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Behind the Scenes at FC Gold Pride with Ilisa Kessler

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Several weeks back, I ran a retrospective on FC Gold Pride, a Women’s Professional Soccer franchise that had a Jekyll & Hyde existence during its brief two-year lifespan.  During FCGP’s first season in 2009, the club was barely competitive, finishing dead last with a roster that some WPS observers derisively referred to as “FC Old Pride”. 

In early 2010, the club engineered a massive reboot, highlighted by the hotly debated $500,000 acquisition of FIFA World Player of the Year Marta. The 2010 FCGP team won the WPS Cup and can make a strong argument to be considered the most dominant women’s club side ever assembled.  But red ink and disinterest sank the club less than two months after its great triumph.

Former FCGP forward Tiffany Weimer contributed an interview, which I hoped to pair with a behind-the-scenes account from FCGP’s former General Manager, Ilisa Kessler.   It took a while to connect with Ilisa and the piece ending up running without her participation.  Too bad, because when we finally got together she turned out to have some killer stories.  I thought the highlights deserved to run here as their own post. 

FWiL:

You worked for three seasons for the San Jose CyberRays of the WUSA before that league abruptly folded in 2003, which must have been traumatic.  When new owners came into the same market ready to try again with women’s soccer in 2008, how did you feel when they asked you to lead the new organization?

Kessler:

First off I was honored to even be asked.  Taking this position was a very difficult decision to make.  I knew the history of women’s pro sports in the Bay Area, I lived it, and it always ended the same way – and the emotional rollercoaster was traumatic.  I learned this as early as being with the San Jose Lasers (American Basketball League) as an intern.  When that folded I was heartbroken.  For the Pride, professionally, I was leaving a stable job in broadcast TV and personally I was in a new place in life because I had a family.  I also knew besides risk, how much work it was going to be to start a business in less than 6 months.  I knew that was going to be taxing, and maybe even impossible.  But again, I was honored, and there are not many opportunities to be a General Manger of a pro sports team, and to be in the sport I love, so how could I say no?  Most importantly, there are not a lot of opportunities for women to be at the General Manager level in sports, and so taking the role, I looked at it as a very serious responsibility.  I hope in the end, I represented women and the sport well.

FWiL:

What was the difference in the reaction of the Bay Area – the media, the soccer community, sponsors – between the arrival of the CyberRays in 2001 and the arrival of FC Gold Pride in 2009?

Kessler

Honestly, I don’t think much changed, at least for the mainstream media and the Bay Area community.  For the Pride, the difference was that there were more avenues for us to try and get exposure – particularly with bloggers (who were great to us from the beginning), Twitter, YouTube and Facebook.  But, in the end, we talked to the same people over and over.  Look at the Big Soccer message boards and the WPS chat on Twitter.  It’s the same voices – which are important voices, but not new voices.

I always thought we had a great website, but great doesn’t mean anything if people are not looking at it.  We tried, but it was hard to break through in such a busy world.  I remember a TV station telling us that they needed “a hook” to cover us for the 2010 WPS Cup championship match.  Obviously bringing a championship to the Bay Area – the 1st since the 2002 San Jose Earthquakes, didn’t mean much.

For the soccer community, well, that’s an interesting paradigm.  I may be generalizing a bit, but from my experience, I found that a majority of the “soccer community” loves soccer if it is about their kid, or their adult rec game.  For them, soccer is  recreation, not entertainment.  There is a difference.  I remember walking soccer fields with <French National Team midfielder> Camille Abily to promote the championship match.  Most said, “we can’t make it, my kid has a game”  or “I have an adult rec game”.  I asked one guy if he wanted to pass with Abily (he was warming up for his match).  He just shrugged and kept passing to his teammate.  I thought, these people are nothing but weekend warriors.  They don’t love soccer.  They just love getting exercise and socializing.

Sponsors are hard to determine – I think they were weary on two fronts – those that knew the history of women’s soccer stood by with a wait & see attitude.  Is it really worth an investment?  And then those that just need to invest in something that will guarantee a return on investment – mostly because the economy has just been so horrible – women’s soccer isn’t that.

