Starting a New Competitive Club
Interview with Steve Lepper
Steve Lepper is the Executive Director of St Vrain FC – the youth soccer club in Longmont, Colorado, with 45 competitive (travel) teams, and seven full time staff. Six years ago the club had no competitive teams and two rival organizations within a city of fewer than 90,000 people. Steve has the USSF A License and NSCAA Premier Diploma. He was a state champion high school coach and assistant coach of the U23 Colorado Rapids. As well as working for St Vrain FC he is the head coach of Avery Brewing FC in the PASL who were national runners up last year.
When you moved to Longmont, what was the existing landscape like?
The president of the club called me in 2008 and asked me to help keep them afloat as their previous director had just left. There were three clubs in the town at the time: – ours (St. Vrain FC) had just over 1000 kids playing recreational soccer; Colorado Storm had come in a few years earlier and agreed to take over the 20 competitive (travel) teams from our club when we were going through some issues; and finally there was Longmont United, which was created as an alternative but still competitive program with lower fees and volunteer staff.
What made you think a new competitive club could be successful in that market?
I spent a season with the club, working with the two administrators we had at the time. From talking to people in the area it became apparent that there was demand for a competitive option at St Vrain FC. I asked them what they were looking for, spoke to board members and coaches, and came to the conclusion that we should give this a shot. Longmont is a great town with good soccer, and there was no sense in dividing it so much. I realize that by creating a new competitive club we were dividing it further, but we had the big recreational base and figured we could give the people who liked our mission and values a chance to play quality competitive soccer with paid coaching. We started with one team at under 11 boys and it has grown from there.
What skills and experience did you have that were useful to take on the challenge of growing a club?
Honestly it was luck and timing more than anything. I wandered into a situation where people were looking for something and I happened to be in charge at the time and able to do it. I think I listened well, to find out what people wanted in a soccer experience, and was able to process it and set goals that followed their vision. We rebranded with new colors and uniforms, changed the name and said let’s take a run at this. My personality is not a strong one – I don’t intimidate people as far as I know – well not intentionally anyway! I’m open and honest and I think that has helped us to attract coaches and families to the club. If you can attract the right people it will grow organically.
Longmont hasn’t consistently had many high quality coaches so we also had to go out and attract them to come here, and that took recruiting. Part of it came from our existing staff who are positive and honest, and could reach out to their friends in the game.
What were your immediate priorities for staffing the club?
Mostly it came from necessity. The first few hires we made for full time came from us seeing that the program was working and there were certain roles that we needed help with. I hired two guys I had met on my USSF C license course who were both in Colorado. I knew they had the right personality, would work hard, and also would work cheap and that was something that we needed. At that time we couldn’t do a nationwide search and bring in the best of the best as we didn’t have the money to do that, however the guys we brought in took their opportunity and have been amazing! I shared the dream with them and said if we worked hard we would be rewarded in time and they both bought in to it and they are still there now. As we grew we had meetings at the board level and discussed the strategic direction we wanted the club to go in, what we wanted it to look like, and who we would need to make that happen.
Did you change the vision and identity from the recreational club to accommodate the new competitive program?
It stayed pretty much the same as it had been before. Longmont is an interesting town in some ways and one of our coaches says it is the least ‘marketable to’ town in country. By this he means that they don’t respond to outside advertising, media and so on – they make their decisions on where to shop and what to buy based on experience and word of mouth. From that we knew that we wanted to keep things the same as we had a trusted brand, and everything we have done has been about inclusivity. We didn’t go out and say we’re the best, we wanted to be a place in which every soccer player could play – regardless of economic background and skill level. Some of our members want to play for exercise and to see their friends, some others want to get to a level where they can play soccer in college, so we wanted to be able to accommodate all of them.
Was there a plan for the club structure? How did you decide how to divide up the age groups and other areas?
We had initial plans, but they change over time as you know. We didn’t want to split it up by gender because that would cause competition for resources and internal jealousy. We looked at how it was set up and put someone in charge of our teams who played in-house rec soccer and didn’t travel outside the club. Originally we had a position for U9-U10 travel teams, then we added U11 to it because they are playing the same 8v8 format game in state leagues, and figured that the same format should be under one director. After that we had a middle school director and a high school director.
Was it difficult competing with two other clubs in a relatively small city? What was your approach to that?
We tried to be positive and honest. We never put them down and just tried to show people the product that we were offering. We never recruited any players, teams or coaches – we hoped that our model would attract people based on what we were doing. On game days we tried to look professional as we could and to be as positive as possible. By that I mean we didn’t want coaches and parents yelling and being thrown out of games. We have done a lot of parent education, helping them with the conversation after the game, which people really like. From their positive reaction they tell their friends about it and through word of mouth or program grows.
For a while there were three clubs of about the same size, playing at the same complex, so there was always friction, but we tried to stay positive and get along with each other. Most of those rival coaches are now working for us now so I guess the approach ended up working.
How supportive was your board of directors? How was it determined how many people should be on it and how involved their role should be?
They are very supportive. They are in an advisory role now. When we started it was much more hands-on, which we needed at the time as we didn’t know what we were doing. They had skills and could help with website development, communication, dealing with parents and so on. After we found our groove we had talks with the board to find a way that would work that allowed the staff to function more effectively. The feeling was that we had brought in full time staff and that now it was time to let them handle the soccer decisions. They’re the experts in youth soccer, so the role of the board is not to undermine that process or second-guess it. When we discuss business, pricing and customer service decisions the board are still involved, but they have stepped back to the bigger picture items where possible. We have six directors on the board and the Executive Director is the only one on there who is constantly there and not voted on. Having the freedom to do your work without someone constantly looking over your shoulder has really helped our growth.
Did you prioritize relationships with cities, schools or other existing groups? How did that help?
We are continually honest and show them that the relationships are a two way street. At the beginning I think both organizations saw us as a pain in the ass. We try to over communicate in a good way, so if there is bad weather rather than make a decision on our own or wait for them, we will have a conversation, tell them what we think then ask what they think. Same for issues with the field – when we find broken sprinklers, over-watering or under-watering we approach them and have a discussion where we bring it to their attention and then ask if there is anything we can do to help. Over time they realize that we are not so bad and that we have the best intentions for the kids in the community.
What were the biggest mistakes or things you learned from that people starting new clubs should be aware of?
There are probably thousands that I have learned from! Probably the biggest is never thinking that you have all the answers, and always being open to ideas and communication. It worked better when I was willing to look at myself and find ways to do things better. This has helped with internal and external relationships – not just with the city and school district, but with other clubs. I don’t think there is a club out there that we have a bad relationship with. This has helped us when we have needed advice, teams for tournaments, or wanting to reschedule games.
What goals have been set for the near and long term future of the club?
Our biggest goals were to build our own complex and to continue growing out east. If you look at the area, the closer you get to the [City of] Boulder, the less it is growing, whereas the further east you get towards I-25 and Weld County there are cities growing rapidly. Opening an office out there would be a goal, as well as setting money aside to build a field complex specifically for artificial turf fields. Right now there are none in the city that we can use because we are not given access to the school district fields. In the winter or rainy conditions we are currently limited in what we can offer as we only have grass fields.
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