Here are the ingredients for a potentially powerful Green-Sports recipe:
Take six soccer-loving friends. Then add a heaping helping of belief that sports can and must lead on climate change. Sprinkle in a pinch of entrepreneurial zest. Finally, bring this mélange to a state without a professional sports team.
And, voilà, you have Vermont Green F.C., the Burlington-based expansion club that will start its first season in May in the fourth tier of U.S. soccer with climate justice firmly baked into its DNA.
GreenSportsBlog spoke with two of the club’s founders, Keil (‘KEEL”) Corey and Matt Wolff, to dig into the genesis of the idea, how it came together and how they plan to show the American sports world that going big on climate justice is good business.
GreenSportsBlog: Keil, let’s start with you. Going in on a fourth-tier expansion soccer club in Burlington, Vermont with five friends, and with climate justice as a core principle. How the heck did this come to pass?
Keil Corey: Well, it goes back to the late 2000s when I played Division III soccer with Matt Wolff and Sam Glickman at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York. We’ve stayed close friends ever since. All of us are passionate about soccer and addressing climate change. In addition to our bond as friends, we have complementary skill sets to do some good work together.
Studying natural resource management in the Brazilian Amazon in college might be when I first started to realize the power of soccer as a force for connection and social good. Soccer was really how I made local friends and overcame my very deficient Portuguese. It became my best tool for building relationships with the people and communities I came there to learn from. After college I did a stint in conservation, landed a job with the Vermont Natural Resources Council, and eventually ended up working in the private sector on environmental and social issues.
Sam was also an environmental studies major, is an avid soccer fan and has a range of experience scaling startups.
And Matt does soccer kit and crest design. He’s not too shabby at it either.
GSB: Say what?
Matthew Wolff: I design uniforms and logos or crests for soccer clubs!
GSB: What a cool job! How did you get into THAT?
Matt: I spent five years in London as a kid and just soaked up the football culture over there. Neighborhood clubs were like a religion. Our local club was Wingate & Finchley, a tiny North London club in the ninth tier and I was totally hooked. I always had a passion for graphic design and — fast-forward to after graduation from Skidmore — I’ve been designing uniforms and crests for football clubs, from LAFC, Chicago Fire, and NYCFC of MLS to USL clubs in Louisville, Oakland, Charleston, and Omaha.
I’ve been lucky enough to have a seat at the table with top sports executives, including ownership, they’ve been open with me to let me see how they conduct business, how they view their brands.
GSB: What came of those meetings?
Matt: OK, let’s fast forward to April 2020. It’s the first wave of the pandemic and I was walking around my folks’ place in Massachusetts, thinking about the growth of soccer in the US, how supporters group culture is growing, too, and about the need to make real strides on the climate fight…
Keil: …And not long after that, Matt reached out to me and several others — we ultimately grew to be a group of six guys — to pitch us on launching a club in Burlington with environmental stewardship and social justice at its core.
Matt: …On Burlington, Ron McEachen, the Skidmore soccer coach, and a Vermont soccer legend, gave us a great sense of the pride Vermonters have for their state. He gave us the feeling that it is ready for a pro soccer team.
GSB: I get that, but how did you go about doing your due diligence on what league to buy into, how to run the organization, hire a coach and players…and also promote climate justice? This seems like a very tall order, indeed!
Matt: I can see how people would see it that way. And we were cautious and have tried to be strategic about it from the beginning.
First, we dissected the U.S. soccer pyramid. MLS is at the top, then there is the USL Championship, USL League 1, and USL League 2. We quickly targeted the latter because of the relatively low barriers to entry.
Keil: Also, there were three key characteristics of USL 2 that appealed to us:
- We all have full-time jobs. Many clubs at this level are run on a part-time basis, with volunteers playing large roles. As a result, many of these clubs are deeply embedded in their community. The operating costs and expansion fees were manageable.
- The amateur level offers us a lot of freedom in how we run our club. It’s a dynamic and exciting space where we feel we can deliver a high level of value to players and supporters alike.
Our coaches are full-time paid employees. Also, many clubs have pay-to-play youth academies that can be cost prohibitive for players who don’t have the financial resources. Vermont Green is not going down that road. There are many excellent youth programs in the state that are working to make soccer accessible to young players and we’d rather let them do their jobs and support their efforts.
Matt: We also talked with executives at two existing fourth division clubs, the Kingston (New York) Stockade and Minneapolis City Soccer Club. They were great, sharing what it’s like to operate at that level, showing us their finances and business plans.
Keil: The early support and transparency from these clubs was huge. It gave us the confidence that we could actually pull this off.
GSB: How are you funding Vermont Green?
Keil: We are bootstrapping it, at least for the first couple of years. Because there are six owners/co-founders, we can spread the costs and risks.
Matt: This gives some time to prove the model on the sporting and green sides and to show that amateur level soccer in Vermont has a future.
Keil: Our focus is to build an amateur level club that operates like a professional club. Our primarily responsibility is to produce a professional quality experience on and off the pitch.
GSB: Since the U.S. system does not have promotion and relegation, are you guys fine with staying in USL 2 for the foreseeable future?
Keil: As you can probably tell from our mission, we aren’t shy about pursuing an ambitious vision. If we are successful on and off the pitch, perhaps we’ll find a pathway to the higher levels in the U.S. pyramid. But first thing’s first!
GSB: What kind of franchise fees did the Vermont Green sextet have to pay to become part of USL 2?
Matt: The franchise fee to join the Northeast Division of USL 2 is less than $100,000. For comparison, it would cost $325 million to get an MLS expansion franchise, between $10-20 million for a USL Championship franchise and $1-5 million to join USL 1.
