Expansion: Team building exercise
On March 7, Sacramento Republic FC opened its 2020 USL campaign with a 1-1 draw against FC Tulsa in front of a record-setting home crowd of 11,569 at Papa Murphy’s Park. With its MLS debut looming in less than two years, the club had a long list of goals it still needed to accomplish, most notably building and securing a naming-rights deal for its new stadium a few miles away. But a big one — growing energy and excitement in its local market — appeared to be well in hand.
“Then the world stopped, as it should,” said Ben Gumpert, the club’s president and chief operating officer.
Before it could play its next game a week later, Sacramento Republic FC and the USL joined the rest of the sports world in shutting down operations due to the coronavirus outbreak. The pandemic hit the Republic head on when it became the first USL or MLS team to announce a positive COVID-19 test for a player (who has since recovered). Building the new 20,000-seat, $300 million stadium in the city’s railyards section was also delayed due to a state order halting nonessential construction.
The club isn’t alone, however, in facing new challenges as it prepares for its coming out party. Over the next two years, five expansion teams are scheduled to make their major league debuts — a new NHL team in Seattle coming in 2021-22, and four clubs in MLS; Austin and Charlotte will kick off in 2021, with Sacramento and St. Louis joining the following year.
At least, that’s the expectation. “Right now, everything is progressing as planned,” said an MLS source with knowledge of the situation. “I’m not so sure a month or two from now it will be the same. Ask us in September.”
Until then, those teams are conducting the business of an expansion team as planned, doing so amid a global pandemic and an economic crisis. Tickets are being sold, marketing and sponsorship deals are being discussed and staff is being hired and put in place with the idea that when both sports and the world return to normal, these teams will be ready to go as if nothing ever happened.
Of course, those teams are already feeling the impact on their ideas. Stay-at-home orders led to slowdowns on stadium construction, timelines on seat selections have been adjusted and even the formal announcement of team names has been delayed.
“I don’t think you can compare [this period] to anything else,” said Tom Glick, president of Tepper Sports & Entertainment. “That includes my parents’ generation and those who have paved the way in the sports business.”
Glick also serves as the president of MLS Charlotte, which planned to announce its team name at an event in late March that was derailed by COVID-19. A formal unveiling is expected to come sometime later this month, with the thinking that an announcement will assist in the team’s ticketing momentum. That includes about 7,500 deposits equating to 25,000 seats.
As the pandemic crisis grew in February and March, that would have been the time for Charlotte to hire, onboard and train new staffers, but those plans were put on pause. Instead, the club pivoted and looked internally at its Tepper Sports & Entertainment staff to see if they could rely on employees in departments such as marketing, content, community relations, finance and legal, among others, to take on MLS-related responsibilities in the short term.
Approximately 50 of Tepper Sports & Entertainment’s full-time employees are working on MLS Charlotte while the team has about 20 full-time individuals. At this time, though, Glick said the MLS club isn’t in a hurry to hire more staff, including an eventual new president to replace himself so he can focus on the Panthers and the larger company.
Other future expansion clubs, like NHL Seattle and Austin FC, don’t have the luxury of relying on existing staff. Austin President Andy Loughnane said the team, which has about 45 full-timers, has “strategically delayed a select number of positions that would have otherwise been scheduled to start.” The team did hire James Ruth in late March from the league office as senior vice president of marketing.
“We’re controlling expenses in the smartest and most difficult way possible just like any other business might at this stage,” said Loughnane. He also said the team is still in growth mode with pent-up demand locally and has added season-ticket deposits nearly every day since the deposit drive launch on June 12, 2019. To date, there are 42,000 “seats under deposit.”
Todd Humphrey, senior vice president of digital and fan experience at NHL Seattle, said that the team has onboarded about 25 people during COVID-19 and the past 90 days, including a half dozen staff on his technology team. Those individuals will largely be tasked in the short term with developing the team’s mobile app.
“We think it’s going to be very unique to the sports business,” he said of the app. “It’s going to allow for a fan experience that we think is going to be top-of-class, highly focused on cutting down on wasted time for fans.”
Between 75 and 80 staffers are employed between NHL Seattle and Oak View Group’s connection to the team. Every department has seen new people join, Humphrey said, with a rough estimate of 10 to 20 additional staffers being hired in the coming months. The message from ownership? Full steam ahead.
