BigShot Q&A: Bellingham United President – Jeff McIntyreJeff McIntyre discusses the 4th level of the NAm soccer pyramids, their differences and his PCSL club
by Herb Scribner | Friday, August 03, 2012
Jeff McIntyre is the president and general manager of Bellingham United (BUFC). The club competes in the Pacific Coast Soccer League (PCSL), the fourth level of the American and Canadian Soccer Pyramids. He’s also the founder and president of Ruffneck Scarves.
Bellingham United FC plays in the Pacific Coast Soccer League (PCSL), which many consider to be the fourth level of the American and Canadian soccer pyramids. What makes this league different than the other leagues below MLS?
JM: For Bellingham United the PCSL represents a regional opportunity for us to shine against some quality clubs in the lower British Columbia area, which is very close in proximity to where we are located.
Even though the league is in the American pyramid, the majority of the clubs are from British Columbia (BC). Is it fair than to call the PCSL an American soccer league in your opinion?
JM: I don’t think that anyone refers to the PCSL as an “American-only” soccer league. Because we are competing in the league it makes it a cross-border league, much like MLS with Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal.
Bellingham competes against several Canadian clubs. How close are American and Canadian soccer styles? Is there much of a difference?
JM: The play is very similar on both sides of the border. Many of their clubs have players that played in clubs and schools in the US, and we have a couple that have also played for schools in Canada.
Would you be shocked to hear that most American soccer fans said they have never heard of the PCSL?
JM: No, I would not be shocked. But on the other hand, I will bet you that if you went to an MLS game and asked most of the soccer fans at the stadium if they’ve ever heard of the PDL or NPSL that you would get the same reaction.
If the MLS bought the USL, NASL, NPSL & CSL (effectively most of the minor league system in the USA/Canada) do you think it could benefit clubs and the overall system?
JM: It really depends on the strategy they deployed with those leagues. The MLS has a lot of things to work on internally before they can consider buying up all of North American soccer.
Did you ever consider joining the NPSL, USL or NASL?
JM: We looked at all the options. For us, our number one goal was to create a community-based club that stood far and above any league we compete in. We would argue that most fans don’t care if you play in NPSL, USL or NASL … if it’s not MLS it doesn’t have much brand recognition. Our average attendance is larger than most PDL and NPSL clubs, and I think that is a testament to the fact that the way you build the club is far more important than the non-professional league you choose (NPSL/USL-PDL).
What’s BUFC’s stadium situation like? Any plans to build a Soccer Specific Stadium (SSS) in the future?
JM: We play in Civic Stadium which is situated in the heart of Bellingham. It is run by the City of Bellingham and seats [approximately] 4,000. We do not have any plans to build a soccer-specific stadium.
The club is based out of Washington, which is also the home of the best supported soccer club in North America – the Seattle Sounders. What’s Bellingham’s relationship with the Sounders as an organization? Are there formal ties now or in the works?
JM: We do not have any formal ties to the Sounders nor do we have any in the works at this time.
Are most BUFC fans also Sounders fans? Do Sounders fans come to Bellingham matches?
JM: Yes, I would say there are a number of BUFC fans that also support the Sounders. So I guess that automatically means that Sounders fans come to Bellingham matches and vice versa.
Are you trying to establish a derby/rivalry with the Sounders or the opposite, a feeder club affiliation where the fans wouldn’t have any animosity?
JM: We are happy with building a club that serves the people of Bellingham and Whatcom County. We know we are not Seattle, and we know we are not the Sounders. We do not need an affiliation with them to be successful… When we’re not playing we are all Sounders fans too.
Does playing in the same state as Seattle offer any extra pressure for your club? Is there an extra push to perform better knowing the success of the Seattle franchise?
JM: No, there is no pressure because of the Sounders. They are an MLS franchise with millions of dollars. We are a community-based club looking to give local players and fans a professionally run club-environment for entertainment and the chance for players to take their game to the next level.
Would you recommend to budding American players in the Northwest to compete in the PCSL? Why is the PCSL a good avenue for young players to develop their game?
JM: I would recommend players based in the Northwest take a look at the PCSL, because it offers some great regional opportunities and a chance to stay local. For players based outside of the northwest I think it makes sense to look at other leagues [local to them].
How have you seen soccer grow in America?
JM: Because we are involved in other soccer-related businesses, we’ve had a good perspective on watching the sport progress in the US. I think it’s been a steady upward trend and quickly becoming a major player among sports fans in the US thanks to some good decisions on franchise locations and TV deals for MLS.
How have you seen soccer grow in Canada? Is it further along in Canada?
JM: Again, I think MLS has created opportunities for growth of the game in all of North America. Beneath that, I am not as intimately involved with every facet of the game in Canada.
Does North American soccer need more cups overall?
JM: I think North American soccer does just fine with the cups and tournaments in place now.
Is there a lack of derbies in American soccer? Who do you think are now or likely to be BUFC rivals?
JM: There could probably be more fervor in the derbies outside of MLS, but I think MLS has some really good ones happening now. In Bellingham, we’re in our first year, along with Langley FC and because of proximity they have become a likely target for our natural rival.