FWiL:

What (approximately) was the dollar value of corporate sponsorships that FCGP was able to attract in 2009 and 2010?

Kessler:

We pretty much missed every budget cycle for sponsorship in 2009.  We maybe had $30K in cash and about $165K in barter/in-kind.  The cash didn’t even pay for the operations of one home game.  The hole was so deep from the on-set, it was impossible to dig out of it.  2010 was better.  We got in the sales cycle and realized for us cash is king but offsetting operational costs with barter works for us too.  We got creative.  Our cash went up 857%, and barter up 44%.  We had our medical bartered out – that saved us hundreds of thousands a year in medical and worker’s comp claim costs.  We got all our port-a-potty’s through a sponsorship deal, saving us over $24K.  Even our game program was bartered out – otherwise, we were not going to have one in year 2.  Like I said, we got creative.

FWiL:

In 2010, FC Gold Pride acquired Marta, who was the highest paid female soccer player in the world, at a reported $500,000 year.  Can you explain how her contract was structured?  What was the club on the hook for and how much did sponsors like Amway have to contribute?  Or did they provide sponsorship tied into Marta’s presence that partially offset what you paid out in salary?

Kessler:

Marta’s contract was a 3-year guaranteed contract.  Meaning someone had to pay her – if not a team, then the league itself.  Why there would be a 3-year deal agreed to when the league knew <Los Angeles Sol owner> AEG was only in it for one year, I don’t know….I wasn’t part of that negotiation.  I do know how difficult of a negotiator Marta’s agent is, and the league seemed desperate for credibility in the start and felt that we needed the best female player in the world in the league.  I also know that a player like Marta needs the US too…especially for competition, media and sponsors.  But in the end, she definitely won out.

Amway, has a separate endorsement deal with Marta, and it has nothing to do with the teams.  When we acquired Marta, we had to negotiate with Amway to be a sponsor, which was not easy because they were already in the market with the Earthquakes.

“The Marta Effect” as I like to call it, does not exist off the field.  Her salary does not justify any new business.  It’s not like a Beckham signing where you get incredible ticket sales, sponsorship and jersey sales.  The biggest sale of Marta jerseys went to Marta, she bought a slew for family and friends.  You can’t do any huge media campaign around her because of her limited English.  Reporters are not excited to do an interview with an interpreter, it’s just not the same.

I remember when we picked her up – prior to the Los Angeles Sol dispersal draft day, we created an entire ticket sales plan and staffed heavy in the office – longer hours, etc. to handle the phones.  When it was announced she was coming to the Pride, we sat for an entire day staring at each other waiting for the phones to ring.  When I came in the next morning, I said, new plan – outgoing phone calls start right now. Let’s hit up season ticket holders who haven’t renewed, large groups, teams, everyone, & let them know who we just signed.  At that moment, I thought, crap, she isn’t going to move the dial like we had hoped.

FWiL:

Talk a little about the behind-the-scenes decision to bid on Marta’s contract.  What roles did you, your Head Coach Albertin Montoya and the NeSmith family play in that conversation?  Was it a consensus?  Were any of the veteran players on the team involved in the discussion?

Kessler:

I don’t remember discussing Marta with the veteran players – Albertin may have.  I know throughout, Albertin did discuss with certain players the addition of new players – some we didn’t pursue because of their feedback.

The NeSmith’s discussed Marta with both Albertin and me.  Of course, best player in the world – who doesn’t want to coach or manage that type of player?  But from a pure business standpoint, Brian NeSmith and I discussed how it was not a good business move.  We figured she would not increase tickets and sponsorship to justify her salary.  We knew we would have to be extremely lucky for that to happen.  But, I am sure one reason why the NeSmith’s bought the team in the beginning included the idea of owning a pro team.  If you have the means, it’s an amazing opportunity to own a pro team – especially in the sport you are passionate about.  And so, once you own a team and you are already pumping a lot of money into it, and coming off a losing season, then, adding the best player in the world to your team could definitely make you enjoy your investment that much more.  If you are already losing a few million, what’s another half?

