Q & A with Atlanta Silverbacks Owner Boris Jerkunica Concerning USOC Venue Sale
IMS contacted the Silverbacks on Thursday and requested an interview with Silverbacks owner Boris Jerkunica in regard to the sale of the team’s 3rd round US Open Cup match. In a press release late Tuesday evening and after the 2nd round games, the USSF announced that both Atlanta and the Minnesota Stars sold their 3rd round home venues to MLS sides, Seattle Sounders and Real Salt Lake respectively.
Silverbacks fans and in particular their supporters groups, Westside 109, Eastside 309, and Atlanta Ultras, were very upset with the organization after the Silverbacks had publicized the game against the Sounders the week previous only to turn around sell the game to the MLS team.
The Silverbacks owner graciously agreed to answer some questions via email:
IMS: When did you become aware of, for lack of a better term at this point and time, the “loop hole or opportunity,” in the USOC bid process that allowed a team to purchase the rights from another team for a home venue and did that weigh into your initial decision to bid for the game for a $12,000 fee?
Jerkunica: The $12K was a no brainer for us to bring an MLS team to Atlanta. We used to bid a slightly higher number in the past under the old system. By the way, I really like the new system because it gives the choice to the economically disadvantaged team. For what it’s worth, I don’t see the scenario that played out this week happening too much in the future between NASL and MLS.
IMS: Word seems to be spreading out of Seattle that this deal between the Silverbacks and the Sounders was actually done and finished on Monday, the day before the Tuesday match between the Silverbacks and the Georgia Revolution. Of course nothing could be announced until Tuesday evening’s results since the NPSL would have had to travel to Seattle if they had won. When was this deal actually initially agreed upon understanding that both teams needed to know what the final result of round 2 was before an actual deal could be struck?
Jerkunica: It was done with 10 minutes to go in the game on Tuesday night. As a matter of fact, our conversations with Seattle didn’t even begin until Monday late afternoon/early evening. We immediately formed a committee to come up with criteria under which we would accept such a deal, while taking into consideration all the negatives and the positives.
IMS: It was also pointed out by some fans that the only two teams to sell their home venue rights were teams that were are partially controlled by Traffic. Minnesota is a league-owned team and Traffic owns (I believe) 51 percent of the Silverbacks. Did you ever contact anyone from Traffic or was this a decision you made on your own?
Jerkunica: Yes, Traffic was kept up to date because it was a material financial decision and a material decision affecting our fans. They were a good sounding board, but ultimately they left the final decision to us. They have been very good partners. I couldn’t be more pleased. It was a coincidence that the two teams have Traffic in common.
IMS: Was this an easy or difficult decision and why?
Jerkunica: It was a tremendously difficult decision for both us and Seattle. Adrian Hanauer, who was negotiating this on the behalf of Seattle, spent many years in our league and had a very good understanding of what this game means emotionally to our fans. We discussed all of this during our talks.
IMS: If you knew on Tuesday what might happen did you considering drafting a statement to your fans and if not why didn’t you? You had to have been aware that supporters would have been upset with the chance to host a team like Seattle that gets a lot of media attention and therefore would have gotten the Silverbacks, and the NASL, plenty of attention both in Atlanta and across the U.S?
Jerkunica: We thought we were hosting up until the final offer that was made. It just happened too fast. We wanted to make sure that our “solutions” were thought out and made sense. We wanted to take the time to get out the message we felt was right.
IMS: To those that follow the league closely it’s obvious what a large sum of money can do for teams in the NASL that as Aaron Davidson, CEO of the NASL, was once quoted as saying, lose between $75K and $1.5 million a year. How did that play into your decision?
Jerkunica: If the team was profitable, I doubt we would have sold the game to the Seattle. And as I said before, I doubt it will happen too much in the future because the NASL finances are improving rapidly.
