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9 March 2022 - 3:35 PM

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Interview: Lack of resources to develop a proper business is blocking the growth in Women’s Football

  • Gotham FC has hired high-profile sports business executive Andrea Pagnanelli. She is hyper-focused on plans to double the number of employees to boost revenues.
  • Growing the sponsorship portfolio is a cornerstone in the strategy–and sponsors should see the opportunity to build with the club long-term.
  • Why it matters: Gotham FC previously experienced a lot of turmoil—mainly due to a lack of resources.
  • The perspective: It's not that complicated – it takes investments to build a large business. It's no different in women’s football.

Less than two months into her new role as Chief Business Officer at NJ/NY Gotham FC and Andrea Pagnanelli is already getting down to business.

A week ago the club announced a landmark deal—a multi-year partnership with blockchain company Algorand. As part of the deal, Algorand will become the club’s front-of-jersey partner and first “Official Blockchain and NFT Partner” of the National Women’s Soccer League club. Gotham FC and Algorand will further unveil blockchain enabled payments and NFT integrations in-stadium and throughout the wider community.

“This will be the gold standard for the rest of the league including merging Algorand’s award-winning technology to enhance our business operations and fan experience, as well as identifying local community partners to increase our impact off the pitch—and being strong advocates for the advancement of women in male-dominated industries,” says Pagnanelli.

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PR | Chief Business Officer at NJ/NY Gotham FC, Andrea Pagnanelli

She also points out that this is one of the bigger jersey deals to be announced in the NWSL, and this agreement is going to be the first of many as Gotham FC looks at a wave of announcements forthcoming on the sponsor side

Sponsorship dollars

Pagnanelli makes clear her first priority is on revenue streams.

“First and foremost we need sponsorship dollars,” she says, noting sponsor partners have a larger reach than the club could have access to on their own at the moment.

The ask, she says, is for partners to come in and build with them.

In short order, Pagnanelli details other immediate focuses, all of which are centered on fans: ticketing, marketing and content.

The goal is to build a fan base in a way that allows them to join Gotham FC in a variety of capacities. This includes the club’s social channels, in-stadium and connecting to them through compelling content.

Pagnanelli has a no-nonsense way about her—she doesn’t like to waste any time, nor does she, it seems. She’s got those high energy, go-getter traits of an entrepreneur. It’s a role Pagnanelli is more than familiar with during a sports business career marked with distinction.

Among the high points, Pagnanelli became the New York Jets’ group sales manager at just 23 years old, making her the youngest head of group sales in the National Football League.

She spent five years at the International Champions Cup, spearheading efforts to build it from the ground up. She refers to it as the greatest role of her career. This is partly due to the moments of growth she experienced along the way as it was scaling upwards. It's the challenges Pagnanelli enjoys and the rewards that come from facing them head on.

The move to Gotham FC has come at the right time. Pagnanelli’s lifelong passion for soccer fueled her desire to join the club.

Growing up in Huntington Beach, California, she had a somewhat singular focus on soccer outside of her studies.

Starting on the pitch at the age of four, Pagnanelli played for Southern California Blues, or So Cal Blues, which is an elite membership of female players, and one of the first clubs nationally to create a bridge between youth and adult soccer. Pagnanelli also played during her college years at Brown University while working towards a degree in History.

“I have been, first and foremost, someone who has loved soccer more than anything in life,” she says, adding: “I think it has given me a lot of the skills that I have today even as a leader—I am always ‘team first’”.

Gotham FC rebranded

For Gotham FC, Pagnanelli emphasizes that the club has reached an important inflection point. Looking back at the ICC, she makes the connection between that experience and what Gotham FC is undergoing now.

Gotham FC rebranded from Sky Blue FC in 2021. Sky Blue FC was the club’s second iteration and was under that moniker for 13 years. Founded in 2006, the club was originally known as Jersey Sky Blue. The club doesn't comment on revenue.

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PR | Gotham FC players celebrating

The ownership group, comprised of Tammy Murphy, Phil Murphy, Steven Temares and Ed Nalbandian, has recently poured more financial resources into the club in order to implement the necessary tools and systems to succeed, both within the front office and on the soccer side.

“Without that, it's impossible for us to do what we are about to do,” she says.

The rebrand, according to Pagnanelli, is more akin to a complete restart. So joining as CBO allows her to lean on the skill sets that fit within the start-up space. But this also presented the opportunity to find a role she was equally passionate about—soccer being the underpinning.

