Read Part 1 here
Transitions and change are never easy. Each NASL club in recent years that has changed ownership or management has gone through a difficult transition. I was part of a transition at the league level that saw several senior staff, myself included out of work. But Commissioner Bill Peterson had a plan and a rationale for going forward in the way he did. His years of experience in the soccer business entitled him to make the decisions he made and his leadership has attempted to steer the NASL through the choppy waters of American professional soccer.
So far so good for Peterson as his decisions on ownership and expansion have been spot on thus far, provided he gets the convoluted Oklahoma City situation fixed. Peterson looks especially good when compared to his former colleague, MLS Commissioner Don Garber, whose duplicitous statements on expansion and mishandling of the New York City FC fiasco have made him a mockable figure in the past year. However, Fort Lauderdale provides perhaps a greater challenge than any other the NASL has faced under Peterson and in this particular case a place where the league had to get it right, it appears to be going pear-shaped.
The Miami/Fort Lauderdale market is the single largest metro area where NASL has a team and MLS does not. Garber and David Beckham have announced an intention to place a team in Miami by 2017, but delays and political problems locally have stalled that effort for now. This delay gave NASL and the Strikers an unexpected opening they had to take advantage of to remain a viable force in the market when Beckham does arrive. But this offseason has been one of confusion and questions.
Pro soccer in the United States consists of political fiefdoms, factions and sub units of each. Coming from the political world, I found soccer in this country to be far more “political” than politics itself. Navigating this minefield is especially difficult for younger or unseasoned professionals. The Strikers have unfortunately since November mixed naivety with a certain degree of arrogance. The overworked and underpaid team staff has done the best job they could but have fallen short thanks to the issues we are describing in this series.
When the Strikers new ownership took over they had a grand vision for the club. One that leveraged global branding into a football club that could be profitable. The problem is that in the minor leagues of American soccer making money is very difficult, and getting to those lofty goals takes some meticulous planning and understanding of the marketplace.
Appearing on the January 8, 2015 Tailgate Show, co-owner Rafael Bertani admitted that the due diligence process for the investors in buying the Strikers had begun during the 2014 calendar year. This is a shockingly short period of time to evaluate the market, considering the team was bought in September. By comparison, Indy Eleven, one of the best stories in American soccer took years to come to fruition. Owner Ersal Ozdemir first looked at the market in 2009 and initially spent time evaluating NASL in the first half of 2010, yet did not announce the team had joined the league until January 2013, more than three years after he had begun the process.
In his Tailgate Show appearance, Bertani also mentioned that the owners had spent some time in Phoenix in order to understand American soccer better. In fact, Ricardo Geromel had spent some time in Phoenix early in 2014. Andre Chaves, the recently named Director of Soccer who has an ownership stake in the Strikers had attempted to purchase the ailing USL Pro franchise Phoenix FC last year. Chaves had promised a link to Phoenix FC with the Brazilian club Botofogo. It also is very possible Geromel was lined up to run the club on a day-to-day basis as he was working with Chaves at the time.
But Botofogo, represented by Ayrton Mandarino the Commercial Director of the club and a middleman Sam Mormen were talking with USL Pro directly as well as with potential expansion groups in other cities. Botofogo’s reps also met with Orlando City SC President Phil Rawlins and potential expansion groups from an unnamed west coast city as well as Hartford.
Around this time Chaves was denied the opportunity to buy the club by USL Pro and the team folded. It was replaced quickly by Arizona United FC who competed during the 2014 USL Pro season. Botofgo continued to talk with USL PRO officials and potential expansion groups with Chaves involvement. A source close to the USL PRO league hierarchy told us that Chaves was rejected as an owner “by the league itself.” Chaves may have well been involved in Botofogo’s efforts to secure another USL franchise but one prospective USL expansion owner who dealt with Botofogo indicated to me he had never heard of Chaves.
Based on our USL source, Chaves was rejected as an owner by the third-division USL Pro but somehow has become a partner in the a second division club. The second division league, NASL has at least in theory far more stringent ownership standards than USL Pro. It is possible that Chaves was added as an owner after the sale of the Strikers was completed? In that case should the NASL have vetted him? Does the NASL have policies regarding the vetting of minority owners?
In May 2010 during my first year as NASL Communications Director we faced a situation in St Louis where the owner of the club Jeff Cooper had transferred shares in the team to the London-based Vaid brothers who ran out of money and skipped town in the middle of the season. The Vaid brothers were never vetted or approved as owners by the NASL. While the Chaves situation isn’t identical, given the Strikers unwillingness to spend decent money on players and coaches thus far under the new ownership, questions must be asked of the league and team.
Both the NASL and the Strikers declined to respond to inquiries on whether Andre Chaves was vetted as an owner for the club.
Chaves being named Director of Soccer was a factor in the departure of respected coach Günter Kronsteiner and the inability to attract other respected coaches who were interested in the job. Chaves had previously never worked in soccer and multiple sources have indicated his desire for control over soccer decisions coupled with his relationship with the ownership group would have made the situation untenable for an experienced pro coach. This also factored into the decisions by some players to leave Fort Lauderdale, though a bigger factor in these choices were money and the Strikers’ perceived lack of professionalism when compared to other NASL clubs.
