The Mayor of the Minor League
Dennis Crowley is building “the most fun thing” he’s ever worked on. That’s a bold claim coming from the serial entrepreneur who sold one startup, the social networking software called Dodgeball, to Google and cofounded Foursquare, the local search and discovery service now valued at more than $300 million. Crowley makes this assertion while stuck in traffic, heading north on Route 9 in New Jersey. His shaggy hair tucked under a baseball cap, Crowley appears unfazed by the delay. The rapper Notorious B.I.G. blasts from the radio of his Range Rover, and Crowley happily nods along to the beat.
Ninety minutes later, Crowley stands on the sideline of a soccer field in a chilly aircraft-hangar-sized inflatable dome in Milton, N.Y. It’s early March, and he’s watching a tryout for Kingston Stockade FC, the soccer team he founded and owns. A mix of college athletes, guys a few years postgraduation desperate to extend their playing days and even some high school hopefuls ping the ball around the turf. Hampered by tryout jitters and unfamiliar teammates, the quality of play is, well, inconsistent. For every brilliant strike, there are multiple missed passes.
Crowley, 40, doesn’t look all that different from his players. He sports a baggy V-neck sweater, brown pants and canvas shoes. He has a slightly goofy smile and boyish charm that softens a deep self-confidence.
A year ago, Stockade FC existed only on paper and in Crowley’s imagination. Then an inaugural season saw the club draw an average of nearly 800 fans per game to Kingston, N.Y.’s Dietz Stadium. The number doesn’t sound like much, but it’s remarkable for the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL), a semipro league three divisions below Major League Soccer where most matches take place in front of merely dozens of people.
Already Crowley is excited—he says the level of play is much improved from the prior year, explaining that it had been difficult to convince college coaches to let their players join a team that didn’t exist. “Now, the club is a real thing,” he says. “Coaches trust the program. They’ve seen it. They recognize it as valuable.”
It’s still the minor league, though. Stockade FC commandeered two fields for the tryout, uniting them to create a playing surface that resembles a full-sized field. Occasionally, a cross-field effort hits a guide wire that supports a curtain normally used to divide the spaces. But the players are undaunted and maneuver around the obstacles. And as Crowley looks out at this uneven assemblage of talent, he can see the future of his team—and, just maybe, U.S. soccer generally.
In June 2015, Crowley was sitting in Angry Wade’s, a dive bar in the Boerum Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn, with some friends from the recreational soccer team he played with on weekends. Though he never played soccer in high school or in college at Syracuse, Crowley always had a passion for the game. While they were discussing the future of their squad and the lower divisions of American soccer, they began talking about starting a team of their own.
For most people, the conversation would have ended there. But Crowley excels at building things. In the past, that meant tech companies, like Dodgeball, which he sold to Google in 2005 for an undisclosed amount, and Foursquare, which has 55 million active users. Crowley figured, why not build a soccer team as his next challenge?
The Hudson Valley felt like a natural location. Crowley and his wife, Chelsa Crowley, a cosmetics entrepreneur, had just purchased a house in Kingston, about two hours north of Manhattan by car, and he was spending his weekends in the 24,000-person Ulster County city first settled by the Dutch in 1652. Crowley knew that Kingston had a growing community of young couples and families moving there from New York City. Ex-urbanite hipsters, he thought, were the type of people who would probably get behind a local soccer team. On August 15, 2015, Crowley submitted an application to the NPSL to create an expansion team. He thought the league’s bureaucracy would take a year or more to approve it. Instead, it took a month.
One $12,500 expansion fee later and Kingston Stockade FC—named for the fortification that protected the city’s settlers during the 17th century—was official. Now all Crowley needed was a coach, players, a field, insurance, sponsors, jerseys, balls, a dozen more things that he knew about and as many that he didn’t, before the season kicked off in May 2016. He hoped to do it all on an operating budget of just $50,000.
One by one, Crowley checked items off his to-do list. He worked with Kingston’s mayor, Steve Noble, to secure the 1,500-capacity Dietz Stadium, owned by the city and the school district. It’s a venue that could be in Anytown, USA, with an eight-lane track ringing a football field painted in the maroon and gold of the Kingston High School Tigers. Crowley and general manager Randy Kim hired George Vizvary as head coach. A Hudson Valley soccer legend who led SUNY Ulster for 39 years, Vizvary enthusiastically pitched himself during a Stockade FC fan meet-up at a bar.
