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The Sports Mirage, Our Northstar, and Redefining Promotion and Relegation



“Every year, FC Davis releases a season recap keeping our community of fans up to date with progress behind the scenes as we build our towns semi-pro soccer club"


Part I. Our Northstar


In 2014, I got consumed by the idea of starting a D4 soccer club.


It all began with one question: Why doesn’t Davis have a team we can call our own?


At its core, FC Davis was created to make our community a more inspiring and vibrant place to live. The club was built to provide a home for our local soccer fanatics, convert non-fans to new-fans, galvanize a new wave of young fans, and increase the probability of towns around us spurning clubs of their own.


With a concept in mind, it was time to put pen to paper and create an outline of what “could be” for our local community.


The “could be” list for FC Davis was fairly simple:


  • Create a men's team that could be…

  • Leveraged to start a women's team to create…

  • New collegiate programming which will…

  • Do good in the community and…

  • Support learning opportunities for local students.


Based on this “could be” list, a more refined set of goals were created to give the organization tangible aspirations. These goals included:



After a two year test run, FC Davis was ready to host our towns first ever NPSL semi-pro match in spring of 2018. By 2019 we won our first conference title, hosted a national playoff match, qualified for the US Open Cup, and were accepted into the WPSL. In 2021 (post-covid) we won our second NPSL conference title, kicked off our inaugural WPSL season and launched FCD U for aspiring local collegiate players (more to come!). We also connected with over 30 amazing high school and college interns over the past 5 seasons. These interns are essential to making the club come to life each year.


Pretty good accomplishments for our town of 65,000 people.


Success….yes?


The Sports Mirage


In sports, success on the outside can be a bit misleading. Big trophies, individual awards, national TV headlines, and creative marketing can paint a picture of a thriving organization, while behind the scenes it's a complete mess.


Just look at the history of soccer in the US. It’s littered with teams going belly up.


How bad are the sharky waters of American soccer?


Well…


For clubs at our level (D4), the median lifespan is only two years.


Yes, you read that right. Twenty four months.


Due to almost every reason imaginable, clubs fold. Hundreds, if not thousands of them to date. As a result, towns lose their teams and the landscape turns chaotic.


USL, who plays David in the battle with Goliath (MLS), has gone through constant earthquakes since the modern era of the league was launched. Partly due to top teams abandoning the league for MLS. Partly due to teams folding. Since 2015, at least 22 USL Championship teams have either rebranded, relocated, gone on hiatus, folded, or left the USL entirely.


MLS, which is viewed as the fail-proof option for professional clubs, saw a couple teams ride off into the sunset. Tampa Bay Mutiny, Miami Fusion, and Chivas USA (LA market) all closed shop.


We’ve even had entire leagues collapse.


The A-League lost a trove of teams when it disappeared in the 1990s. NASL, who were home to Pele and the New York Cosmos, went kaput…twice!


Women’s professional leagues haven’t fared any better, with WUSA and WPS vanishing quickly, lasting three years each.


A little known fact, in 2001 MLS folded, as told by FC Dallas president Dan Hunt. The paperwork was ready and the league was finished. If not for a last ditch effort by Lamar Hunt, MLS would have been another statistic in the boom-and-bust landscape of American soccer.


So where does that leave us in our tiny cutout of Davis?


The Most Important Goal


When FC Davis launched, it was obvious we needed to prioritize sustainability.


Why?


Because what's sustainable lasts forever, and Davis deserves a team that won’t go anywhere.


So what's our biggest accomplishment to date?


In 2023, FC Davis enters our sixth year of existence on the men's side and our third year on the women’s side. By historical standards that puts us in a rare category, outlasting countless domestic professional clubs. Out of everything that FC Davis accomplished on the field, the most important achievement to date is creating an organization off the field that is fully sustainable. By achieving sustainability, we can reinvest heavily back into the club, increasing our impact within our local community while providing a better experience for everyone involved in the organization.


With a solid foundation, the next question is…now what?


Part II: So…Now What?


Now that FC Davis is sustainable, building the second phase of the organization can begin.


At this point, the only place for FC Davis to go is up…but what is up in this wacky closed system we have in America?


