Most of the soccer media’s coverage about the Bay Area recently has focused on the impending return of MLS there in 2008, as the San Jose Earthquakes are reborn. But they’ve been ignoring an inspirational showing of grassroots passion a few dozen miles to the north in San Francisco.
Mike Alonso and other supporters of the USL-1 team California Victory (the level below MLS in the American soccer pyramid) have sought to save their team by setting up something similar to a supporters’ trust, inspired by efforts in England in recent years as they saw their team abandoned by its ownership.
Read on for what might be my favourite interview ever on Pitch Invasion, as I talk to Mike about what’s been a rollercoaster year.
In October 2006, the USL announced that Dmitry Piterman, a Ukrainian-American and then chairman of Spanish Club Deportivo Alavés, was going to locate a team at Kezar Stadium in San Francisco and begin playing in the 2007 USL-1 season.
Kezar is the former home of NFL teams the Oakland Raiders and San Francisco 49ers and is located in Golden Gate Park. Scenes from Dirty Harry were filmed there, and it played host to Led Zeppelin, The Grateful Dead and Neil Young.
The 1989 earthquake damaged the stadium badly, and it was rebuilt with a smaller 10,000 capacity, since hosting lacrosse and cricket as well as soccer (old Kezar pictured right).
For fans of the California Victory, it soon became home as they set-up a supporters group (1906, referring to the city’s infamous earthquake and fire of that year) attracting fans of the San Jose Earthquakes — who at that time were defunct — and of USL-2 team the San Francisco Seals to games.
Not long into the season, though, things got very messy indeed. I talked to Mike Alonso about this, as he became the central figure in trying to save his new local club from an early extinction.
Can you outline the events of the summer? As I understand it, Deportivo Alavés owner Dmitry Piterman bought the team, but then sold Deportivo Alavés, leaving the Victory in limbo.
It all started after the first few games of the season. There was a lot of chatter on the BigSoccer.com forum concerning the games. Nothing about the game — instead most of the topics were about promotion of the Vics. The general feeling was that the Vics were being ignored and that there were severe problems in the front office. We came to this conclusion when we noticed that there was absolutely no promotion whatsoever for the matches.
I was approached by Mike Pizzo, head of gameday operations. I’m not quite sure why, most likely because I had the biggest mouth on the board. He confided in me that the team’s ownership was facing problems in Spain. At worse, we thought the ownership was merely being spartan with their finances, but I will explain more on that in a minute.
I called a meeting to the other big mouths on the forum. We were to meet at the infamous Pig & Whistle in San Francisco. To be honest, I didn’t think anyone would show. But to my surprise, quite a few did. Everyone was loud and honest about what they thought was going on, then Pizzo laid down the truth to us: no immediate help from Spain.
At that moment, it no longer became what the team should do, but what we can do for the team. Yuri Morales showed up with a big cardboard box with fliers and postcards — much of which were paid out of the pockets of those working for the team. Two minutes later, the box was empty and the California Victory Supporters Association was born. I was voted chairman while taking a leak.
Within a week, everything from pubs to pizzerias were flooded with our fliers. It took time, but we started getting people to the stadium. We did everything within our power: mass emails, ticket giveaways on community radio, discounts for local soccer clubs, etc. We hit up pickup games at local parks, Chelsea v America at Stanford, and tattoo shops. Basically, anything that we could afford. We had no money or support other than from each other and the team. Even after we went through all those fliers, thanks to Dave Agrell, we just cranked out more.
Despite our efforts, by mid July, it became apparent that the Vics were being abandoned by its owner. The front office was reduced to three people. Most worked without pay to see the season through. Some players were sold off to make payroll. Assistants left. Some players left on their own accord, unsure about the team’s future. But a loyal few under the leadership of Coach Glenn Van Straatum kept the team together.
The money dried up, players and staff were not paid. Security for the games was cancelled. Our online capabilities were kept alive by the league. The CVSA held tailgates offering free food and drinks. With the Front Office “Volunteers”, anyone who mentioned our names got automatic discounts. We all kept it going.
People kept coming. Eventually, we went from 500 people a game to over 1900. No money. No corporate support. No Dmitry.
