My local team is now the Cincinnati Saints, who play in the NPSL and the WPSL. What is it like in the lower leagues in America in 2015? This is their story, or at least a part of it.
I exchanged e-mails with David Satterwhite, President and CEO of the Saints, and Tom Andrews of the Saints supporters group, the Seven Hills Crusaders. They both turned out to be illuminating and insightful, so most of this post will feature their thoughts. While you may not be interested in the Saints, a lot of this is being played out at your local lower league club as we speak. What's happening these days, I believe, is worth your time.
So if this seems like an extended ad for the Saints, it's really an extended ad for lower league soccer in the US and Canada. Your mileage may vary.
Also, I had started this little project before Wrong Side of the Pond's amazing article about the USL planning a team in Cincinnati. So FC Cincinnati and the Dutch Lions will pop up occasionally. The Saints are the team on the other side of the nascent #CincySoccerWarz. Intra-city turf wars aren't just for MLS and NASL anymore.
First, comments from David Satterwhite:
How are things looking for the teams this year? Where do you hope to finish?
Things look bright for our club. On the men's side we have 40+ rostered players and started reserve team to make sure that no matter what the circumstances that our level of play doesn't drop. The reasoning is my goal has always been to play against the best. So our goal for this season is to finish first in our conference so that we would qualify for the US Open Cup next year. This would put our Club amongst the best in the country.
What can you tell me about the Crusaders? Feel free to be tactless and offensive.
The Crusaders are like all supporter groups the life blood of our club. They attend every match spend money on flags, smoke bombs (as you found out this weekend) and loose their voices to support their club and what we are building. The supporters culture is like none other is sports. I have always told the crusaders the first time I don't have to help with gameday operations I will be in the stands next to them lighting off smoke bombs and cheering. I think that have a picture of me doing once already, I think they are holding it ransom! ha ha
What can you tell me about opposing teams and fans? Same deal with the tactless and offensive.
The NPSL is a mixed bag, you have some teams like Detroit City FC with NGS who are brutal to play in front of and others who don't have more than 25 fans to a game. The match that we played at home last year against DCFC when some of the NGS members came into town was amazing. Two supporter sections chanting against each other to see who is loudest makes this sport the best in the world. Our conference happens to be one of the best for supporter groups, with Sons of Ransom from Lansing United, 6th City Syndicate in Cleveland, and the Situation Room in FC Buffalo.
How would you describe the crossover between the support for the women and men's teams?
To me the crossover between the men's & women's fans is huge. We started the women's team in 2011 on the basis that the women deserved the right to play during college and after college at a high level and not be reduced to playing COED soccer. We also felt it was extremely important to have a team that young girls could aspire to play for and players to look up too, just as the men's team have been too young male soccer players.
How important is growing the size of the fanbase/fanbases going to be? Could the Saints stay in NPSL/WPSL indefinitely, with current revenues and in their current homes?
Our growing fanbase is very important. We have aspirations of playing at a full professional level, but not just be professional to where players are getting paid but to compete globally. We have already started looking at inviting professional teams from Mexico to come play us. We are not just thinking NASL or MLS. We want to compete in the Concacaf Champions league and schedule home & away friendlies with clubs overseas. We are proud of Cincinnati and want to showcase it to the world. We can stay in the NPSL/WPSL indefinitely where we are now. The club has always been self funded meaning we grow with our growth of club revenue. Which is why we have existed for almost 6 years now come August 1st.
We have aspirations to compete at the highest levels in the country for both men & women. We have literally just started doing marketing about 3 months ago. We have built our infrastructure so we can operate as a professional club so when our fanbase increases and revenues increase jumping to the next level will be easy. We will continue to market our club on & off the field, but ultimately it depends on how badly the fans want what we are trying to build. We have a long way to go and I think the market in Cincinnati has a long way to go, but we want to give them a reason to stand up and be proud to support our club when they are ready for that level.
Do the Saints have an explicitly Christian or missionary aspect? (Or am I getting the wrong idea from the cross? There was certainly nothing evangelical about the actual games, from what I saw.)
It's funny you ask, because everyone always thinks that the Saints has something to do with religion. In fact the Saints name originated from us starting out as a community outreach program aimed at helping underprivileged kids learn the game of soccer. We did not set out to grow into a professional club. We wanted to play soccer and give back to kids who couldn't afford to pay the high costs to play soccer in this city. We just wanted to help our community in anyway we could. Soccer was what we were all best at. After two years of playing in local amateur leagues we had to make a decision to we build a pro club right which takes years & years to build or do we stop doing this when the original members were retired from playing. Clearly we chose the first option.