If FC Davis existed in any other part of the world, the club would have moved tiers in 2019…and again in 2021. Bring on the Earthquakes…right?!


Not so fast.


In order to move up divisions in America, you need to meet a bevy of requirements called Professional League Standards (PLS). These standards were designed by US Soccer (hand-in-hand with MLS) to make professional soccer LESS accessible to communities around the country. By creating artificial barriers of entry (time zone requirements/owners net worth prerequisites/metro-market provisions), it allowed MLS to corner the DI market and the windfall of benefits associated with a DI status. This also allowed USSF marketing synergy with our top league. Cha-ching! Spoiler alert, MLS and USSF were (still are to some degree) run by the same people.


While MLS created a league modeled off the American way of sports, it has not translated to creating a league fans care about. MLS isn’t even close to being the most watched soccer league in our own country. That title belongs to Liga MX and the English Premier League.


With MLS viewership stagnant and declining, combined with a lack of fan interest, it led Don Garber to say there is “way too much soccer on television”.


With the amount of paywalls that exist for soccer matches, it's not that there is too much soccer on television (it can actually be hard to find!), it's that no one is interested in MLS products. The story lines are limited, games aren’t meaningful until the playoffs, and the league lacks regional and local rivalries that define the culture of soccer across the globe. Northern California has over 15 million people and is home to one MLS club, the San Jose Earthquakes. The city of London has 8.9 million people and is home to 13 professional clubs. The only other professional clubs in Northern California are Division II USL Championship sides Oakland Roots and Sacramento Republic.


If you are reading this, I’m sure you have heard of the Sacramento Republic, the perfect example of a causality as a result of our current system.


Our friends across the Causeway were tortured by MLS, who turned their noses up at the Republic for most of its existence.


The Republic has an awesome fan base, a big TV market, a great venue, and won the USL in 2014, yet time and time again MLS passed over Sacramento for different clubs and locations around the country.


Out of frustration, fans entered the fray and started making their voices heard.


The Republic hosted block parties with cut out signs of Don Garber's face, made online pleas to other clubs to show their support for a bid, and even had fans take red-eye flights to New York to try and sway opinion for an MLS franchise.


It all makes you think, wouldn’t it just be better for clubs to earn their way in the top flight rather than having fans fly cross-country to beg for a franchise? Does anyone think the Republic would not be in the first division if given a chance on merit?


Let The Good Times Roll


It took a painful amount of time, but finally the Republic were awarded an MLS bid after finding their “whale” - a term coined to describe a billionaire willing to put up enough money to support a franchise.


Then, sure enough, it all crashed in dramatic fashion. Don Garber put a final nail in the coffin when after the Sacramento bid fell through, he told reporters the Republic are “not a primary location for us.”


Ouch.


While American clubs are fighting to try and assemble ownership teams to meet the needs of USSF PLS and MLS requirements in narrowly defined markets , a new wave of American investment is bucking soccer in the United States and taking their dollars overseas to purchase European clubs. These teams range from small towns to big markets that compete on the worlds grandest stages.


Just this year, American owner Todd Boehly spent $5.25 billion dollars to buy Chelsea. It was the most expensive team transition in the history of sports. American businessmen and businesswomen have spent so much money on teams outside of the United States the question has been posed, “Is Europe Becoming American Soccer?


As American investment has left the US and flooded the European market, the game in the US has been a mess.


The NWSL was plagued by a crush of improper conduct allegations while European soccer inevitably figured out how to dominate the business of women's soccer. This has extended to national competitions as well.


The men's professional game continues to sabotage itself through the never ending USL and MLS “Soccer Warz”, as MLS tries to squeeze out anything other than its own.


So where does that leave us?


Redefining Promotion and Relegation


Trying to define promotion and relegation in American soccer is a bit of a head scratcher.


How do you define the undefinable?


Competitive advancement in the United States is based on money, not merit, and that's just the way it is going to be…right?


Not quite…


Redefining promotion and relegation involves a bit of creativity and design thinking. Bending thoughts away from a traditional model of on-field club advancement, to the advancement of a club within PLS and national league requirements. Part of this re-wiring is based on the current landscape of the sport, while other parts are taking a gamble on what the future could be.


