In this extended interview, Thomas Maurer spoke with Peter Marlette, the General Manager of Union Omaha, a Nebraska-based club. Peter Marlette, a young GM, discussed the club’s recent developments, its relationship with a baseball team from the same ownership group, and the importance of college soccer in the US.
How did you begin your journey at Union Omaha? Why did you move from an MLS club, FC Dallas, to a lower division?
I began my journey at Union Omaha about two years ago. I used to work in business development for the Major League Soccer (MLS) team FC Dallas, but not on the sports side.
When I came to Union Omaha, I was able to take on more responsibilities, including the sporting side of the club. It’s always been my goal to become a general manager and run both sides of a club at some point, so when this opportunity presented itself, it was exactly what I had hoped for. It came a couple of steps—or a year or two earlier—than I thought it would, but it just happened that what Union Omaha needed two years ago fit my profile and background.
It was a long and intensive interviewing process, and I think they were trying to find reasons why someone my age couldn’t do the job (I was 31 years old). But in the end, what they were looking for fit my background perfectly. Prior to working at FC Dallas, I obtained my master’s degree at AISTS in Lausanne, Switzerland and worked for an agency for five years before that. Prior to all that, I was playing, but during that time I was also obtaining licenses and scouting licenses to boost my resume and skill set. When the opportunity at Union Omaha came up, I was ready for it.
What was the situation when you entered? Did the club operate differently before your arrival?
When I entered Union Omaha in 2021, the club was totally brand new, having only existed for one season. Due to COVID, the season was shortened, and there were strict crowd restrictions in place. The person who previously held my role left, and the club was looking for someone who could effectively manage both sides of the club. Honestly, I think there are not many candidates in the US with this type of experience, so my proven background of generating or increasing revenue for the club or businesses I worked for (mostly through corporate partnerships) was very attractive to Union Omaha.
Union Omaha had suffered a difficult year in its first year of existence despite on-field success due to COVID-19. With nothing to build off of, my background in revenue generation was crucial to them at the time. In addition to my corporate experience, I also played professionally and have a good understanding of the US league structure, which is quite complicated. I guess the timing worked out well for both the club and myself.
How big was the club back then? Has the number of employees changed?
Our club has definitely increased in size, and we have added staff in every department. When I came in, the club had around six full-time employees in the front office, not counting coaching or technical staff.
What’s quite unique about us is that our ownership group also owns a professional baseball team in Omaha, and some staff members were shared between the two teams. Since I arrived, we have increased the number of full-time front-office staff. It can still be efficient to have shared staff in some departments, as long as the employees are dedicated and willing to put in the necessary hours to sell for both teams. Still, it was clear to me that the club needed more staff focused specifically on football.
The club was one of the leaders in ticket sales revenue in the USL League One in 2021. Could you tell us more about it?
Our success in this area has improved since I got here, but there was already a strong foundation in place thanks to the ownership group and original employees. They did a great job of engaging with supporters and the community. We have a dedicated group of supporters who are invested in the club’s success, and if we engage with them appropriately and show them how much we value them and how much impact they can have on the club, they become unpaid marketers for us. They are out in the city wearing our gear and inviting their friends and others to come to watch our games. This is essential to our success and will continue to be central to our growth.
More importantly, we also have dedicated and hardworking ticket salespeople who are able to capture interest and convert it into sales. I mean, it’s not all just that Halo marketing of having good fans, treating them right, and getting out into the community. That’s absolutely necessary, but without our ticket salespeople, it’s not going to be as beneficial. It’s a combination of both our fans and staff that contributes to our success.
What is your average matchday attendance and that of the league?
In the past season, our average attendance was around 3.600. In 2021, it was slightly over 3.400, so we saw a slight increase year over year. For the upcoming 2023 season, we need to significantly increase our attendance. We have incorporated some new season membership plans and referral plans as a new strategy. Together with our single-game, group, and package tickets, I think that will help us reach that goal in 2023.
I don’t have the exact number of the league, but our closest rival, Forward Madison, had an average attendance of slightly below 4.000 per game in 2022. The Richmond Kickers, who may or may not be the oldest professional football club in the US (along with the Charleston Battery), had a successful season on the field and saw an increase in attendance, which hovered around 3.500–4.000.
Other clubs in the league, such as Greenville Triumph, do a great job of marketing and selling tickets and have a large following in their city, but they may not have the stadium capacity to accommodate higher attendance.
Could you explain more about the USL League system and is it a goal to move to a higher division??
