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The Donner Party: USL’s recipe for failure?

Donner: A Walking Disaster?

During the last week, I am sure we have all heard about former Rochester Rhino owner Steve Donner starting a new USL team in Orlando. And after the news was released on the announcement, almost everyone had an opinion. Some were good, but many were bad.

For me, this is an issue that I took a little more interest in. Since Donner is starting the new USL franchise in Orlando, a city which I have lived in (on and off, that is) for the last 23 years, I was interested in finding out a little more about the new owner. I must admit, I have seen him sitting around a bar at a local restaurant, with his Orlando Titans sweater on, nearly screaming into his phone, not really to make a point, but to let all the people in the restaurant know that he is someone who, in his mind, is important.

So, that was my first impression of the Orlando Titans owner. But first impressions don’t mean anything.

What is important is his past behavior when it comes to running a soccer team here in the US. As many of you know, he ran the Rochester Rhinos into the ground. Talking to officials with the club this past week, this site also learned that Donner didn’t pay vendors (hundreds of them) that offered services to the team. He also left the team with a large amount of debt. And we all know about the $85,000 that wasn’t paid out after the Championship Game of the USL was played in Rochester. I’m sure Vancouver could have used some of that money.

Even former partner and Legislator Steve Wilmot said in an article that Donner never kept him in the loop about managerial and financial issues. In addition, Wilmot said that “Donner is a walking disaster.”

So, what does this say about the USL? Can any person, no matter what their past history is, start a team with a $250,000 application fee? Is there no vetting process? Does the USL only care about collecting franchise fees and not the success of their league? As we know, USL teams drop dead as easily as mosquitos around a mosquito zapper. And most of the successful teams in the USL last year are the clubs which helped form the current NASL.

Still, when I was down in Miami, I asked NASL’s Director of Communication Kartik Krishnaiyer if an owner like Donner would ever be awarded a franchise in the NASL. While he did not directly answer the question, he said “we have put in place strict protocols and policies related to the proper vetting of ownership groups before they enter our league.”

I continued to push him on the Donner situation, and Mr. Krisnaiyer said “I have no comment on Mr. Donner specifically, but the threshold for acquiring a club within out league is much higher than the established standard in the USL. We are looking for high quality owners and investors.”

While not saying that Donner would be outright rejected from the league, I got the impression from league officials that Donner would never be allowed in the NASL. But what also amazes me is that the USL allowed Donner back into the fold after he dragged the Rhinos through the mud.

While his ownership has to be questioned, I personally have to question the USL’s decision to put a soccer franchise in Orlando in the first place. Besides the Orlando Magic, team after team fails in The City Beautiful. Even if they do manage to get decent attendance, like the Orlando Solar Bears (IHL hockey team), they end up closing up shop and either moving or shutting down altogether. Orlando couldn’t even keep the Minnesota Twins here for Spring Training. Basically, Orlando is a risky town to put any type of sports franchise in. Finally, on this point, if you read the Orlando Sentinal’s blog on this story, many of the responses talked about how soccer was either ‘boring’ or a ‘girls sport’. You know, the usually stuff that we hear from the soccer haters (aka, Jim Rome fans).

So, what is the USL trying to prove? I don’t see a clear message from the league. Basically, pay the fee, get a team, that simple.

As far as the NASL, it seems like there is an actual process. They want to have good teams. They want to have strong teams. They don’t want a fly-by-night project that the USL has been for quite a while now.

So, Orlando, beware. I wonder if the new franchise will even play a single match? And if you are a vendor, you might want to ask the folks in Rochester how they were treated before you invest any money, or time, in the new club.


20 Responses

  1. Jeff Cooper makes Steve Donner look like a boy scout


  2. Can’t wait for your blog about Cooper and his sleazy business dealings – about how he used people who are suffering as an excuse to take advantage of the system to line his own pockets. Now he’s just buying off soccer owners instead of politicians.

    What? You can’t write that one? Why not?


  3. Kettle, the second that I saw Michelle Malkin on your link, you lost all credibility in my book. The woman thinks John Kerry shot himself in the foot!