So what does this mean?


If we took the definition of promotion and relegation in global soccer it would read as follows: a system where teams in a soccer league are transferred up or down a pyramid based on the number of points gained during a season.


Unless we want to bang our heads against the wall until structural changes are made, there are more productive ways to spend our time.


While we can not move our club through competitive tiers on the field, we can move our club through competitive tiers off the field. By having a goal of steadily improving our operations to reach realistic levels of D3 standards, we (and other D4 teams) can begin to create a trove of clubs that are prepared to make a move when conditions change. Some of these conditions may involve a revamp of PLS by the USSF, while other areas may involve transformations of existing leagues. With current D3 requirements well within reach of most local communities, clubs have plenty of platforms to test their organizations through various D4 leagues.


Can you create a (mostly) D3 level club as defined by PLS but play in a league at the D4 level where the game is infinitely more sustainable?


I believe so.


And this is the route I think we are headed.


A unifying vision for this concept, based on internal rankings within interconnected regional leagues, will only grow a community of like minded soccer entrepreneurs and allow clubs to steadily build in a responsible manner. By doing so, clubs will create value in their organizations, with the goal of attracting investors to put money back in their clubs and communities. Creating an environment where clubs push each other on the field, and push each other even harder off the field in an collaborative, open source manner will be a win for youth players, adult players, local businesses, and fans of the game in towns across America.


However...when redefining promotion, you also have to redefine relegation. As much as we can talk about how to grow clubs, you also have to consider the opposite, which is a club failing.


While having a community of support will help immensely, what are the areas a club needs to monitor? And how can you tell if you’re having success year after year?


Part III: Best Year Ever?


After the final match of every season, the laptop is opened, excel is launched, and goal measuring begins.


Yearly reviews help paint a clear picture of areas of success, areas of needed improvement, and if the trajectory of our organization is headed in the right direction.


Each season FC Davis has an objective to make incremental gains while building in a structured, efficient, and responsible manner.


To evaluate if a season was successful, separate buckets are measures to compare our actual numbers against targets that were outlined at the beginning of the year. These areas include:


  • On-field performance

  • Financials

  • Player/Staff Experience

  • Fan Engagement/Experience

  • Community Impact/Engagement

  • Social Media Growth/Activity

  • Partner Relationships

  • Fan Satisfaction


Each one of these categories has an itemized list attached, sometimes 15 - 20 items long, and is scored by a sliding scale of 1 (being the worst) to 10 (being the best).


Some categories are easily scored, such as financials. We can clearly see if we hit our season pass target. For social media growth, we can calculate if we reached our goal of increasing our social media presence. With other categories it can be more difficult. For example, how do you measure fan experience?


While these calculations require direct outreach to fans, there is a way to quantify these buckets with the help of members of our community. As each season concludes and more data comes in, the easier it becomes to spot trends. Every season we send out our fan survey (fill it out here if you attended a match!) and ask match goers to provide us honest feedback so we can improve.


So how did we do this year?


The Breakdown


After breaking down the numbers and calculating our 2022 internal score, we hit 63, two points higher than 2021 when our score was 61. Our new best year ever. While we still have a long way to go, the data is trending in the right direction.


In total, we had a 7% increase in fan attendance from last season. We had a 31% increase in social media followers, had our largest contingent of interns, and hosted our largest summer camps for over 300 youth players. Our social reach this year was 2.5x more than 2021, which will likely continue to increase as we push our teams to longer seasons.


Each year there are surprises hidden in the data. On the men’s side, after dominating the NPSL Golden Gate Conference the past two seasons, we tied for fourth place in 2022. There was a general assumption that fan attendance is based on a team's performance. The more you win, the more fans show up. In our data, we had an increase in fan attendance, which goes against the “win and they will show up” assumption. Our games are typically action packed and every season our home record is near perfect, plus a ton of community members go, so we have ideas as to why we saw an increase in fan support regardless of overall results (achilles heel was away matches!). Still, it made our eyebrows go up and it will be interesting to see if there are any specifics we can point to aside from people writing in they “just love to attend matches and support the team”.


