Leaders in Sport: Nick Rogers (Part I)

When I finally get the opportunity to sit down with the new president of Minnesota United FC—mere months into his tenure—Nick Rogers blends into the Friday afternoon crowd of young professionals at Brit’s Pub in downtown Minneapolis.  Why are we at a pub?  Because given the choice of venue for the interview, Rogers tells me: “My preference would be somewhere where beer is served.”

Rogers is relaxed and happy.  Brit’s Pub is a home away from home.  On a chilly Thursday afternoon last November, Rogers’s father-in-law, Dr. Bill McGuire, held a press conference at Brit’s Pub to announce McGuire’s anticipated role as new owner of Minnesota’s professional soccer team.

And so there we sit with the first round on the way, Rogers wearing jeans and an Inter Milan track jacket, which not-so-successfully conceals the grey Minnesota United FC t-shirt he has selected for the occasion.  Rogers’s energy is effusive, his posture confident.  And while that may not surprise those who know him as a lawyer, he also looks inexplicably content.  “After I quit being a lawyer, I dropped 30 pounds in like 6 months without changing my workout routine or anything. . . . I don’t know what it was, but I’m in a better place.”

421971_497745096948551_1034268608_n

L-R: Rogers, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Ryback, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, Dr. Bill McGuire.
Photo courtesy of Minnesota United FC

Rogers has not, however, traded in his attorney bona fides for a less challenging career.  Instead, Rogers is leading the charge for the revival of an institution: professional soccer in Minnesota.

In January 2013, McGuire, noted philanthropist and former CEO of United Health Group, completed a deal with the North American Soccer League (“NASL”) to acquire the Minnesota soccer franchise.  By most accounts, McGuire’s acquisition of the team saved the existence of professional soccer in Minnesota.  The team, in some form or another, had been battling financial troubles for years.  In fact, during the 2011 season after the United States Soccer Federation (“USSF”) revised standards for ownership of NASL teams, the NASL took over ownership of the team.  The NASL committed to owning the franchise for three years, during which it would seek new ownership.

But midway through the 2012 season and midway through the NASL’s commitment, the situation appeared bleak.  Without new, independent ownership, the team’s fate appeared to lie outside of Minnesota.  The search for new ownership was limited by the most strenuous of USSF requirements for NASL ownership—a minimum net worth of $20 million—which severely constrained the universe of owner-candidates.

Enter former NASL president David Downs.  Downs’s daughter and McGuire’s daughter were former college roommates at Amherst College.  At about the time that the NASL was running out of ideas to keep professional soccer in Minnesota, Downs sent an email to McGuire’s daughter.  As Rogers tells the story and paraphrases the email, the message from Downs was straight-forward: the NASL owned a team in Minnesota, which had won the NASL Championship the previous fall.  But without new ownership, the NASL would shut the team down.  A shot in the dark, but McGuire’s daughter passed the message along to her husband, Rogers, and Rogers discussed the possibility with McGuire, whose success as an entrepreneur and resources made him an attractive candidate for the NASL.

That Rogers was excited about the prospect is not debatable, but convincing his father-in-law, McGuire, to invest in the team was another matter.  As Rogers recalls, “I said, ‘Why don’t we go to a game or two?’ [Downs] flew into town. We went to a game together, and I think we were struck . . . by the supporters group.  It’s not a huge group. . . . There are about 150 dues‑paying members of this supporters group called The Dark Clouds. These guys show the NASL games drums, they’re handing out pamphlets, they have their songs, they do serious research to heckle the goalies and other teams’ players, and they really create this great energy in the facility.”  The end result was a collective thought: “There might be something here that’s worth keeping around. Wouldn’t it be a shame for this thing to fold? They just won a championship.”

For the NASL, it was a coup to find a local, qualified investor willing to take a chance on professional soccer in Minnesota.  But notwithstanding Rogers’s enthusiasm for the opportunity, the buck stopped with McGuire, who had no background in soccer: “At the end of the day, it was not my decision. . . . [I]t was [McGuire’s] call.  I think he needed to satisfy himself that there was a way to make it sustainable.  He didn’t get into this to make a lot of money. . . . Ideally, we can get it to a sustainable place where we’re able to reinvest in the business, pay our people a decent amount.  I think the real hurdle was convincing himself that you could do that, that there was a business you could build out from that interesting, valuable core that was there.”

After McGuire and the NASL consummated the sale of the team, McGuire appointed son-in-law Rogers as president.  Rogers’s task: take a professional soccer team with limited recent success on the soccer field and turn it into a viable product for sporting and entertainment in the Minneapolis/St. Paul market.   According to Rogers, market research suggested that “only three percent of adults in [that] market even knew pro soccer was offered as a product.”

Professional soccer in Minnesota has existed in a variety of forms, with different team names, and boasting different emblems.  The Minnesota Kicks played in the old NASL for 6 seasons from 1976 to 1982, and eventually became the Minnesota Strikers, a professional indoor soccer team.  After a brief period without professional soccer in Minnesota, the Minnesota Thunder returned outdoors in 1990 to play for almost 20 years in the USISL.  The Minnesota Thunder was followed by NSC Minnesota, the Minnesota Stars, and then Minnesota Stars FC under NASL ownership beginning in 2012.

And yet, for all the tradition embodied in Minnesota soccer, one of Rogers’s first tasks was to address the brand: “There have been a lot of name changes and so forth, and that’s created a lot of confusion in the market. . . . I came into this thinking that rebranding was the thing to do, that a name change was absolutely the thing to do. . . . [T]here was a very strong association [with the] Minnesota Stars. That’s the name we inherited. In this market, that name has a very strong connection to hockey.”  But where market research indicated that only 3% of adults in the market knew there was a professional soccer team in Minnesota, Rogers decided that it was time for a change.  “[T]here wasn’t a lot of equity in it, and ‘Stars’ didn’t do anything for me.  Just the name, even if there wasn’t that connection to hockey, ‘Stars.’  What is that?”

Notwithstanding the rabid hockey fans in the state, Rogers “wanted a name that would unequivocally say, ‘This is a soccer team. You’re not going to have to guess what sport this is.’ We wanted a name that allowed us to tell a story about the club that we want to be, and part of that is uniting two cities in a broader geographic area; part of that is uniting a somewhat diverse metro area with a bunch of different ethnic groups that are very interested in this sport; and part of it’s about uniting this sort of confusing [history of names in] pro soccer in Minnesota.”  And with that, Minnesota United FC was born.

Rogers and his front office team moved forward with the rebranding, leveraging the local community’s vibrant creative scene to link up with modern branding experts Zeus Jones, who facilitated the rebranding of Minnesota Stars FC into Minnesota United FC: new colors, a new badge, and new uniforms.  That is, a new identity integrated with a team on the field that had made the NASL Championship series for two years running.

With the rebrand nearly complete (new uniforms would be unveiled prior to the second half of the NASL split season), Rogers turned his attention to player personnel and an acquisition strategy that surprised many within and outside the NASL.

In the second part of this installment of Leaders in Sport, to be published on Monday, August 12 on businessofsoccer.com, Rogers discusses the team’s player-acquisition strategy, the team’s performance in his first season as president, and the future of Minnesota United FC.

 

 

Reporting on the business side of the world's game.