And, in fact, CBO is a completely new role for Gotham FC. Throughout the club’s history, a CBO or a president has never existed. Previously general managers have overseen both lines of business, and there have been interim heads of business.

Pagnanelli’s main duties fall across all business lines: sponsorship, revenue and activation, all lines of ticketing, and fan activations.

“Everyday, it’s putting down the infrastructure across these lines of businesses because it wasn’t fully there before—but we’re making strides,” says Pagnanelli.

On the business side, right now Gotham FC has eight employees, and Pagnanelli has plans to double that number in the next 60 days. Part of her strategy is to bring in key leaders who are experts within their respective fields to ensure that the club hits its goals. Positions like Vice President of Partnerships to help drive sponsorship are in focus at the moment.

First and foremost we need sponsorship dollars

That she’s been given resources to expand speaks to where Gotham FC has arrived. The turmoil the club has endured over the years is well-documented. According to reports, the club, in its previous iterations, had no working toilets or showers in its training facility.

Players covered broken windows with cardboard and plastic bags in the house team members lived in. Those players living in host homes were expected to babysit the family’s children. Travel stays were sub-par. The pay even worse.

Added to that, it’s been reported that in 2016, the Murphy’s took a loss above $5 million on the club.

Being methodical with each area of emphasis

Tammy Murphy apparently said to at least one reporter that she and her husband wanted to show their daughter that women could play professional soccer just as men could and accepted that the team sat within a league that wasn't itself turning a profit. Murphy takes on a much more active role in the current environment serving as Club Chair.

“We are looking forward and not looking back in a way where, yes, we have to acknowledge that it happened, but that we know that we are going to do the right things moving forward—that comes with resources that were [very much] needed,“ says Pagnanelli.

This gets to the heart of what failed in the club’s rocky past: a lack of resources. Pagnanelli says she has had long conversations with people who have solely moved over to the soccer side.

What emerged from them was an acknowledgement of just how lean the business team was. Pagnanelli expresses a kind of disbelief at what they were able to accomplish with as small a staff as it was.

“One thing that is a thread is we are going to do things right,” says Pagnanelli.

“And when something isn’t right we are going to raise our hand. We are building a culture of trust, of transparency, of open communication and accountability.”

Pagnanelli seems to welcome the difficulties, finding a certain strength in navigating through them. “I think my skill sets are creating systems and processes within chaos, specifically around sales and marketing engines,” she says.

Ramping up the hiring can’t happen fast enough. “We’re seeing this lightning in a bottle that we are trying to enter,” she says, referring to the wider scope of women’s soccer.

But, Pagnanelli is methodical with each area of emphasis that requires this acute attention. The front office went through a full game day guide of every aspect that is required to make a game happen: from the activation of video boards, to LEDs, locker rooms, march stands, and so on.

Thinking back to the preceding staff, Pagnenelli says “you kind of walk through this three-page document and you could only just imagine them being super heroes running around doing all of this.” The goal now is to allocate people “to over-deliver” in those areas.

Over-delivering to fans is central to the business

“So when you think of that straight-to-seat experience, fans come, they park, they walk into the venue, what do they see? Where are our merchandise stands? What type of in-game activations are happening around them to get them excited? she questions.

The answer, she says, is everything from the video jumbotrons to the club’s theme nights, viewing parties that they are going to heavily focus on each year to activate the surrounding community. The club is expanding its front office team to support all of it.

Marketing, of course, fits within Gotham FC’s strategy to achieve these goals, everything from media dollars to content, social media, supporting its sponsors in their posts and activations.

“We want a sold out stadium,” says Pagnanelli. “For us that means season ticket holders, that means single game fans who can experience these championship players…We are going to try to be one of the top group sales departments in the league.”

But, Pagnanelli also underscores that everything ultimately comes down to the players. “We are here to support them and make their voices louder…that’s how we are all going to succeed in a bigger way,” she says.

The team’s profile is rising on the field. Gotham FC played in the 2021 Challenge Cup Final against the Portland Thorns, which was the club’s first championship appearance in a NWSL competition.

Pagnanelli says Gotham FC’s goal isn’t just to be the best in the NWSL, but across the sporting landscape. She has set clear goals across all departments and is ensuring that staff have the resources—and the autonomy—to do what is necessary to get the job done.

“And so it's a different bar that we’re setting,” she says. “And you can see all of these changes month after month start to be implemented. It’s just going to be a different face of Gotham across soccer and business.”