Extras from July issue: Full Q&A with Sky Blue FC’s Gerry Marrone on the life of a GM

Photography by Robyn McNeil (ISI Photos)

Sky Blue FC General Manager Gerry Marrone spoke with Our Game Magazine back in June 2010 about the rewards and challenges of being a GM. Part of the interview can be found in the July 2010 issue, while the full Q&A is now available here on OurGameMagazine.com

Describe a typical day for you.

My day typically starts at about 5:15 in the morning. That’s when I get up. My wife’s a teacher so when the alarm goes off, she gets up and I get up too. Usually I’m immediately on the iPhone or the computer, following up stuff from the night before. The job is pretty encompassing, so every day you work on pretty much every part.

It’s player-related stuff, it’s coach-related stuff, it’s business stuff, it’s sponsorship, it’s ticket sales…I mean it’s everything, all the time, every day (laughs). No lie it’s 5:15 in the morning until 9 at night, probably 5 days a week, 6 days a week sometimes. It’s a lot of work. A lot more than I anticipated, I can tell you that.

How about offseason?

Offseason it doesn’t really change a whole lot because we don’t have a long window of opportunity to rest. Our season will end this year on September 26th. Then the 30-day window clicks right then for when we renew options and decide, so we make all these decisions obviously leading up to that period of time. But then we only have 30 days to renew players, execute contracts, and do all the work that needs to be done to determine who we’re gonna bring back that we currently have, what kind of contracts that we’re gonna offer them to negotiate those things through it… there’s quite a bit of juggling.

And then you’re also doing some international scouting, finding out what new internationals are out there, and making a lot of determinations. And you’re also kind of in the sponsorship sales cycle, which will start probably around August, for next year. Because the sponsors are all doing their budgeting at that point in time, so you need to be making those sponsor presentations. In my job, in Sky Blue, I also do sponsorship sales a good portion. I have a guy who works with me but we do it together. So that kicks in immediately. Then the ticketing people start doing season ticket renewals and I work with them as well, doing our marketing plan for the next year. It’s a 12-month job.

How challenging is it to get sponsors for a women’s soccer club, in a new league, under this economic situation?

It’s very, very, very, very, very difficult. The economy is what the economy is. Has it gotten a little bit better? Absolutely. But we are still the new kid on the block with an unproven track record because we don’t really have a track record. And from a sponsorship standpoint when you’re talking about it from a team’s perspective, not from the league’s perspective, we’re caught between a couple of different areas.

Area one is those big national companies. And you think, “Well you’re in the New Jersey/New York market where there are all these huge companies.” Well we’re not really relevant to these huge companies. Because when they look at sponsorships they look at national deals that they spend a lot of money on and have national exposure. So those are more appropriate for our league to go after.

When you go local, then New Jersey is just a hotbed of local sports. There are probably seven minor league baseball teams. There are the New York Mets and the New York Yankees professional baseball, you have plenty of basketball and hockey [teams], we’re just surrounded with probably the most sports and media intensive market in the world. So there’s a lot going on, there’s a lot of clutter.

Who do you really compare to? With our market and our demographic, we probably most closely compare to minor league baseball. In terms of our season being around the same time and our stadiums are about the same size. So then you look at, “Okay, what does it cost a minor league baseball team, to be a sponsor there, versus be a sponsor for Sky Blue?” Well the minor league [baseball] teams have 50-60 games during the year. We have 12. They might get the same attendance, but they get a times 50, we get a times 12. So from a reach and spend standpoint, the sponsorship buy, it’s a tough sell. So we have to mix all that in.

Ultimately what comes out in the other end is where we can create personal relationships with sponsors who care about what we’re trying to do and view it more in those lines. That they have some hook there, that there’s someone from that company that either wants us to be successful or has a daughter or child or niece or someone playing the game and gets it. So it’s a multi-level approach to try to get sponsorship dollars, to try to dig companies to find all those different types of things. And by far, I’ve been in sales for 25 years, this is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to sell. Bar none. Not because it can’t be sold, it’s just that finding the right client is the hardest part of that.

Photography by Howard C. Smith (ISI Photos)

How important is the GM-owner relationship?

Oh it’s absolutely critical. If I didn’t have a good relationship with our ownership group, I honestly couldn’t imagine doing my job. One of the things that I think people need to understand about our league, and one of the things that makes our league so much different from MLS (Major League Soccer) and other leagues, is that we are not a single entity system.

So like the things that happened in [St. Louis] Athletica, had that been MLS, it’s a totally different solution to that problem than our problem. We have ownership groups that all personally have their money on the line, at stake. And it’s a different decision to be made because should each of those teams then take on additional debt, to keep something going, that may just go away anyway.

