American Trio Bonds with Austrian Owners
A soccer club owned by its fans isn’t a brand-new, foreign concept, but the trio of American owners that have acquired a majority stake in FC Pinzgau Saalfelden have set out to prove that their acumen and drive will eventually take the club from its current home in the Austrian Third Division, into the domestic top flight and, eventually, the UEFA Champions League.
Back in 2016, Marc Ciociola had a vision and an ambitious plan back of owning a European soccer club, that was borne out of the frustration of not getting any tangible benefits as a supporter and season ticket holder of his local team, Real Salt Lake of Major League Soccer in North America.
“Living in Salt Lake City at the time, I had become a Real Salt Lake supporter and season ticket holder. As I continued to invest more time, energy and money into the club, it got me thinking. All of us supporters are investing all of this into the club and at the end of the day we don’t get to benefit monetarily in any way.
“We also don’t know what is really going on in the front office or with the owner. There has to be a better way I thought. Why can’t the supporters see more of what happens inside the club? Why can’t supporters benefit monetarily as the club does well and becomes more valuable?”
Supposedly, soccer across the world is ‘all about the fans,’ but rarely are they consulted on club decisions or given a chance to offer an opinion on the relative merits or demerits of club policy, so perhaps Ciociola had tapped into something. He knew he had the genesis of a captivating idea, but the challenge was implementation and execution.
Particularly given that he was still U.S.-based, but understood from the outset that Europe is where he wanted to build and deliver his concept.
“With the franchise model in the US and the unique ownership nature of Major League Soccer, I knew this model couldn’t work in the US. However, it is certainly possible in Europe, home to one of the biggest and most prestigious sporting events in the world, the UEFA Champions League.
“Couple that with promotion/relegation and I set out to find a league and a club where we could get in at just the right spot and get it promoted, allowing all of our fan/owners to take that ride too and be a part of something new and exciting along the way.
“A way where they could interact and help drive policy in a way never before seen in the sports world. I decided we would take a club and instead of being owned by one millionaire or billionaire, we would chop the club up into a bunch of small pieces and sell them off to average fans, allowing them to OWN an actual piece of the club. Then we would create a fan/owner experience never before seen in the world of sports, one that allows unprecedented access and involvement.”
It was certainly a lofty ambition, but Mark’s apparent desire to see the project through to completion, his evident belief in proof of concept and his strong business background, was enough to bring others on board.
Trey Fitz-Gerald boasts 27 years of media and marketing experience in professional sports, has credibility within U.S. soccer circles for his involvement in five organisational launches including Real Salt Lake, and has the ability to identify off-field talent. He was quickly sold on the project.
“A few months after I left Real Salt Lake in Sept. 2018, one of our former players - Chris Wingert - told me he was pursuing the route of becoming a player agent, but that there was a project he believed I might be interested in … He introduced me to Mark via phone, we soon met for lunch, one hour became three and suddenly I was captivated with the entire concept of fan ownership.”
Around the same time, Steve Paris, a business veteran of 25 years, and with experience in both big corporate and startup settings, joined the pair. With an MBA from Washington University in St. Louis and a BS in Sport Management from the UMASS Amherst, Steve’s business, legal and financial expertise were also bound to prove invaluable.
“I first joined Mark in the fall of 2018, about seven months after he first introduced me to his vision. The very idea that something like this was even possible, just stuck in my head. I had started my career in sports after graduating with a sport management degree from UMASS Amherst. Moving back into sports business and building something unique from the ground up was tremendously appealing to me.”
In order for the dream to be realised, however, it was time to get serious. If the business was to work, then it would require moving to the country of choice and ensuring that there were ‘boots on the ground’ in order to overcome any little mishaps.
Deciding where to base themselves became the next big decision in the process, with Ciociola plotting the path.
“The next step was finding a league within Europe that had a path to the UEFA Champions and Europa League berths, with a relatively low financial barrier of entry. It was also important to do this in a place that was a tourist destination, a place where people would want to come visit.
“I quickly settled on Austria, a league that is consistently ranked 11th or 12th within UEFA. A league that has two UCL births and three UEL births. A league where the average revenue and spend is in the tens of millions of euros per year as opposed to hundreds of millions of euros like in Germany, England or Spain.“
Mark had made several visits to Austria and looked at multiple clubs and locations before settling on the Alps region. Call it good luck or a fortunate stroke of serendipity, but a club based in the Alps and playing in the Austrian third tier, FC Pinzgau Saalfelden, had three Austrian founders that were looking to take things to the next level.
Saalfeden, a beautiful mountain town, and the club’s stadium, with a picture perfect backdrop and overlooked by a castle and monastery, was stunning. The question was how could the two separate parties make it work?
The FCPS “founders” who merged two smaller Austrian sides back in 2007 - Christian Herzog, Siegi Kainz and Herbert Bründlinger - were interested enough to at least hear Ciociola’s audacious pitch, even if they didn’t rush headlong into an initial deal.
“When Mark told us about his idea for the first time, we were initially surprised at why he would choose a small club in Austria for his project. Of course, there was also some skepticism from the three of us at the beginning. However, the longer we talked and the more we learned about the idea and the background, the more enthusiastic we were about the planned project. Enabling fans from all over the world to own part of the club is a fascinating idea. What drew us to it was the fact that the model is quite unique. To have two worlds (USA - Austria) and football cultures at one club, and possibly also to offer something very different to our fan owners around a match day experience is something we are all very proud of.”
With a series of discussions consistently heading in the right direction, it was time for all six men to meet each other for the first time, and at that point, the addition of former German international, Christian Ziege, helped to seal the deal, according to Fitz-Gerald.