“Typically, you want to have a gut check with people, but we’ve had to lean on the video experience and lean on our people to ensure we’re hiring the right individuals,” said Humphrey, who added that one-on-one 15-minute coffee sessions for new employees and virtual happy hours have been important to build quicker connections during the pandemic. “There really was no choice [to delay the hires].”
Despite hiring being on track, general seat selection for roughly 14,000 seats was postponed in March due to COVID-19. Like the 2,600-club seat selection process, where fans could walk into the team’s preview center and choose their seats in person, Seattle is hoping to provide a similar option when it’s safe based on local health and safety guidelines. Fans will also be able to select their seats virtually without altering their priority number, Humphrey said.
“That’s the biggest aspect of the business that has been affected,” he added.
When asked about Seattle formally announcing its name and branding, Humphrey declined to disclose specifics or if an unveiling could come before July 4, saying that the team and ownership is mindful of the sensitivities related to Seattle being one of the first U.S. cities hit with the coronavirus.
“We’re going through the last strokes on what we think the name is,” he said. “We’re really close, and we’re going through some finalities there.”
Other delays have centered around ongoing construction projects. The organization lost two days on the renovation of the New Arena at Seattle Center as well as three weeks related to construction on its training facility and headquarters, but both have continued on without any changes to a summer 2021 opening, Humphrey said.
The pause in physical construction for Sacramento Republic FC’s new stadium, meanwhile, has given the team a chance to take a fresh perspective. Specifically, it is able to rethink how it works with domestic versus international stadium suppliers; construction staffing requirements as it relates to social distancing; and new on-site cleaning measures, Gumpert said.
In fact, one of the silver linings for some teams amid the pandemic has been the time to evaluate all facets of the business. Seattle has created a task force program around 10 areas of the team, such as community relations, game-day presentation, safety and security, winning the casual fan and servicing fans. All employees participated in the voluntary initiative, with most serving on one group different from their core line of work.
According to Humphrey, the new program has allowed all 10 groups to get into the details of all issues. For example, with the safety and security task force, the group dug deep into thinking about the fan journey from his or her home to the arena until they return afterward. What is the experience like from a health perspective? How could biometric technology ease the fan experience? How are hard surfaces being treated now versus pre-coronavirus? Where are the additional safety measures that need to be implemented for ingress and egress? These are the types of questions now being explored. Humphrey said he’s not sure if Seattle would have organized the task force had it not been for COVID-19.
Those questions will be answered by the time the puck drops in Seattle. At that point, those across the country who had a similar role in bringing a team to life will be able to look back on the monumental task of doing so under extraordinary circumstances and ask themselves an even more amazing question.
“How did we do that?”
Launch pad: Expansion teams’ status check
Scheduled debut season: 2021
Stadium update: Construction has continued following a brief stoppage
Team name: Austin FC
Key sponsors/partners: Yeti Coolers (jersey), St. David’s HealthCare (training facility)
Team president: Andy Loughnane
General manager/sporting director: Claudio Reyna
Scheduled debut season: 2021
Stadium update: Bank of America Stadium, home of the Carolina Panthers; future stadium TBD
Team name: To be announced in June
Key sponsors/partners: Ally Financial (jersey)
Team president:Tom Glick General manager/sporting director: Zoran Krneta
Scheduled debut season: 2021-22
Stadium update: Construction on the New Arena at Seattle Center has been delayed just two days due to coronavirus, expected opening in summer 2021
Team name: To be announced this summer
Key sponsors/partners: Alaska Airlines, Symetra Financial Corp., Virginia Mason, Muckleshoot Casino
Team president: Tod Leiweke
General manager/sporting director: Ron Francis
Sacramento Republic FC
Scheduled debut season: 2022
Stadium update: Construction has not begun as a result of COVID-19, though it remains on a 19- to 21-month timeline ahead of the 2022 season
Team name: Sacramento Republic FC
Key sponsors/partners: UC Davis Health (jersey), Raley’s, Western Health Advantage
Team president: Ben Gumpert
General manager/sporting director: Todd Dunivant
MLS St. Louis
Scheduled debut season: 2022
Stadium update: Construction has continued on the 22,500-seat stadium, scheduled to open prior to the 2022 season
Team name: TBD
Key sponsors/partners: None
Team president: Position not yet filled
General manager/sporting director: Position not yet filled