The National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) is the highest level of professional women’s soccer in the United States. It is home to nine teams — Boston, Chicago, Kansas City, Houston, Portland, Seattle, Washington D.C., and Rochester. And let us not forget New Jersey, the home of Sky Blue FC, one of the eight initial NWSL teams.
Jim Gooley is currently Sky Blue’s Director of Sales, but he is also a founding father of the team and played a critical role in the franchise’s move to the NWSL. I spoke with him after Sky Blue’s last home game of the 2014 season — a 1-0 win over the Western NY Flash — and he offered insight about what goes in to successfully running and operating a professional soccer team in New Jersey and in the NWSL.
Q: What are some of the ways Sky Blue has grown over the years?
A: Sky Blue started as a W-League team, and the W-League is still going strong. There are dozens of teams all over the United States and Canada. [Other] pro leagues have come and gone, but the W-League has always been there. … The nice thing about Sky Blue is that we began as a W-League team and our organization was experienced enough to attract the attention of U.S. Soccer and some of the top investors in what was going to be a new pro league. That would have been the WPS, Women’s Professional Soccer. Those people were talking to us and saying, ‘Hey, your W-League team looks like you’ve got all the makings of a pro team because you can attract high-level players and you’ve had success at that level.’
So, it’s only a difference of money. More money is made for the pro team, and [they] can pay the players. In the W-League, you can’t pay the players. It’s too many college players. [The NWSL] has come to a point now where we have so many stars and we can support pro teams around the country in a very smart way.
With Sky Blue, we have — luckily — tens of thousands of kids playing soccer, and families who are soccer families in New Jersey. New Jersey Youth Soccer has been around for a long time, and has about 150,000 families and players registered. Many of those players have moved up through the ranks. You saw tonight — if you counted them — maybe half a dozen or more of former NJYS players on both teams. So we are in soccer heaven when it comes to development and numbers. Getting people to come to Rutgers (Sky Blue’s home field) is not easy, because Rutgers is not so convenient. But we work hard and we get friends like NJYS to talk about us. The team itself has been growing it’s fanbase, and tonight we had an announced crowd of 3,400.
We are steady. And the league is steady. We’ll be growing one team at a time — maybe. We’re not growing by six teams, even though soccer right now is pretty hot. When we go to Portland, in the women’s game, the Thorns are drawing 10,000 people. You go to Seattle, it’s crazy. It’s nice.
What I’d love to see is our own stadium, surrounded by our own seats with our own bars so we can attract the 20/30-somethings who are really rabid fans and great. They go to Red Bulls games, and we’d like to get them here, too.
Q: What are some of the problems with adding teams all at once instead of gradually?
A: In every franchise-based business — Home Depot, Lowes, McDonalds — you grow too fast and you lose steam. Also, the business dynamic is way different. All the metrics change and it’s very difficult to keep everybody healthy. The best thing to do is to create demand in a measured way, fill up your house and keep it busy, and say, ‘We’re only going to add one team, instead of everybody having a team.’ When you say you’re only going to add one, only the serious investors and serious people show up, and only the serious, well-healed investement groups will be given a franchise.
Q: You mentioned earlier the New Jersey pipeline of youth soccer players. Is that something that you see as a reason for the fans that you have now for SBFC?
A: Yes. This is a scouting operation. Did you see at half-time? The thousands of little girls? All of them thinking they can do this. Just think of young men who watch — I don’t know — Shaq thinking, ‘I can do that.’
We do something better than any other country in the world: We cheer for women better. Think about one of our players, Nadia Nadim, who was born in Kabul, Afghanistan. Her father was executed by the Taliban. [Nadim’s family] left. Fast. They went to Denmark. Then they find soccer and say, ‘I can play without getting hurt?’ She becomes the best player in Denmark, joins the national team, comes to Sky Blue and in her second day here, rings the bell at NASDAQ. That’s not supposed to happen. And it happened. Something like that inspires me to keep cheering for women and doing what I do, and it inspires girls in Kabul. [laughs]
I think — and this is my personal feeling — that we have been marketing the women’s game as a women’s game, as something different: ‘Hey, come see the women.’
We marketed [tonight’s game between Sky Blue and Western NY] as the unstoppable force encountering an immovable object: Abby Wambach, Christie Rampone. You saw that tonight: The unstoppable force, the world’s leading scorer faces the world’s smartest defender who has stopped Marta, who has stopped everybody. And yes, she stops Wambach.
You heard the cheers tonight, and you heard the roar tonight when we should have gotten the PK, and ‘Get up, you faker!’ jeers. That’s the game! This has nothing to do with women. Nothing. Nothing.
Q: What are some of the difficulties of keeping that steady fanbase coming every game?
A: The economics determine everything.
You want to pay the players what they deserve. We don’t. We want to, they deserve more. U.S. Soccer pays the U.S. Soccer players. … That takes their salaries of our books — that’s great, that’s huge.
We rent Rutgers. We don’t make money on the food. So, you do the math. It’s $10-$15 average ticket price, you have 4-5,000 people, you’re only going to lose probably a half million dollars a year.
The smart thing to do is to try to get businesses to join us, like a Meridian Health System (SBFC’s title sponsor) who knows that when we cheer for girls and we cheer for Meridian, people turn to Meridian for help and for training, athletic training, advice, concussion screening. With all of those wonderful things they want to do, now they have a voice in these women. And it helps them to take their company and their services and turn it into something human. So that’s why Meridian is a title sponsor. It’s companies like those who see the advantage.
My job is to try to get to the team to help make the difference in the economics. If we had our own house (stadium), by all means I’d be putting a beer garden in the corner, I’d be selling hot dogs. It would just be a much more smarter and better thing to do. Portland does it. Houston does it. We’re talking to other MLS franchises around here, and ones that are coming along. Is it smart for us to be with them? Is it smart to have our own place? It’s all in the economics, and that will determine our future.
Q: How has marketing the NWSL to NJ been for you and Sky Blue?
A: Again, it’s all economics — getting people to know about the game. It would be nice if we had a more finite geography. …
We have a challenge at Sky Blue: Could we play in New York City? Could that be fun? Could we draw in NYC? It’s possible. We’re talking to NYCFC. We’re seeing about that possibility. We’d love to stay here, but the economics don’t favor that.
As far as marketing is concerned, [we are looking for] a concise, tight market. … You want to have something that’s tight, hot, a lot of people coming. Finite number of seats. When you do that, just like a franchise, you make it tight so that not everyone can have it, and the interest level rises.
Q: How big is the ESPN deal that the NWSL just signed to try and market the league even further?
A: It was too long in coming, if you ask me. I would have loved to have been able to market that early on, especially potential sponsors. I’m told late in the game that we’re going to have our shirts on national TV. I have space on that shirt! So when I talked to our existing sponsors, [they said], ‘Well, we have a deal already…I don’t know if I want to add anymore money to it.’ So I have to run around saying, ‘Look, we have two games on TV.’
Jeff Gordan is a race car driver and he’s got a chemical company on his chest. That’s a chemical country! People don’t like chemical companies. [laughs] So, sports does something to us as a fan. We are with whoever is with our team. And there’s a heartfelt connection.
I would have loved to have been able to market that ESPN deal, but if we do things properly and we fill the place [for ESPN] like we’ve been filing them, ESPN can say, ‘Wait a second, people want to see this game.’ And ESPN will come back to us next year, and say, ‘O.K., fine, let’s do the whole season. Let’s have a game of the week. Let’s have a Friday, Saturday night NWSL game of the week.’ Bam, done. That’s what we’re hoping for.