But the Strikers do boast a big name co-owner with deep pockets. That would be the Brazilian playing legend Ronaldo who last kicked a ball professionally in February 2011. Since, then he has been involved in a variety of businesses including his own soccer academy. Running concurrent with Ronaldo’s start of involvement with the Strikers was a deal between the club and Brazilian giants Corinthians, one of the Brazilian great’s former clubs.
In June 2013, Orlando City had played a friendly against Corinthians at the Citrus Bowl, and that week high-level discussions between the Strikers and the club began. It appears the process of a partnership may have already been in motion when the current owners took over the club but they must be given full marks for closing the deal and bringing Corinthians to Fort Lauderdale for a week in early January.
The Strikers got a major boost in local and international press when Ronaldo was announced as a co-owner in December 2014, though many of the MLS-centric soccer writers who self-police the blogosphere and twitter attempted to ignore the story. But the defensive nature of these writers reaction to Ronaldo indicated that the story was in fact a big deal.
But following the Ronaldo announcement, the Strikers oddly took two weeks off for the Holidays. It was during this period Tampa Bay loaded up on former Strikers players and the momentum from the Ronaldo announcement appeared to be lost. The club was the last in NASL to put its schedule on the team website and instead of aggressively marketing season ticket sales for the holidays as had been done prior to the 2011, 2013 and 2014 seasons, the club took time off and waited for January.
Upon returning from the holidays in January, the club had a laundry list of things to accomplish in a relatively short period of time. But the focus remained on the former Brazilian player, including the manufacture of 5,000 car magnets with Ronaldo’s face on them (pictured). Orlando City had devised a strategy of getting 10,000 magnets on cars around Central Florida with the new club crest but Fort Lauderdale’s strategy was to place 5,000 car magnets with Ronaldo’s face around the community. Had Orlando City employed this same strategy with Kaka’s face they would have been widely mocked. But for the Strikers, Ronaldo trumped the actual brand. ”
“He is getting more and more and more excited with every second that goes by. We have a fantastic agenda for him. Tonight we are going to have a world-class party,” said Geromel about Ronaldo on January 14. “Ronaldo does a lot. He opens hundreds of thousands, every door. As he says, he is 100% committed”.
However the 100% commitment of the Brazilian superstar has to be questioned considering recent events. Ronaldo was in south Florida after competing in a poker tournament in the Bahamas. After doing a private sit down with SI’s Grant Wahl, Ronaldo did a press conference on January 14. The event was not so ironically held at a casino, Hollywood’s Hard Rock. After the “world class party” that Geromel described the team basked in the spotlight of international press. Unfortunately some of it was less than positive as Simon Evans column in The Guardian and Pedro Heizer’s 90 Minutes Strong piece indicated.
Meanwhile much of the hard work done by Geromel and his fiance Madison Stanford the club’s co-managing partner was being undone by Ronaldo. The previous four years the Strikers did poorly in selling sponsorship. The early returns on the commercial side for the Strikers new ownership were extremely positive. As opposed to recent years, doors were opening for the club.
But Ronaldo who was supposed to open more doors began to make the job of Geromel and Stanford even tougher. After a late cancellation to drop the puck at a Florida Panthers game on January 16, he blew off fans and a major team sponsor the next day at the club’s fan fest. Ronaldo’s reasoning to skip out of the fan fest early? He had to go play poker.
Ronaldo’s disappearance invites the obvious comparison with David Beckham. It is inconceivable to imagine a man of Beckham’s stature and public image blowing off fans, sponsors or the Florida Panthers in order to play poker or do anything else for that matter. While Strikers fans including the supporters group Flight 19 have attempted make a positive Ronaldo vs. Beckham comparison, the reality is the two former Real Madrid teammates are miles apart in terms of stature, professionalism and image. One must also assume despite Ronaldo’s rhetoric about south Florida and soccer his motivations for investing in the Strikers are to play poker at local casinos and to bank profits off a new soccer academy in Broward County he plans to start. Beckham’s motivations for a Miami-based MLS team could be also business related but his overall commitment to the area and to the sport will likely be better than Ronaldo’s.
In preparing this series, I have also been reminded by many about Ronaldo’s image problems – most notably this 2008 night out in Milan. Also of note is Ronaldo’s public spat with fellow Brazilian legend Romario, a former Miami FC player (Miami FC became the Fort Lauderdale Strikers after the 2010 season) over the level of graft and corruption that surrounded the 2014 FIFA World Cup which was held in Brazil. His image is not anywhere near that of David Beckham regardless of whatever efforts the Strikers and NASL make to prove otherwise.
Ricardo Geromel and Madison Stanford are well-meaning and smart young professionals. From my vantage point it is unfortunate they were not given the tools or knowledge for immediate success. Instead they seemed to have been led on a merry dance, where funds are less readily available than had hoped, the political game within the soccer community wasn’t played well
The vitriol that some fans have directed towards Geromel and Stanford is unfortunate. They are after all trying the best they can with limited resources and virtually no tools. The same can be said for the competent and hard working staff holdovers from the previous regime. But ultimately, Ronaldo, Chaves and the Brazilian-based owners must give Geromel and his staff the ability to succeed and let the media and fans understand what exactly the long-term plan is. Up to this point in time neither has been done.
In the next and final installment of this series we will look at the club’s future under this ownership group.
Thursday’s Part III – Ultimately Beckham is coming to town. What is the future of the Strikers?