Notes From Thursday’s Press Conference Concering New National Sports Center Division II Soccer Team
Below you will find a rather long and sometimes abbreviated transcription of last Thursday’s press conference with the National Sports Center (NSC) concerning the non-profit organization fielding a new soccer team for the state of Minnesota. The press and interested parties were able to ask questions to Barclay Kruse, Public Relations Director from NSC, Paul Erickson, Executive Director MN Amateur Sports Commission, and Kris Bjerkness, Chief Administrative Officer NSC, who was calling in from Fort Lauderdale where he was attending the North American Soccer League’s 1st Annual General Meeting.
Again, this runs a bit long, but if you’re interested in what the NSC’s plans are for the future of this team, there is a lot of crucial information in here. It’s not for the faint of heart, but if you’re a supporter of soccer in Minnesota, Division II in the US or Canada, I think you’ll like the plans the executives at the NSC have in mind.
Kruse opened things up by saying that from the NSC’s standpoint this is a very exciting day. We’ve been working on this project for a while…not for years…but for a while, but because of limitations at the national level we were not able to go pubic with this until today. Because the announcement came earlier today announcing the new unified Division II soccer league, we are now free to make the announcement about this new team at the National Sports Center. We could not be more excited to move forward with this new adventure. We think it’s an important day for Minnesota soccer fans, kids, adults, anybody who cares about soccer in Minnesota. We at the NSC are really excited to take a leadership role as we move forward.
I want people to know, we are not millionaire owners. We are in a very unique situation where a non-profit corporation owns the team. The National Sports Center staff, any of them, don’t receive one dollar more for doing this. They are doing this for the love of the game and they know this is an enhancement to soccer in Minnesota. So you are going to find a totally different attitude because our motivation to own and operate a team is different. You’re going to see a lot more openness about how we run this team and what our decisions are for making different decisions. We hope to be a team without any ego. We just want to do something that people find meaningful to grow the sport of soccer.
Paul Erickson, Executive Director MN Amateur Sports Commission
Key points during the hour-long press conference:
Q: Because the NSC is playing in the USL Conference does that mean they are a USL team?
A: Bjerkness- The NSC team will be an NASL team playing in the USL Conference. The teams from each conference will be playing each other. It will basically be a balanced schedule.
Q: Can you speak about Manny Lagos’ position as director of Soccer Operations? Will he be strictly working in the soccer end of things or will he be using his former general manager experience?
A: Bjerkness- We felt it was important to work Manny into things when trying to build this team. Obviously he’s had quite a bit of experience his entire career. He’s played at the highest levels. He’s played in Europe, the US and around the world so we thought he was a good person to add to the team. He will be on the soccer operation side.
A: Bjerkness- We are going to have to make a decision in the next 3 or 4 weeks on a coach. We are going to move as quickly as we can. Obviously we want to take a reasonable amount of time in making a decision on that but that will be one of the earlier decisions we make as we move forward. We are looking at having player combines at the end of January and again in February. That’s pretty consistent with what other teams do. So we are in pretty good shape on that.
Q: In terms of tying into the history of the Thunder, do you have any ways that you will be tying into those teams like the Kicks, the Strikers or the Thunder and their fans?
A: Erickson – We have a lot of respect and admiration for the many years of MN Thunder soccer. We are going to reach out to all of the past fans and personnel that were associated with them. In fact, later this month we will have a Minnesota soccer supporters’ summit where we are inviting representatives of all aspects of Minnesota Soccer including past Thunder supporters.
One thing I will announce right now, which is an example of how we are reaching out, we are stating that any MN Thunder fan that had made a deposit on season tickets for 2010, that we will honor those deposits as season ticket holders for the new team. So we will be doing a number of things like that to really honor the soccer tradition of the Thunder. We hope to see all of them in our stadium with the new team.
Kruse – When we’ve had internal discussions about marketing to different soccer fans/groups within the state, youth, adult, ethnic soccer fans, the answer we always come to is we’re going to try to market to all of them. We have some advantages here (at the NSC) that we don’t think that’s a crazy idea at all. We think we can actually do it. We have some space here where we can do some pregame and during game activities for people of all ages and that’s absolutely our intent. To unite all the groups that care deeply about soccer in this state.
Q: What are you going to do to differentiate yourselves from some of the past teams that have been here in Minnesota?