Basically, USL League One is a third division operated by the United Soccer League. Since the club was founded in 2019, it has been a goal of the ownership group and the club to move up to a higher division, ideally the USL Championship. While promotion and relegation may be introduced to the USL in the future, we cannot rely on this happening. Instead, we are working hard on getting our own football-specific stadium as we currently share a baseball stadium. Our grounds crew does a phenomenal job of maintaining a professional grade pitch, which is unbelievable because the amount of work they have to do is just staggering. Still, a baseball stadium in the suburbs is never going to be an ideal location for an American professional team. So we would like to be in the USL Championship with that football-specific stadium.
So was it one of the reasons you can’t go up the higher division? Do you have to apply for a license or how does it work?
Yes, in order to move up to the USL Championship, we would need to apply for a license and meet certain criteria. One of the most important requirements is having your own stadium with a minimum capacity of 5.000 I believe. While our current baseball stadium has a capacity that meets this requirement, it is not our own stadium and is not specifically designed for football. Additionally, there are financial considerations when moving up to the higher division. Our ownership would have to pay some additional money to get up to the USL Championship. The cost of operating expenses and player salaries are significantly higher at a Championship club, and we would need to make additional hires in order to accommodate the increased staffing requirements. It may not make financial sense for us to move up to the Championship without our own stadium in a location that we know will draw more fans and generate more revenue. We need to carefully consider all of these factors when making a decision about moving up to the Championship division.
Regarding revenues, what are your most important streams/areas?
I think corporate partnerships are huge. They’re an important revenue stream for us and is likely the case for most clubs in the USL. But that all stems from ticketing. It’s an easier partnership conversation with any corporate prospect if they can come out to a match and see our full stadium atmosphere and people engaging with the club and spending money in the stadium. This helps our sales process and attracts more corporate partners.
Ticketing revenue and matchday revenue are significant buckets for us as well. You know, at our level, we don’t get anything from broadcasts. We lose a little on broadcast, but it’s still worthwhile because we’ve reached a national and international audience.
We also do well in our spend per head, or average spend per person, in stadium. One bucket that we have increased enormously is our merchandising, as we got much more strategic and thoughtful with our ordering plans and timelines. I’m expecting a similar one this year and the next because we’ve just refined our system and switched to a new technical apparel partner (we were with Nike previously). We recently announced our new apparel partner, Hummel, which allows us to customize and replenish our inventory more quickly. This is going to have an impact on our merchandise sales as well.
In Europe, selling merchandise is often more a marketing hook than a relevant revenue stream. How about your case?
For us, it is a decent revenue stream. The amount of money that we earned in merchandise last year would, if I were to compare them, be equal to the salaries that we paid our players last season. So, you know, it’s not insignificant at all for us.
Are Union Omaha and other USL League One clubs making profits at the moment?
No, not yet. Our general operating costs are still not at breakeven, but we are getting closer, and I am optimistic that we will reach that point soon enough. It is common for USL clubs to operate at a loss in the first few years. I don’t know how many years other clubs expect, but I think we can realistically hope to break even soon enough.
Club valuations and the cost of an expansion franchise, which is how the USL and MLS operate, are rising significantly year after year. But at the same time, the ownership groups and the people that they’ve hired to run these clubs are trying to make money. In the end, it’s still a business, not a vanity project. Also, the new collective bargaining agreement with the USL players union has resulted in an increase in our operating costs, which is a fair amount, but you never know when things like that will happen. But we are operating responsibly, and we hope to reach that.
Is there a concrete plan for a new stadium?
Our club president, Martie Cordaro, is having regular meetings with officials, investors, and other relevant stakeholders to discuss the building of a new stadium. While we have not yet announced specific details to the public, I fully expect this project to happen. There are positive conversations with the right people frequently. However, we are not yet ready to take this project public.
Would you say Union Omaha is one of the leading clubs in your region?
I would say Sporting Kansas City, an MLS club that is a 3-hour drive from us, dominates this region. We did actually end up playing them in the quarterfinal of the Open Cup. Under normal circumstances, I don’t see them as a competitor to us, when it comes to fans and revenues. There are a ton of Union Omaha and Sporting KC fans in this region. So, if we’re paired with them in the Open Cup, they’re a competitor, and we always want to beat them. But I don’t think that they’re taking season-ticket members from us or vice versa. We also have Minnesota United or Chicago Fire, who are the regional MLS clubs, but they are not very close.
Now we are almost on an island here in Omaha. In terms of professional football, it’s actually a good place to be for us. Though it makes our travel expenses extremely high, we can dominate and become the pinnacle of the sport in a pretty large region.
