An Interview with The Kansas City Wizard’s Sam Pierron
Contributing Editor Graham Fox
For a lot of people, Sam has been the face of the Wizards. If you’ve ever hung out, tailgated, bought tickets, had problems, or needed someone friendly within the Wizards front office to talk to, Sam Pierron is the go-to-guy. He helps supporter groups grow, mediate disputes, and is a fan advocate and Wizards evangelist. When I first went to a Wizard’s games at Arrowhead, Sam was the first person I met who actually worked in the Wizards front office.
On Friday, I made the 6 block walk over to the Wizards’ headquarters. Located in the artsy Crossroads district, the headquarters is set in an indistinctive red brick, two-story, Kansas City style building .The newly hip Crossroads location fits with the OnGoal’s image. Inside, you’ll find polished wood floors, low slung cubicles, fit people in shiny button-up shirts, and at the very front of the office, ongoing construction of a mock suite to entice the high rollers.
I sat down with Sam and we chatted for fort- five minutes about the Wizards, soccer, and his Fantastic Voyage to every Wizards away game in the 2010 season.
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When we are tailgating before games, you are the person from the front office who is walking around and talking to people. What is your job exactly? And what is your job title?
That’s a moving target. My job title has changed several times, as have my responsibilities. My job is multi-disciplinary and interdepartmental. Mostly, it’s about being a familiar face. Fans knew me before I started working the club and now I’m a familiar face within the organization they can talk to. For new people, I’m always happy to answer questions. I’m always on, always happy to talk about the team.
I have an odd hybrid job that wouldn’t make sense in a lot of organizations and yet probably happens unofficially a lot too.
Can you tell me the story of how you moved from being a fan to being a member of the staff? This was when the Hunts were the ownership group?
We have to go back to when the team was first announced. It started when I was a freshman in college and was involved organizing supporters and helping create the first website. I got to the point where I knew I wanted to be in the industry.
For a period of 4 years, worked with the Wizards doing different things, working on different projects, and with different groups, but on the side.
Mr. Hunt announced the team would be put up for sale, and we immediately started to organize. Mr. Greg Cotton, who’s now our Executive VP, and Derek Gathrite really helped to promote it on the internet. I didn’t make the first meeting, but was there for every meeting there on out. I was made the president because I knew a lot of the right people and had contacts with the fans. Greg and I went on a two-year adventure to find new owners of the club.
Shortly after we found them, they brought me on board.
You went to school in Liverpool, England? Did you go to lots of different games and take in the atmosphere?
When I was there I went to games, especially at Tranmere Rovers, the lower division team.
The first game I went to was a Tranmere game at Blackburn. Blackburn had just been sent down and Tranmere were in the 1st division (now the Championship). A rainy bus ride to Ewood Park was my introduction to live English football.
I made an effort to go to as many different stadiums as I could. I made it to Anfield, Goodison, and the old Highbury. I’ve been to the Valley twice and Craven Cottage twice, two of my favorite places to watch a match.
While I was in the area I made it to the European Continent and saw matches in Belgium, Spain, France, and the Netherlands.
It’s always been a big thing for me to combine soccer and travel. My two favorite things are sports and geography, which is how I became a soccer fan.
What are some of the differences between how Hunt and OnGoal runs the club?
The single biggest difference is that since OnGoal took over, there has been an end point in mind. A focus. And everything follows from that goal. There’ve been changes in personnel, procedures, and policies, but everything OnGoal has done has focused on building the facility. Now the facility is part of a bigger picture, but there is that focus and that drive that everything balances on.
In the Hunt Sports Group days, like any other legacy team, they really never knew what they wanted, where the real goal was. I always felt like they were trying to get by and survive, but never had that singular purpose.
So the OnGoal name reflects the philosophy of the organization. There’s a goal and the company is one behind that and is working behind that towards that instead of just “Were going to have a soccer team!”
Yes, and I hope that’s in our branding somewhere. (Editors NOTE: I’m a branding and marketing wizard! BLAM.)
We’ve saw a change from Hunt to OnGoal. How have you seen the supporters groups change? I started going to games the last two years at Arrowhead. The Cauldron was there, there was a tailgate, but it seemed more unified and there were a lot fewer people.
I was there when there were 4 people in the section, 3 was the smallest ever. We moved around the stadium and tried to find the best balance, and deciding how to ticket.
One of the biggest things we did when taking over was deciding to ticket the section separately. You didn’t need to know a secret code. It’s there, it’s on the ticket. You know it’s your section and that’s where you sit. If you look at the ticket map, you can see it.
In doing that we increased the size of the section substantially based on people who were there every game, number of tickets sold both on a single game and season basis, and groups of people who bought for a single game and wanted to be there.
By giving the section a name that wasn’t really of a particular group or club, it meant it was a collection of several groups of individuals.
We’ve seen a lot of supporter growth league wide as well as everyone started to realize that supporter groups should be supported.