A: Erickson – The one advantage we have, we are the only owner in the entire division II system that owns all of its own facilities. We also have the largest soccer complex on earth with 4 million annual visitors. Now that we are owners of this team we have the ability to program all the youth soccer tournaments and other facilities and incorporate a professional soccer experience. Now that the owner of the team is the owner of the events, we can do a lot more creative things in building ticket packages into the events to make it a comprehensive soccer event.
Q: Have you had any meetings with supporters groups of the Thunder to bring them into the fold or had feedback from the former Thunder supporters group?
A: Erickson – We’ve made a number of contacts with individuals. On January 21st we are going to have essentially an open house at the National Sport Center. We will have pizza and refreshments and we are inviting those very groups, the Dark Clouds and the very strong fans of the Thunder to come on in and be part of the new team. They can ask any question they want and we will give them some insights on our philosophy.
I want to add that our intent is not that this will be just a one month or a two month process to collect input from the people who are going to care about this team. This is going to be a culture going forward forever with this team. We really do want to make this the fans’ team and have the fans always feel like they have input in the game day experience.
Barclay Kruse, Public Relations Director from NSC
Q: With the addition of Manny Lagos being in charge of soccer operations, will we be seeing a continuation of some of the Thunder players coming back and playing for this new team?
A: Bjerkness- There are a number of ex-Thunder players who I’m sure have an interest in playing for the team. We will take a serious look at all of them. We will also be attending the MLS combine this weekend in Florida. There’s also a good base of players living and training in Minnesota and we will take a look at everybody.
Q: The NASL conference looks tougher than the USL conference. Will playoffs be based on conferences?
A: Bjerkness-That’s to be determined when we are creating the schedules and deciding the playoff structures. We will be talking about that over the course of the next several weeks.
Q: Can you give us more information about the open house you will have?
A: Erickson-It will be Thursday, January 21st at 6:30 with a social half-hour and then a meeting at 7:00. There will be introductions, and hopefully there will be some new developments that we will make announcements about at that time. We are going to organize into tables of 8-10 with an NSC Staff member at each table and everyone can ask questions at that time. We will also have a Q and A time for the entire group.
Q: How many people do you have on staff at the NSC that will be affiliated with the team?
A: Erickson- The NSC has a wealth of staff and we felt many who could make a contribution to the team right away. The NSC has approximately a full time staff of 60, and of those staff about 10 or 12 will have a role with the new team. When we evaluated and studied the staff and personnel of other 2nd division teams, we decided that the only staff we don’t have is: A coach, director of soccer operations who we have already announced earlier, a ticket marketing person, a camp director and perhaps one administrative person. Barclay Kruse will be the communications officer for the team. John Connelly will do all the corporate sponsorships. The NSC has assets that no other organization in the country have and we feel our model could be very advantages to this team.
Q: Will the NSC continue to bring in a big name opponent for an exhibition game like the Thunder did, when the Schwans USA Cup was being held?
A: Erickson- Yes, we will continue to bring in a South American team, a European team — some years we were blessed to have an MLS team come in and play the Thunder. Our goal is to continue to bring in these high level teams to play our new NSC soccer team. We are also interested when appropriate to bring in the US Women’s National Team or the Men’s National development teams to be part of that week. So we are not just limited in bringing in high level teams to play the NSC team, but we’re also interested in bringing in other high level soccer matches.
Q: A lot of clubs these days are partnering with high level clubs from other countries to sponsor them to come to the US in their off season and train. Is that something you’d be interested in?
A: Bjerkness- I think there are some opportunities that are out there but I think this year might be a little short notice to make something like that happen. I’m cautiously optimistic that we could make something like that happen. But our main goal right now is putting this team together.
Q: One of the new additions to your stadium last year was the beer garden. Will that be continued?
A: Erickson-Yes, absolutely! The investments that were made to the stadium will be continued and improved upon. You know as a public facility, and as a pubic agency, we are here to promote sports at all levels. An experience for the Dark Clouds to want to come in and have a beer while enjoying the game is a valid and unique experience. And the Apple Valley U-14 girls team to come up and to sit together in the stands and get an autograph after the game is also a unique and valid experience. We’re a big house and a have a big tent philosophy and hope to have many different sub-groups have a really entertaining and valid experience when they come to the games.
