Why Stings son has gone in search of the new Messi to launch City of Angels FC
Joe Sumner, a Newcastle fan. Evertonian PJ Harrison are aiming to make American soccer more blue collar with their new club in California
It went largely unnoticed but something unusual occurred this week: two Englishmen became owners of a foreign football club. it's their creation too. The licence has been granted, a long-term business plan and proof of funding vetted and now City of Angels FC the latest addition to the growing football scene in Los Angeles has until the start of the National Premier Soccer League season in March to finalise terms on a stadium, appoint a director of football and construct its first team. No one ever said it was going to be easy.
City of Angels FC is the brainchild of PJ Harrison, an Evertonian from St Helens. Joe Sumner, a Newcastle United fan from London, two LA-based friends who met through the entertainment industry. Harrison is a creative director who's worked with Lauryn Hill while Sumner is a musician and app developer. His father is Sting, hence the Newcastle allegiance and a refusal to succumb to Spurs or Arsenal while growing up in north London.
Following a two-year process, a payment of around $20,000 for the licence, plus league fees, countless meetings with potential investors, sponsors, stadium owners and coaches, they're the proud and bold owners of the newest team in the fourth division of the US football pyramid.
Music is a tricky world right now so we were always talking about the next big idea when we were in the pub watching Newcastle or Everton, Sumner says. PJ started talking to people in the US football scene and we started investigating the possibility of starting our own club. We've been through every permutation you can think of and finally found our feet at the bottom of the ladder. We looked at USL, NASL but decided NPSL is exactly what we need. We want to start a club from the ground up, make sure its real and that the fans and players are equally important. MLS is very well run and professional but the rest of the US is like the Wild West as far as football is concerned.
The costs of running a club in NPSL are minimal compared with MLS six figures over the long term. City of Angels travel expenses will be contained by competing in the Southwest Conference but the potential returns are disproportionately high. Harrison explains: NPSL has teams that attract crowds from 250 to 7,500, in some cases higher. There is a huge variance but theres nothing to prevent you building a large club in any of the divisions.
Detroit City get 7,500 people. We felt that for a much smaller investment on a licence to join NPSL. Instead of putting millions into an MLS franchise, that money could be going into a team and youth development and we could see as high an attendance in that league as we could in divisions two and three.
The San Fernando Valley has been chosen as home of City of Angels and the location is crucial. LA is due to have two MLS clubs by 2018 when the Galaxy, based in Carson, are joined downtown by Los Angeles FC. I live on the west side and it can be a two-hour drive to get to Carson, Sumner says. For a game on a Wednesday night it's impossible. That leaves the valley, home to 1.8m people and a vast market for potential supporters and players. Harrison and Sumner share a belief that for all the strides made by MLS and others leagues the game in the US has yet to capitalise on its resources and create a clear route from the grassroots to the professional game. Facilities are often superior to those in European cities of similar size but US clubs, they argue, can struggle to generate the fanatical support and community relations evident in Britain, in part because working-class kids are priced out of a career in the game from the outset.
Sumner says: We think there is a huge amount of untapped potential in the city. Ive lived in LA for seven years and seen a huge change in how football is perceived. Interest is much more widespread but the culture is begging for real clubs that can attract fans with almost a religious fervour like you get in Europe. The club culture here can be a little forced, with teams just packing up and moving to a different city. Ill never understand that. We want our club to be something that people invest in emotionally, where they've that immediate sense of panic that I get whenever Im watching Newcastle.
There are millions of talented athletes in the US and a lot of excellent facilities but football is culturally different to England. it's more of a luxury, an extra-curricular sport where parents send their kids on summer camps.
The working-class kids who come through at Liverpool, Everton or Newcastle wouldnt get the same opportunity here. In basketball and baseball there is a route from the grassroots to the professional game but football is seen as something a little fancier. We want to take that barrier away. There has to be an American Messi out there and its crazy to think clubs might be missing discovering a talent like that because they're charging kids.