What's been the most productive marketing the team has done?
Our commercial has been probably the biggest hit so far, with the Pack the Park promotion being a close second. The Pack the Park promotion is our test run to hopefully next year and every year to come give 1 ticket to each soccer player in the greater Cincinnati area for free. As much as we want to generate revenue to build our club and move to higher leagues, we still feel we have to hold true to our roots of community outreach. I feel every kid regardless of what his/her socioeconomic background should be able to see a high level soccer match at least once a year. After all we hope to continue to be our kids' heroes that look up to the players and dream of putting on a Saints jersey one day in front of thousands of fans representing their City.
What are the biggest challenges to promoting soccer in Cincinnati?
The hardest part about promoting soccer in this city is giving the casual soccer fan a reason to support us. The Cincinnati sports fan is one of the most loyal in the world, but you have to earn their respect from what you do in the community, to how you play on the field, and how they are treated as fans. I have believed since day one you have to make the fan feel as if they are a part of our club. That everyone in the stands are a Saint. It's not just about soccer as the sport of soccer has always been about your city, representing where you come from, giving blood, sweat & tears to accomplish a goal together. This is why all of us have fallen in love with the sport and why all our former players are still friends to this day. That's the hardest part about promoting this sport is to have that point come across without writing a paragraph like I just did. ha ha
Do you have any comment on the Cincinnati Dutch Lions (how they've affected your approach, your team, etc.)? And, more generally, what are the advantages of NPSL/WPSL over PDL/W-League...or do you hope to grow enough to be in PDL/W-League (or farther up the divisions)?
The Cincinnati Dutch Lions didn't really affect how we are building our club. I have had people I have talked to think we were them and vice versa. So the big problem with having so many teams in Cincinnati is that it confuses the fans. Especially with both clubs being relatively young.
Do you have any comment on FC Cincinnati?
I worked hard buying out the rights from the old Cincinnati Kings pro indoor team in hopes to unite the city under one team, one brand. Hence the hashtag #ForCincy - but once again the city will be divided.
And, more generally, what are the advantages of NPSL/WPSL over PDL/W-League...or do you hope to grow enough to be in PDL/W-League (or farther up the divisions)?
I looked at all the different leagues when we were trying to form our long term strategy for the growth of our club. I talked to NASL, USL, PDL, W-league, WPSL, & NPSL. Our club & Cincinnati (in my opinion) was not ready for NASL & USL. So it came down to PDL & W-League or WPSL/NPSL after several conversations with Steven Short of the USL. I decided to go the NPSL/WPSL route knowing that it was temporary while we built our brand it made sense to go to NPSL with clubs like DCFC, AFC Cleveland, FC Buffalo, etc., who get 1,000 fans to games at the time. The reason was these clubs had fans and were building their clubs to hopefully grow into something larger, where PDL was very stagnant in the clubs growth. It was very much a summer league for some of the top college players in the country, but the clubs weren't focused on producing an atmosphere or didn't have any ambitions to turn their clubs into pro clubs. NPSL clubs aligned better with our business model and goals. The WPSL simply was a cheaper option and I believe I made the right choice in both as WPSL teams in our conference that came in the same time we did are clubs that have the same ambition that we have for our women to grow into professional clubs. You will find out soon how we plan to increase our brands. We will be announcing something unique in women's soccer here shortly.
We hope to grow Into a NASL club on the men's side, as well on the women's side a NWSL team.
And, comments from Tom Andrews of the Seven Hills Crusaders:
What's the group's philosophy, in a nutshell? Are you more about singing, drumming, cheering, or heckling? Or do you have a preference?
We are there for the men and lady Saints. We have drums, flags, smoke, chants, heckle, cheer, etc. if you are a Saints fan, you are a member of the Crusaders. We have no age limits; as long as you fully support the club for the full 90mins. Outside of the Saints, we are 100% support local. From volunteering with local organizations, fundraisers etc., do supporting local businesses. Even at our tailgates, we make sure that even our beer and snacks are made in Cincinnati.
How is cheering/heckling amateur or semipro players different from cheering/heckling, for instance, national team players?
A lot different. Many of these players and staff we see on a daily basis, and/or are easily accessible. So when chanting, supporting, or heckling, we know it will get to them. As for MLS, USMNT and/or USWNT supporting, the players hear and see it, but the chances of running into them later that day or that week and talking about what we did in the stands for or against them, is slim to none. But one thing that is in common, that having supporters in the stands, can drastically effect the play of the game. It can work to cheer up the team when they are down, keep the momentum going, and create a true home field advantage; causing the away team to be distracted from the game.
