Los Angeles Soccer: Steve Donner
FULLERTON -- The Los Angeles Blues embark Saturday night on their second go-round in the USL Pro, looking to right what went wrong in the inaugural season, when their championship-caliber side unraveled after its big-name star abandoned ship.
Head coach/general manager Charlie Naimo and his staff gutted the team, keeping just four players and bringing in a mix of veterans and youngsters with perhaps not quite the flair of last year's group but with far more grit and resilience, and the Blues are thinking title as they kick off against the Rochester Rhinos at Cal State Fullerton's Titan Stadium.
The Blues want desperately to improve on last year's 8-7-9 campaign, followed by a first-round exit in the third-division professional league's playoffs, and challenge defending champion Orlando City SC and several prime contenders, including the Rhinos, who won the National Division last year, seven points ahead of third-place L.A.
But the real fight is off the field, where Steve Donner -- the club's new vice president of business operations -- is leading a charge to professionalize the organization, create for it a role on Southern California's crowded sports landscape, and create a foundation that will enable the Blues to survive and succeed for years to come. The most important move has been hauling the team's offices from Santa Monica to Fullerton, just a couple of blocks from the club's training ground at Fullerton College, and pledging its future to Titan Stadium after splitting a dozen league games last year among Cal State Fullerton and venues in Corona, Norco and Pacific Palisades.
Tickets are cheap, certainly in comparison with the Galaxy (and, less so, Chivas USA), parking is free and the soccer is better than decent. That's what Donner -- a sports marketing executive with extensive experience in hockey, minor-league soccer and lacrosse -- and his staff are trying to sell.
“A very convenient, very entertaining sports option in the Orange County and the L.A. Metro market: That's the niche we hope to create,” said Donner, who was chief executive officer last year at Orlando City, which led the USL Pro in attendance. “It's going to take some time in order for people to understand what we really are.”
That's because word didn't get out last year. A short lead-time to the club's debut -- the Tampa, Fla.-based United Soccer Leagues accepted the Blues for its top division in December 2010, and play began five months later -- had the organization scrambling from the start just to put on a season. Marketing was nearly nonexistent, sponsorship was sparse, and little more than 4,500 showed up for the entire 12-game home schedule, with just four crowds above 600.
A BAD START: “It couldn't have been worse last year,” Naimo acknowledged. “It's really no one's fault. We started so late. Geographically, we were a constellation, and bottom line: You can't market to people you're not around.”
“It did not work, as far as sponsorship, ticket sales,” Ali Mansouri, who owns the club with his wife, Maryam, said at the close of last season. “We had a budget, what this thing is going to cost us. And we were very close to it. We were about 10 percent [above] what we estimated the cost is going to be. Very happy about that. But we also had an estimate of how much money we're going to bring in. We [made] 20 percent of that. That wasn't good.”