In early February, Crowley and Kim launched an online store to sell jerseys and tickets. Later that month, they had their first of five tryouts. Finding players through Vizvary’s connections to local talent and the grassroots efforts of scouts Dan and Nick Hoffay, the team announced its 26-man roster in April. Meanwhile, Stockade FC secured sponsorships from local merchants including a bus company, a bakery and a radio station.
Without a doubt, the team sparked some economic piggybacking.
Stockade FC’s debut match was away on May 8, 2016, a 1–1 draw against Greater Lowell United, a three-year-old team from western Massachusetts. Two weeks later, Dietz Stadium hosted a weekend doubleheader. Paying from $5 to $8 a ticket, 830 fans attended Saturday’s 1–0 win; 851 saw Sunday’s 3–0 victory. Crowley had expected 300 attendees at most.
Stockade FC drew an average of 755 fans for its eight home games, by far the highest in NPSL’s North American Conference, thanks to its sophisticated marketing and organization.
“It felt like you were in a professional club without actually being in a professional club: the management, game prep, around 800 fans every home game with drums and chants,” Dylan Williams, a two-time All-American at Division III SUNY Oneonta, says via Skype from Tasmania, where he’s now playing for Launceston City FC.
The Crowleys had a baby daughter, Via, in May 2016, so Crowley spent the first couple months of the season on paternity leave. After that, he managed team affairs while continuing to work full time at Foursquare. “I try to do an hour a day [on soccer],” he says. “There are always a couple days where it picks up a little, but I think people underestimate how much you can get done with an hour a day.”
With a record of five wins, eight losses and three draws, Stockade FC finished seventh of nine teams in its division. But the experience was fulfilling for Crowley in ways he hadn’t expected. “I’ve never done anything with fans,” he says. “Foursquare has users, and users are cool. They appreciate the product. But they aren’t buying your stuff and wearing your stuff.”
The team lost just under $30,000 in its debut season. Operating expenses were $85,933—instead of the $50,000 that Crowley had hoped they would be—offset by $99,327 in revenue. Crowley hopes to decrease operating expenses in the coming year, as well as increase revenue from sponsorship, merchandise and ticket sales. “We invested in a lot of the infrastructure: cash register, radios for games, sidelines banners, balls, two iPads,” he says. “The Amazon bill alone was a couple thousand bucks.”
It sounds a little funny to hear a very rich man talk in such detail about relatively small sums. But Crowley wants to be wholly transparent about the business plan so that other potential founders can follow his model. In October 2016, Crowley posted a long essay, ““Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Operating a Division 4 Soccer Club (But Were Afraid to Ask),”” on the blog platform Medium. In it, he explained that to help the U.S. eventually win a World Cup—the pinnacle of soccer achievement, and one the Americans seem almost hopelessly far from reaching—he believes there have to be “more kids playing, more clubs for them to play for and an open-system…that can both encourage and reward the investors and entrepreneurs in the lower leagues.”
Stockade FC also benefits the local economy. While Mayor Noble can’t cite any economic impact studies—it’s only been one season, after all—he points to the ubiquitous Stockade hats and T-shirts he sees in shops, restaurants and bars. “On game days, 700 to 800 people came into the city to spend money, to go to the farmer’s market, to be able to have that first introduction to Kingston,” he says. “They might not have known about us before or known exactly what Kingston was about. Now, they are the fan club.”
Without a doubt, the team sparked some economic piggybacking. A store called Kingston Candy Bar, for example, gave anyone wearing team gear a foil-covered chocolate soccer ball. On days when the team played home games, the store sold donuts filled with Hudson Valley apple cobbler and the Stockade logo, a stockade, on top. “It definitely was more crowded on game days [than on typical days],” owner Diane Reeder says. “And they were all wearing Stockade gear.”
This season, Crowley thinks the team “can start breaking 1,000 people a game. If we do that, it’s conceivable that we sell out of that stadium. If we start doing that, then I can start making a case to the city for additional resources to refurbish and build up the stadium. If we do that, then I can make a case for getting some concession revenue and parking revenue. If we do that, then maybe there’s enough revenue so that we can afford to play a longer season or pay a couple of players.” (Currently, players are unpaid.)
In the end the idea isn’t just to make Stockade FC sustainable, but to help build a model that will work in similar-sized towns across the country. “Stockade has a little bit of an ‘if you can do it here, you can do it anywhere’ type of vibe,” Crowley says. “There are only 20,000 people in Kingston, but there are a lot of people in the county. A lot of people who came out for our games have never been to a soccer game before. I think it’s replicable.”
