KINGSTON — It was the most important game in the brief history of Kingston Stockade FC. First place was on the line. So was the first real chance to draw 1,000 fans.
Two hours before kickoff on a hot Saturday afternoon in early June, Dennis Crowley, the team’s founder, arrived at Dietz Stadium, a high school football field covered with artificial turf.
Crowley, 41, is a co-founder of Foursquare, a location-sharing mobile app, and a predecessor, Dodgeball, which was sold to Google in 2005. In 2015, he turned to another passion and built from scratch a soccer team, paying $12,500 for a franchise fee to enter Stockade FC in the National Premier Soccer League. Running a semipro club two hours north of New York City was not his ultimate goal, though.
Driven by the kind of disruptive innovation he knows from the tech world, Crowley is making a bold attempt to reimagine professional soccer in the United States. It is a grand vision of hundreds of clubs and multiple divisions, of promotion and relegation that will reward investment and success and punish bad decisions and failure. That is the big picture.
On a recent Saturday, however, Crowley’s focus was on only one game.
For the early-June match, Crowley’s sport utility vehicle was packed with the uniforms he had washed. A bag of balls. Banners. Posters for postgame autographs. Cash boxes for the ticket booth and the merchandise stand. Envelopes to pay the referees and the pizza delivery guy. Clipboards and rosters for the press box. Walkie-talkies for the volunteer staff members.
He removed Tupperware containers stuffed with T-shirts — rolled by his father and the club’s general manager — along with other items for sale: Stockade jerseys, Stockade caps, Stockade scarves, Stockade winter hats.
“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 5-gallon jugs than from bottles. By keeping track of every cent spent. And by bringing a technology executive’s aptitude for pioneering startups to soccer.
The NPSL 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 also in small communities, like Kingston, a city of 23,000 in the Hudson Valley.
“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 MLS is going wrong,” Crowley said. “They are tending to produce a standardized product across the country.”
Crowley envisions the obscure NPSL becoming relevant over the next five or 10 years by expanding to 500 teams from about 100, each drawing at least 1,000 fans a game and attracting at least 5,000 viewers online via live-streaming broadcasts of their matches. (MLS currently has 22 teams but is in the process of expanding to as many as 28 during the next several years.)
If the NPSL can build a much larger geographic footprint than MLS, while attracting an audience about 25 percent the size of MLS’, 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 NFL and the NBA operate — like MLS — as closed systems. That arrangement was built into MLS 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 MLS 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 New York 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 startup 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 startups, 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 NPSL.
His approach has been described as “open-source soccer.” In his online treatises, he has published all of Stockade FC’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 do not have to run for shade and players’ feet will not blister. And if you cannot serve alcohol at a high school stadium, arrange for a beer tent across the street.
Crowley also has made the provocative argument that proximity may matter as much as quality of play in drawing fans to a team.
“In sum, we shouldn’t focus our energy on the idea of entirely disrupting MLS,” he wrote, “but rather on creating a world where it’s possible that a critical mass of soccer fans in the USA care more about a D4 league than MLS.”
Can his plan succeed?
“I love the transparency, putting all the numbers down; it’s really cool what he’s doing,” said Stefan Szymanski, a professor of sports management at the University of Michigan and the author of “Money and Soccer: A Soccernomics Guide.”
And yet, Szymanski added, if MLS can survive its own financial challenges (he is skeptical), the league most likely would have the money, organizational clout and political muscle to thwart any perceived threat from the NPSL by moving teams into some of its best markets or co-opting the league itself. Some argue that MLS has seriously damaged a recent challenger, the second-tier North American Soccer League, by strengthening the rival United Soccer League, in which many of its clubs now field reserve teams.
“Certainly, MLS wants to develop the lower tiers; they want to control every level of the game,” Szymanski said. “The question is, if this guy develops a nice app and a nice system, would MLS try to buy it up lock, stock and barrel? And would he be willing to sell?”
Sunil Gulati, an important executive in the founding of MLS and the current president of the U.S. Soccer Federation, said: “You never discount anyone who’s proven in one aspect of their career. The idea of a community-based, ground-up effort is certainly something to be followed carefully.”
Because Crowley’s plan is long-term, Gulati added: “It’s hard to evaluate and also hard to succeed against everything else that’s going on in the sport. To the extent that this is a disrupter, that’s great if they’re successful. But we only ever hear about the disrupters that are successful. And there’s a whole lot that aren’t.”
For a home match against Boston City FC on June 10, Crowley dressed in a cap and T-shirt bearing Stockade FC’s logo: fence posts representing the 14-foot-high stockade built by Dutch settlers to protect the original village of Kingston in the 1600s.
This summer, Stockade FC features a mix of NCAA players from nearby Marist College and postcollegiate players eager to continue their careers. None of the players are paid. Goalkeeper Steve Skonieczny is a high school math teacher. Jamal Lis-Simmons, the team captain, is the soccer coach at a community college.
Crowley’s determination to be transparent with Stockade FC, he said, stemmed from having worked at Google and feeling “shut out” from decisions he felt he should have included his voice.
In Kingston, Stockade FC has been welcomed as another sign of the town’s revival, alongside new bricks-and-mortar stores, an enhanced dining scene and second-home purchases by New Yorkers in the wake of IBM’s departure in the mid-1990s. (Crowley lives in the East Village, in Manhattan, but also has a home near Kingston, in Marbletown.)
“The soccer team embodies the transition that is going on,” said Zach Lewis, 30, a real estate developer and a member of Stockade FC’s drum corps, known as the Dutch Guard. “It ties up with the age demographic of people who are into soccer.”
Against Boston City, Stockade FC took a 2-0 lead on a penalty kick and a deft shot chipped over Boston’s goalkeeper from 35 yards. When the match ended at 2-1, Stockade claimed first place in the Atlantic White Division. Crowley hugged his general manager, and said, “We’re going streaking!”
The crowd, though, topped out at 992, eight short of the 1,000 threshold that Crowley had hoped to reach.
“Couldn’t you have grabbed random people off the street?” Skonieczny, the goalkeeper, asked with a laugh.
Not when a club’s aim is transparency, Crowley said.
“If we get 1,000, we earn 1,000,” he said. “We’re not there yet.”