This article was written by Matt Pentz and was published on theathletic.com on 31 December 2019.
Craig Waibel knew his suggestion might not be immediately embraced. Then the general manager of Real Salt Lake, Waibel peered over his desk this past summer at Andrew Brody, a discouraged young defender who wasn’t great at hiding his disaffection.
Brody was one of the odd men out of RSL’s youth movement, languishing in the USL while former academy peers shined in Major League Soccer. So while he was hungry for a change of scenery and an increase in playing time, Brody was also skeptical of Waibel’s intentions — especially when he first heard the garbled name of the club who wanted to take him on loan.
FC Pinzgau Saalfelden.
It was a team in the Austrian third division, Waibel explained. One with an interesting backstory. The club was run, in part, by a former RSL public relations officer, as well as a former season-ticket holder at Rio Tinto Stadium. They were in the process of converting Pinzgau into a club wholly owned and operated by its fans, complete with a stock exchange listing, and targeting American fans.
Perhaps most pertinently for Brody, they were coached by a German soccer legend, and in line for promotion. And yet, while quietly intrigued, Brody still feigned indifference.
“Just do me one favor,” Waibel asked him, “go home and Google ‘Christian Ziege’ and ‘Saalfelden,’ and let me know how you feel tomorrow.”
The following morning, Brody strode back into Waibel’s office, his mood lifted, and with only one followup question.
“Where do I sign?”
The mastermind behind the Pinzgau project is a man named Mark Ciociola, and the idea is a mashup of the influences on his life.
Ciociola partly grew up in Wisconsin, and remembers the sentimental appeal of the Green Bay Packers’ collective ownership model. He was a student manager for the women’s basketball team at UWMadison, where he developed a greater appreciation for team sports, and though he got a masters’ degree in sports administration, that could only do so much to scratch his entrepreneurial itch.
Ciociola started a cabin rental service before Airbnb was a thing, then pivoted into marketing, where his company specialized in those cartoon-style maps one often sees in resort towns. He had two major clients: one of which was in Hawaii, and the other in Park City, which is what brought him to Utah.
Though a sports fan from his youth, Ciociola hadn’t previously gotten into soccer. But from his first RSL game at Rio Tinto, he was hooked. He liked the communal aspect of the sport, and particularly admired the supporters who devoted the time and energy into backing their team by painting tifo for big games and volunteering in the city to strengthen bonds in the community. But something didn’t add up.
“I started noticing that there were a lot of people giving a lot of time and energy into soccer clubs all over the world,” Ciociola said. “And they’re not really a part of it. There’s a separation between the supporters and how the club actually works.”
When a team wins MLS Cup, he used as an example, the owner and front office employees benefit from a tangible boost in professional prestige. The players get bonuses. The supporters?
“Supporters get bragging rights,” Ciociola said, “but that’s about it. So how can we tie what the supporters are investing into the success of the club, and give them some kind of return for what they do as a club?”
He considered that question, and then quickly disregarded an initial thought of crowd-funding an MLS team. The franchise system is so ingrained in the United States, and the cost of buying in is so high. Most recently, Charlotte’s ownership group — backed by billionaire David Tepper — set a new benchmark when it dropped $350 million on an expansion fee alone to become the league’s 30th club.
So Ciociola turned his attention to Europe. It hadn’t escaped his notice, either, how many Liverpool- and Barcelona-scarf-wearing early risers were packing into soccer pubs in major metropolitan areas all over the U.S. — and how capricious their connection to their adopted overseas superclubs often were.
“There aren’t often concrete ties as to why this fan likes Wolves in the (Premier League), or why this fan follows Dortmund,” Ciociola said, “So why don’t we take a club and tailor it to the U.S., and give fans a vested interest?”
The Austrian third division may feel like a random choice, but it wasn’t. The barrier of entry is lower there than in, say, England or Germany, where you might have to drop tens of millions if you really want to make a genuine push to get promoted all the way into the top league. And once there, Austria has a surprising number of European berths up for grabs: As the 11th-ranked league on the continent — one
below Turkey and just above Holland — it has two Champions League spots (one automatic group-stage spot and one third qualifying round spot) plus three for the Europa League (one automatic group-stage spot, one third qualifying round spot and one playoff final spot).