My last conversation with Nancy before the Board meeting that took place where the owners were to decide who could take Marta’s contract, she told me that they were not going to do it.  The call after the Board meeting was Nancy saying, well, we’ve got Marta.  So just like that, I knew the Pride would be the team that would pick Marta up in the draft <a few days later>.  The other teams were going to pass because of cost.  It was a bit of a rollercoaster to say the least since Albertin and I had resigned ourselves to moving on & continuing our player acquisitions without Marta.

FWiL:

Can you share a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction moment from behind the scenes when you wondered what you’d gotten yourself into?  Start-up sports leagues are famous for these and I figure you might have one or two such stories.

Kessler:

I have quite a few, most I can’t tell, but here’s a sampling:

One of my first decisions as GM was to approve Pounce’s (our mascot) chest size.  The first drawing we got had her at about a D-cup.  I asked for B.  If I ever needed a title for a book about my experiences at the Pride, it would be “From the B-Cup to the Championship Cup”.

Year 2 opening day.  My ops department had a complete meltdown the week leading into it.  They were totally unprepared.  The night before, around 7pm, we realized most of the stadium wasn’t loaded in and we had a ton of issues – no wireless for one.  No wireless means no ticket sales on-site.  We were freaking.  I had my entire staff stay till about 2am to load the stadium – field boards, signage, food product, you name it, it was all off-site at a different location.  The WPS league office showed up game day and didn’t think we were going to be able to open gates for the fans.  My brother came to the Bay Area for the game and I called him at 7am to get him to the stadium to help.  We asked a woman off the street with her kid to help for free tickets.  I had a coach from a rec league go get us corner flags.  We moved more barricade that day than I had my entire ops career.  It was a nightmare.  We made it, but if I didn’t have a background in ops and a staff that was willing to do anything, we probably would have never opened. Fans and the team had no idea – we prevailed.

Puma – they were great for us.  Having a national apparel deal is huge for a fledgling league.  I remember the CyberRays days – 3 apparel sponsors in 3 years.  It was awful and stressful.  Even as great as Puma was to the teams, their “lifestyle” designs got in the way of functionality.  The skort was a personal fight with them.  I refused to have my players wear them – here I was trying to legitimize women as strong, athletic, professional athletes, and they wanted them to play in a skort.  Not on my watch.

Then there was a meeting with Puma where they came to our offices and presented their <original> concept for 2011.  They started the presentation with photos of 80’s style one-piece jumpers.  My heart started pounding and I physically had to restrain myself as I started to realize what was about to happen.  They presented us with the “Uni-Kit”, which they pointed out was their “working title”.  Nancy NeSmith was in the meeting with me and our VP of Marketing and Sponsorship, John Hooper.  We all just about had a meltdown.  John and I couldn’t imagine any player wearing a one-piece uniform.  We brought up injuries to the midsection (how does the doctor treat?), what if blood gets on their jersey?  They have to change the entire uniform?  FIFA – do you think they would approve this?  But the best was Nancy.  She flat out said “how do you expect the women to pee?  They have to completely undress to pee?  No way”.  I just laughed.  It was by far one of the most surreal experiences I have ever had in women’s soccer.

CLICK HERE TO READ THE COMPLETE INTERVIEW WITH ILISA KESSLER

Written by andycrossley

November 6, 2011 at 11:31 pm

Posted in Interviews, Soccer, Women's Sports

Tagged with , ,

#42 FC Gold Pride

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FC Gold Pride was a short-lived franchise in Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS), which played at multiple locations in the Bay Area of California over two seasons from 2009 to 2010.  Although the club never caught on with Bay Area soccer fans or corporate sponsors, the club did engineer a stunning worst-to-first turnaround from its debut season in 2009 to its swan song in 2010.  FC Gold Pride’s 2010 WPS Cup championship side is widely considered to be one of the finest women’s club teams ever assembled.  However, the club folded little more than a month after winning the Cup.

FC Gold Pride came into existence on September 3, 2008 as a last minute franchise for the inaugural season of WPS, which planned to kickoff in March 2009.  The other six WPS franchises had each been in place for more than a year when the league introduced the FC Gold Pride club, owned by tech entrepeneur Brian NeSmith and his wife Nancy.  In fact, WPS had already awarded two expansion clubs for the 2010 season by the time the NeSmiths signed on for 2009.

