XI Questions With… Tulsa Athletics
Tulsa is a soccer town. The city was home to the Tulsa Roughnecks of the classic North American Soccer League from 1978 to the league’s final season in 1984. The Roughnecks won the Soccer Bowl in 1983, giving the city its only championship in a top tier professional sports league. The original Roughnecks drew between 10,000 and 20,000 fans per match for all seasons but the final one.
The Tulsa Athletics turned heads in their debut season of 2013 when they drew average attendance of just under 3,300 fans per game. Playing out of a former minor league baseball stadium, the Athletics were able to renovate it to suit their purposes. The A’s tapped into dormant soccer market, one that had been eyed by Major League Soccer in the mid-2000s. They built on that success with an even stronger 2014 season with 3,439 average attendance.
The Tulsa Athletics’ success drew the attention of the United Soccer League, which placed a team in Tulsa bearing the name of the old NASL Tulsa Roughnecks. The presence of the USL team impacted the A’s in the 2015 season, but this year they saw attendance rise back up to an average near 2200 per match. While not as high as the 2013 or 2014 seasons, still a remarkable attendance for its league, the NPSL.
The A’s will open a new chapter in the club’s history next season, as they will have a new home now that the old Drillers Stadium will be demolished to make way for an indoor BMX arena. Tulsa will play at LaFortune Stadium. Midfield Press was able to speak with Matt Boullt, General Manager of the Tulsa Athletics, to discuss the club’s past, present and future.
1. How and why was the club founded?
Our first season was 2013 by our co-owners Sonny Dalessandro and Dr. Tommy Kern. They were both born and raised in Tulsa and both played soccer. Sonny played pro indoor soccer and Tommy played at Brown University. They wanted to fill the gap that existed in having a local soccer team. At the time the highest level was the University of Tulsa. There wasn’t anything at the pro level. They realized there was a piece missing in the city.
2. What venue does the team currently play in?
We have reached an agreement in principle with Tulsa Public Schools to play at LaFortune Stadium. LaFortune is a high school football stadium that seats about 5000 and we are currently locking down details in terms of the possibility of selling beer and other game day essentials. Previously we played at Drillers Stadium, which was a great venue for us but is no longer available.
3. What does attendance look like a typical match? What was your best attended match and the circumstances around it (including the attendance #s)?
Our first year saw about 3500 per game. Our highest attendance ever was when we hosted Club America, which was around 6700 people. In 2014, we averaged about 3300. In 2015, another team came in the market and that impacted our attendance. This past year we were back up to about 2200. 3600 at the home opener and 4500 or so at our breast cancer awareness night.
4. What does the supporter culture for the team look like?
Our supporters group is called the Armory. Over the past three years we were the highest scoring team in the country across level, so they get to drop a lot of smoke bombs and pyrotechnics. This past season we really saw their section fill out. They help out with volunteer work for the club. They really contribute a lot.
5. How has the arrival of the USL Tulsa Roughnecks impacted the club?
We were somewhat blindsided when they came in the market. There really wasn’t a lot of collaboration or communication when that happened. But it hasn’t changed what we are about. We’re about having a good time, and putting a great product on the field. There is a population of local soccer enthusiasts who are nostalgic for the Roughnecks name, and those fans are drawn to them. But we focus on providing a great soccer experience from the grassroots.
6. What is the long term vision for the team?
We’re looking over the next 3-5 years to be the best run NPSL team in the country. We want to compete consistently for a national title and make a good run in the Open Cup. We want to get our own stadium that we can control the revenue sources of, which would be good for the club.
7. What does the current investor profile look like?
Sonny and Tommy are the primary investors. Brian Macha is a minority investor.
8. Have you spoken with potential investors about moving the team up to NASL?
We are constantly in conversations with individuals and groups about how to improve the club and make it profitable and sustainable. As of right now, we haven’t found a good fit for additional investors.
9. Would the current venue hold up if you moved to NASL or would you need to find a new home? If so, are there existing stadiums you could use in your area or would the investors need to build a new one?
We would need a new stadium, ideally one that we controlled revenues on game day.
10. We have recently seen informative write ups on the financial and operational aspects of successfully running a lower league team by the owners of the Kingston Stockade (NPSL) and Minneapolis City SC (PLA) in an effort to “open source” a soccer success formula to communities around the country. What are some of the most important lessons you learned and what advice would you give to folks looking to start a similar club in their home town?
The important thing to do is to cultivate a great soccer atmosphere. Find people who are passionate about the sport and the city. You’re going to have to work hard and spend lots of time on it. You have to really care about making it a great experience for the fans. The teams that are the best on the field tend also to be the ones with the hardest working staffs.
11. What else should the readers of Midfield Press know about your club?
Tulsa is a soccer town. We’re here to win games and put on an exciting product and so far we have been really successful in that endeavor. Also, our owner would like to make the claim that he was the first one to have the idea of local food trucks at the games.
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