and more teams are jumping into the game. This money allows us to spend on paying for fields to train on during the week rather than having to hope there is open space. This makes us better. the money helps us get into more tournaments, etc. And don't forget to add it what they are getting in return in terms of your marketing expertise too!
You guys seem to do a really good job of getting sponsors. What are two or three things that other teams reading this could use to step up their own game when it comes to approaching and securing sponsors?
Remi: A couple things I'd recommend doing include leveraging the power of twitter. A quick way to engage with popular brands in the area. It takes a while and I can't even give a number on the places I reached out to. But once I was able to land the meeting, selling the growth of our team, league and just soccer locally got them on board.
My other way could be to leverage the relationships of the players themselves. We all have our own networks and it can open large doors for club growth. Can't go into much now, but we are working on acquiring a second sponsor through a connection of one of our guys.
Derek: Sure... having spent my career in the sports business I've met a lot of people and one thing I've learned, especially since the recession is that brands want and need a grassroots level presence.
A good friend of mine owns a well-known restaurant, and he loves sports. He's come to tons of events I’ve produced and we're putting together a pitch to him to become our training sponsor. Think how AON is the training gear sponsor for Manchester United while Chevy is their kit sponsors. Honestly, I think Chevy is killing themselves by using the multi-color logo on the kits. It just doesn’t look clean. they should use one color like AON always did with MUFC.
After getting awesome kits last season (that no player had to pay for - which is huge because guys don't keep them and then we have a shortage of kits in a year or two) this year we want full warm ups. which can be pretty expensive. so a new sponsor will hopefully cover that and allow us to keep player dues to a minimum. It's not just about giving the sponsor exposure. we try to become a partner with them. With McGreevy's, they wanted to become a host bar for watching EPL games. We tried to get them going last year but they had an issue opening early. Now they're open to the idea and rather than bringing in one team fan group we're helping them build an entire marketing initiative to be the spot to watch any EPL game.
Nice! Why do you think so many non-league teams struggle with reaching out or properly utilizing their networks?
Derek: I think it's a few reasons.... it's a lot of work just to manage the team. From securing fields, coordinating referees, making sure players are registered, roster management, collecting dues, going to the league meeting every year. (which neither Remi or I could make last night so to avoid $100 fine one of our guys stepped up and sat there for 3+ hours) With so much to do just to get a team on the pitch every Saturday it's basically a part time job! So for some managers and teams, it's easier just to collect dues to cover everything. And it comes down to how competitive you want to be. Nobody wants to get stuck in the bottom division because there is a large gap in talent and commitment. Some teams fold mid-season due to lack of players showing up or just getting crushed every week. So keeping a team together in D3 is even more work, but all new teams have to start at the bottom and the ones that are organized and commitment usually rise fairly quickly.
Honestly, since I first had my company sponsor the team in 2006 to buy the uniforms, we haven’t had a legit sponsor since. But the league has changed and the competition is stronger.
Remi just found out (still need to confirm) that the BSSL is considered a USASA Elite League. Never heard of that before. Waiting for the league to confirm that one.
Do you think a lot of teams would be helped if someone or some company did the work of securing sponsors for them? Or would getting some help from the league be enough?
Remi: each team has to do it themselves. it's a personal thing. you have to have a connection with the sponsor. most sponsors are bars or restaurants and teams make an effort to go there after games. the league doesn't have time to help the teams and there's not enough money in it for someone/company to do the job for them.
You make a good point. Do you think some of it is also just being afraid to ask and get turned down? Working in sales, I know that's always the big fear when pursuing new clients.
Remi: I don't think it's a matter of being afraid, more so just having the time and desire to pursue and essentially "fill the funnel" with prospects and go through the process. You know all about it I am sure!
Oh I know all about filling the funnel. Since this has been coming up among teams in the north east consistently, what are your thoughts on their being a larger, regional competition? Can it be done, should it be done, are there practical steps to make it happen?