How close or distant would you say you were to the players?
We are still meeting many of the new players on both squads. But we all know the veterans and the staff. We have been around since mid-2012; and have shared a pint with nearly all staff and veterans. Even on our first night in existence and after a Saints indoor match, we met up with the team for a post match victory celebration, which was also a celebration of a major tournament they won. We all ending up taking victory drinks from the large trophy with the team and staff. (pictures can be found on our social media)
Do you change your approach between women's games and men's games? Is there a different vibe in the rest of the crowd for those games?
Same support for both men and ladies. we have no bias. Both are wearing a Saints jersey. Crowds demographics and sizes can vary between the squads that are playing, but our approach is always the same. Support the Black and Blue for the full 90mins.
How have the Crusaders grown in the past couple of years, if at all?
We have always been a relatively small group. We have gradually grown, but can not put a true number on our group, as we consider everyone a Crusader. As many people say, you have to start somewhere; even if it was just with 4 guys. With the increasing Saints marketing and our own outreach, we notice our group in the stands continue to grow.
What, if anything, would you change about the Saints or the Crusaders?
I would not change anything. Just continue to grow and reach out to the community. Marketing in the Saints organization continues to grow and improve. A great example is the new commercial they released a few weeks ago. It even included our founder waving our largest flag above Cincinnati’s skyline. That flag is a modified City of Cincinnati flag, in Saints colors [Black, Blue and Gray]; made by National Flag, another Cincinnati based company.
What are opposing fans like? Do any make the trip to Cincinnati?
Opposing fans are great. Not all teams have as vocal fans as us. Some even only have what appears to be the players family’s as their fans. In our NPSL division/region, some of the clubs that have supporter groups are: Detroit, Lansing, Cleveland, Buffalo, Madison, Minnesota. For WPSL, we are only aware of a smaller group for Columbus. So far, for outdoor, we have only been made aware of supporters coming down from Detroit and Buffalo; for the men. For men's indoor, we have had traveling support come down from Detroit and Chicago.
Do any of you make away trips? If so, what are those like?
We have made one trip last season, and it was to Detroit. It was a blast. We have built great mutual respect for their club and supporter group. We even trade a local Cincinnati beer six-pack for a pack of Faygo pop/soda (made in Detroit). That trade started as a joke, but has turned into and ongoing tradition. When away supporters make the trip, and we are made aware in advance, we will trade a Cincinnati made product like a local beer, for a product of their hometown.
Is there any religious aspect to the Crusaders?
No. We are not faith based. As pulled from the Saints website, as we supplied this description: “‘Seven Hills,’ representing the well known seven hills of Cincinnati: Mt Adams, Mt Airy, Mt Echo, Mt Healthy, Mt Lookout, Mt Storm and Mt Washington. ‘Crusaders,’ and the German shield giving homage to the deep German Catholic history that built Cincinnati.” We needed a name that pulled off the Saints. Crusaders were a perfect match. We fight for and support the Saints. We have even gone as far to name our supporter section, “The Abbey.” You will find The Abbey, where ever the Saints play and we follow. You can even follow the hashtag #AbbeyOnTour , when we make our away trips.
I hate to ask, and feel free to ignore this question, but what are your feelings about the Cincinnati Dutch Lions and/or the proposed FC Cincinnati? Have the Dutch Lions changed anything about your own group or team?
We support the Cincinnati Saints from beginning to end. We do not support any other semi-pro/pro soccer organization. No EXCEPTIONS. From our stand point, the Cincinnati Dutch Lions have been irrelevant ever since they arrived last season. We even had a match on the same night as they did, and we drew a far larger crowd. If you were to ask any local soccer fan, they would not even know they existed. Nearly the same for DDL. Outside of their inner circle of fans, they appear to have little to no “market share,” as no one knows they are there.
And, last and least, my opinions. You can stop reading here if you're tired.
Don't judge books by covers, is one of the things that I learned. In fairness, their logo consists of a bigger cross than Mississippi Brilla, Charlotte Eagles, or the Southern California Seahorses.
Turns out it's as controversial here as the Notre Dame leprechaun logo. I was worried that the Saints were trying to be a little bit TOO authentically traditionally European, but to my relief fans and players were reassuringly diverse.
I also got the wrong idea from the rather collegiate and dainty "Lady Saints" name. Having both men's and women's teams on an equal footing, in the eyes of both club and fans, is a New and Rare Thing, and will bear close watching.
So, how good is the product? Well, you need to get your head right if you're going to be a lower league supporter. Seeing a game live is about the experience, not about the quality. You know going in when you see a game in the United States or Canada - you are watching men and women chasing a dream they have not yet caught.