DC did it from the beginning, but it took the spectacular success of Toronto, and later Seattle and the Sons of Ben to get the front offices to back the growth of supporters’ sections. Those clubs had vocal supporters’ areas that magnified the experience for everyone. Those sights on TV have impacted the fans in other cities as much as it has impacted the front offices in other cities.
People see the sights and visuals and think “Why can’t we do that here? I want to be a part of it.”
Can you talk supporter cultures and those clashes and dynamics?
People cheer differently. When we think of the English we think of witty lyrics set to pop songs. The Kop at Liverpool taking the tune of the day and singing it with a tweak. That’s the archetype of the English supporters.
When we think of Italians, we think of big displays. We think of flares and not words, but tunes whether it’s the Triumphal March from “Aida” or the theme from the Popeye cartoon, both of which are used frequently by Italian crowds.
When you think of the Spanish, it’s a different story entirely. Everyone is generally sitting down but people are more intense in watching the game. No style of supporter watches the game with a more educated and intense eye. A Spanish crowd sees the game two steps ahead and start cheering when the switched ball is hit to the fullback who is overlapping.
Latin American cultures are more drum based.
In Major League Soccer and the Wizards, you’re trying to mix supporters who are in the English, Italian, Latin American mold.
I’ve taken way too long to just say that different cultures have different ways of cheering, and trying to get them in the same section is ideal, but always not easy.
So we have a culture clash and not just the culture in general, but a supporter’s culture clash.
One of the biggest examples is timing. In the Cauldron, we have open seating. Once you’re inside the area with a Caldron ticket, it’s open. One of the big problems we’ve had is people getting to their seats, and then people coming in later and clearing people out of where they are standing. We actually managed to work around it by saying, “How about getting in 15 minutes before kickoff?” After much consternation, they decided, yeah, maybe we can do that!
That required a culture change for MLS cheering in a way because coming in late is a tradition of some supporters groups. What’s your problem solving strategy when there are problems? Do you meet with leaders? Are there leaders?
There are titular leaders, and de facto leaders. As much as possible, I try and get to know everyone, just to establish and know where people are coming from. I try to introduce them to each other and say, “You guys don’t need me to be there to talk. This may be best hashed out standing over a grill with some beers.”
Do you think alcohol is a major fuel for disputes among groups?
I know this is revolutionary, but testosterone fueled young men drinking beer is a prescription for difficulty. I understand that people drinking during games and before games is a part of it, but I’ve never understood the point of getting obliterated before a match.
At Arrowhead and CAB, who controls the security? Are these people hired by OnGoal or by the stadium?
They are hired by the stadium. We always had more problems at Arrowhead because the people running security felt like they had more to prove. The people running security at CommunityAmerica come from a very high end security company that travels around the world and does private concert tours and that sort of thing. They were willing to let more slide, keep an open line of communication, and just make sure thing don’t get out of hand.
I defiantly saw security looking for trouble at Arrowhead. Guards would walk through the Cauldron and stare supporters in the face waiting for something to happen.
At CommunityAmerica they developed a consistency and got to know everyone. They would actively encourage people who are looking wistfully at the section to go and join, and they would shy people away who they thought weren’t supposed to be there.
Where would you prefer to put a game on at, CAB or Arrowhead?
From my working perspective, CAB. I feel the way about CAB the way the Apollo 13 astronauts felt about the lunar module. We’re using it for something it wasn’t built for, it wasn’t necessarily comfortable, but in the end, it all worked out. I’m not saying I want to jettison CAB it into space.
Over the last season, Sam went on a Fantastic Voyage. The goal? To go to every Wizard’s away match. And he did it. You can read all about Sam’s Voyage on his BigSoccer blog. Keep watching, he’s still putting up new posts, and he’ll be at this year’s MLS Cup. Let’s dig into Sam’s experience.
Had you been to all the stadiums before?
No, definitely not.
What’s your favorite stadium?
From a standpoint of the in-game experience, Red Bull arena. Red Bull arena, coming June 1st, will be the 2nd finest soccer stadium in the country.
Salt Lake. They were great. Rio Tinto was a good place to go. I had a good time at a lot of places, but that stood out.
I didn’t have the concessions at some stadiums. Red Bull would have the best but they don’t have enough stands. Toyota Park is pretty decent.
Houston’s were pretty low end, but San Jose was the worst.
Most intimidating atmosphere?
As an away supporter and you have to take into account the time of year and how the supporters were feeling, I’d say Seattle.
Best Stadium Neighborhood?
Seattle. The location really can’t be beat. There are lots of bars right nearby, it’s amazing that it is right next to downtown. It’s an absolutely phenomenal location, and the fans have done a lot to make it the place to be.
Worst Stadium Neighborhood?
I think I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that Chester, PA might be the worst place on earth.
Sam attempting not to lean on the stadium model.
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