    So, you basically take your information from people that make stuff up. Nice 🙂

  4. You had me completely with you until you started smashing Orlando.

    Sure they can’t keep the Twins, but watch spring training MLB anywhere, those teams are constantly moving looking for some town to pony up. The Braves and Astros play to sold-out stadiums in nearby Disney and Kissimmee. The Solar Bears of the IHL were immensely popular and had spectacular attendance. They only folded because the league did and the owner (owner of the Magic) didn’t want to deal with the AHL.

    Finally, the Jim Rome-like comments in the Sentinel. Do you read the comments on the St Louis papers? Dude, it isn’t just Orlando. That happens even in places like Seattle.

    Anyway, I agree, Donner is sketchy and USL looks desperate. But Orlando is a perfect market for minor league soccer.

    • Orlando could potentially be a good market but the presence of Donner means that the team will flop.

      This once again shows that USL is willing to trash soccer in a market just to maintain enough teams to play in a league from year to year. The number of USL teams that have simply disappeared is staggering and it is no small wonder their top teams are all in NASL or MLS now.

      Soccer has been set back years in places like Nashville, Indianapolis, Cleveland and San Diego thanks to USL’s business practices.

    • I can understand why one would disagree with me, as you made some good points. But Orlando just isn’t a good soccer market in general.

      I have heard some people say that hispanics would go to the game. But as the hispanics in Orlando are Puerto Rican, Dominican and Cuban, who don’t really care about soccer but baseball instead.

      Also, as far as the Solor Bears, yes, they did fold because the IHL ended up shutting down and DeVos had a conflict of interests. But the IHL business decisions is what ultimately caused the failuer.

      As far as soccer in Orlando, the city tried out Orlando Ajax. Even though it was a development team, it failed. They failed even with the backing of the Dutch giants.

      Still, there is a reason that sports teams avoid Orlando like the plague. Remember, because Orlando is a center of entertainment, people can spend their dollar on a number of different things, not just sports. Simon Kuper explains this in his “Soccernomics” book.

      Still, with the exception of the Magic, I don’t see any successful sports franchise that has started, and stayed, in Orlando.

      Finally, once the USL clearly becomes a 2nd league team and the NASL becomes a top league, taking the 60 minute drive to Tampa would be a better option for citizens in Orlando to watch some quality soccer.

  5. I understand, Dave, If you wrote anything bad about Cooper he’d probably sue you too. I don’t blame you for being a nonjournalistic homer.

    • Dude, you are citing MICHELLE MALKIN AS A CREDIBLE SOURCE! And you are talking about journalistic integrity? Wow, seriously?

  6. Hmmm, Michelle Malkin vs. Dave Trotter…

    Tough one….

  7. Yeah, pretty easy choice actually. Michelle Malkin is a nutjob!

    So, let me ask you Kettle, do you think John Kerry shot himself in the foot? If you are defending her, I assume that you agree with that as well.

    • Honestly, I don’t really care about Michelle Malkin or John Kerry, and I don’t really care who wrote the story about Cooper. You’re trying to change the subject.

      I would care to hear you, esteemed journalist, refute what was said about Cooper. I’d like you to compare a sports owner who was successful for a few years and then had it fall apart on him (I believe many people fall into that category), to a lawyer in bed with politicians (ditto) taking advantage of people and the system to pocket millions, then using the cash to form your beloved team for which this blog is devoted.

      • Alright, I will have a rant here. If people don’t want to read my response to Kettle, then move on 🙂 Otherwise, here you go.

        Kettle, there are five points I want to make about the response you have written here:

        1. The Michelle Malkin fact is important. She said that John Kerry shot himself to get a Purple Heart in Vietnam on live television! Therefore, she makes up stories! So, I am not going to read an article from someone that makes stuff up. Obiviously, you will listen to anything whatsoever, with no facts whatsoever, as long as it is aligned with your point of view. Correct? The only credibility that Michelle Malkin has is with Brithers (the crazies who think Obama was born in Kenya) and Deathers (the crazies who think Obama’s health care plan is a secret plan to kill old people).

        If I was to write a story saying that George W. Bush was standing on top of the Empire State Building, drinking a Bud, having sex with a chimp while whistling “Yankee Doodle Dandy”, would you belive it? No! Why! Because I am not backing it up with any facts, and/or, I have a history of not using facts, which we have in the case of Michelle Malkin.

