With Kingston Stockade FC, Dennis Crowley has helped launch a local soccer revolution
Two days after Landon Donovan’s stoppage-time World Cup goal versus Algeria in the 2010 World Cup, Dennis Crowley decided he wanted to start playing soccer. As the founder of FourSquare, Crowley was used to solving complex problems. But his new passion created a unique challenge. How does an adult who has never played soccer keep up with younger players who have been playing organized soccer for their entire lives? “I had to try,” Crowley said, “so I just started playing pickup in New York City with my friends. Was that hard starting out as an adult? Yeah! Because it was beyond pickup. When you are in a competitive league in New York City, a lot of teams are just like, ‘Hey, this is the Villanova team, and they just graduated three years ago. They’ve been playing their whole lives.’”
Through soccer, Crowley became close with his teammates. After evening games, they would discuss life, business, and… soccer. “I enjoy trying to bring people together, and building things that bring people together,” Crowley said.
One night in 2015 over beers, they began to discuss what it would take to put together a team that could compete in the U.S. Open Cup, the oldest soccer tournament in America. This year marks the 106th annual event.
“What would a team in the U.S. Open Cup even look like,” Crowley wondered with his friends. “We’d have to go from our team of five to 11 guys, and it would have to be scaled. It seemed like an interesting problem to solve.”
Tackling the biggest issue first, Crowley tried to figure out where the team could reasonably exist. Soccer field space is virtually non-existent in New York City. Crowley and his wife, Chelsa, had purchased a home in Kingston, NY about 100 miles north of New York as a place to get away from the city. “One day, we drove by Dietz Stadium in Kingston, and I was like, ‘Oh my God! This is where you put a team!’ And that’s how the idea for Kingston Stockade FC was born.
Having played some pickup soccer in Kingston, Crowley knew there were some skilled players in the area. As he saw a growing number of kids walking around town in European soccer jerseys on weekends, intuitively, he felt there was a burgeoning audience in town as well. After reaching out to a few local coaches and the American Outlaw chapter in the area, Kingston FC seemed less like a beer-fueled idea and more like a solution for people who wanted a local professional soccer team. “Almost immediately, there was this real energy and great momentum,” Crowley said.
With a place to play, Crowley then set out to try to get a team into the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL), a league commonly considered to be the fourth tier in the U.S. Soccer pyramid. Crowley expected the league would reject his application for sure in the first year, possibly reject it again in the second year, and by the third year, he might be able to gain entry for his team. “I figured that would give me some time to think about it,” he said. To his surprise, he submitted his application and, within a month, his team was accepted.
“I was like, ‘Holy cow! This is real!’” he remembers. “I wasn’t prepared for that. So I started making a list of everything I needed—securing the field, players, a coach, equipment. How hard could it be? Then you realize that each of those things has a hundred things underneath it.”
Piece by piece, Crowley started putting things the foundation of a soccer club. He reached a deal with Dietz stadium to be the team’s home field. Tryouts yielded enough players to a field a team. But with a few months to go before the start of the 2016 season, he woke up in a cold sweat. “My wife was due to have our first baby a week after the season was starting,” he remembers. “We’re going to have a baby, and everything is going to be different, and we’re not prepared for this. At the same time of starting a family, and jumping into this thing that I know nothing about, I have this other job at FourSquare. I woke up in the middle of the night and thought, ‘We have to cancel this team. We can’t do this.’”
When things got tough in his mind, Crowley leaned on his soccer friends for support. “Greg Lalas (VP of Content at MLS and co-founder of the Kicking and Screening Soccer Film Festival) is an advisor to the club,” Crowley says. “He kept telling me, ‘You’re almost there. Keep going. It’s going to work.” Will McDonough (VP of Brand and Commercial Strategy for Copa 90) also kept me going. He said, ‘You may as well keep going. What’s the worst that can happen?’ They had to talk me off the ledge.”
Relying on his business acumen, Crowley began to look for any data that might assuage his fears. He reached out to a team in Chattanooga that shared their start-up budget with him. It was approximately $50,000, but the budget was five years old. By the end of the 2016 season, the startup costs for the team’s first year were closer to $80,000. “I wasn’t worried about paying the difference,” Crowley said. “I was worried because I didn’t want to start this thing, and then it’s just a money suck for years to the point where we can’t do it anymore because it’s not in the best interest of my family.”
Coming from the tech industry, Crowley intuitively felt that to make Kingston FC sustainable, sharing information was critical. He needed to see other teams’ best practices for managing budgets and operations, and he was willing to share his information as well. Through shared data, they could try to crowdsource a sustainable business model. He started a blog that outlined in great detail every aspect of Kingston FC’s season from the entire budget of the team to the management of the merchandise, right down to the number of t-shirts sold in each size.
