Supporter-owned San Francisco City FC wants to represent a city in transition. Will it be a beacon for the community?
There are few cities on the planet as well-known for rejecting the status quo as thoroughly as San Francisco. A home for dreamers since the Gold Rush, the strong counter culture tradition of the city has led to the birth of everything from psychedelic rock ‘n’ roll to the fast paced world of tech startups. Though tech companies have brought plenty of new money and new residents to the city, they have also triggered a battle for the soul of San Francisco. Today, protesters picket Google buses and demand increases in the minimum wage, believing that the increasingly ubiquitous tech workers will soon anesthetize the city that they love.
Last year, the fight surprisingly spilled onto a soccer field. In a much publicized incident, tech workers tried to kick a local pick-up game off a field. For those against the tech boom, it epitomized their claim that tech workers are indifferent to the local community, colonizers rather than neighbors.
Into this charged atmosphere steps San Francisco City FC, a club that aspires to be a professional, member-owned, non-profit club playing at the highest possible level. SF City board chairperson Mike Gonos, a fan of football since the days of the original NASL, believes this is absolutely attainable, “We are the capital of the Bay Area and we deserve a team.”
With increasingly few things uniting long-time residents and recent transplants to the Bay, SF City’s founders believe there is an opportunity for football to fulfill a role it has historically played the world over, bringing together otherwise disparate groups to support their city. “I view a football club as more than a sporting organization,” says Gonos, “It’s the glue that pulls everybody together, because football is the game of the people, it’s not the same as other sports. It has that tradition, and we want to live up to that.”
The movement to create a professional club in San Francisco began, unsurprisingly, on social media. Specifically a Twitter handle, @NASL2SF, that in late 2013 put forward the idea of a high-level football club in San Francisco. Tweeting about potential venues for the team to play and recalling pieces of the city’s footballing history (three San Francisco clubs have won the U.S. Open Cup), the handle piqued a lot of interest. The idea percolated in the local soccer community, attracting groups like the San Francisco Football Supporters Association, the local chapter of the American Outlaws.
Tweets and forum threads led to a meeting at the venerable pub, Mad Dog in the Fog, which saw this new group draw inspiration from the ownership model of Bundesliga clubs and the socios of Spain as well as other American supporter funded clubs like Nashville FC and Grand Rapids FC. There the foundations of the new club were laid down: the club would be majority-owned by dues paying members, every member would have a vote, and every member would be eligible to be elected to the board of directors.
Armed with a vision, the group now needed an actual squad. Luckily a founding member knew just the person, SF City founder Jonathan Wright. Just over a decade ago, Wright formed SF City and entered it into a local amateur league, dreaming that one day his club could grow into a professional team. Wright joined forces with the group from the Mad Dog. The group recruited players, found a spot in the NorCal Premier Soccer League and now hope of someday moving into either NASL or USL, the second and third divisions in the American football pyramid.
SF City hopes to generate a good chunk of funds via memberships ($50 for an annual membership, $350 for a lifetime membership), but they will also need more investment to achieve their vision of becoming a professional club. The U.S. Soccer Federation has steep requirements to become a professional club. To enter Division III (currently USL), a club must prove that it can meet all financial obligations without fail for three years, after which the club must designate one principal owner. Said owner must have a net worth of $10,000,000 and a controlling interest of at least 35%. Though there is no shortage of the capital in the Bay Area, the city has seen plenty of startups crash and burn. SF City must ensure that it grows sustainably to avoid the fate of so many other defunct clubs that litter the landscape of U.S. football.
“The one thing that’s not in flux is the 51% control by the membership,” says Gonos, “They don’t want a corporate team.” Though Gonos and others in the club admit such a process could potentially hinder growth, the club already has three sponsors: Classy, a fundraising platform for social good organizations, Campaign Monitor, an email marketing agency and Street Soccer USA, dedicated to uplifting urban youth through soccer.
The club itself has the vibe of a tech startup, seemingly a no-brainer in a city like San Francisco but one that comes with certain risks. The tech boom that started a safe distance away in suburban Palo Alto has, over the last decade or so, become increasingly dominant culturally in San Francisco. Long-time residents have learned the hard way to be wary of savvy social media campaigns, from which they hear great promises but generally only see rising rent. Like any new app or piece of hardware, SF City will need to prove that there is substance beneath the well-styled marketing.
The club has started to prove themselves on the pitch. In April, they attracted 1,519 fans to their U.S. Open Cup match. Though the number does not appear at first glance to be earth shattering, it was a record crowd for an early round U.S. Open Cup game and a sign of the city’s growing appetite for football.
But potentially their most important work so far has came through the club’s nascent youth program, SF City Juniors. Launched in 2012, club founder Jonathan Wright now heads up the youth arm of the club. Though the city has a few well-funded youth clubs, there are many independent teams without access to enough equipment and funding. It’s those teams that SF City is seeking to bring into the club, which Wright believes will help forge a strong connection between the team and the community. “Kids have to see adults playing this game and how they approach it, what it can be for them,” says Wright.
Mark Barbeau, founder of FootySF.com, a hub for information on all things football related in San Francisco, sees positives for the young club. “It’s an uphill battle, I’ve been following their progress and I think they’ve done a lot in a short period of time. So far they haven’t rubbed people the wrong way but it’s a matter of how they carry through on their mission, [soccer in San Francisco] is very much a community…and if you try to access that community without trying to lend a hand and build it and try to cynically just capitalize on it without really being a part of it, it will bite you in the ass.”
While the club dreams about a professional future, life for the members of the first team remains thoroughly amateur. Brothers Andrew and Jordan Gardner share the responsibilities of managing the on-field aspects of the club, from training and tactics to recruitment. The intrusions of daily life can make even fielding the team a tricky proposition. “Since we do not pay our players, and they all work day jobs,” says Andrew Garner, “It is very difficult to get the best 18 for every single match we play.”
Sometimes it’s not just the 9 to 5 and family schedules but long term reasons like job relocations, injuries or occasionally players being signed to professional clubs that force unplanned rotation in the starting lineup. For the brothers, this means that recruitment is a top priority. Including reserve players, the full roster numbers close to 50, “We are constantly looking for new talent, and bringing high quality talent out to practices,” says Garner.
In the coming months SF City will put that talent to the test. Their aim on the field is to finish their league campaign undefeated as well as scheduling as many high-quality friendlies as possible. The club recently took on Stanford’s men’s team in Palo Alto and are hoping to bring in sides from USL and NASL.
For the players, the drive to professionalize the club also means their own future with the team is in jeopardy. If the team makes the leap to USL or NASL, very few members of the current squad will be able to compete at a higher-level. It’s the same tension that exists on the club’s business side where growth will require the team to potentially give one investor more control over the club’s operations, mortgaging community input for financial viability.
“To be candid, I don’t think any of us know exactly what will happen next or how exactly we’ll fit in,” says co-captain Adam Ringler, “As the movement continues to gain momentum and the guys behind the scenes push the club closer to the fully professional level, I’m sure my time will come to move on. From there, I’ll just be psyched to say I was a part of it.”
If you’re in San Francisco check out SF City FC’s site for their summer fixture dates and youth programs
This article originally stated that the NorCal Premier Soccer League is the fourth division of the U.S. Soccer pyramid. It is not and the article has been amended to reflect that.