As the league grows—it now comprises almost 100 teams, up from 37 in 2011—its focus is on limiting turnover. “The applications that we’re accepting now are A-minus or B-plus [quality], says Jef Thiffault, the league’s managing director. “We are a little more picky. We’re looking for longevity. If someone comes in and says, ‘I’m looking to do this for three years,’ it’s probably not going to go very far.”
The 2017 season, the league’s 15th, will feature 96 teams divided into 13 conferences in four regions to minimize travel costs. Competitive on the field, the owners collaborate off it, trying to share best practices. Crowley set up a league-wide Slack channel to facilitate communication. He’s working with the league and other owners to get every game streamed online, with the hope of selling the rights to a sponsor. He’s involved everywhere he can be. “I’m on all the committees—the Streaming Committee, the Expansion Committee, there are a few others,” he says. Says Thiffault, “Dennis, obviously, with his skill set, has been a big driver.”
A sustainable NPSL may pave the way for a much bigger change in American soccer: the introduction of promotion and relegation. In most of the rest of the world, teams move up and down divisions based on their finish the previous year. For example, the bottom three finishers in England’s top league (English Premier League) start the following season in the second tier, the Championship, while the best three teams from the Championship replace them in the EPL. The numbers of teams and mechanisms for movement vary across countries and leagues, but the idea is the same: Promotion and relegation creates a Darwinian environment that ultimately promotes international excellence.
In the United States, teams are fixed in a specific league with Major League Soccer at the top. The Chicago Fire won’t lose their spot in MLS, for example, despite finishing last in 2016, nor will the New York Cosmos move up after winning the second division North American Soccer League. It’s a situation that benefits MLS because it stabilizes the entry fees to buy into the league, and those fees have soared from an estimated $40 million in 2012 to more than $200 million apiece for the next four teams. MLS owners have invested too much in their teams to see them bumped down to minor league status.
“I don’t think MLS wants anyone to threaten their business model, which is that expansion teams come in and they don’t come out,” Crowley says.
A recent study by the consulting firm Deloitte found that creating a promotion and relegation system in the U.S. could benefit player development, increase interest in the sport and be a boon financially. Critics quickly pointed out that the study was commissioned by Riccardo Silva, the owner of NASL team Miami FC.
“I’m not saying one system is better than the other,” U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati told Sports Illustrated writer Grant Wahl in a podcast following the release of the Deloitte report. “What I’m saying is, this is the one we have. This is the one people paid money to get into.”
Promotion and relegation might, however, have an easier time gaining traction at lower levels. “What you need is critical mass, and you don’t really have that in divisions one, two and three right now,” says soccer consultant Peter Wilt, a promotion and relegation expert. “It may make sense to do it at the lowest levels first and then start connecting the dots at higher levels over time once those leagues are fully populated.”
Even the simple task of organizing the lower levels of soccer in the U.S. into fourth, fifth and sixth divisions involve a remarkable amount of work. Right now, there aren’t official designations or rules about what the fourth division is. The NPSL considers itself the fourth division, but so does the Premier Development League. Other regional leagues can stake a claim as well.
“That part of the pyramid isn’t defined,” Crowley says. He thinks that the U.S. Soccer Federation needs to help create an organizational structure below the third division. “Their opinion is that we have to take care of the very top,” he says. “We should do that, but we should nurture the bottom too because the top gets stronger if the bottom gets stronger.”
The day that a team like Stockade FC gets promoted after a strong season is certainly not close at hand. But the movement does seem to be gaining momentum, and much of it seems centered around Crowley.
“People on Twitter point out that I should lead all these initiatives,” Crowley says. “But I’m just a random owner of a D4 team who wrote a couple blog posts. Yes, I have ideas, and I think people were inspired by some of the stuff I wrote, but I don’t even know how one gets those leadership positions. I don’t see them recruiting people from outside the existing soccer system to help make it work.”
In any case, Crowley and Stockade FC first need to get through the 2017 season, which means finding players. After the tryout ended and Crowley briefly consulted with the coaching staff about what they saw, he drove back to New York City. When he returned to his apartment near Tompkins Square Park, he hopped on Twitter to continue evangelizing. He saw a tweet from someone named Scott McCarthy reading, “Much gratitude to clubs like @StockadeFC @ChattanoogaFC @NashvilleFC and countless others for the inspiration for @RockawayBeachFC.”
“Awesome!” Crowley responded. “What league you in?”
He cares, Crowley says, because each new minor league team, whether in Rockaway Beach or Kingston, improves the ecosystem of U.S. soccer. Maybe, someday, they’ll even help the nation win the World Cup.