One priority heading into 2022 was dedicating time to creating relationships with our local business community, sharing our story, our projects, and our deep commitment to Davis and our surrounding towns. For those that have experience in this space, it takes time to find the right partnerships where mutually beneficial relationships exist. At our level, relationships come down to building assets local businesses find valuable to reach their target market. Between youth camps, match day festivities, email contacts, social media posts, promotional events, and other outreach vehicles, we built a platform and a brand that local organizations find valuable, want to leverage, and attach their names to.


It is impossible to talk about the success of FC Davis without mentioning the support of our sponsorship group. These local, regional, and national businesses believed in our mission and joined us creating new opportunities for men, women, collegiate, and youth players while helping local students gain work experience. This season we partnered with:


  • Yolo Federal Credit Union: Established in 1954, Yolo FCU has been a staple in our community for years. Alongside becoming many locals one-stop-shop for banking and winning best credit union in Yolo county for 20 years in a row, our community bank has a big arm supporting local events and organizations. Jenee Rawlings, YFCU CEO, won most admired CEO this year. This past winter, Yolo FCU and FC Davis partnered for a three year, $30,000 sponsorship to bring soccer to new heights in our local area. Yolo FCU is our jersey sponsor for our men's team, title sponsor for our youth camp, and leading the backing of our community college initiative.


  • Colavita: Formed in 1938, Colavita is the most tasty, delicious Extra Virgin Olive OIl we've ever come across! With strong roots in Davis and a state-of-the-art facility in Dixon, Colavita has deep ties to our local community. Having a soccer culture that permeates from California to Italy, Colavita is heavily involved both on and off the field! Colavita was the proud sponsor of our Lionesses in 2022 and helped provide music during our special nights at Playfields.


  • Sudwerk: Our award winning local brewery is our men’s pre-match shirt sponsor and home for soccer parties, delicious food, and tasty beer. At every NPSL and WPSL home match, Sudwerk is available for purchase. On August 11th, Sudwerk broke ground on their new revamped restaurant and bar garden. You can expect to see FC Davis faithful regularly at Sudwerk’s new diggs upon opening!


  • Woodstock's: When people think of pizza, they think of Woodstock’s. Our longest standing sponsor, Woodstock’s was at our inaugural match in 2018 and continues to provide food and beverages at every home match. This fall, Woodstock’s is moving locations to Ketmoree’s vacant location, which is a couple steps north of where Woodstock’s currently resides. Information about their new setup on G street will be sent to our email list soon!


  • Helmus Optometry: For over 34 years, Mark and Joann Helmus were “the docs” for your eyes in Davis. In 2019 Mark retired, with Ann following in 2020. While the practice founders are now enjoying their time away from the office, their daughter, Julie Helmus, took the reigns and began the second generation of Helmus optometrists in Davis. As the official pre-match shirt sponsor for our WPSL team, we could not be any happier to have the long serving Davis business represented by our young women on match days. And don't forget to go get your eyes checked…at Helmus!


  • Balance Point Pilates: For so many of us, treating our body better is always on the "to-do" list. Without the right motivation, it can be tough to get away from your computer....cell phone...iPad...TV...and every other distraction from daily life. Luckily, Balance Point Pilates is conveniently located downtown and offers a variety of training to get your body and mind sharp. With classes that fit everyone's schedule, you have no excuse but to pay them a visit on 5th street! Book your private or group session today :)


  • Heringer Estates: Do you love wine? Thought so. Our wine partners, Heringer Estates, have Davis roots both in the community and on the soccer field. You can find Heringer products Saturday's at the Davis Farmer's Market, or you book a visit and enjoy a nice day out in Clarksburg Wine Country! Oh, we also recommend you try their Wine Slushy. You can thank us later.


  • Kaplan Real Estate: Joe Kaplan is not only a grad of my alma mater (Go Illini!) he is a long time Davis resident with over 20 years of real estate experience. Kaplan Real Estate was launched over a decade ago, and is a go to agent when buying or selling a house in Yolo County. Reach out to Joe with all your Real Estate needs!