It would be interesting if someone had bothered to interview any of the players. Someone should get on that.
But when you go to a lower league match, you are also participating in a culture being built in real time. This is why I focused on the Crusaders so much - they are the difference between watching some pretty good players, and watching a match. This is also happening in your town, too - Detroit and Buffalo are mentioned explicitly, and I have zero trouble believing it.
The Crusaders remind me of some supporters groups that I think extremely highly of - I won't mention them, because you probably hate them. But they also remind me of the supporters of twenty years ago. If you're supporting lower league soccer in a baseball town, or an NFL town? You gotta be an individual. You have got to have a strong personality. Even if all you want to do is sit and enjoy the time out - and that's what I do these days, as a Family Guy - people out there are getting into character for the cause.
And, fortunately, the Crusaders have passed the critical mass from two or three guys looking like drunk idiots to small but enjoyable supporters group.
I should add that they are popular with the children, too, which may or may not be more of a Cincinnati phenomenon. Most other supporters groups aren't THAT kid-friendly. But the kids around here can handle a little smoke, I guess.
(My suggestion that the young fans be referred to as the Children's Crusade was met with something less than enthusiasm, but I think I was sitting near Indiana fans at the time.)
And the Saints have certainly built up some kind of fan base, judging by the merchandise you see at home games. They're doing something right. They're not competing with the Reds or Bengals anytime soon...but neither is your local MLS team going to compete with the MLB or NFL, either. Again, you have to get your head right.
One of the things that struck me is how we are starting to see some soccer popularity in places like, well, Buffalo, Detroit, Cleveland and Cincinnati. Without a grant of some kind, I can't do the research to prove it, but I think this is a product of the explosion of US national teams' popularity over the past 15 years. The USNTs have fans in places that weren't soccer hotbeds even by American standards. Right now, the Saints are getting a small-to-teeny slice of the fans that have been converted to watching the US men and/or women. But the US men and women aren't going to get less popular, and neither will soccer.
It also doesn't hurt that Buffalo, Detroit, Cleveland and Cincinnati are "major league" cities - there's enough of a population to build a team to higher division levels fairly quickly. I don't know if the experience will be quite as vibrant in, say, Fredericksburg or Temecula - although for all I know it's even more so.
So, the Dutch Lions thing. The Cincinnati Dutch Lions are one of five Dutch Lions clubs in the nation, and I should give them a chance, I guess. I gave the Saints a chance, and that paid off.
But...I think one of the problems is, the Cincinnati Dutch Lions, or at least their online presence, is so off-puttingly molded from a template. The Cincinnati Dutch Lions TV pages has "Dayton" on it. And the purpose of the club(s) focuses more on teaching players than entertaining fans. I don't hate Holland by any means, but Dutch this and Dutch that got old after a while.
Consistent with the Dutch philosophy of educating youth soccer players, the Dutch Lions FC program strives to enhance the growth of young men and women both on and off the pitch. On the pitch through their tactical and technical development and off the pitch through intellectual, moral, social and physical growth.
The Dutch Lions FC start to work on this development process of both person and player at the age of seven. We use recognized Dutch trainings-programs, primarily Dutch coaches with the best local American coaches and perfect facilities. We create a professional environment with integrity and ethical conduct, which promotes competitive excellence, sportsmanship and community service.
Through our quality programs we fulfill the dreams of young kids to become a professional soccer player in the USA or Europe and/or help them and their parents to obtain a soccer scholarship.
....a development process from age seven?! Dude, I just want to watch a damn soccer game.
Again, maybe it's a freaking blast to go to CDL games, and I'll be giving you a long-ass post about them, too. But nothing about that says "fan-friendly" to me. So my gut reaction is that I hope the Saints see off FC Cincinnati, if it turns out to be a Dutch Trojan Lion Horse. Hey, I've been wrong before, we'll see.
But even if the Saints do unite Cincinnati's fans and become a major league team - it won't be what we see today. This is something you don't get from established teams like, I dunno, Ajax or the Cincinnati Reds. Those teams have made it. Those teams can provide top-class entertainment and satisfy, in the words of Q, desires subtle and gross. But the work has been done. Even with MLS and NASL, you are still part of a growing, emerging culture that won't be the same five years from now, let alone twenty.
And the Saints aren't always going to be a cute band of underdogs jaunting from high school to high school. Reds fans today never got to see the Red Stockings. And what we have today won't be around forever. We are here at the beginning. The end is nowhere in sight.
(Over-image was from the cool match poster Wrong Side of the Pond designed.)