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Kicked off

Energy Football Club ushers in another pro ball team, this time soccer, and all the quirky fandom that comes with it.

Devon Green January 29th, 2014

In a state with a long history of fevered support of professional, semi-professional and collegiate sports, proper football, or soccer to us Americans, is coming to Oklahoma City.

The Energy FC will kick off this spring, and local fans already have shown their excitement. Announcement and preview events were received with a growing flood of fans, even before much information about the team was clear.

At the forefront of this effort is to help the team achieve the status of a Major League Soccer (MLS) franchise. In order to accomplish this, the team owner, Prodigal LLC, have affiliated the team with the United Soccer Leagues, Professional Division (USL PRO).

In short, USL PRO is the men’s soccer league with the strongest track record of getting teams into MLS. Prodigal has been careful to do its homework to reach that goal here, too, and quickly.

Prodigal is a local sports and entertainment agency that also owns the OKC Barons. President Bob Funk, Jr. and his management team have been working to bring professional soccer to Oklahoma City for more than three years.

“It’s always exciting to bring a new concept to life,” he said during a recent interview. “We plan on being an MLS team within the next decade.”

The team — yet to announce players — has been promoting itself online. At a holiday pop-up shop at Myriad Botanical Gardens, all team gear and promotional items sold out in days. Meet-and-greets across the metro with team leaders are filled. Funk said he’s building the team’s visibility through grassroots efforts.

These efforts include talks and events at Soccer City and at local watering holes like the 51st St. Speakeasy. Funk said he wants the city to share in ownership of the team.

Building the team
Two weeks ago, newly announced Energy FC Head Coach Jimmy Nielsen and Assistant Coach Chris Spendlove came to town with the MLS Cup in tow for an event, too.

Nielsen comes to OKC from Kansas City, where he served as goalkeeper for Sporting KC, winners of the 2013 MLS Cup.

“The fans ... are already showing such passion and support for the team,” Nielsen said of fan response. “It grows every time Chris and I are out meeting people, which is a huge step towards the success.”

When meeting Nielsen, it’s immediately apparent how important fans are to him; he welcomes opportunities for a picture, a handshake or an autograph.

“The coaches, the players, this organization feeds off their (fans’) energy,” he said.

Spendlove has spent quite a bit of time in Oklahoma and has coached at various levels since his time at Oklahoma City University, where he played. He has played with several USL PRO teams, including the Austin Aztex and the Portland (Maine) Pheonix, and has coached at high school and collegiate levels. For him, team balance is a priority.

“The mentality and personalities of players is huge,” he said. “It’s important when building a competitive squad to find a good balance of players with MLS, USL PRO, PDL (Premiere Development League — the level below USL PRO), collegiate and international experience to help us be competitive from the get-go.”

Spendlove also is excited to return to the sidelines of the team’s venue, Pribil Stadium at Bishop McGuinness, where he coached from 2010-2011.

“It is always great to return to places you have been and see how things are and to bring new things and big things to the school and the community. Even to see the improvements to the facility that come about as part of this venture are exciting,” he said.

Community reaction
During a recent week of events across OKC, fans met Nielsen and Spendlove. The pair said they were impressed with the enthusiasm of the new fans.

At the 51st St. Speakeasy, fans crammed in to meet them and glimpse the MLS Cup. Coaches shook hands and chatted with fans. The room was a sea of green and blue Energy scarves around the necks of most of the attendees. Right now, merchandise is only available online, though there will soon be a brick-andmortar boutique, too.

John Allgood, executive vice president of Prodigal’s new business development, is a key player in the Energy’s management. He has been pleasantly shocked by the fan reaction. He said social media has played a key roll in the explosion of grassroots support.

“[It’s] astounding. ... We got, like, 10,000 ‘likes’ in five days,” he said.

Inclusion Soccer is a sport that bridges culture and socioeconomic boundaries. It is one of the most popular sports in the world, especially in neighboring Mexico.

“Inclusion” is a buzzword with Funk and his staff. Everybody wins when a community feels it shares ownership of a team, Funk said.

In fact, Funk has specifically reached into the metro’s large Spanish-speaking community with the help of Jorge Fernandez and his firm, Tango Public Relations, to make sure the Latino community gets updates about the Energy, as well.

Youth outreach also is important to the Energy. Prodigal wants younger players involved in the sport and has discussed taking Energy practices into area youth facilities.

Allgood said, “We want all youth, no matter how old they are, to experience what professional soccer is like.”

Making a world sport local
Soccer has long enjoyed a rabid global fan base. Soccer clubs are as much a part of daily life in the rest of the world as American football is in the United States.

Even as locals gather in growing numbers here to watch European games in bars and restaurants each weekend, Oklahoma has slowly and more recently “rediscovered” the appeal of pro soccer.

There is concern about how the Energy will succeed in a city where professional soccer has, in the past, received a lackluster turnout. Can OKC find financial room when the city already has basketball with the Thunder and hockey with the Barons?

Funk is confident the answer is yes. “Competitively, we’re at a time in the U.S., with the advent of the MLS in the early ’90s and with [the popularity of] the World Cup where soccer is more popular than ever before,” he said.

Darren Ransley, Prodigal director of creativity and entertainment, added, “When you play in Oklahoma, you have to play harder ... to get national recognition. It goes back to our motto, Labor Omnia Vincit (work conquers all).”

“When you play in Oklahoma, players understand that we expect them to play well; they’ve got something to prove here. I think it makes them work harder,” Ransley said. “That’s why MLS makes so much sense; it is the top level, and Oklahoma expects and responds to that.”

Funk said there’s limited competition to sell tickets for the three sports.

“From a pricing point, we are very competitively priced,” Funk said. “The early response to the Energy has been fantastic.”

Tickets to the home games went on sale Nov. 15, and many stadium sections are already sold out.

Additional reporting by Giancarlo Gonzalez.

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