A Club for Philadelphia

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There are two models for the creation and development of a professional or amateur soccer club. The first model is very familiar to any American soccer fan by now: a person or group with deep pockets and some interest in the business of soccer decides to start a club. They make a momentous announcement, perhaps at a local soccer pub, and start a rollout during which they announce colors, branding, and other exciting aspects of the club. Out of nothing, a team is created.

This process is very familiar because it is commonplace in American sports, especially soccer. From MLS down to UPSL, this is the dominant model. And of course it is, how else would you possibly start a club?

The second model is uncommon, especially in America. This is the model of Philadelphia Lone Star FC. The club was formed as Junior Lone Star FC by a group of mostly Liberian immigrants in Southwest Philadelphia. The club started with just eleven players back in 2001, without fanfare or marketing schemes. The goal of the club was simply to play soccer. Over time, the club grew slowly and incrementally into what it is now- a mainstay in lower league soccer. The club plays in the NPSL, the UPSL, the NESL, and various cup competitions both national and regional.

So how do these two models differ?

Clubs that are dropped from the sky must prove to the community that they belong. Peter Wilt, who is starting his sixth club in this manner, wrote about this in a recent article, “Building a new professional soccer team is about convincing a community that they should care about the team. We want to give the public a sense of ownership.” Because clubs like this are created entirely from scratch, they start with zero cultural capital in the community. It is paramount that they achieve legitimacy, especially because these clubs generate all their revenue from fans and local businesses. In contrast, Philadelphia Lone Star has participated as an active member of their community for years. It has run clinics, camps, and after school programs for local children. When it rebranded from Junior Lone Star to Philadelphia Lone Star, there was no doubt that it deserved to bear the name “Philadelphia”.

Another major difference in the two development models is their levels of risk. When you start a club from scratch at a high amateur level or above, you take a huge risk that the club can gain a foothold in the community. If the club cannot achieve that, you will lose a substantial amount of money. For Philadelphia Lone Star, years of low risk growth has put it at the high amateur level. Each time the club chose to compete in a new league or add a new youth team, it was taking a small risk. If the growth fails, the club can just accept its mistake for low cost. This allows the club to grow on its own terms, when it makes financial sense.

Both development models can bring success or failure. More important than the model choice is the will and skill of the leadership of the club. The example of Philadelphia Lone Star shows that there is another way to start a successful lower tier soccer club. Without a benevolent, wealthy owner, the club has thrived for almost two decades now. The president of the club attributes its success to “hard work, perseverance, commitment, and sacrifice.” Although it will take more work and more time, the grassroots approach to building a soccer club has a proven success story in Philadelphia Lone Star.

- Connor Mahlbacher

Lola Vaughn