How about other sports clubs? Do you have to compete with them in terms of attendance?
So Omaha and Nebraska have huge interests in university sports. Creighton University has consistently excellent basketball and volleyball programs. Their men’s soccer team made it to the final four this year. However, the sport and the team that really dominates the state of Nebraska is American football and the Nebraska Huskers. They have a roughly 90,000-seat stadium that has been sold out consistently for decades.
Occasionally, we’ve tracked that on days when the Nebraska Huskers have a home football game that overlaps with ours, our attendance tends to be affected. However, soccer in the US is the sport of younger demographics like millennials and Gen Z. While American football will always be a major presence, a “Behemoth”, in the region, we still have plenty of season ticket holders who choose to attend our soccer matches instead of going to Lincoln or watching on TV.
We’ve got fans in a key demographic who are choosing us and will continue to go forward with us over their parents’ and grandparents’ teams or sports.
What about the baseball team of your ownership group, the Omaha Storm Chasers? Do you somehow have to compete with them indirectly?
I don’t think we compete with them for the fans. On the business side, there may be some competition for corporate partnerships and group ticket sales. However, there is not a significant overlap in demographics between baseball and soccer. So we all coexist well and even help build each other up rather than compete.
We do share many resources, including staff and office space, as well as the same stadium. I’m sitting in our offices, and the baseball team is just on the other side of the stadium. Our president, Martie Cordaro, is also the president of the Storm Chasers, while the CFO of Union Omaha also serves as the general manager and CFO of the Storm Chasers. We coexist and have a valuable relationship.
The two clubs are separate business entities. The principal owners of both clubs are Gary Green and Larry Botel of their Alliance Sports group in New York. Still, the local ownership groups are different despite some overlaps.
What happens if a sponsor/partner wants to be present at the stadium? Would they have to sponsor both clubs?
We are tenants of this stadium that is run by the baseball club. So, the corporate partners who buy prominent signage for the baseball team also get prominent signage during our games. That’s the reality of our current situation. However, we do create plenty of our own exclusive in-stadium signage opportunities during the field conversion process from baseball to soccer.
Women’s football is gaining a lot of ground in Europe. Many professional men’s teams are starting their women’s teams. Is it something going on in the US as well?
Yes, it is. In the US, there are already several examples of women’s teams that are part of a professional men’s club. I believe we will have a professional women’s team here as well. There is a new league called the USL W League for semi-professionals and the USL Super League for professionals. It is still uncertain which of these leagues would be the best fit for us. As with our potential move up to the USL Championship, we will carefully consider which league makes the most sense for our club and our goals. However, we are committed to the idea of having a women’s team. I think there’s going to be a women’s professional team in Omaha under our stewardship.
How do you recruit players? Does it come from college soccer or any other sources?
We definitely focus on the college and university games as there are many prominent programs here. For example, Creighton University happened to have a phenomenal year, and the University of Nebraska Omaha also has a very good men’s soccer program. There is also Iowa Western Community College, which is not far away, and they bring in a lot of international players. We actually found a real pro-level player, Damia Viader, at Iowa Western, who played with us for our entire existence before being sold for a record transfer fee in USL League One. We also have access to players from all over the world thanks to the scouting service WyScout, which provides us with advanced statistics and videos of players from almost anywhere.
Do you have an academy for youth development?
We haven’t had our own academy structure here yet. However, we have found a local talent, Yoskar Galván, from Lexington High School. We signed an academy contract with Galván, which is a USL roster mechanism that allows players to play and train with professional clubs but still maintains their collegiate playing eligibility according to NCAA rules. He is now going into his third season with us and has a real opportunity to get some serious first-team matches. Galván has also been called up to the Guatemalan national team and has played for their under-21 team. It is our goal to find talented, undiscovered players and provide them with a pathway to the professional game if they have the necessary skills and commitments in this sport.
Do you have the “home-grown talent” approach with the goal to have local players in the squad?
Absolutely! We just announced recently that we have re-signed Eddie Gordon to a new contract. Gordon is from Omaha and has a strong soccer background, having been named Nebraska State Player of the Year in high school two times. He then went to the University of Nebraska at Omaha and had a great college career there. We gave him his first professional contract last year and have now come to an agreement on a new contract.
It is important to our team to have local, homegrown players, and Gordon is just one example of this. We have had many players who are from Omaha or have played for the University of Nebraska or Creighton University. Still, it is also important that these players are able to contribute to the team and are not just signed to appease the fans. They must be good enough to play at a professional level.