WPS needed the Bay Area club to replace its moribund Dallas franchise, the league’s seventh club which existed on paper only.  The purported Dallas investors had made zero progress securing a stadium lease and had neglected to hire a coach or front office staff by the late summer of 2008.  With FC Gold Pride’s entry, Dallas was quietly removed from league plans.  WPS could now move on to the process of allocation – the distribution of U.S. Women’s National Team players to each of the seven founding franchises.  The USWNT had just defeated the powerhouse Brazilians for Olympic gold in Beijing on August 21st, 2008.  WPS would allocate three of the U.S. gold medalists to each club, who would serve as the marketing tent poles for each local franchise.

In allocation, each of the two dozen or so eligible USWNT players would choose and rank their top three WPS cities to play in.  The seven WPS clubs would submit a wish list of the three USWNT players they wished to bring into market.  Commissioner Tonya Antonucci and her league staff would serve as matchmakers, aligning the player and team preferences as closely as possible.  In a preliminary ballot, not a single USWNT player listed Dallas among their three choices.  With the entrance of Bay Area into the league, the players received new ballots and the results shifted dramatically.

Sixteen players – nearly two-thirds of the pool – ranked Bay Area on their list of preferred cities, making the two-week old franchise the most popular destination in the league.  This included the Americans’ greatest star, Abby Wambach, who ranked FC Gold Pride as her top choice.  Wambach had started her pro career in the previous pro league, the WUSA,  in 2002 and 2003 with the Washington Freedom, owned by John Hendricks, the founder of the Discovery Channel.  Alone among WUSA investors, Hendricks kept his team alive after that league folded in 2003.  From 2004-2008, Henricks funded a low-budget version of the Freedom, which played an amateur schedule without its former stars such as Wambach and Mia Hamm.  That legacy gave Hendricks great credibility as the dean of WPS owners and he insisted on the return of his erstwhile superstar.  Wambach got her second choice and was allocated to Washington.  In the allocation event on September 16, 2008, FC Gold Pride received three players with local ties: defender Rachel Buehler and goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart of Stanford and midfielder Leslie Osborne of Santa Clara University.

As Head Coach, the NeSmith’s quickly appointed Albertin Montoya, a former college assistant at Stanford and Santa Clara.  The club did not undertake a comprehensive coaching search and Montoya had a thin resume by WPS standards.  Skeptics of the hire pointed out that Montoya’s key credential seemed to have been running the Mountain View Los Altos Girls Youth Soccer Club where the NeSmith daughters played as teenagers.

FC Gold Pride signed a lease to play at 10,000-seat Buck Shaw Stadium on the campus of Santa Clara University, a facility shared with the San Jose Earthquakes of Major League Soccer.  Gold Pride debuted at home on April 5th, 2009 against the Boston Breakers in a game televised nationally on Fox Soccer Channel.  The crowd of 6,459 went home happy after former U.S. National Team star Tiffeny Milbrett came off the Gold Pride bench to break a 1-1 tie in the 90th minute.

Carrie Dew and I would call that our ‘Glory Day’,” recalled forward Tiffany Weimer, who assisted on the franchise’s first goal that afternoon.  “It was the best we played and we thought we were going undefeated after that.”

The glory didn’t last.  Gold Pride won only three of their remaining 19 matches in 2009.  At 4-10-6, Gold Pride finished last in the seven-team league and their total of 17 goals in 20 matches was the weakest offensive output in WPS.    Bright spots included the Canadian international Christine Sinclair (6 goals) and Tiffeny Milbrett (4 goals), who combined for ten of the club’s seventeen goals and were both selected to play in the postseason WPS All-Star game.  The All-Star nod must have been sweet vindication for the 36-year old Milbrett.  The former WUSA Most Valuable Player (2001) had scored 100 goals for the U.S. National Team from 1991 to 2006 but was passed over by every WPS franchise in the league’s January player draft before latching on with Gold Pride as a free agent in March.