Q: Do you have details on the naming contest on the team?
A: Kruse – We will have a naming contest. We hope to open up voting online as early as next Tuesday the 12th and we will run it for about 2 weeks and carry through the supporters summit.
Erickson-We heard just today that the office of tourism is going to open up their web site to the voting as well.
Q: What have you come up with for a youth academy?
A: Erickson- We will not have an exclusive relationship with any individual club or organization. We are convinced that the team needs to have an equal and open relationship with all soccer clubs in the state. We believe as a non-profit public entity in the big-tent philosophy. We do not believe in exclusivity, we want to be inclusive. So the team can be a motivating force for all soccer clubs.
Q: The USSF created their own Division II league for 2010 but did not say what league will be sanctioned in 2011. What are your expectations for the league as you move past this year to 2011 – 2012 and beyond?
A: Erickson-The NSC made the decision to join the new North American Soccer League. Our hope that the American experience will grow and be more similar to the European experience, that there will be a strong MLS top level soccer and that Division II will be larger and stronger. We owe a debt of gratitude to the Thunder for maintaining high level soccer for many years. I think our continuance of Division II soccer positions us to be in a great place as the league grows.
Q: It’s no secret that some of the Thunder’s former owners have had a problem making ends meet. Do you feel this team is going to be operating this on a shoestring budget or how is this going to work in terms of team finances?
A: Erickson- We believe because we have the assets of the facility and the assets of the staff in place, we can run the team more cost effective. I don’t think we’re going to be a team that has the highest player payroll that a personal owner with deep pockets is going to spend. I think we are going to be in the middle of the pack. I think we are always going to have a program that is well funded and will have the resources to do it right. But we are not going to be Steinbrenner with the Yankees with the highest payroll in the league. We are going to do it the National Sports Center way. We’re proud of the fact that we’ve been able to run the National Sports Center with a 13 million dollar operating budget and we’ve operated in the black since we’ve opened the doors back in 1989. We have almost 100 different programs. Our philosophy is that every program needs to make sense financially or it won’t hang around. Whether it’s a youth soccer tournament or a league, they have to be priced to cover their expenses and to provide a good product for the customer. We’re going to provide that same philosophy to the team. We’re going to put a quality team on the field and were going to take the resources to make it break even. It’s got to perform like every other program at the Sports Center.
Q: Are you concerned that this team isn’t going to break even?
A: Erickson-We are really going forward with the plan that this team will break even. Can you accomplish that in year one? Maybe not, maybe it will take a couple of years to get that done.
Kruse – We would not have embarked on this with confidence if we were not convinced that we could embark on this with financial integrity.
There are two things, significant things, that have happened here in the last year to show the maturation of the NSC and it’s facilities. One of them is today’s announcement of the new pro soccer team. The other is the selection as the host to the Women’s Olympic Hockey team. Both of these take us into a completely different place in the Minnesota sports market place. These are both things we are very, very excited about and very proud of actually. The NSC is in a great place and people here are really pumped up about the new adventures.
Q: What are your visions for marketing this team?
A: Erickson- We’ve identified 17 different stakeholder groups who would have an interest to attend a game. They range from youth soccer to adult soccer, college teams, high school teams… our strategy is very much like how we have marketed the facility. We have a different marketing plan for visitors who come to our 10 different youth soccer tournaments each year. We have a different marketing strategy for the Dark Clouds/the hard core soccer fans. Are we going to be on major television and radio? Not likely, because the way we market all of our properties is to identify the market and then do direct mail or the new media, the social media, but to really manage good lists and communicate directly with those stakeholder groups through direct mail and email and sometimes telemarketing. That’s going to be the most cost effective way for us to build an audience.
Q: A trend has been for professional teams to establish partnerships with international clubs. Does NSC have that type of goal at any point?
A: Erickson- A number of National Sports Center models have been modeled after European models. Kris and I have been to Scandinavia 40 times and we have a very strong [connection] with Scandinavia. We’ve gotten teams to our tournaments for many years. We have a goal to establish a formal relationship with a Scandinavian soccer organization. We’ve been in contact with them since we have made this venture to get the team. We are not prepared to make any announcement yet. As we know there are several clubs in Division II who have formal ties with European soccer organizations. We think that’s a great idea and we intended to use our strengths with Scandinavian soccer connections to accomplish that.