After a winning first season on several levels, South Georgia Tormenta FC continues building its brand as a year-round business in Statesboro while reaching out to the world.
"We're just getting started," said team owner Darin Van Tassell.
Just last week Tormenta FC was named 2016 New Franchise of the Year at the Premier Development League's Winter Summit in Tampa. To put that in perspective, the PDL welcomed 10 new franchises for last year, said league Executive Director Todd Eason. During the 2016 season, the league consisted of 67 pre-professional soccer teams in the United States and Canada.
Tormenta also received the Golden Scarf Award for Best Social Media Production and was runner-up for a Golden Scarf for Best Game Promotion for its Salute to Service, a game dedicated to honoring military personnel. The league awards several golden scarves to teams that exhibit excellence in various creative, marketing and promotion aspects. But there is only one New Franchise of the Year.
With six wins, five losses and three draws, the team achieved a literal winning season. In the soccer standings system that awards three points for a win and one for a draw, Tormenta fell just one point short of going to the playoffs, Van Tassell said.
Almost as important from a brand-building and business perspective, the franchise attracted more than 14,000 people to its seven home games, averaging a little more than 2,000 spectators per game. The home opener drew 3,106.
With these numbers, the new franchise led the PDL South Atlantic Division, and possibly the entire Eastern Conference, in attendance. The Premier Development League, from coast to coast, is organized into four conferences and 10 divisions.
South Georgia Tormenta FC was definitely the conference attendance leader, Eason said. The division rankings are harder to know, he said, because not all franchises report their attendance to the league.
Attendance, marketing and promotional efforts that go beyond the ordinary are all things that went into the selection of the year's top new franchise, Eason said.
Being able to generate revenue the first year was another factor. But Tormenta FC's ownership also exhibited engagement in efforts to move the whole league forward and professionalism in maintaining its standards, Eason said.
"The one thing that sets our league apart from other amateur leagues is the amount of attention we put toward the standards and making sure that every organization is run professionally, and they're at the top of that list as far as meeting all those standards and going over and beyond what's expected from my franchises," he said.
In evaluating the new franchises, the league also looked at whether they were "creating an atmosphere that is well received by fans," Eason said. He said that the video presentation of Tormenta's home games, providing a two-camera stream, "was over and beyond what the league requires." The streaming made the games available online to a world audience.
"They just did everything very professionally and they modeled the exact kind of franchise we want as part of our league," he said.
During last week's summit, Van Tassell offered a presentation to all of the league's ownership groups on best practices for digital and video streaming of games. No first-year wallflower, he also talked about "growing your brand" through things Tormenta has done, including a coaches' show, player interviews and commercials for sponsors.
"It's all about how did we see ourselves, who did we want to be, how do we want others to see us, and that brand we saw as a promise," he said in an interview here. "So what was that promise that we were going to make to our fans, to our community and to our players. That drove everything that we did."
The team and its staff are based at Van Tassell's other business, The Clubhouse, which offers attractions from arcade games and bowling to a go-cart track. Through an agreement with neighbor Georgia Southern University, the Tormenta home games so far have been played at the university's soccer stadium.
With Van Tassell as franchise president, the year-round, professional staff includes Vice President of Franchise Development Heidi Jeffers, Director of Franchise Development David Ball II, Chef John Witherington and, of course, Head Coach and General Manager Ben Freakley.
The franchise will name a new assistant coach and will appoint, through an internal staffing change, a new director for game-day operations.
Last summer, the franchise employed about 10 people as interns or volunteers seeking experience.
‘They live here'
Besides working with Georgia Southern and Ogeechee Technical College, Tormenta FC also has established relationships with other businesses in Statesboro. The Grove, an apartment complex for students, houses the Tormenta players while they are here from May until August.
As the franchise's hotel sponsor, Holiday Inn of Statesboro plays a different role, accommodating the visiting teams, and many of their fans.
The franchise employs its own chef because players eat two meals a day, seven days a week at the Clubhouse during the season.
"They lived here as opposed to only playing here," Van Tassell said. "This became their home, their community, and as we'll see here in the next few weeks, a big chunk of them are going to return and wear the magenta and blue again this season."
Although part of United Soccer Leagues LLC, which operates the pro USL, the Premier Development League is a "pre-professional" league, giving players a chance to be recognized by pro leagues, Eason explained. Players, many of whom are college-age, are not paid a salary, and so remain eligible for NCAA teams, he explained. But they do receive meals and housing.
Witherington is able to monitor the nutritional caloric content of the meals players receive, and they can only pass up the provided meals and eat elsewhere with permission, Van Tassell said. The chef is employed year-round as the franchise operates a catering service, Ibis Catering.
Tormenta FC has also absorbed the former Storm Soccer Academy as its youth program, Tormenta FC Academy.
"The impact of Tormenta, it's a 12-month-a-year impact," Van Tassell said.
But when asked about next season, the team owner shifts from business to sports mode.
"This year Goal Number 1 is to win a championship, and everything we do is with that mindset," he said. Always we have to grow the brand; we always have to put more people in the stands, and in doing those things we want to win a championship."