Derek: I think the steps are being taken for sure. As I mentioned before. We have the mass tournament of champions. That could easily lead to a bigger tournament if states like Rhode Island CT New Hampshire etc. do the same. Some of our leagues in Mass have teams from this states too. So a regional tournament is possible. It's all about who has the time to make it happen as a hobby essentially during the early years.
Remi: I have nothing to add here, D and I have similar thoughts on this.
Alright. What's your favorite league and or team to watch for fun?
Remi: Derek will say Man U, but for me I am just a fan of the EPL in general. Don't really have a team, but Spurs if I had to choose.
Band Wagoner. I'll count that and we'll move on to the next one. Favorite soccer players, one past, one present.
Remi: I lived with a Spurs die-hard in college for 3 years so I follow them but I'm no fan.
My two favorites: Current - Andres Iniesta - for his playing making ability. Past - Ali Daei - the striker I grew up watching and tried to mimic as a kid.
Derek: Yes, I'm a United Fan.
Favorite players. Present I'd say Rooney at the moment. Because of how he's conducted himself and has understood where he is in his career and how he has had to adapt to a new role and even a change in style of play.
He's had his moments with United supporters wanting away from the club complaining etc. but he's followed suit in true united fashion of the likes of Giggs.
I guess I relate in a way because as I've gotten older I've had to change my playing style. I used to be a goal scorer playing up top when I came into this team but have adapted to a more calmer simplistic style of play.
Former player...Rather than some obvious choices I think I might stick Stateside and say Cobi Jones. When I was a kid playing ODP he was one of the USMNT players that really brought them to the forefront. He was exciting to watch but he was reliable and versatile. Reliability and versatility are two of the primary traits that Remi and I have rebuilt out team around.
Do you guys have any books or podcasts, soccer related or otherwise, that you would recommend to the people reading this?
Remi: Derek is on this one.
Derek: Not soccer related but one of my favorite (non-business) book is "All Souls" by Michael Patrick MacDonald. If anyone in our league hasn't read it, they need too as the story is based on a family from South Boston. Everyone else should too.
My favorite business book is by far "Nothing to lose, Everything to gain - How I went from gang member to multimillionaire entrepreneur" by Ryan Blair. I carry this book in my bag everywhere I go. It's inspirational from any standpoint.
From a soccer perspective there's only one book I keep with me at all times! IFAB Laws of the Game. And I have to read it often. I do think players should be more familiarized with the laws. It's a disadvantage not to know them to be honest.
Good suggestions. What would you rather attend, the Euros, AFC Nations Cup, or World Cup?
Remi: Euros for me!
Derek: World Cup for me.
You get to meet one person from soccer history, regardless of era. Who do you meet?
Remi: Zlatan Ibrahimović - having a meal/drink with him would be the coolest experience! although i could end up getting kicked in the head or something (look up him kicking Antonio Cassano)
Derek: Sir Alex! Although I don't like meeting people I am a fan of. It never turns out well. That's why I have never done business in soccer. I used to love other sports. But I know too much now!
How would you answer someone asking you why they should get out and support their local soccer team, like Sports Identity FC?
Derek: Because if you're a real supporter of the pro/rel movement support needs to begin at the lower tiers of the pyramid. In our league there are teams that can compete with NPSL teams. But the cash barrier to entry prohibits real opportunity for talent to emerge. Once it becomes a game of who will pony up the most money the system breaks down. At that point once large investments are made, the goal of the club is to get to MLS as fast as possible. If support is shown down the ranks, and promotion is an option, non-league teams will have a chance to develop organically.
Organic development ensures the team is in the right mindset and has the right leadership to continue building. Versus a club just forming for the sake of jumping into a semi pro league and holding tryouts etc. Those teams are starting from complete scratch. That's a recipe for failure 9 times out of 10
Remi: Nothing to add, D nailed it.
Derek, Remi, thanks again for taking the time to do this. Remember, if you are enjoying the weekly content coming out on AP you can Follow AP on Twitter, or Like AP on Facebook. And if you want make sure you never miss an interview, and want to read articles before everyone else, 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.
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