        2. You talk about Cooper being in “bed with politicians”. Why, because he has given political contributions? I have been involved with political consulting for 18 years and I have given to a number of campaigns. I have even worked on campaigns of every level, from local school board to Presidential. So, the fact that he has given campaign contributions to people doesn’t mean a thing.

        If I maxed out my contributions to a certain candidate at any level, does that mean that I am “in bed with them”? No. I gave $100 to Barry Silver for State House in Florida. $100 to Keith Arnold for Education Commissioner in Florida, $30 to Darren Soto in Florida for State Rep as well. Are they ‘in my pockets’? No. That is crazy!

        3. In your response you use the tradition right-wing buzzwords of calling Jeff Cooper a “lawyer” who is in “bed with politicians”. Sounds exactly like the commercials that we see the RNC pump out year after year about every Democratic candidate. You just forgot to use the word ‘trial’ in front of lawyer. I guess that was just an honest mistake, right?

        And in addition, you use a Michelle Malkin article to make your point. What is next, some garbage from Ann Coulter?

        See, I am a person that didn’t vote for Obama because I thought he was too conservative. Therefore, the more and more that you talk about Cooper giving money to Democratic candidates, the more and more I like the guy! So if you think that I am a person that doesn’t see through your political message, think again. Remember, I have been at the political game for 18 years and you have to get up pretty early in the morning to catch me napping on this one.

        4. So, I guess that Steve Donner has State Senator Mike Nozzolio in his pocket, right? The Rhinos gave him $7,000 in political contributions. The Americans gave $400 to the Rochester Business Alliance, a local business association who usually only endorse Republicans.

        I’m sure he and his associates have given more money to political candidates, but I just don’t want to spend all day looking. Again, I was in the game for 18 years, and I can easily search a campaign finance database, not too hard. And people like Cooper and Donner giving money to political campaigns is far from new news. It happens all the time.

        5. What is interesting it that I have talked to a number of soccer bloggers in the last few months since the announcement of a breakaway league, and some of them have been approached by anonymous sources that have told them the exact same thing about Jeff Cooper, using the same exact language as well.

        Therefore, I have to ask….why do you want to slam Cooper so much? You could have done it on this site before now, but you decided to wait until I wrote a critical article about the vetting process (or lack of one) in the USL. Are you working for the USL? I just find it kind of odd that you bring these points about Cooper up now. As, like I said, some soccer bloggers that I know have been approached with the same information.

        Very interesting.

        Still, the fact remains. Jeff Cooper has brought soccer to St. Louis. And, on the other had, the USL brought in a person that ran a USL soccer team (which I find totally ironic) into the groud.

      • >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>
        Dave Trotter, on March 13, 2010 at 9:50 am Said:
        Alright, I will have a rant here. If people don’t want to read my response to Kettle, then move on Otherwise, here you go.

        Still, the fact remains. Jeff Cooper has brought soccer to St. Louis. And, on the other had, the USL brought in a person that ran a USL soccer team (which I find totally ironic) into the groud.

        Let’s stay true to the actual facts here, Cooper has brought one year’s worth of soccer and that is the woman’s team to St. Louis. The Division II team has yet to play a season, and Cooper has yet to bring to St. Louis a team of any gender, that has any proven sustainability at this point. The women’s team lost money last year, and by all other accounts, the men’s team will lose money as well.

        Therein lies the rub. Donner’s Rhino’s team lost money and that is ultimately why the team almost died, in fact that is primary reason any business dies. Cooper will “run” the St. Louis team “into the ground”, as you put it, if he cannot demonstrate that at a minimum, the team breaks even, so his partners do not have continued capital calls to feed a cash flow problem.

        Where you really miss the point is why Donner would want to place himself in the same position that he was in at Rochester…… unless he believes he has learned from his mistakes and can make Orlando profitable. The fact that he wants to get back in the saddle after the painful experience in Rochester is more of a tribute to him than a slap at USL.

        Cooper and Donner are on equal grounds here. Neither party has proven anything to any city in terms of soccer sustainability.

