Soccer and beer go hand in hand. So one of the first things Michael Hitchcock does after investing in a new team is head to the local brewery.
They sign on as a sponsor. Sometimes they’re the lead, with their name on jerseys. They may even work together on a co-branded beer.
The strategy has worked well for the man universally known as “Hitch.” He owns Playbook Management International, a Texas-based sports management company with interests in the Fort Worth Vaqueros, Lubbock Matadors, Denton Diablos, Napa Valley 1839, Appalachian FC, Charlottetowne Hops and Annapolis Blues of the National Premier Soccer League.
The Blues – wildly successful on and off the field, in just their first year – epitomize both Hitchcock’s philosophy and the semipro league’s mission: to provide high-level competition; offer a steppingstone to players, coaches and front office personnel, and grow soccer at the grassroots by focusing on community involvement.
Hitchcock played at Virginia Commonwealth University. His 27 years in soccer management include 13 years with D.C. United, Colorado Rapids, LA Galaxy and FC Dallas. The NPSL is several notches below MLS in terms of big names and big budgets.
But don’t tell that to the 7,000 Annapolis Blues fans who regularly throng Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, to cheer for the Maryland capital city’s side. The facility seats 34,000, but can be downsized easily. It’s within walking distance of restaurants and bars, with plenty of room for tailgating.
Or the fans who flood Autograph Alley after matches, and the players who linger for over an hour signing shirts and balls.
That’s exactly the atmosphere Hitchcock envisions, when he looks for new markets to invest in.
Thanks in part to the United States Naval Academy and the Washington area’s robust youth soccer scene, Annapolis has a far longer soccer tradition than, say, Lubbock, Texas. But Hitchcock’s formula is the same across the country:
Involve the entire community. Hire locally. Make soccer fun. Beer sponsors help. Forward Brewing is both a brewery and restaurant. Even before the Blues’ first match, Forward sponsored World Cup viewing parties. Their co-branded beer has become a collector’s item.
Community involvement began earlier, with the team name. PMI offered four options; all last summer, residents voted. Blues – a reference to the beloved local crab – won by a “nautical mile,” Hitchcock says.
Then came engagement with other sponsors. “We identify the top local employer, the top copy shop, the top whatever,” Hitchcock says.
Rise Up Coffee, with 14 locations, signed on early. They developed a co-branded drink. The next step was to hire local staff. The Blues’ general manager, Fred Matthes, spent 17 years with D.C. United, and been involved with ticketing sales and operations of nearly every major soccer event in Washington for nearly three decades.
Many young staffers are in their first or second job after college. They – and their unpaid intern colleagues — are “living the dream, and getting a ‘masters’ in sports management,” Hitchcock says. “This is not MLS. Everyone does every job. They have real stuff to do. They’re empowered to act, make mistakes, and learn.”
Head coach Colin Herriot is Maryland United FC’s boys director of coaching. He signed many local players. Nearly all were raised, and/or played in college, in the area. The city is 32 miles due east of both Washington and Baltimore.
Even the Annapolis Mayor Gavin Buckley got into the act. His “Ted Lasso”-type promotional video helped spur interest and ticket sales.
Michael Hitchcock, Annapolis Blues general manager Fred Matthes and head coach Colin Herriot.
“Creative” pricing also helps, Hitchcock says. A season ticket costs just $100 – and includes coffee with Matthes, a barbecue with the team, and a chance to bring a friend to a match.
“Early bird” season ticket purchasers also got a free Blues jersey – worth $75.
“On game day you see 3,000 people wearing their team jerseys – and another 3,000 or 4,000 with blue hats and scarves,” Hitchcock notes.
Opening day drew 8,368 fans. The environment was “as great an experience as any major league match I’ve ever seen,” Hitchcock says. “Our players, the local soccer community, civic leaders – everyone has bought in.”
NPSL clubs are different than their bigger counterparts. There is no union; they take buses rather than planes to games.
Of course, part of the reason the league exists is to prepare players for those unions and planes. “This league will play a critical developmental role going forward,” says Hitchcock. “MLS has done a great job. But community-based clubs are as important to American soccer as the big ones.”
As for this inaugural season, “you couldn’t script it any better.”
After an opening day draw, the Blues reeled off seven straight wins. By the end of June, they held a four-point lead in the East Mid-Atlantic Conference.
Meanwhile, Hitchcock says, “We can’t keep enough merchandise in stock. We do $16,000 to $21,000 in sales per game. Those numbers are great, at any level.”