Boone, North Carolina, up in the High Country of the Appalachian Mountains, was a thriving college soccer town. The Appalachian State University men’s team drew an average of 524 fans per home game last year. Sometimes attendance surpassed a thousand. And the program was trending upward. After some difficult years, head coach Jason O’Keefe delivered the team’s best record in almost two decades in 2019, his fourth season in charge, beating national powerhouses like the University of North Carolina.
But on May 26, O’Keefe got a call from his athletic director. The university had cut his team, along with men’s tennis and men’s indoor track. It blamed the pandemic. O’Keefe and his players weren’t given a chance to fundraise their way toward their budget shortfall. Just like that, it was over.
“The hard part is we didn’t get any closure,” O’Keefe tells Yahoo Sports. “We were shut down when we were all away from campus. There was no goodbye. No one last training. No one last game. This would give our guys some closure.”
Under pressure to cut $5 million from its budget — in spite of committing $50 million to a renovation of its football stadium — the school axed its 58-year-old men’s soccer program and its $600,000 annual price-tag, per the Charlotte Observer.
App State wasn’t the first or only college to cut teams during the COVID-19 pandemic. Several others have too, most notably Stanford.
It’s what happened in Boone next that was remarkable.
Appalachian FC established after COVID cut college program
O’Keefe and a group of investors spun the shuttered college program forward into an independent semi-professional minor league team, Appalachian FC, which was announced on Nov. 18. In the process, they may well create a model for untangling teams from their universities and launching them as separate businesses.
But first, O’Keefe and his staff, all of whom were fired the day their program was cut, spent the better part of two months finding new teams for the bulk of their players. They had 25 returning players, seven incoming players and nine more committed for the following year. That was 41 players who no longer had a college team to play for — not to mention three coaches who needed new jobs.
O’Keefe guided most of his players to new homes — half a dozen, in fact, wound up going from the Sun Belt Conference to the better ACC, signing with teams like NC State, Syracuse and Virginia Tech. Once that was taken care of and O’Keefe had landed a new head coaching job at Robert Morris University, he picked up a dormant conversation with Michael Hitchcock, an experienced soccer executive with a portfolio of teams across the U.S. and abroad.
“Growing the sport is what I’m all about, so when Appalachian State cut men’s soccer — a popular, historic program — I thought, ‘That’s not good for the growth of the game and if I can do something about it, I want to,’” Hitchcock says.
While most everybody involved had landed on their feet, a town with a long and deep relationship with its men’s college team and a burgeoning soccer scene was now bereft. An obvious void had opened up.
“It’s a sneaky passionate group of soccer fans up there,” O’Keefe says. And the thing was, with attendance for a soccer team standing at a robust 500 and plenty of summer tourism, not to mention a ready-made stadium that was now underused, there was potential to provide an alternative. It doesn’t take a great many more fans to show up to make a minor league team financially viable.
So O’Keefe and Hitchcock partnered with a group of local business owners and entered their new club into the 96-team National Premier Soccer League, unofficially seen as the nation’s fourth tier. Appalachian FC plans to begin play in May 2021.
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Hitchcock, who has built several teams from the ground up, has been pleasantly surprised by the feedback. In less than a month since its announcement, his new club has sold $24,000 in merchandise online without spending a dollar on marketing. (It probably helps to have Sasquatch in its logo.) It has sold almost 100 season tickets during a pandemic and, again, without any advertising — halfway toward Hitchcock’s goal for the first season. Sponsors have already signed up.
In the short term, O’Keefe will give his erstwhile college team a chance to reunite and continue playing together after their college seasons wrap up. “We put it out to them, ‘If you guys want to come back this summer and get some closure and play at a high level and get another run at Boone, then great,’” he said. He hopes to get as many as 10 players back and fill out the roster with local players.
But it’s the long-term implications that compel.
O’Keefe remains a staunch believer in college soccer, which has been diminished as a path to the pros on the men’s side since the creation of youth academies by every Major League Soccer team and the exodus of talented American teens to European clubs, and Hitchcock just wants there to be as much soccer as possible. They might, however, establish a proof of concept for an alternative to college sports.
Appalachian FC is able to tap into a sponsorship base and a merchandise market with more flourish and flexibility than a college team can. To wit: The Sasquatch logo, the attendant “I believe” slogan and Bigfoot’s appointment as the club’s chief marketing officer.
When Bigfoot interrupts your Monday Strategery Meeting with 🔥 Appalachian FC gear, YOU LET HIM! Thanks @BooneChamberDJ & @BooneNCChamber for your support of Appalachian FC... Proud to be a Chamber Member 💛🖤 pic.twitter.com/8LLQj4a0ID
— Appalachian FC (@AppalachianFc) December 14, 2020
If it succeeds in this kind of post-college incarnation, the club could inspire comparable initiatives in other places where popular college teams were cut, pivoting out of higher education to independent and self-sustaining clubs at a very high amateur or semi-professional level. Indeed, it could be attempted where a college team still exists.
“You’ve got now some really successful entrepreneurs and it wouldn’t surprise me to see more teams at this level taking a similar sort of approach in analyzing a market that has facilities — which is one of the big issues in soccer — that are perfect,” Hitchcock says.
As for the players, they will only have more options.
How players stand to benefit
Appalachian FC will, for now, and like most NPSL clubs, run as an amateur team. It will cover players’ expenses, travel and housing but will not pay salaries, keeping their amateur status on the right side of the NCAA’s draconian rules. But if the business is a success, the club could, ironically, pay its players to compete on the same field where App State’s men’s team was constrained by the strict bonds of college amateurism.
The fallacy in the belief that college amateurism is justified by a free college education — or a discounted one — is that nothing has ever stopped young professional athletes from pursuing a degree in their own time while monetizing their sporting gifts. MLS has long supported players who left college early by funding online classes at Southern New Hampshire University. Even an NPSL team might work out to a better deal than a Division I scholarship. After all, men’s college soccer teams are restricted to 9.9 scholarships — App State only had 7.6. Full rides are rare.
There are no boundaries preventing soccer prospects from enrolling as full-time students at App State and playing for Appalachian FC or other minor league teams, especially if NPSL seasons are extended beyond the summer in the future.
Taken together, a model for college-aged players outside of the NCAA system emerges. Prospects could go to the college of their choice — rather than the one that offers them the most playing time or scholarship money — and play on a local semi-pro team like Appalachian FC, possibly for a salary.
That isn’t the objective of the Sasquatch-themed club. Or not at a stated one at any rate. It is merely stepping into a gap. “We’re turning something that was pretty tough into something that’s pretty rewarding and beneficial and maybe even a little bit better for the community,” O’Keefe says.
In so doing, however, this new semi-professional club, built upon the rubble of a scrapped college team, might illuminate a new path circumventing college sports altogether.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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