“We get to play in the same league as those teams spending hundreds of millions of Euros, and we can do it for much cheaper,” Ciociola said.
Plus the region is such an easy sell. Saalfelden itself, as Brody found out via his Google search, is physically stunning. Pinzgau’s cozy little stadium is overlooked by a medieval castle. The town is backed by the whitecaps of the Alps, and close to multiple ski resorts plus assorted other outdoor activities.
The idea was to invest in a club in an area where the collection of owners from around the world would like to come vacation, as both a draw for them and a tourism boost for the region.
The overall model was vaguely focused at first — basically: “go above and beyond what people would get with any other team,” according to Ciociola — and has gotten more specific and more elaborate over time.
That includes streaming all games on the team’s website live with English-language commentary, but also behind-the-scenes video of team talks before and after matches. It includes Skype calls with the coach and general manager, wherein they explain their rationale for different team-building decisions.
The club is currently going through the final part of the FCC approval process to be able to sell stock, and expects to start floating shares sometime in mid- to late-January.
If you’re starting to feel a little like Andrew Brody did last summer, the minimum buy-in is $1,000, which gets you access to those exclusive peeks behind the curtain, plus a scarf, a discount to the team store, two free tickets to any home match (travel costs to Austria not included) and an invite to the annual owners’ meeting. An extra $500 gets you extra shares, plus a jersey and access to the owners’ suite at the stadium. The most expensive package ($9,999, prices subject to change), features four travel vouchers for airfare and six nights in a hotel for a Pinzgau match next season, plus guaranteed tickets to any home or away Austrian Cup or future UEFA matches.
The idea is to provide opportunities up and down the economic spectrum to buy in at the ground floor. And, the club hopes, follow along with the rise.
Trey Fitz-Gerald sat in the stands and questioned his life choices.
Up until late 2018, Fitz-Gerald was Real Salt Lake’s longtime VP of communications, and content with his lot.
“I’ve always kind of bragged about being an American soccer snob,” Fitz-Gerald said. “I didn’t spend my 20 years in MLS paying a whole lot of attention to either the EPL or the Bundesliga.”
Yet after leaving RSL in late 2018, Fitz-Gerald was open to broadening his horizons. And after being introduced to Ciociola by an acquaintance who thought he might be intrigued by this new project, FitzGerald was swept up by his vision. Which is how Fitz-Gerald found himself at an Austrian third-division game back in April, Pinzgau’s first under its new head coach, and feeling a bit… underwhelmed.
“The first 20 minutes, it was pretty ragged soccer, man,” Fitz-Gerald said. “I was like, what the hell did I get myself into? This is like bad USL B-team soccer right now. … We had all of these grandiose ambitions, and it was a splash of cold water.”
There are some obvious potential pitfalls to the project. If it all ends up going south, it would not be the first time this very website charted the course of supposedly well intentioned Americans flaming out abroad. Ciociola has read the story of Mike Piazza’s experience in Italy and laughed knowingly when asked whether they took any lessons from it.
“Not as a direct result of that,” Ciociola said, “but it is part of a thought we had coming in, making sure the current Austrian owners were still a part of it. We wanted to make sure that was still part of the deal. They handle all of the local stuff that we never could have grasped, especially not speaking German.”
In Saalfelden, he swears, the vibe is different.
“Some people over here think we’re crazy,” he admits. “A lot more people think it’s a really cool thing.”
But there was still the matter of the on-field product. At halftime, the new coach made some aggressive tactical and personnel changes, and the team played at least passably enough to not have Fitz-Gerald scrambling for the next flight home.
“I was like, OK, this soccer is at least soccer,” Fitz-Gerald said, and after what turned into a four-hour lunch with the coach afterward, his enthusiasm ended up as stoked as ever.
Christian Ziege, almost anyone around the club will tell you, is who has turned Pinzgau from a pipe dream into something more tangible. From an operational novelty to a club with potential for drastic growth.