FC Gold Pride’s announced attendance dropped substantially after the home opener.  Only one of Gold Pride’s remaining eight home dates in 2009 drew over 4,000 fans.  The club started the season with the highest ticket prices in WPS ($18 – $45 per seat).  Halfway through the summer, the team slashed those prices, angering some season ticket holders and advance buyers.  Unlike other WPS clubs, Gold Pride offered few comp and deep discount promotions to pad attendance.  In fact, the club’s internal sales figures actually stacked up much better within WPS than the league’s announced attendance figures indicated to the public.  Gold Pride sold 885 season tickets – 4th best in WPS – and their total 2009 ticket sales revenue of $644,000 ranked third, trailing only the Boston Breakers ($646K) and the Los Angeles Sol ($854K).

Despite the last place finish, the NeSmith’s retained Montoya for Gold Pride’s second season in 2010 and the rebuilding began.  41-year U.S. National Team legend Brandi Chastain, the league’s oldest player, was released.  Team captain Leslie Osborne was allowed to depart via free agency, as was the Brazilian midfielder Formiga, whom Gold Pride had selected with the #1 overall selection in the international player draft prior to the 2009 season.  Formiga’s rumored $75,000 annual salary made her easily expendable after an unexceptional campaign.

The club’s fortunes began to turn at the WPS college draft on January 15th, 2010.  Montoya stockpiled three of the first twelve picks and then shrewdly chose Stanford teammates Kelley O’Hara (#3 overall) and Ali Riley (#10) as well as Florida State’s Becky Edwards (#12).  O’Hara would score six goals and earn an All-Star nod as a rookie.  Riley would take home WPS Rookie-of-the-Year honors, while Edwards would emerge as a key contributor in the midfield.  Beyond their skill, Stanford products O’Hara and Riley could be expected to add local appeal at the box office in the Bay Area – in theory anyway.

FC Gold Pride’s make-or-break moment as a franchise came two weeks after the college draft on January 28th, 2010.  Shockingly, the league’s flagship franchise, the Los Angeles Sol, folded after a single season of play when a new investor solicited by the WPS league office backed out at the 11th hour.  The Sol had posted the league’s best record in 2009 and now the key components of that club would be parceled out to the remaining WPS clubs in a disperal draft in early February.  All except one.  The 23-year old Brazilian superstar Marta was league’s greatest star – and its greatest burden.

In a league where the average player earned $32,000 in 2009 and where most clubs generated less than a million dollars in annual revenues, Marta had a three-year guaranteed contract worth a reported $500,000 per annum.  A special mechanism was created to dispose of her contract.  Any interest club could submit a bid, with the minimum offer set at 75% ($375,000) of Marta’s 2010 salary.  If the highest bid was less than $500,000, the remaining eight clubs would collectively make up the difference to fulfill the contract.  The great question was what would happen if no one was interested.  Across the board, WPS owners were reeling from far greater than expected losses during the inaugural season.  Boston, with its large Brazilian population, passed, as did Chicago, New Jersey, St. Louis, Washington and the new expansion team in Philadelphia.  The Atlanta Beat expansion club, in need of a star attraction for its new soccer specific stadium, placed a bid.  And then the NeSmith’s, whom no one expected to be a player in the auction after losing $3 million in 2009, stepped in and bid the full $500,000.  Marta would play in the Bay Area.  A couple of days later, with the deal already done, FC Gold Pride went through the charade of selecting her with the third overall pick in February 4th dispersal draft.

“Our plan is to sell out every game,” owner Nancy NeSmith declared to The New York Times after WPS announced the dispersal draft results.  “If we get into a smaller stadium and sell out, the demand grows and sponsorship grows.”

The Marta acquisition aside, budget cuts were the rule of the day as Gold Pride headed into year two.  The team departed Buck Shaw Stadium and signed a cheaper deal to play at Pioneer Stadium on the campus of Cal State East Bay.  Necessary renovations to the 5,000-seat facility would not be complete until June, so Gold Pride would play the first two months of the 2010 season at Castro Valley High School Stadium.

