In our latest feature entitled “First Touch,” freelance writer Kenneth Mintz, a sophomore at Syracuse University, spoke with Dennis Crowley, 40, owner of Kingston Stockade FC and founder of the search app Foursquare. Crowley’s team became a National Premier Soccer League expansion team in November 2015, as part of the Atlantic-White Conference. The NPSL has grown from six teams in 2003 to nearly 100 this season. In its mission, the NPSL hopes to set a foundation for players and clubs to advance to higher leagues and help the United States Men’s National Team take more steps toward a FIFA World Cup.
KM: What are your feelings about the rapid expansion of the league?
DC: I’m a big fan of growth. There’s almost 100 teams in the NPSL. In my personal opinion, I’d love to see a lot more. People talk about the stability of the league, but does that mean some teams drop out of the league every year? I think that’s inevitable. The league is really aggressive in terms of expansion. And we’re a couple months before the season, and they’re still bringing teams on.
KM: I understand if it is confidential, but what is the entrance fee for the league?
DC: The buy in for the NPSL is about $15,000. You have to be able to show the budget that you have planned for the first three seasons. And the league will evaluate you based upon how interesting the opportunity is and how sophisticated the ownership group is.
KM: Have you been seeing a return on your investment or do you expect that to come more down the line?
DC: In the first year, we weren’t profitable. I think it will take us a couple years to get there. I wouldn’t be surprised if we get to break even next year, and then if we start generating a little excess a few years after that. But it’s like any other business, it’s very rarely profitable right at the beginning. You build it up over time, and if you do a good job, you see the winnings a couple years later. And our plan is to reinvest whatever profit we have back into the club and the community that helped build it.
KM: Does your team pay its players?
DC: No, we are not paying our players. We are an amateur team. We use some college kids, and some post-college people. A majority of teams in the NPSL do not pay. When you don’t have a payroll, it’s one of the things that makes the team actually work financially. Once you move into division three or division two – once you make the jump from amateur to pro – you are looking at payrolls at $500,000 and $1,000,000 million plus. And that’s a lot of money to operate a team. And for us, our budget was under $100,000.
KM: Would you compare your league to the Cape Cod Baseball League, where it’s almost a summer league for college players, or would you say your team competes more with minor league teams?
DC: I would say it’s neither to be honest. It’s not like the Cape Cod Baseball League because that league is college players. Our league is a little bit of everything. Some teams could use high school kids. Some teams only have active college kids. Some teams have people that are 30 to 35 years old. That’s one of the things I love about the league. It’s a mix of whoever you can find. The best thing about the NPSL is that most of the teams are not connected or affiliated with pro teams. Which means, most of the teams dream of growing up to play – and beat – teams like the Cosmos and the Red Bulls. Some owners don’t want to develop these players and send them off – they want to make an amazing team and then play against some of the top teams in the country, whether those top teams are in MLS, NASL or USL.
KM: Do you expect the lower leagues to become profitable and have larger fanbases like lower leagues in Europe?
DC: Well, I don’t think it’s profitable. A lot of these teams are set up as nonprofits. The teams don’t throw off a lot of money. The reason that some of the teams in a closed system like MLS or MLB, those are closed franchise systems, throw off money is from television or sponsorship deals. In a couple of years, the NPSL may actually have a handful of big, lucrative national sponsors that could help subsidize travel costs or provide prize money or other rewards for the top teams in our league. Right now it’s a little wild west and there’s not a lot of people making money, but I think there’s a real opportunity to shape the league in a way that it could become much bigger and much more influential.
KM: It seems like some of the teams are oriented toward family-style environments. Do you think in the long run that teams will have larger fanbases with bigger supporter groups?
DC: I think it depends on the ownership groups. This is the thing that makes it so fun. There are some people that are doing it just as the top end of their youth organization. They’re OK not having fans, but they might have skilled players because they’ve been training these people from the youth level. Then you have teams like Chattanooga where you have 12,000 people there (vs. Atlanta United). Detroit is a notoriously rowdy supporter section with 7,000 to 8,000 fans lighting smoke bombs. In Kingston, we were just shy of getting 1,000 people. There were people there just banging on the drums the whole time. You know it’s family — it’s a little rowdy, but it’s not nasty rowdy — it’s fun rowdy. Every team has a different approach. Every club has a different feel to it.