IMS: Since the Silverbacks have come back to play D2 soccer and have joined the NASL, they seem to have been doing a great job of embracing the community and trying to be more open with them. In fact you had several initiatives in the offseason. The attendance numbers seem to be up, yet the events over the last several days seem to fly in the face of what you were trying to do. You have a great soccer park that seats nearly 5,000 and with this year’s attendance that you would have easily sold out. While you most likely made more money selling the game to Seattle than keeping it, with all the numbers crunched there couldn’t have been that big of a difference in what you made for the team and the publicity the Silverbacks would have gotten for future games? I would have to believe the difference could have been made up with the increased media attention around the Silverbacks in Atlanta. How do you answer those critics and what do you say to the fans of Atlanta soccer (and there seems to be many) who have said that they have never been to a Silverbacks match but were planning on coming out to the Open Cup match to see an MLS team? How do you plan to try to recapture that group of potential fans?
Jerkunica: First of all, thanks for the feedback. We have tried really hard to connect with our various communities. Our fans have been great, and that point exactly is why this decision was very, very hard to make.
The decision was a balance between short term vs. long term gratification. To try to recapture the group of potential new fans, we will putting on an MLS exhibition game. Also, as our appreciation for the fans understanding the decision, the June 16th game will be free. Interestingly, the media hasn’t covered that we’re doing that. The fans on the other hand have noticed, and the demand has been tremendous in the last 48 hours, as requests have been pouring in for the free tickets. We are hopeful that between the free game and the MLS exhibition, we will introduce at least as many new fans to the Silverbacks as the Sounders game would have.
IMS: With the team publicizing the Seattle game what now seems like prematurely, do you have regrets that you did that instead of just saying who you might be playing next like most of the other NASL teams did?
Jerkunica: No regrets on that one. We have made a conscious effort to be open with our fans, which means that we call it as we see it and as it happens. We honestly thought we were going to play Seattle at home. With such a quick turnaround for promoting the game, we wanted to make sure we took advantage of every opportunity to get the word out about the Seattle game, and an exit handout at the Tampa Bay game on the 19th was a logical way to do that. We weren’t approached nor were we aware at that point that Seattle purchasing the hosting rights was even a possibility.
IMS: Supporters of the team felt like the press release sent out later on Wednesday was reaction to the negative feedback from the fans rather than a plan that you had all along since that statement came out after the negative fan reaction. Can you talk about that?
Jerkunica: Actually, everything you see on the press release was put into motion before we finished negotiating with Seattle on Tues. However, since everything happened so fast, we decided not to do the press release late Tues night, but to give ourselves a little bit of time to let our thoughts settle and make sure that what we were proposing made sense.
IMS: One of the things mentioned in the press release was an MLS team coming in for an exhibition match. Wouldn’t that cost a substantial amount of money considering the cost of travel and lodging, not to mention staging the game? Did Seattle guarantee a future appearance at Silverbacks Park?
Jerkunica: Seattle did not guarantee a future appearance and yes, it will cost a substantial amount, but we want to do it for our fans.
IMS: Another thing you promised to fans was a league game free of charge to fans. What do you plan on doing for season ticket holders for that game?
Jerkunica: Honestly, that has been our biggest stumbling block. We try to be as transparent as we can with our fans, so we had some ideas that we passed by the season ticket holders and those were met with mixed feedback. We are in ongoing discussions with our season ticket holders and supporters groups. I’m very confident we’ll figure something out. It’s extremely important to us that they’re happy. Our supporter groups Westside 109, Eastside 309, and Atlanta Ultras have been awesome and we really appreciate them. Some of the guys in Westside 109 have been to every game since the team formed in 1998. That is just tremendous and we really, really appreciate it.
IMS: You have a fairly small roster currently at 23. With the recent addition of Jose Burciaga, how many more additional players are you looking to sign and would they be additions to the roster rather than replacements?
Jerkunica: The coaching staff is looking at this as we speak. I haven’t discussed a concrete plan with them yet, but to answer your question, I think it will be a little of both.
IMS: You have won 4 games in 36 league games in 2 years. The team currently sits in last place with only 4 points and 6 red cards from 8 games. Despite numerous roster and coaching staff changes from last season, the poor results have continued. What do you tell your season-ticket holders who have been extremely patient since the team’s re-introduction last year yet have had to sit through constant poor results?
Jerkunica: The red cards will stop. Our coaching staff is already all over that. As for our record. I’ve got to sit through it too. They’re not alone. I can only say it’s not fun to lose and it will change.