By sharing information with other teams, Crowley not only accelerated his learning, he opened up his team to a whole new base of fans who now had a vested emotional interest in the team. They were seeing Kingston FC’s successes and disappointments in a deeper way than what was happening on the field. Online, the fan base grew. People who didn’t live near Kingston would purchase tickets and donate them to local groups. Supporters from as far away as Japan were buying Kingston FC hats and merchandise. In addition to growing the fan base, Crowley hopes that the transparency of his team’s operation will inspire a groundswell of other cities starting their own teams.
With three seasons now under his belt, Crowley has already seen the Kingston experiment sprout. In 2017, the team won it’s first conference championship. And in 2018, Kingston FC qualified for it’s first U.S. Open Cup, the very first goal that launched the team. For Crowley, despite the bumps in the road, he sees a path to success.
“We have this mission where soccer in the U.S. is broken in a hundred different ways,” he says. “And we have what we think is a small solution to fix it, which is to help encourage people to make clubs and to teach them how to do it along the way. The hope is that if we teach people how to do that, more people will join our lead, which has happened. There are a handful of teams that have followed the Stockade model that are now in our league. And if we do that for another five or six years, maybe there will be more clubs to work with. People relate to that ambition.”
In 2017, Kingston FC joined forces with Miami FC of the North American Soccer League to file a claim in the Court of Arbitration for Sport, seeking to require the U.S. Soccer Federation to introduce promotion and relegation. The hope is that a system of promotion and relegation will encourage more investors in the U.S. to support American teams rather than seeking investment in leagues abroad. Just last month, Rocco Commisso, owner of the New York Cosmos, acquired a controlling interest in Fiorentina, the legendary Italian soccer club.
Without promotion and relelgation, Kingston FC is forced to survive in its own tier of the U.S. Soccer period indefinitely. Now entering the team’s fourth season, Kingston continues to make slow but steady growth in attendance and revenue. Every new expense—be it new uniforms or more travel during the season—has to be carefully weighed and measured to make sure it’s in keeping with the team’s mission. Crowley believes that if he can keep the Kingston team sustainable for 10 full seasons, it will yield one more critical piece of information. “I want to see if there will be any data that proves that having a local semipro or high level amateur club in a community will make better players at the high school level,” he says. “Those players will go on and become better college players. And what I really want to see after the tenth year is for the squad to be made up of 50 percent of kids that were watching the games in the stands when they were around 10 years old.”
Crowley realizes that the dream to play pro soccer exists for more and more kids. The trick is to bring the dream a little closer to the kids that don’t live near MLS teams. ”My ultimate goal is to take the team pro,” he says. Right now, we are an amateur team that plays semi-professionally. The players, you see that aspiration from the kids and the fans. You see it from the players as well. Being part of the team, you see the players aspiring to other things as well. A couple of the guys every year get picked up to play abroad. And I think the word has kind of spread amongst the players that, hey, you should play for Kingston, because the club takes care of you. It’s a good organization, a good fan base. They have trainers of high quality. The kids love you, and you’re a local celebrity for the summer. People are paying attention. We produced a stream of the games. We put every goal on YouTube. We will make stuff for you so that you can promote yourself as a player. That’s important to some of these guys, and we should get better at that every year.”
And that’s the main reason why Crowley is eager to share everything he learns as he learns it. The rising tide of American passion for soccer is supposed to lift all the boats, not sink the closest boats to you. As technology makes it easier and cheaper for a fan in Japan to watch a Kingston FC game online, perhaps it creates unforeseen opportunities for growth at the grass roots level of the game.
“Can you imagine a world where kids care as much about the team that is 20 minutes from their house as they do their MLS team?” Crowley asks. “Imagine that MLS has 30 teams. But what if our league has 100, 200, even 500 teams? It’s conceivable. You’ve really got to squint and imagine, but it’s conceivable that there might be more collective eyeballs in the U.S. on our league. That’s a really interesting strategy opportunity. Don’t build 30 clubs that a million people each pay attention to. Build 500 clubs that each have an audience of 10,000. And you can basically build a huge audience, which is great for broadcast, for sponsorship, for other stuff—our league is in a good position to do this. It’s really reinventing what an elite system is supposed to look like here in the U.S.”
Crowley understands that the streaming technology isn’t quite there yet. After all, a high school football game on YouTube looks nothing like an NFL game on a major network. But when you look how far we’ve come with technology, it’s not hard to think about how far we can go. Maybe in a few years, Crowley will not have to squint as hard to see that future audience for local soccer. It’s not just the kids in the stands and players on the fields using their imaginations for a life in pro soccer. Some team owners have big dreams too.