The Fort Lauderdale Strikers were purchased from Traffic Sports by a group of Brazilian investors in September. The new ownership group assumed control of the club mid-November following the Strikers 2-1 defeat in the NASL title game.
The ownership group which promised big things has gotten off to what can only be termed diplomatically as a shaky start – In reality the club has had a disastrous winter, one which for past lower league entries in the American soccer pyramid has often led to an eventual collapse.
As a brand, the Strikers can trace lineage back to 1977 but this incarnation of the club began play in 2006 as Miami FC. From 2006 to 2008, Miami FC sported crowds of a couple hundred die-hard fans at Tropical Park Stadium. In 2009 the club relocated to Fort Lauderdale temporarily and did so permanently in 2010. The club rebranded as the Fort Lauderdale Strikers in 2011 but with the exception of Tim Robbie, the club President, the links to the original Strikers are non-existent. In fact, this is fourth different professional soccer team to play at Fort Lauderdale’s Lockhart Stadium and call itself the Strikers, and third to feature in the historical alphabet soup of American minor league soccer. The original Strikers were a massive team, operating in an era before the European Union allowed the free movement of players on the continent and at a time when South Florida lacked big-time professional sports beyond the Miami Dolphins. Recreating anything like the original Strikers is nearly impossible in this day and age.
When the team was rebranded as the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, efforts were made to create linkage with the historical legacy of the club name. As one of the few people in the room during the deliberations on the rebrand (and one of the most enthusiastic about the marketing potential of the rebrand considering I served as a Strikers ball boy when I was growing up) I have a personal pride in ownership of the club. Unfortunately, this winter has brought discontent among many who support the club or follow the team. While nostalgia is important, building a local supporters base among newer soccer fans, the Millennials who have made the sport one of the fastest growing was more important. In a few short years, England’s Premier League has gone from being screened exclusively in pubs to a regular staple of NBC’s Sports lineup. This has happened because of fans between the ages of 18 and 35, not because of anyone who remembers the original Strikers of the 1970’s.
The new ownership group is fronted locally by Ricardo Geromel, an upbeat and enthusiastic young man who is in his late 20’s. Geromel has a background in media having contributed to Forbes online blogs in addition to other work. Geromel’s brother Pedro is a footballer of some note in Brazil.
A wave of enthusiasm among fans and local elected officials followed the takeover of the club. Previous owners, Traffic Sports, a Sao Paulo based company whose American headquarters is in Miami were seen as owners who were not focused on the local market by many fans. The new owners appeared to be different.
However, signs of trouble appeared almost immediately after the takeover. Geromel in a moment of untrained youthful energy mocked David Beckham who is seeking to bring a Major League franchise twenty miles down the road in Miami as an “underwear model” in an early October online chat with fans. Weeks later the ownership group leaked to the media that they had agreed to a contract extension with popular and successful Head Coach Günter Kronsteiner when in fact no such extension had been agreed to. The owners also spoke openly about making the Strikers a massive global brand even though locally the team was probably less known or popular than about three dozen other professional soccer teams around the world.
Tom Mulroy, who served as President of the club under previous owners Traffic Sports left the team days after the Strikers lost the NASL Championship game to San Antonio, and with him went a great amount of the work the organization had done locally. Mulroy’s efforts were beginning to gradually pay off as the Strikers approached 6,000 paid fans in each of the last two home games of the successful 2014 season. But since Mulroy’s departure the new ownership has chosen to shift tactics, moving away from a model that saw the Strikers attend dozens of community events a week and replacing that with the types of big ideas and hyperbole that seem completely out of place considering the Strikers status.
Soon after, the Kronsteiner left the club and penned a letter to the fans. Below are selected excerpts from this letter:
“In advance I would like to apologize for my English”
I am very sorry to have to announce that I will definitely not be returning to the Fort Lauderdale Strikers for the 2015 season. I thought since I truly enjoyed working for the Strikers organization and enjoyed the community and the soccer fans of South Florida so much. I felt it was important that I make clear what really happened and why I will not be returning to the club. No spins, no bullshit just the behind the scenes facts.
We were hoping new owners with vision and financial whereabouts would come and give us a competitive budget fort he coming season. The new Brazilian ownership has officially announced that they wanted to keep the organization together and they would keep Tom Mulroy and Gunter Kronsteiner. As the weeks went on the new ownership group said they did not “want to disturb the focus of the team” and they would wait until after the season to secure the coach and the players for 2015. This charade went on for weeks right up to and even mentioned at the championship NASL press conference where they again talked about waiting until after the season to secure the coach and his players. Even though very few of our players had options and most of our players would be let loose into the open free-market for free agents.
On Monday November 16 right before the final team talk and check out for our player physicals. Ricardo Geromel told me that the new Brazilian ownership group had hired a Brazilian sports manager and that he will arrive in Fort Lauderdale early December and it would be his job to oversee all the sporting business of the team including the relationship with me and my contract. I would have been obviously no longer in charge of my team.
