“I don’t know if we’ll sell many winter hats in summer, but we’ll try,” he said with a chuckle.
Randy Kim, the general manager, walked up and Crowley said, “Would you be able to go to the CVS across the street and buy cups?”
When Kim returned, having spent $12.19 on cups and a couple of bucks on a chocolate bar, Crowley said, “Good work; keep the receipt.”
This is how the revolution begins: By turning your car into a rolling warehouse. By learning that water can be dispensed more efficiently from five-gallon jugs than from bottles. By keeping track of every cent spent. And by bringing a technology executive’s aptitude for pioneering start-ups to soccer.
The N.P.S.L. is a semiprofessional summer league whose 96 teams, spread across the country, play in the fourth level of what is known as the American soccer pyramid. It seemed to Crowley an ideal laboratory for experimentation.
Crowley’s idea is that profitable and sustainable soccer teams can succeed, not only in the large markets inhabited at the top professional level by Major League Soccer, but in small communities, too, like Kingston, with a population of 23,000 in the Hudson Valley, 90 miles north of New York City.
“It’s like craft beer growing because people like the idea of something personal, local, not the standardized beer that everyone gets,” said Crowley, whose interest in starting a team was first piqued by the stirring goal Landon Donovan scored to give the United States a victory over Algeria at the 2010 World Cup.
“I think that’s where M.L.S. is going wrong,” Crowley said. “They are tending to produce a standardized product across the country.”
Crowley envisions the obscure N.P.S.L. becoming relevant over the next five or 10 years by expanding from 100 to 500 teams, each drawing at least 1,000 fans a game and attracting at least 5,000 viewers online via live-streaming broadcasts of their matches. (M.L.S. currently has 22 teams, but is in the process of expanding to as many as 28 over the next several years.)
If the N.P.S.L. can build a much larger geographic footprint than M.L.S., while attracting an audience about 25 percent the size of M.L.S.’s, Crowley argues, this could lead to enhanced sponsorship deals, live-streaming rights contracts, and shared revenue among the league’s teams.
Crowley’s plan also envisions the enticing — and polarizing — possibility of promotion and relegation, with teams moving up or down through tiers depending on their performance in a given season.
The system is the standard in most of the world’s leagues but anathema to American professional sports, where leagues like the N.F.L. and the N.B.A. operate — like M.L.S. — as closed systems. That arrangement was built into M.L.S. at its creation in the mid-1990s, and it most likely enticed the financing that founded and sustained the league.
But a closed system also mitigates risks for potential new investors: It is unlikely that a prospective owner of an M.L.S. team would spend several hundred million dollars for a team and a stadium if it risked dropping to a lower division a year later, just as no one would buy the Yankees if they might drop to Class AAA after a single poor season. To advocates of promotion and relegation, that safety stifles innovation.
That is why the prospect of advancing in soccer’s pecking order is tantalizing to many fans of lower-division clubs. It is also why, instead of changing the American soccer landscape from the top, Crowley is proposing to do it from the bottom.
“People say, ‘It’s cute, you’re doing this thing with soccer,’” he said. “It’s like when you’re working on a start-up and that’s cute until you pose a threat to Google or Facebook and then they take you seriously. I understand the journey, the improbable rise of that. I feel like we’re doing the improbable rise again.”
Unlike with his tech start-ups, Crowley said, he could find no place to learn how to build a soccer club from the ground up. So he has begun writing his own instruction manual of sorts, publishing several online manifestoes in the hope they will encourage others to start teams in the N.P.S.L.
His approach has been described as “open-source soccer.” In his online treatises, he has published all of Stockade F.C.’s financial data, down to the costs of game programs and staples. According to Crowley’s figures, the team’s expenses for 2016, its inaugural season, were $136,127 and revenue was $99,328, for a loss of $36,799 (minus $12,000 in excess merchandise inventory).
In these online essays, Crowley has been open about strategies that have worked, and others that have failed. He has offered tips: Jerseys are reusable from one season to the next if the sponsor remains the same. It is better to start summer games at 5 p.m. instead of 2 p.m., so fans don’t have to run for shade and players’ feet won’t blister. And if you cannot serve alcohol at a high school stadium, arrange for a beer tent across the street.
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