  • Recology: Just like on the soccer field, the proper functioning of a town requires teams to carry out operations to be successful. One of those critical tasks is trash collection. While many of us sprint outside on the morning of collection day when we hear "the truck" coming down the street, we sometimes take for granted how important these men and women are to Davis. Recology is helping lead the way in this space, presenting a fundamental shift from traditional waste management to resource recovery. A step that is much needed to help our planet. They are proud supporters of FC Davis, and we can not thank them enough for helping keep our city clean!


  • Yolo Athlete: Have you ever wanted to know who takes our amazing action shots on match day? That would be none other than local resident Chris Lossin, owner of Yolo Athlete! Chris is a photography extraordinaire and has brought to life countless events in and around Davis. If you need a great photographer and one of the nicest guys you'll ever meet, call Chris!


Expanding our programming relies heavily upon the support of our local businesses and local philanthropists. Their support allows us to leverage FC Davis to do more than just host soccer matches. So many of our current FC Davis supporters have ties to the program, which makes the impact even more special to our local community.


We love our sponsors! And if you want to get involved as an individual donor or business, contact us and we'll connect you with Scott Brayton, our sponsorship superstar.


Part VI: Looking Forward


So much to do, so little time!


As we move into 2023, there is a lot of work to be done behind the scenes to build upon the success we’ve experienced since 2017. Much of this work is tightening the screws to build better processes to make the back end of our club run smoother. FC Davis was operating at such a fast pace that we didn’t change some of our initial systems to match the current needs of the club. There is a big “to-do” list in this area which will help bring a ton of value to our supporters and fans within our community and beyond.


For a brief rundown of our three major initiatives building to 2023, check out the programs below:


FC Davis Women’s Team Model Update


A big article is going to be released on our women’s programming in September, and as a short preview, you can expect to read about our plans to move from a short summer season to a longer year round season. Instead of WPSL being our only competition of the year, it will be “a part” of the year. We’ve established the need for local players to have a home from May through July, but what about the other nine months? We’ll tackle that and much more in the next phase of building the Lionesses.


FC Davis U


We launched FC Davis U alongside four of our local communities clubs in late 2021. With a group of like minded leaders, we had a goal to transform the way a community college team could operate and challenge the expectations and standards currently in place for athletes within the CCCAA. Shortly after our soft launch of FCD-U, Woodland Community College contacted us communicating the school was ready to start a team of their own in Fall of 2022. We hit a (semi) pause button to evaluate how we can best support the WCC team. With word the WCC program is now pushed back, we will restart our program, with training centers available for high school junior and seniors starting this fall.


Youth Camp/Little Lions


This summer FC Davis spent time with over 300 local players during two weeks of summer camp. To continue the momentum (and from community asks!) we are looking to put together a winter camp and continue outreach to our local youth. Camps will be offered for players aged 12 and under.


In addition to our community camps, we anticipate the launch of Little Lions in early 2023, a program designed for players aged 8 and under that specializes in building coordination and social development skills through fun games and activities. Information on Little Lions will be made available on our website.


Lioness Club Memberships


Of all the initiatives we undertake, none are more important than pursuing equality through the platform that gives us our voice - the beautiful game of soccer.


Women's soccer is a critical part of the infrastructure of this country; a sport that has created countless role models and inspired children and young women to strive and achieve greatness in all areas of their life; to think bold, to think different, to think big.


In Davis, we can contribute to this infrastructure by building a home that welcomes players from all different backgrounds, providing an opportunity to showcase their skills and talents, while showcasing our town on a national stage.


The Lioness rely on the contributions of our local community to bring each season to life. We hope you join our annual mission to ensure that Davis will always be a home of the talented, doers, and dreamers, providing opportunity to the current generation, while inspiring the next generation so close behind.


To join the Lioness Club, please click HERE and more information will be sent your way!


Part V: Get Involved


FC Davis is built as a platform for our community. From students to fans of the game, we are committed to providing a home for those that want to get involved building their local club.

If you are an adult community member who would like to get involved with our NPSL, WPSL, or FCD U program, please send an email to info@footballclubdavis.com


If you are a college or high school student interested in an internship, please click on the link below:



If you are an aspiring NPSL and WPSL player, please click on the appropriate link below:



If you are an adult player seeking to join a recreational soccer, please click on the link below:



We look forward to an amazing build to 2023 with you. Please reach out to us with any questions.

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