Harrison adds: we're not going to charge. we'll hold try-outs, we'll make it accessible, we'll help with transport if we can and make it as inclusive as we can. it's tempting to charge $180 a month for kids to train with your youth team, as other clubs do. In the long term, if we want to move a player to Europe, that's a short-sighted approach and not what football is about for us.
Ultimately we want to find players who could play in the US national team, the Mexican national team or in Europe. We think that's completely viable with the right coaching and player identification. With the population size and the facilities in the area, why couldnt we turn out an average Premier League player at some point? that's a huge motivation for us.
The pair have attracted investors and are negotiating to rent an existing stadium in the valley. they've also held talks with high-profile former players over a director of football role.
But, as Harrison admits: Some of our thoughts are more left-field than a conventional football model. A local street artist has been approached to design a club crest that reflects the city, in keeping with the co-founders aims to create an identifiable LA brand, while entertainment contacts will help turn match-day into a mini-festival experience.
Harrison says: We want to build a team that works with the community, that's commercially successful and is interesting. In a way it's kind of an art project and NPSL gives you the flexibility for that.
City of Angels has consumed the pair and their workload will intensify as they put a team together while engaging with the San Fernando Valley community. Are they not taking a substantial risk? The risk is the fun part, Harrison says. We could show up there and it'll just be me and Joe in the stands. that's possible but we'll only know before the first game. Thats a bit scary but also exciting. NPSL allows you to build an organic club and we can do that if a thousand people show up and become engaged. In terms of player development, we're hoping it'll be a 10-year project.
Sumner says: It'd be a huge risk coming in at MLS level where the owners are like those in the Premier League multimillionaires, billionaires. The overheads in the NPSL are very low so the financial risk is up to us. The real risk is if we completely screw it up inside a year. we're not pumping millions of dollars in and hoping it sticks. we're being frugal and making sure it works and that the club grows. The risk is looking stupid at the end of one year but it's going to be a lot of fun. we're prepared. The bigger financial risks are higher up the leagues.
MLS is a great professional league that's done a lot for the US but we're coming at it from the grassroots and looking to build a club organically. We wont have far to fall. we're prepared. The bigger financial risks are higher up the leagues.
How do you set up a club in the National Premier Soccer League?
PJ Harrison, co-founder of City of Angels FC, outlines the steps to establishing a football club in the National Premier Soccer League…
Step one The idea. Whatever motivates the decision to start a football club a childhood fantasy, community oriented initiative or pragmatic business vision it's a long and challenging process but very enjoyable. You get to talk about football a lot with genuine justification.
Step two Identify a market that can sustain a club. Factors include venues, local business that could act as sponsors and population. In our case there are 1.8m people in the San Fernando Valley area and Los Angeles has a massive media and population market. There is still potential for growth in the US. For example Ersal Ozdemir, the Indy 11 owner, has done a brilliant job with his club in Indianapolis. They exceed the attendance figures of many clubs in higher ranking leagues.
Step three Research the leagues you feel youre viable for. Work with them to refine your plan and learn about the many factors required for a new club. We decided to commit to NPSL because we felt it offered most opportunity for organic growth and club and player development. The league has a wide range of clubs. There are some great organisations such as Detroit City FC and SC Albion (San Diego) who have exemplary community and organisational approaches. Some teams attract crowds in excess of 7,000 and some are in the hundreds, which is also true of the division 2 (NASL) and division 3 (USL) leagues.
Step four Secure membership to the league. The league assesses your financial capabilities, location, venue proposal and in-depth, long-term business plan before taking a vote of owners. Once youre vetted, approved and paid up, youre in and the real work begins.
Step five Secure your venue. There are many strong venues available in the US. There are city owned, college owned and even high school owned stadiums that exceed the quality and capacity of many professional stadiums in England. Only MLS requires a soccer specific stadium.
Step six Launch the club and recruit players. A big challenge. Marketing, ticketing, fitness, coaching, scouting, drivers, accountants, executives and game-day operations are just some of the roles you've to fill. And then theres the big one –. Recruiting players. Fortunately, theres a large talent pool in California, including a lot of free agents, players we know on a personal level and others we'll select from try-outs. Combines as they're called here. Get in touch if youre any good!
The other steps are ahead of us …