As a player, Ziege suited up for Bayern Munich, AC Milan, Liverpool and Tottenham, and earned 72 caps for Germany, playing in the 1998 and 2002 World Cups. One of the things he and Fitz-Gerald bonded over at lunch was the latter giving him shit for the U.S.’s near upset in 2002. As a coach, Ziege was an assistant at Borussia Mönchengladbach for a while, and also headed up multiple German youth national
Ziege also happened to have been living just up the road from Saalfelden, and out of work when the Americans bought into Pinzgau earlier this year. He was as intrigued by the ambition of the business model as anybody.
By taking over as coach, Ziege provided legitimacy.
“Our single biggest recruiting tool,” Fitz-Gerald said, “by far, is the sterling reputation of Christian Ziege. He is that DNA, that connective tissue.”
Those recruits included a handful of American imports like Brody — Josh Heard, also on loan from Real Monarchs, Pablo Ruiz on loan from RSL, former MLS forward Sean “Ugo” Okoli — all of whom were sold on the combination of adventure and the chance to develop under a proven coach.
For Brody, especially, the chance to learn from a former world-class outside back has been invaluable.
“I think he’s really installed a lot of confidence in me, because I know he has my back,” Brody said.
He’s also been inspired by the idea of playing for promotion, and forcing himself onto a bigger stage.
“In the U.S., I’d say,” Brody said, “if you lose a game or two, it’s not the end of the world. Playing for promotion, with the top two going up in a small division, you really can’t take any games off. … I felt like there was more of like a push, an urgency.”
Pinzgau played well enough in the fall to earn a spot in the promotion playoffs this coming spring. Five other teams will join them in a round-robin mini-season, with the top finisher hopping up to the second division. And this is all before the shares have even gone on sale to the general public. The club has made do with initial investments from friends and family to bridge the gap until January, when it hopes to use that influx of new capital to make a genuine push for promotion.
Ciociola says they have different models depending on how many people buy into the team.
“We’ve got a highly successful model, we’ve got a highly modest model, and we’ve got something in between,” Ciociola said.
Modest would mean being a very successful second-division team. In-between would be a low-to-midtable first division club, long term. And the most successful? Well, they did choose Austria, in part, for those Champions League berths.
In an era of superclubs and franchise fees, there is an obvious romance to what they’re trying to pull off — establishing a collective and taking their best shot. There’s a tone of wonderment in each of their voices when discussing Pinzgau Saalfelden, both the team and the fairytale-like setting it plays in.
Many of those involved are on their second or third chances in the sport, encouraging that underdog mentality and sense of awe that they somehow ended up here.
Waibel isn’t technically part of the club, at least not yet. He was let go by RSL in September, and has used the interim to decompress.
Having gotten close with Ziege and the rest of the Pinzgau crew while setting up those loan deals, Waibel has, in recent weeks, functioned as a kind of informal advisor, with the opportunity for that to turn into something more.
“We’re open to everything,” Waibel said. “My wife is kind of up for the adventure. Austria has to be a part of that thought process. … In life, you have to sometimes take a chance on things that are risky. What’s the worst thing that happens, you move back to the States?”
When he first heard about the idea, Waibel kind of marveled that more people from the American soccer community hadn’t tried something similar.
“The truth is this: I don’t think everyone has the courage to do it,” Waibel said. “The idea is great. But you’re not going to run a European club from America, as a small business. Why aren’t more people doing it? The truth is because it takes money, and the person with money isn’t moving to Europe.”
Hence the community model, and the novelty of Pinzgau.
Waibel sort of personifies the state of the project at the moment. He could see the whole thing taking off, and living up to all its potential, but that’s still mostly theoretical.
“I love the idea, but I can’t move my family on an idea,” Waibel said. “I like to win, too.”
Still, he admits to a deep sense of intrigue, and you can hear it in his voice.
It’s hard to resist that pull of adventure, and the allure of a team playing in the clouds — with a castle standing sentinel and completing the scene.