Keil: Several of the co-founders have put up capital to help finance the first season and we have a plan that is already showing us there’s a financially sustainable business model as an independent club. This was doable for us.
GSB: So, how does the green piece fit into the Vermont Green FC story?
Keil: As I mentioned earlier, because we’re playing at the amateur level and are self-financed, we have an incredible amount of freedom to pursue our environmental justice mission. We didn’t need to seek outside investment so our only barrier to achieving our goals is the number of hours there are in the day.
Matt: …Which meant that, when we were introduced to high-net-worth individuals who were interested in investing with us but who weren’t aligned with our values on the environment, we were able to tell them no.
That said, we asked ourselves, how do we want to make things work from not only an environmental perspective but also social justice perspectives.
Keil: We typically see clubs silo these issues — environment here, social justice there. We decided to go in a different direction by integrating social justice and environmental stewardship together.
Through my work experience and an MBA in Sustainable Innovation, I was able to bring the guys up to speed on where these issues meet, which is environmental justice. Our early conversations focused on exploring the history and principles of the social movement behind this concept, as well as the legal history and principles. Honestly, it was one of the best moments of my professional life to see the light bulbs start going off during these early conversations.
This wasn’t an entirely new concept for everyone, but it’s a way of thinking about the world that takes some time and practice to really get the gears and ideas turning. So, I proposed a vision and mission that the team helped craft into what it is today. We worked together to answer this question: How do we strategically and operationally embed our environmental justice mission while meeting fans where they are, culturally, politically and as soccer fans?
GSB: Forest Green Rovers (FGR), the English 4th division football club, and the ‘Greenest Team in Sports’, which has made climate action and social justice core pillars of their operations and brand, would seem to be a great example for you guys.
Matt: Absolutely! Forest Green is a great model for us. We have talked with them on a preliminary basis. In fact, our kits are being produced by Player Layer, the company that designs FGR’s kits. As far as our merchandise is concerned, we are having the environmental justice conversation with all our prospective vendors. They must measure and minimize their climate and pollution impacts, as well as ensure the health and well-being of their employees throughout their value chain.
GSB: Who are your apparel vendors?
Keil: We’re working with Recover Brand. What they’re doing is really the next frontier in sustainability. They use technology to upcycle polyester, cotton, and blended fabrics into new clothing. This means they can take back everything they sell, put it back into inventory, and keep it out of the landfill. This is important because we burn or landfill one garbage truck of clothing every second, which is enough to fill 1.5 Empire State Buildings every day. Pollution of this kind disproportionately impacts low-income and BIPOC communities in the US and abroad.
Moreover, their cotton is organically grown in the US South. The chemicals used to grow conventional cotton are toxic to humans and harm our environment. We did not want to contribute to burdening the workers and local environments where these crops are grown.
Lastly, we love that they’re based in the USA with a tight supply chain that stretches only as far as Haiti and Guatemala. As a result, they offer us a high level of transparency into their operation, so we’re privy to their environmental and labor practices, something that is actually quite difficult to attain with many wholesale vendors. All of this means we’re able to support fair wages and high health and safety standards for workers, and reduce carbon, water, plastic, and waste pollution.
And we’re also sourcing merchandise from E-Conscious, which makes organic cotton and hemp-based apparel.
GSB: How are you going to engage fans in climate and environmental activations at the games?
Keil: At the moment, we’re doing a lot around education and awareness of climate justice. We recently hosted our first open tryout at Virtue Field on the campus of the University of Vermont — our home pitch with a 2,600 capacity — where we promoted climate justice.
All the players took home sustainable tees. We offset all player and staff travel with verified carbon offsets from a project that advances climate justice, and we used soccer balls made of recycled plastic water bottles.
This is the kind of activation fans can expect more of during the season. Climate justice, waste and circularity, anti-racism, financial accessibility for low-income earners, and mental health are all things we’re looking at for the first season and beyond. Fans will also find locally sourced food and drink, as well as other mission-aligned local vendors. And while we won’t be 100 percent plant based — we want to offer local farms that treat their animals in a humane and more environmentally friendly way a place at our table — there will be plenty of vegan items from which to choose.
Ticket prices, which are TBD because our schedule has not yet been finalized, will definitely be affordable and accessible to all.
GSB: You guys are certainly crossing a ton of green “t’s” and dotting a lot of green “i’s”. How will you go about tracking your carbon footprint?
Keil: We’re tracking our mission internally with metrics derived from the B-Corp certification (we’re not certified, but are using many of their criteria) and GHG Protocol guidance to track our commitment to becoming net zero after the first season.
GSB: Very impressive, guys. Now let’s turn to the on-the-pitch outlook. Who is your competition in the Northeast Division of USL 2?
Matt: There are seven other clubs in the league — in addition to us, there are teams in Boston, Hartford, Albany, Pleasant Valley (NY), Portsmouth (NH), Ludlow (MA), and Great Barrington (MA). All of the clubs are within a reasonable drive, so we are expecting we’ll be able to develop some great rivalries and exciting and accessible home and away experiences for fans.
GSB: And how does your team look? And who is the coach?
Matt: We named Adam Pfeifer as our head coach and sporting director last month. He is particularly well suited to take on the challenge launching our club — he has a proven track record as the successful coach at Norwich (VT) University’s men’s soccer team and is well regarded by his peers across New England and by his players.
Keil: We will start announcing players who have committed in the next several weeks. Our 24-man roster is starting to fill out and Adam is doing an excellent job recruiting. The team will be a mix of collegiate and post-collegiate players from Vermont, nationally and internationally – we can have up to ten non-US born players. So far, we’ve gotten lots of interest from top quality players from Montreal, Quebec as well as New England, New York State and some farther afield. It’s thrilling to see the team taking shape and we can’t wait to see it all in action this May.