  8. Whatever Cooper has done or not done is not at issue. Donner himself is a bit issue.

    This whole conversation returns to why the NASL clubs broke away in the first place and why some of us in former USL cities continue to support MLS but ignore second division soccer.

    From year to year you did not know if your local team was going to exist until November prior to the season, and who the opposition was going to be. USL dropped teams and added teams in a crazy fashion. Actually they dropped more teams than they added and teams would drop divisions, ie. self relegate all the time.

    I like the NASL concept. I think we need a strong D2, which USL has not provided. Even though I am an MLS supporter and proponent, I do believe that we need a strong competitive pro league that fills out the structure. We need to have about 40 US based D1 or D2 teams. We have strong enough markets for it not in MLS already- St Louis being on obvious example, but also places like Nashville, Tampa, Phoenix, etc. Tampa obviously was in MLS but lost its team thanks to ownership trouble.

    If USL is allowed to continue 2nd division operation you will have fly by night teams that disappear without a trace and more and more potential fans displaced from the game and perhaps disenchanted long term.

    I don’t think a sport that is still young and growing in this country can afford that.

  9. It seems rather obvious that Mr. Trotter has never run a business before, much less a sports business. It is as most of them are, a high risk business, and factors outside of the owner’s control can make that business fail.

    In the Donner/Rhino’s case, they moved the stadium to a location that a small town like Rochester thought was too seedy and the fans did not show up. Guess what happens when revenue goes down? Like any business, it has problems paying the bills, but ignorant folks on a W-2 assume that the owner has to pay them out of his own pocket anyway. Sometimes, when it becomes pouring good money after bad money, and there are no personal guarantees on the line, it is best to walk away and start over, having learned a life lesson. That is what Donner is doing.

    Now I don’t know the man, but I do know that USL has been around a long time, and they certainly know that USSF is looking over both NASL and USL’s shoulder. I would bet they ran this up the flagpole with USSF before this announcement ever came out.

    Further, and based solely on the blogs and press releases, don’t assume that NASL is all high and mighty, with “quality” team owners. They are a bunch of egomaniacs, which places them in the same boat as certain USL team owners. The NASL model for operating a team will lose each team, with the exception of Montreal, about $1,000,000 this year. 2011 will be an interesting year.

    I believe that USSF will sanction both leagues. This country is large enough to accommodate that and the difference in the business models of NASL and USL are night and day.

  10. USL is perhaps the worst run sports league on the planet. They are in violation of FIFA statutes and while the league theoretically has been around a long time, the vast majority of teams involved in USL’s pro leagues ten years ago are either out of business or have moved to another league be it NASL, MLS or NPSL. USL may claim to have been in existence for 23 straight years but they have allowed most teams to fail, and hurt soccer in the majority of markets they have entered, Lost in all this discussion about D2, is how USL has allowed the D3 pro league, once with upwards of 25 teams to fall to 6 teams, three of which are former D2 teams, representing a tiny piece of the country.

    I am not sold on NASL or NPSL but they could not do any worse than USL or PDL have done in the last ten years. That is a fact.

    • Joe, you are undoubtedly the biggest idiot on this board. You make statements with absolutely no facts or foundations.

      Where exactly, Mr. Soccer Expert, is USL in violation of FIFA statutes? Don’t BS, provide the exact regulations that places USL in violation.

      You might also consider that the reason its teams have ceased to exist, much like the original NASL teams, is because there is no market for them. Why is that USL’s problem? It is a market problem, which is an epidemic for the entire U.S.

      You have no knowledge and no facts to support any of this.

      I am by no means a fan of USL in certain areas, but you should at least have some working knowledge of reality and fact before you post on this blog.

  11. I was going to continue to argue with you about Orlando’s potential as a minor league soccer market (Ajax Orlando, really? lame example), but from reading above, I see you have your hands full.

    Thanks for writing. regardless of our different opinions, us readers like that you post about soccer (well I do).

  12. […] Steve Donner made the announcement of the new Orlando franchise. In addition, the NASL Fanatic also gave an opinion piece on Donner’s practices when he was running the Rochester Rhinos. In the same Orlando Sentinel article, Donner stated in […]

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