“In April of 2019, Mark and I flew from Salt Lake to Hamburg, and then Hamburg to Munich and we drove to Salzburg/Saalfelden, as part of a 10-day trip to the area…”
“For the first time, we met the FC Pinzgau founding trio face-to-face, saw our team play at Kitzbuhel, met Christian Ziege, attended the Austrian Cup, etc.; it was during this whirlwind that we pitched Hummel on our equipment deal and vision for professionalizing the club, connecting to the U.S., creating a pipeline into Europe for North American players/coaches/execs, etc …
“The clincher was our third meeting with Ziege, a 3-hour lunch that literally sealed everything for me… Listening to him discuss his experiences as a player, coach and sporting director, dealing with federations, owners and boards of directors and players all that... he and I sharing philosophies on how the business and sporting sides of a football organization are supposed to work together.
“It was serendipitous and kismet and all that … That’s when I knew I was fast-forwarding my original plan to potentially move to Saalfelden in late 2019 to that July - just about 2 months later. Ziege texted me 48 hours later, as I was leaving the Munich airport after dropping Mark off for his flight to the U.S. and driving to explore Innsbruck for the day. His text: 'I’m in’ … That’s when we were off and running in earnest!”
That doesn’t mean the project wasn’t without its significant challenges of course, particularly in the early stages. Mark, Steve and Trey began operating as an entity known as ‘Fan Owned Club’ (FOC), and on top of the physical distance between both sets of three businessmen, there was an awful lot to get to grips with, and in a relatively short period of time to boot. Time was of the essence.
“The Deutsch/English language barrier, prioritizing all the opportunities and challenges, navigating U.S. SEC regulations, Austrian immigration and employment law, tax codes for both countries amidst fund-raising initiatives - nothing ever felt truly ‘daunting’ - it was just a matter of listening, learning, asking questions and applying new information to the ever-evolving project…” Fitz-Gerald noted.
Steve Paris, meanwhile, looked to quickly streamline the financial side of the project.
“As with nearly all startups, raising capital and cash flow was the first and has been the most consistent challenge. We learned quickly that everything – whether it is signing sponsors, securing player visas, satisfying regulatory requirements, even building a website – costs twice as much and takes longer than you ever expect.”
Fast forward to today, and everything is falling into place, just as those behind this drive for a ‘Fan Owned Club’ hoped it would do. All three were keen to pay tribute to those that have helped bring things full circle too. Without them, what was just an idea four years ago, could never have been transformed into a club with genuine aspirations of soccer at the top level of the European tree.
“It has taken faith and flexibility,” said Steve Paris. “But also a bit of serendipity. It always seems that the right idea, the right solution, the right opportunity has come at exactly the right time. Often, that has been in the form of amazing people that have chosen to contribute in some important way. ‘Fan Owned’ means that we are not going to be bankrolled by a wealthy ownership group. We have needed to get out and engage a lot of people, and we have been fortunate to collect an amazing cast of super talented people that are as excited as we are about Fan Owned Club.
“We are a small group and each of our roles stretch broadly to whatever is needed. There are very few things at Fan Owned Club that I have not touched in some way, shape or form. And though I am passionate, I am rarely driven by emotion, something that I think is critical in a sport environment where ambition can so easily overwhelm good business sense. Soccer is littered with those examples where ego has led to failure, and we do not want to add to that list.”
Fitz-Gerald is in the fullest agreement.
“Everyone agrees that the core ethos of this project is understanding that ONLY through group success will any of us - founders, fan owners, players, coaches, executives, vendors - achieve or accomplish any sort of individual glory … This is how we built Real Salt Lake during its zenith in MLS and CONCACAF from 2008-2013, this is also PRECISELY what Christian Ziege felt should permeate from the changing room to the training ground to the boardroom and everywhere in-between …
“Teamwork and collaboration in the face of every hill and valley on this rollercoaster ride has enabled us to gain momentum, preserve excitement and keep progressing forward, each and every day… All of us - Mark, Steve, myself, the Austrian founders, gents like Dave Herman and Jake Simons and many, many others - wear multiple hats, obviously …
“Hopefully my experience and relationships dovetail nicely with our vision for Fan Owned Club and FCPS, enabling us to establish our desired fan culture and professionalize our FCPS operations… Understanding that FANS come first, FOOTBALL comes first, providing transparency to our club operations, knowing that we all have each other’s collective back and reminding everyone that our sometimes audacious goals for UEFA competition and Austrian promotion and an internationally-diverse roster of players / front-office are absolutely possible - this is our daily charge and responsibility!”
With ‘Fan Owned Club’ now a reality and the future looking very bright indeed for FC Pinzgau Saalfelden, it’s only right that Mark should have the final word.
“Along with the three Austrian founders, several people have joined the Fan Owned Club team. All have played integral roles. We honestly tell each other that we wouldn’t be where we are today without every single one of us on the team. Each has played their own role and has contributed in ways that others would not have been able to. I am so proud of the team that has gotten us to this point.
“A lot of work has gone over the last three years to get to this point, but in some respects this is the ‘new beginning.’ This is the time when we start to have the original vision realised, having actual fan owners along for this magical ride. I am looking forward to starting this next chapter and being able to share this unprecedented project, this unique football club and this amazing part of the world with all of you.”
From a small acorn four years ago, a mighty oak is growing. Vision, dedication and hard work, as well as the club’s core values; Determination, Ambition, Commitment, Teamwork, Transparency, Community, Pride, Professionalism, Aspiration, Honesty and Purity, will certainly hold ‘Fan Owned Club’ in good stead moving forwards.
Plant the roots. Grow the game. Shoot for the crown.