The last game was our biggest attendance ever. Sure we lost, but it was magical. Our flares were lit, our songs were sung, our banners hanged low and our flags flew high and our smoke hovered over the crowd. After being wrongfully ejected, striker Chuck Kim ran to the supporters’ section, threw his jersey to a fan, and dove into the arms of his loving fans. After the match, the Kezar Pub was filled with supporters singing and the players were being treated as heroes to the tribe. There’s a lot of loyalty to each other.
After the best summer of my life came the worst fall of my life. So many rumors and so much indecision. We seriously didn’t believe anyone was interested in buying the team and we didn’t want to stick around with our thumbs up our asses waiting for someone, so we started looking at owning the team ourselves in the tradition of supporters’ trusts in England such as FC United of Manchester and AFC Wimbledon. We approached the league with our idea, but never heard from them on the subject. They probably thought we were too drunk to form an opinion.
Currently, the team is on a one year hiatus and will miss the 2008 season pending a contract between a Californian investment group and the league.
How did the “Save the California Victory” plan develop?
It was first mentioned back when we noticed the team was in trouble. We figured at the time that Dmitri would keep the Vics and maybe be interested opening up stock for the supporters to raise capital. Thus, making the team a “club”. BUT, that wasn’t so. So Douglas Zimmerman, another co-founder of the CVSA brought up Myfootballclub.com. We were over the moon about the idea. We sought advice from lawyers and accountants, often receiving conflicting information, but our hearts were there and the website was born thanks to Dougie and his brother.
We never knew it would take off like it did, but many people have contacted me from all walks of life, but mostly from blue collared families who were willing to put down $20 or $50 here. One kid even mentioned that he wanted to give us his birthday money. We received well wishes from our long lost brothers in Spain, the Deportivo Alaves supporters and other people from across Europe. USL fans were quick to the call with their support as well.
Your website says you’re not looking to wait around for a “white knight” to come in and save the Victory. It seems now that a new investor group is interested in running the Vics. What is the involvement (if any) of your effort with this group?
It is an investment group headed by a “white knight”. But ironically, its been said that it was the “Save the Victory” Campaign that caused him to look into taking over the club and that he is very open to including the supporters as part of the club. I have met with the group’s head and I believe he is sincere about the club. Coach Glenn Van Straatum, Mike Pizzo, and I have been actively looking for other minority investors and sponsors who may be interested in coming in. I went as far as going to Mexico City and Cancun back in October to pitch the club to Mexican powerhouses Cruz Azul, Pumas, and Atlante. It’s hard work being a soccer supporter.
How has the awarding of the MLS San Jose expansion franchise impacted on your efforts? Do you see this is an opportunity or something that will distract attention to MLS?
I have been asked this a lot lately, and to be honest, it really hasn’t impacted my personal efforts. My primary objective has always been the Vics and keeping professional soccer alive in one of the most famous cities worldwide, San Francisco. I’m not knocking San Jose at all. I’m a season ticket holder for their 2008 season, for God’s sake. But what people outside the San Francisco Bay Area don’t know is that San Jose is over 60 miles and two huge counties away from San Francisco. Its a completely different type of city with a completely different type of culture and history. The Earthquakes will appeal to their demographic and the Vics will appeal to their own. Two very different teams with two different leagues. Besides, the Quakes got a billion dollar bank account, we got a piggy bank with four pennies and a button. No conflict.
If anything, it can only benefit both teams. The more soccer you flood in one area, the easier for it to catch on. Practice games, charity events, the possibilities are endless. The Quakes acknowledges this when the CVSA was contacted to help with fan support. No conflict.
What do you think of the media coverage of your efforts? It seems like something like MyFC has generated a lot more interest in the States, but that’s not a local effort like this one.
Yeah, that’s been a serious issue with us. Fact is, when you have people who don’t understand the game, they immediately dismiss it. Unfortunately, these people run a majority of media outlets in the States. Even some US-based soccer related outlets ignored us. Thats why it is up to all of us Soccer fans to get involved and create our own media. Talk about all the regional soccer in your area and get the word out. I have been talking to some people about putting our own soccer-related show on Public Access TV focused on the Bay Area scene with an accompanying website. Will we do it, as long as we think we can, why not? Soccer belongs to everyone, not just people with deep pockets.
Oddly enough, we have also been well received in Spain. I have been a frequent guest on Spanish radio who have been monitoring our efforts. Big thanks to our friends in Vitoria, Coach Glenn Van Straatum, Mike Pizzo and Dave Agrell!