Each year, a bevy of new clubs spring up in the lower divisions of American soccer. A few of them are successful and endure, but most of them survive for just a year or two (or less) before folding. In most instances, these clubs fail to attract a significant following and are therefore unable to sustain themselves due to weak revenue streams. From what I’ve observed, these “one-and-dones” tend to drop the ball in two specific areas: branding and marketing.
That may sound a little vague and you’re probably wondering exactly what I mean. Not to worry, for I will cover these and other topics in…
HOW TO BUILD A SOCCER CLUB: A Handy Dandy Guide for Prospective NPSL Owners
This guide is primarily geared towards those looking to start clubs at the 4th division level, but I think many of the ideas are equally applicable to USL Pro, NASL, and MLS.
I will be referencing Detroit City FC quite a bit since it’s obviously the club I’m most familiar with, and it just so happens to be one of the most successful franchises in the lower leagues.
These ideas are open-source, but once you apply them and go on to found the next great American soccer success story, I hope you will remember me and throw a few dollars my way (HINT: click the Donate link at the top of the page).
Disclaimer #1: I have zero business and marketing/advertising experience. Everything below is based solely on my observations, opinions, and what I deem to be common sense.
Disclaimer #2: This guide is by no means definitive. Starting a club and paying the expansion fee obviously requires an initial investment. I can’t tell you how or where to get that money, you gotta figure that one out for yourself. Same goes for finding sponsors, researching your league’s regulations and membership requirements, et cetera, et cetera.
Chapter I: Branding
The branding of your club, specifically its name and crest, is crucial, and will determine your initial success. For me personally, if the owners of Detroit City FC had named their club Detroit Motor or something along those lines, I would have dismissed them as just another run-of-the-mill minor-league operation and immediately forgotten about them. The name, crest, and scarf are what made me purchase season tickets and got me in the door, and the atmosphere and professionalism with which the club was run made me into a supporter. The bottom line is this: if you run your club like a double-A baseball team, people will treat it as such. If you run it like a first-class organization with real aspirations, people will treat it as such.
Your name is your identity, and it (along with your crest) will be the most important decision you will make about your new club. Some guidelines:
(1) Simplicity is a virtue. It’s tough to go wrong with “_____ United,” “_____ City,” or just plain old “_____ FC.” If you’d like to be a bit more creative, try to incorporate a geographic or historic aspect of your city or state in the name of your club. Some examples: Seattle Sounders (reference to Puget Sound), Sacramento Republic (reference to the State Flag of California and the city’s status as state capital), Bethlehem Steel F.C. (reference to the Pennsylvania steel industry).
(2) Avoid cheesy/meaningless nicknames. This is highly subjective, but here’s a general rule of thumb I came up with: If your club either sounds like it could be on Matador, or it could be a minor league baseball team, you need a new name. Some examples: Richmond Kickers, Fort Lauderdale Strikers, Las Vegas Mobsters, San Francisco Stompers, Hollywood United Hitmen. No, I did not make any of those up.
(3) Other do’s and don’ts:
– Stay away from “Real _____” unless you are located in an area which happens to be ruled by a monarch.
– Use “football” instead of “futbol.” Most people can figure out which sport “FC” refers to; they don’t need you to point it out for them
– On that note, I would go with “FC” over “SC.” This is the cause of endless debate, and some may disagree, but I think “FC” flows off the tongue more easily, plus you can avoid the wrath of the insufferable subset of Brits who want to outlaw the word “soccer,” in spite of the fact that their forebears invented the term and used it for nearly two decades before “football” became widely used.
– Finally, don’t call your club “_____ City” if your “city” is actually a town or municipality of a few thousand people. Maybe take a cue from the English lower divisions and name your club: “_____ Town.”
Bonus Tip: Once you choose a name, stick with it. Nothing plays into the hands of rival supporters more than changing the name of your club before you’ve even played a game (especially when you do it multiple times). If you need to rebrand after only a month or two, you messed up somewhere along the line.
I will start by saying this: DO NOT PUT A CARTOON SOCCER BALL IN YOUR CREST. The cartoon soccer ball is the epitome of minor-league, second-rate chintzyness. If you feel the need to put a soccer ball somewhere, go with an old-school style and make sure it’s a minor feature rather than the primary focus of attention.
Also, stars should only be put above the crest to signify a championship of some sort. Case in point:
I’m a fan of the USMNT and USWNT, but that crest is just brutal. You’d think a three-time World Cup champion would be able to come up with something a little classier.
Get it, because three stars… Okay, moving on.
In my opinion, the best route is to go with a recognizable local feature or landmark. You could also opt for something more basic, featuring only your name and colors, and possibly your year of founding. Whichever way you choose, professionalism is the key (are you starting to see a trend?). Paying a little money to a graphic designer to help you out would likely be a sound investment.
Examples of what to do:
Minnesota United’s crest features a loon, the state bird of Minnesota, and has drawn near-universal approval from the American soccer community.
The name “Eleven” references the eleven men who will take to the field representing Indiana and also pays homage to Indiana’s 11th Regiment Indiana Infantry in the American Civil War, while the navy colored checkered background is a nod to both Indianapolis’ auto-racing culture and the Brickyard Battalion supporters group which is often credited to bringing pro soccer back in Indianapolis. Lady Victory from the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ monument is the focal point of the crest. The color scheme is the same as that of the civic flag of Indianapolis.
Examples of what NOT to do:
Cartoon soccer ball smashing glass or something. Three different fonts. Amateurish look and feel
Cartoon soccer ball. Soooo many stars. That’s a lot of championships for a team that was founded in 2012.
Tulsa’s official colors are green and yellow, yet their crest is a hot pink mess that looks like the logo for a medieval-themed strip club.
Yes that is a real thing. And while we’re at it, let’s take a look at where Eau Claire finished this past season:
And here are a few more duds, to make sure you get the idea.
If your crest looks like clipart, throw it away and start over.
You have a good deal of freedom in this area. It would be smart to avoid the same color scheme of other local teams, regardless of the sport, to help you establish your own identity. Also, I would keep away from the colors of a local team’s rival. For example, it would be dumb to start a club in Columbus, Ohio and choose the colors maize and blue.
When in doubt, remember anything goes with white or black.
“Dress for the job you want, not for the job you have,” while cliché, definitely applies here. Just as a professional look is essential when designing a crest, it’s equally important when outfitting your players. Jerseys that look like t-shirts with iron-on numbers are unacceptable. Uniforms that look more appropriate for a high school team are unacceptable. Get something that wouldn’t look out of place in a professional league.
Coming tomorrow: In Part Two, I will discuss supporters vs. soccer moms, give you a crash course in social media, and more!