So when all of these come together, essentially what you have in WPS, when there were eight teams and now there are seven teams, is you have seven small businesses now all trying to be successful. But there are seven, small, independent businesses. So, the likelihood of seven, small, independent businesses having a hundred percent success is pretty slim. When you look at it that way. We’re all $2-$3 million a year businesses. Our product just happens to be sports, happens to be soccer. In our case, women’s soccer. But at the end of the day we are small businesses. And the success rate of small businesses, start-ups, is low. The fact that we’re gonna keep on is a great testimony to the owners and the commitment the owners have to this thing.

And every decision that I have to make has a financial impact on the bottom line. And I make those decisions with the owner, and we discuss everything. So while I certainly have budgets that I follow on all those other things, at the end of the day if I don’t have a good relationship with the owners, like I said I couldn’t imagine doing my job.

What are the three most important relationships you have outside the front office and the team, that help you in the club’s growth?

That’s really hard to answer. I think certainly the relationships that I have with our key sponsors are critical. The relationship that I have with Rutgers University, where we play our games, is absolutely critical and continues to get better. The relationships that we have with all the soccer leaders in New Jersey, you know the big clubs, and the New Jersey Youth Soccer Association, where we got partnerships there, I think those are critical. So it’s not like there are three people or groups out there that are absolutely paramount to our success. They’re all paramount to our success. So it would be very hard for me to simply pick three and say without these three we would be no good. It’s kind of all those things combined.

How involved are you when it comes to bringing in new players?

I don’t actually look at players or anything like that, that’s the coaching staff. They do all that stuff. But I have a lot of conversations with agents and with coaches. I will pick up the phone and call (UNC head coach) Anson Dorrance and get his opinion on things. Talk to other GM’s, talk to people outside that maybe aren’t employed in our league right now but are thought leaders, people who are really smart about women’s soccer.

So there’s a whole kind of rolodex of contacts that I have to find out about players. And then at the end of the day it’s the coaching staff and the head coach’s decision what players they want and how they fit into what they are trying to get accomplished and so on.

How do you find ways to keep fans excited about the team, while at the same time bring in new fans?

I think one is certainly social media. Like the stuff we’re doing on Twitter and the teasers and all that kind of stuff. And I think we have a great social media team. I think what [Director of Communications] John [Archibald] and [Director of Marketing and Public Relations] Gloria [Averbuch] are doing is great for us.

And then the real big one for us and every team I think is appearances. It’s getting the players engaged and involved and seen and out and in front of the audience. It’s really appearances, appearances, appearances. Getting people to know who the players are. In my opinion, our single greatest challenge is awareness. For the whole league, not just our team. It’s getting people to be aware that we exist.

What’s the best part about your job?

I’m being paid to work in soccer. It doesn’t get any better than that. So it’s the industry, it’s a game that I absolutely love that I’ve been involved with from the time I started playing until now, 35 years, something like that. Not on a professional level, just on a personal level. To be paid to be in soccer, there’s no greater thing than that.

What is the most difficult part of your job?

The most difficult or the worst? The worst part of my job is by far, unequivocally, without question, having to let a player go. I just had to do it, we just put a player out a waiver yesterday. We’ll probably clear waivers today and then will be on the transactions. That is by far the worst.

Especially with what just happened with St. Louis and you’re gonna bring a player in, which means you have to put a player out, and that player has been with you through multiple steps in the tryouts. And they’ve just been giving you everything they have. Everything they have. And then you have to sit in an office and say, “We’re sorry but we’re releasing you from this agreement we made because we got another player to bring in.” And it’s to no fault of their own. In this case, Athletica folds, there are potentially better players there than what you have on your current roster. You do what you think is the right thing for the team. But it doesn’t make it easy and by far is the worst part of the job.

What was your proudest or most rewarding moment as a GM of Sky Blue FC?

Oh that’s an easy one. Come on (laughs). What do you think?

I was just talking to one of my friends about it. He was a big time baseball player. One of my best friends since childhood, we’ve been friends since we were six. And he went to college on a full baseball scholarship, he played divisional baseball at a really high level and he was drafted by the Dodgers and never made it. And I think he’s more proud of me having this job than I am of me having this job.

We just had lunch last week and we were talking about [the championship]. We had an opportunity to look back and it was kind of absolutely for me surreal, standing on the field, at the Home Depot Center, and watching the team celebrate, watching the owners. (Sky Blue FC owner) Thomas [Hofstetter], I mean last year was tough for us obviously, and he had just been through so much. And to see the smile on his face and the players celebrating, and to think that I had anything to do with that at all, if I had a little to do with it, you know half a percentage of any credit that we had of that success, that’s what makes me so proud.

[It] just continues to tell me that I am in the right place and I’m doing the right thing. Because it was just awesome. There’s no other way to describe it.