In the team meeting I told the players that I could not tell them anything about next year or what their future with the club was at this point.
We said our goodbyes and I headed back to Europe
Few days ago I received a call from the new Brazilian ownership group. The bottom line is that they made me an offer that was not only less than third the amount of what I was receiving last year, but clearly this was below the lowest amount that any coach in the NASL was making last year. It was truly not an offer just absolutely an unprofessional and disrespectful way to try to spin reality. They just did not want me back and were not big enough people to say it. Obviously from the first day it was their plan to go .
As you all know I have been in soccer for more than 40 years and I have never been so badly treated and disrespected. Tha nk you everyone for your support. I love South Florida and the people but especially my team!
Within days of Kronsteiner’s letter the rival Tampa Bay Rowdies signed three starters from last year’s Strikers side, including Darnell King, who is considered by many the best right-back plying his trade in the United States outside MLS. The Rowdies hired former US U-20 coach, MLS Head Coach and Fort Lauderdale Striker legend Thomas Rongen to lead the team forward. Rongen had played for the original Strikers and the secon Strikers and also managed the second Strikers. With ties directly to South Florida, Tampa Bay quickly assembled a roster that included four former Strikers players as well as young star from Broward County.
Sources indicate that each Striker player from last year’s squad was offered a contract similar to last year’s pay or at an even lower level despite coming inches away from winning the NASL title. High-level coaches that were interested in the job vacated by Kronsteiner were either turned away or insulted at the negotiating tactics employed by the team’s owners.
The handling of the media has also been a sore subject, especially given Geromel’s background. Acclaimed Miami-based journalist Simon Evans penned a piece that got international play in The Guardian that pointed out some of the ridiculous statements by the owners in regards to questions about practical matters. The owners who have discussed such subjects as beer drones, incubators for small business and selling shirts in Germany are long on ambition but short on reasonable and modest goals.
At a January 14 press conference announcing the addition of Brazilian playing legend Ronaldo to the ownership group, Geromel was evasive with the assembled media. Local reporter Pedro Heizer of the Boca Raton Tribune, who has covered the team probably closer than any other writer since 2012 was given the hairdryer treatment by Geromel.
When Heizer attempted to follow up on statement regarding the Strikers stadium plans that Geromel had given during the news conference, the young co-owner said:
“I think that’s the reporters fault in the way they have told the stories. They [the fans] are worried? Well then, they should try and look at the big picture. In sports, fans tend to be short-term.”
The irony of this, is that many reporters, including myself and Heizer have attempted to ask this ownership group what exactly this big picture vision is, but have never been given real answers, simply fluffy rhetoric and over-the-top hyperbole. Geromel also stated the fans were wrong to be concerned about the team’s direction.
“I don’t want to appeal to the fans,” said Geromel to Heizer (who writes for 90 Minutes Strong and The Boca Raton Tribune). “If fans took their emotions away from the players and sit back and think ‘Why are these new owners doing this?’ without getting worked up over players who have left, they would get it. People get too attached to players.”
This statement was ironic coming less than a week after one of Geromel’s partner, Rafael Bertani had appeared on the Supporters Group’s radio program to appease the fans. Bertani on the program stated the Strikers had a coach and had signed 18 players that would be announced the following week. However, 17 days later the Strikers have only announced the signing of seven players and were known to be negotiating with multiple head coaching candidates at the time. Bertani had also strongly implied during the broadcast that the Strikers felt that Tampa Bay had overpaid for the three players they signed and that player values going up during a run to the Championship game was bad for the team. In a twist of irony, Tampa Bay began preseason conditioning and training work before Fort Lauderdale finally named a coach this past Tuesday. The Rowdies also have almost three times as many players under contract currently even though the Strikers had a far more successful 2014 season.
My story as a media member dealing with the club since the takeover is similar to what has been chronicled above. Despite having served as the club’s play-by-play announcer and prior to that as the League Communications Director who had a special relationship with the club I have been stonewalled in any attempt to understand the vision for the club. The team’s remaining communications staff has attempted to be helpful but on multiple occasions, going back to early December, Geromel has been evasive. The club was even unable to send a simple, free ad for this site to advertise season ticket sales when asked in mid-December. By comparison, the Rowdies sent multiple sized ads and links for me within 15 minutes of my request.
NASL Commissioner Bill Peterson and his predecessor David Downs both did an excellent job of finding high-level owners for existing teams that needed more investment and transitioning those clubs forward. The success of the NASL’s approach in finding local owners that are well-connected in the community and politically is completely different than what we are witnessing in Fort Lauderdale.
Geromel seems to be a good-hearted young man who is unseasoned at this game. However the litany of mistakes made thus far in almost every department indicate he needs more experienced soccer and communications professionals around him. We’ll delve into the Strikers Management team and what exactly the vision of the club might really be on Tuesday.
TUESDAY: PART II – WHO MANAGES THE STRIKERS AND WHAT EXACTLY IS THE VISION AND END GAME FOR THE CLUB?