KM: Do you think going forward that you would look to bring your team, if possible, to another level of U.S. Soccer?
DC: Everywhere else in the world you can get promoted if you earn it, and you just don’t have that in the U.S. I believe that the U.S. needs to move to that model, and the way you make that model happen is by having a ton of teams in the lower divisions. And that’s why I’m such a huge fan of our league and expanding the league. Someday, I would love to fight for the ability to move up a league, but you can’t do that right now. The only way to move from our league to a higher league is to pay the admission price – it’s not something these leagues openly talk about, but teh data is out there on the internet – which is like $2 million or $5 million.
KM: Do you think the biggest obstacle to promotion/relegation is figuring out how to move teams up and down while keeping the teams who paid hundreds of million dollars happy?
DC: Yeah, well the problem is that let’s say you just paid $100 million to get into the MLS.
- A) You don’t want me coming in without paying $100 million dollars.
- B) You don’t want me knocking your team out to a league that your team is no longer going to be worth $100 million dollars.
Now, you can go down to the USL and let’s say its $2 million. You don’t want me joining the USL because I didn’t pay $2 million and you don’t want me knocking you out because then your team is not worth $2 million. It’s just a cycle that if there’s a big cover charge on these leagues, then you’re just never going to enable promotion relegation. And that’s why our league has a $15,000 buy-in and it’s so perfect. You can get a couple friends together or a couple investors together and get it going. And if you put a good quality squad together, you can compete. I think the next challenge is figuring out if you win the league or are in the top 10 percent, then what? How do you fight or play against better opponents?
KM: It seems like most lower league fans really are into promotion/relegation and want it badly. Do you find the same with your fans?
DC: Yeah, I started off as a fan, and I really wanted two things: First, I wanted a team up in Kingston because that’s where our home is. And second, I wanted the team to get promoted. I want to see those types of battles, and I also want to see soccer improve in the U.S. And, so I’m one of those people who wants it, but once you get in the thick of it and are operating a team, holy cow the payroll is expensive, the travel is expensive and the insurance is expensive. You start to understand why it doesn’t exist. But once you understand why it doesn’t exist, you also start to understand what we can do to fix this. There’s a lot of people that we’re talking to and they’re thinking about doing this stuff now.
KM: How did you use your business experience from Foursquare and other businesses to translate into managing a team?
DC: A lot of the skills necessary to survive in the startup world are transferable. I’ve been with Foursquare almost eight years, and it’s the same stuff. It’s not a technology company. It’s not a tech startup. It’s a soccer startup, but still it’s a startup. You run into the same people that say, ‘Hey it’s a stupid idea, no one’s going to care, no one’s going to go.’ It’s the same stuff I heard about my first two companies, Dodgeball and Foursquare. Even now, people are like, ‘Why are you spending your time on this rinky-dink soccer project.’ And I say it’s not different than working on my rinky-dink tech startup that we did eight years ago. And if you ask me eight years from now what happened to Stockade, hopefully it turns into something much bigger. But past that, you know how to use a spreadsheet, you know how to get people excited, you know how to put together a marketing plan, and you know how to talk about your product.
KM: What would you say to the skeptics in a few years if your club gets bigger?
DC: You don’t want to lecture those people. You just want to say I told you so. I just went down to Chattanooga, Tennessee where there were 12,000 people at that game, and they had three cameras streaming, all these food trucks, merch tables, and sponsors and scouts. I’m friends with the guys, and that club inspired us to make our club. And they’re like, ‘I know this is big and looks intimidating, but we’ve been doing this eight years.’ Eight years is as long as we’ve been doing Foursquare, and so I think about how small and rinky-dink Foursquare was eight years ago and how big it is now. And how rinky-dink and small stockade is and how big it will be in eight years because it took the Chattanooga guys eight years to get that big. You just look at this like everything starts small and it gets big. When Facebook was small, people said, ‘That’s for college kids, who’s going to use it?’ When Twitter was small, it was like ‘Oh it’s a toy who cares?’ When Snapchat was small, ‘Oh its people sending nude pics to each other.’ People discount the things that are small. A lot of people don’t even see them coming.
(Editor’s Note: At the request of Mr Crowley, several additions and clarifications have been added to the original article. The changes are noted in italicized language throughout the story – but no key information has been changed or removed.)