The team also slashed its already lean marketing budget to near zero, meaning that many Bay Area soccer fans never got the memo about Marta’s arrival.  Only 3,757 turned out for the 2010 home opener at Castro Valley High School on April 17th, 2010.  An early June match-up against the visiting Washington Freedom featured the two greatest stars of the women’s game – Gold Pride’s Marta versus Abby Wambach of the Freedom.  The same pairing drew 14,000 to the Home Depot Center in Los Angeles the prior season.  Only 3,442 turned out in the Bay Area.

On the field, the rebuilding campaign led by Montoya and GM Ilisa Kessler was a wild success.  After dropping the 2010 season opener on the road to St. Louis Athletica in April, Gold Pride reeled off five consecutive victories.  In June, the St. Louis franchise folded abruptly in midseason and its players were dispersed.  Gold Pride added long-time U.S. National team stalwart Shannon Boxx to an already fearsome line-up that included world class internationals Marta, Sinclair, Milbrett, Buehler, Barnhart, French midfielder Camille Abily, Canadian defender Candace Chapman, and the outstanding rookie trio of O’Hara, Riley and Edwards.

Gold Pride rampaged through the WPS regular season with a 16-3-5 record, outscoring its opposition by a margin of 46-19.  Marta paced WPS in scoring with a record 19 goals.  Sinclair led the league in assists with 9 and also finished fifth in goals with 10 of her own.  Barnhart allowed a miserly 0.77 goals against average with eight shutouts, both tops in the league.  By virtue of finishing with the best record in the league, Gold Pride earned a bye through the WPS playoffs and the right to host the WPS Cup Final at Pioneer Stadium on September 26th, 2010.

The final was anti-climactic.  Coming off a two-week layoff, Gold Pride easily defeated a tired Philadelphia Independence team, playing their third game in eight days, by a score of 4-0.  Sinclair scored a brace, Kandace Wilson got one, and Marta added a garbage time goal in the 90th minute to give the hometown fans a final thrill.   WPS announced a sell-out crowd of 5,228, but Nancy NeSmith later told blogger Jeff Kassouf of Equalizer Soccer that the team only managed to sell 2,900 tickets for the final.

“If you can’t even sell out a championship game, that’s a wake up call for us…that people had better things to do or they are just not that interested,” NeSmith told Kassouf.  “It’s kind of like Field of Dreams.  You build it and people will come.  And no one came.”

Gold Pride owners Brian and Nancy NeSmith lost a reported $5 million on the team during its 26 months of operation.  Dismayed at the response to the championship game by the public and the media, and by the lack of sponsorship and season ticket interest in the weeks immediately following the Cup victory, the owners decided not to post the required security bond to play a third season in 2011.  FC Gold Pride officially folded on November 16th, 2010.

##

After FC Gold Pride’s demise, the 2011 WPS expansion franchise Western New York Flash opened up its checkbook in an effort to re-assemble the core of Gold Pride’s championship team in Rochester, New York.  Flash owner Joe Sahlen took on the final year of Marta’s $500,000 annual contract.  The club also landed Gold Pride vets Sinclair, Ali Riley, Candace Chapman, Becky Edwards, Kandace Wilson, and Brittany Cameron.  The Flash lost a bidding war with Boston for the rights to Kelley O’Hara.

Like Gold Pride a year earlier, the Flash breezed through the regular season and earned the right to host the 3rd WPS Cup at Sahlen’s Stadium in Rochester on August 27th, 2011.  Once again, the opponent would be the Philadelphia Independence.  This time the match was a thriller, with the Flash winning on penalty kicks after a 1-1 tie held up through overtime.

Young UC-Berkeley filmmaker Jun Stinson produced a mini-documentary on the demise of FC Gold Pride entitled the 90th minute in 2011.  The 20-minute film has screened at several symposiums on the West Coast and in Hawaii, often with live commentary from former WPS and WUSA players.

Downloads:

2011 General Manager Ilisa Kessler Interview
2011 Tiffany Weimer Interview
2009 FC Gold Pride digital Media Guide
WPS Standard Player Contract

Written by andycrossley

October 10, 2011 at 1:04 pm

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