How has the first season been thus far for Bellingham?
JM: We’ve been very pleased with our first season in the league, finishing second in the table and qualifying for the Challenge Cup [top four teams in the league playoff for league title].
What are some goals Bellingham would like to accomplish in its first season?
JM: Our goal was to have local players play in front of a passionate local crowd. We averaged over 1,000 per match, and we felt good about that. Next season we want to grow that number even further.
You have a really simple but catchy logo and kit colors. Who designed it and what were the inspirations and reasons for the designs and colors?
JM: Our logo was designed by one of our partners Ted Denessen. We wanted to keep it black and white, because much like our philosophy we want this club to [be] measured by the fans’ passion and the players’ civic pride … it’s pretty black and white.
You give hammers to your MVPs, that’s awesome, who came up with that one? How heavy is the hammer?
JM: That was an idea that our Assistant GM, Robert Riese came up with prior to the season. It’s a standard sledgehammer, weighing about 20 lbs.
What was the idea behind having the supporters choose the team MVP? It seems a very progressive idea. Would you say BUFC is a progressive club?
JM: Because we are a community-based club, we want the community to take ownership of a lot of the things happening with the team. It just made sense for the fans that are there week in and week out to vote on who should be the MVP. I think we are progressive in the fact that we think differently than most “minor-league” clubs in North America. We run our small-town club with the same passion and creativity of the biggest clubs in the world, just on a fraction of the budget.
It seems BUFC is already intertwined into its community. How have you done it? Do you have any advice for other small soccer club owners in North America?
JM: We spend a lot of time focused on the fans and making people proud of our club. Some of it is trying to make the local players into local heroes, and some of it is just doing what we can to make sure people have fun at the games. Other owners might want to just think of their clubs as a local brand just as they would if they were starting a local business. Get your brand on as many people as possible and get the community involved from the beginning.
Why is supporter culture important for clubs to get behind?
JM: Supporter culture is what adds to the experience of the match. Our players have mentioned time and time again that the home crowd has really added to their playing experience and they definitely push harder late in the match when the supporters are vocal and backing them. The important thing is that the club does not manufacture or dictate the supporters however. It has to happen organically and cannot be created artificially. We do what we can to help our supporters groups where they need it, but we do not force our ideas or strategies on them.
What leagues and clubs abroad gave inspiration for the initiatives at BUFC?
JM: We love MLS and we love the lower leagues in England as an example. We’ve just tried to take what we’ve learned and seen over the years from attending matches around the world and apply it to our little club.
What are the long term goals for the club?
JM: Our goal is to keep growing our fan base in the community and then reward our players by taking them on some overseas trips to play friendly matches. We want to give our players every opportunity to be seen both domestically and abroad.
Do the Hammers value the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup and the chance to play bigger clubs as a highlight of your season potentially?
JM: We see value in the US Open Cup, and we are exploring the opportunities to participate in the future.
Recently, many smaller clubs – like Cal FC – have reached new levels in the US Open Cup. It shows that MLS teams aren’t always guaranteed to win. Does this provide extra motivation for Bellingham?
JM: Cal FC was a great and marketable “Cinderella” story, but their run does not influence our decisions.
How does Bellingham look at MLS?
JM: We look up at MLS … not something we’ll ever be pursuing though.
Do you personally watch MLS regularly?
JM: Yes, I watch a lot of MLS games. We also own the company that makes all of the scarves for MLS (Ruffneck Scarves), so it’s a fun part of the job.
What are your opinions of MLS’s style of play? Do you think it needs more creativity and skill?
JM: I think MLS’s style of play has come a long way in the past 5 years. It’s getting better and better with the new player additions.
Is there a team you want Bellingham to resemble or model the club after?
JM: We love the Sounders in Bellingham, but I think we want to preserve our own identity
and do things the “Hammers” way.
When you talk to coach Lance Calloway, what suggestions do you make about how the club should compete?
JM: Lance is our general on the pitch. Everything that happens out there is up to him. We take care of everything off the pitch and it’s a great relationship that way.
What experiences can fans get at a Bellingham match that they don’t receive at other games?
JM: Our fans have a great experience whether it’s in our beer garden, tailgating out in the parking lot before the match or up in the general admission seating with the families and fans. We make our players accessible to the fans and we’re constantly coming up with new surprises to add to the entertainment value.
Do you expect any of the BUFC players to reach MLS or other top leagues?
JM: Because we have a lot of young players on the team with huge upside, I would say yes, our expectations are that we will see some Hammers playing in the upper divisions in the future.
What are some of the biggest things you’ve learned about running a club after BUFC finished up its first full season?
JM: We learned that not everything goes as you planned. A lot of the times you have to sit back and see how people react and ask what they like and want before finalizing decisions. The other big thing we learned is that if you focus on everything “local” it really adds another level of value that teams that source players from outside of their region can’t offer. It truly makes it “community-based” and all about civic pride.
Do you feel Bellingham will ever move up to another division? If so, when?
JM: We do not anticipate that we will move up to USL-Pro or NASL anytime in the near future, which would be moving up to another division.