Goal! Vaqueros set for May soccer debut at LaGrave Field

Scott Nishimura snishimura@bizpress.net Michael Hitchcock, chief of the new Fort Worth Vaqueros minor league soccer team, is posing for pictures in front of the city’s Vaquero statue on North Main Street when a black Suburban rushes by. “Wooooo, Vaqueros!” the driver yells.

This is the sort of response that Hitchcock, a longtime major league soccer executive, is hoping for as the team heads for its first game May 9 at LaGrave Field against Tulsa. The business model is conservative, with the team starting up in a small baseball stadium. But the goals are lofty: integrate itself into the community and show there’s demand for a soccer team in Fort Worth, figure out a way to build its own revenue-generating venue, and go professional at some point, all while helping budding amateurs get to the next playing level.

“The future of this is to be a professional team and to have an amateur team in reserve,” said Hitchcock, former president of the FC Dallas Major League Soccer team and commissioner of the Vaqueros’ 80-team National Premier Soccer League. He is also head of Playbook Management International, the Vaqueros managing partner. The team has already created a buzz, holding fan votes to choose its name and logo, then throwing community parties to celebrate. It has signed Puma as a sponsor and is selling this year’s jersey sponsorship in a lottery – 20 companies pay $5,000 apiece for a chance to win the jersey front, which the team values at $100,000. The non-winners get benefits such as advertising and tickets. “What it allows is a local restaurant the same opportunity as a Dr Pepper to be on the front of the jersey,” Hitchcock said. “The response has been phenomenal.” City Councilman Dennis Shingleton, director of the Fort Worth Sports Authority, likes the way the Vaqueros have connected with the community, particularly the North Side’s Hispanics who are big soccer fans, since the team announced in mid-January that it was coming to Fort Worth. “I can see how it’s going to push the envelope,” Shingleton said. More broadly, he hears persistent requests from his far North Side constituents for more soccer fields. “I can certainly see the interest is there,” he said. The Vaqueros will play in the NPSL’s eight-team South Central Conference, a Texas-heavy group with teams from Bryan-College Station, San Antonio, Dallas, The Colony, Tulsa, Oklahoma City, and Joplin, Mo. It’ll play five home games and five away, with potential for playoffs.

Ever thought about owning a sports franchise? The numbers in this league are relatively easy on the eyes, compared with, say, owning the Dallas Cowboys. Hitchcock estimates the first-year operating budget for startups ranges between $50,000 and $200,000. The league’s initial membership fee is $12,500, and league dues in 2014 are $4,000. The NPSL is a “bus league,” helping keep costs down on travel, the biggest potential expense, and the Vaqueros are putting together a sponsorship deal that will help defray travel costs, Hitchcock said.

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Ninety percent of the teams retain amateur status, meaning they don’t pay players, which lets the players keep NCAA eligibility. The team drew about 250 prospective players during a recent tryout and will have a 26-player roster, including 18 players for travel, Hitchcock said. Players will be largely between 18 and 24 years old, but there could be exceptions. “There are some special 16- and 17-year-olds that play in neighborhood leagues that came to our tryout,” Hitchcock said. Other expenses include facility and staffing. The Vaqueros will play at the Fort Worth Cats’ LaGrave Field in partnership with the Cats, sharing concessions and parking revenue. And Hitchcock is levering the staff of his company, PMI, to help the team get going. On the revenue side, Hitchcock is pulling as many levers as he can find. Traditional income streams include ticket sales, sponsorships, merchandise, concessions and parking. Nontraditional potential streams include youth tournaments, camps and clinics, and exhibitions. There’s no TV deal. The team is projecting first-year home attendance of 3,000 on average per game, Hitchcock said. Season ticket packages will be $50 for youth and $80 for adults, and include a jersey. Single game tickets will be $10 for adults and $7 for youth; children 5 and under get in free. With some seating projected to be laid out on the baseball field, the team also is selling VIP tents and field suites. Beer, other concessions and parking prices will be consistent with what the Cats charge, Hitchcock said. On the sponsorship side, the team is selling “We are Fort Worth” packages tailored to the sponsor and costing $1,000-$2,500. It is pitching viewing packages for the World Cup later this year, offering to co-host and promote events with bars and restaurants and provide free merchandise. “We feel we can use the world’s most popular sport to help local businesses,” Hitchcock said. Hitchcock says the team will likely hold its jersey lottery in April, in a public event with a ping pong ball machine spitting out the winner. That follows the Vaqueros’ fan engagement strategy. “Get the community engaged, and then get them out to celebrate the next phase of that team,” Hitchcock said. The team also expects to hold exhibitions against international and U.S. professional squads, playing against pro teams’ reserve squads in the latter.

The next critical piece of the team’s strategy is its own venue, Hitchcock and others said. Hitchcock, who launched the San Antonio Scorpions soccer team in 2012 for its ownership group, knows what a difference a stadium can make. That team started in a high school stadium where it could not sell beer, had to share parking and concession revenue, and lacked other traditional revenue streams, he said. In 2013 the team moved into its own new stadium, which was privately funded with infrastructure provided by public utilities. Toyota bought the naming rights. The new stadium “opened up all sorts of sponsorship activity,” Hitchcock said. The Scorpions sell beer and get 100 percent of parking and concession revenue. And the team went from break-even to a $700,000 profit in one season after opening the new stadium, he said.

“You’ve got to build stadiums and be able to drive new revenue streams,” Hitchcock said. Ideally, the Vaqueros would be able to build a soccer stadium next to LaGrave, continuing the team’s relationship with the North Side, and reach a public-private partnership that helps cover infrastructure “if there’s a benefit to the taxpayers,” Hitchcock said. The team is working with a sports architect on plans for a stadium that would hold a minimum number of seats – 5,000 or 6,000 – but could be expanded in increments to handle growth, he said. “The market will tell us if we need to build a 5,000-seat stadium or a 6,000-seat stadium,” he said. A jump to professional status could take more than one route and most likely wouldn’t occur until the Vaqueros get a better venue, said Tobias Xavier Lopez, Vaqueros director of business operations.

The U.S. professional soccer pyramid has four levels: Major League Soccer, the highest; the fully professional North American Soccer League; USL Pro, which includes many MLS reserve squad affiliates; and NPSL. The Vaqueros could move up to USL Pro as its next step, or take two jumps to the NASL, Lopez said. In any case, “we first have to show there’s a market for professional soccer” in Fort Worth, said City Councilman Sal Espino, who represents the North Side. Attendance must be strong, and the team must get another venue, he said. He believes the Vaqueros have at least set the table. “They’re creating quite a buzz,” he said. “I hope it translates to a good season.” There’s skepticism in some Fort Worth quarters about the team’s prospects, given the struggles of the Fort Worth Brahmas hockey team. “It’s healthy skepticism,” Shingleton said. But he believes soccer’s popularity far outstrips hockey’s popularity, in the region and overall. Hitchcock looks to NPSL teams such as Tulsa, Detroit City and Chattanooga FC as models. Tulsa averages 3,800 fans per home game, he said. Detroit City recently built a 2,000-seat stadium and is “just a really relevant part of the community.” Chattanooga draws 4,000-7,000 fans for home games and recently had a player signed by the Houston Dynamo of Major League Soccer. Hitchcock, who owns the Vaqueros in a partnership that includes a Dallas physician and Florida investor, says the group believes it will reach profitability within its first year. He’s not saying what numbers the team has to reach to get there. “I’d like to get to it in the first year, and we think it’s attainable,” he said. “We’ve got to make a meaningful connection with the community.”