“Let’s build the biggest football club on the planet”
Back in 2018, I met up with a guy named Kyle Martino at a coffee shop in downtown NYC. Kyle is a former pro soccer player (USMNT, LA Galaxy, Columbus Crew), was the on-air face of NBC’s Premier League coverage for many years and, at the time, was running to be President of the US Soccer Federation. I was still working at Foursquare, I was three seasons deep into Stockade FC and spreading the gospel of building lower level soccer clubs. Kyle and I talked all sorts of shop before he pitched me on this idea he had stuck in his head — “Soul Cycle for pickup soccer.”
His pitch started with with three big constraints, and from there we immediately started sketching out what would become Street FC:
- “No grass, no turf -– it’s gotta be all concrete, all found-space” (think: street soccer). In most cities turf and grass are scarce and expensive, so let’s show people that it’s just as much fun to play on concrete. These spaces should be interesting and non-obvious (think: Street Fighter 2 stages!)
- “No leagues, no teams — just slots throughout the week for people to reserve” (think: fitness classes). Joining a league or finding a team takes time and requires commitment, so let’s remove that friction for people. Let’s bring the convenience of a fitness class to playing soccer (”we bring the balls, goals, and pinnies — you just show up and play”).
- “Keep it fast and light — game are only 4 minutes long” Let’s bring a street basketball format to street soccer — 5 vs. 5, winner stays, no keeper/no goalie, and play as many four-minute games as we can in a 60 minute session. Let’s show people that soccer can be light and fast and fun. We’ll send Game Captains (aka: paid staff members) to every session to host / emcee / play music and to make sure everything runs smoothly (er, like a Soul Cycle instructor!)
And so that‘s how it started. Street FC’s mission is simple — Make it as easy and as fun as possible for people to play soccer in cities by changing what soccer looks like in cities. This isn’t an entirely novel idea — most cities around the world have booming street soccer scenes. But not the US. So how do we bring that culture here? How do we make street soccer as big as outdoor basketball in NYC? How do we make playing soccer on concrete “a thing” across the Top 20 cities in the US? And why stop there? Could we scale this to the Top 100 cities in the US? Outside the US? That’s when we hit on our big idea:
Let’s build the biggest football club on the planet.
Imagine 1M+ people all playing for the same club, all wearing the same crest, all around the world.
We talked a bit about how we’d make this work — a bit of re-imagining city spaces, some tech to facilitate logistics and social coordination, building software to encourage people to go outside and play together, creating an online community to connect Street FC players around the world. I was hooked. Soon after, Kyle and I got connected with a great crew of investors and advisors (shoutout to the Brits!), assembled a small team (shoutout to Sam, Rob and Franco!), raised a seed round (both Kyle and I wrote the first checks) and got to work. The first-ever Street FC game was played in late 2018, we launched an app in summer 2019, we were building good momentum through the beginning of 2020… and then COVID.
Fast forward to 2022.
It’s been a few years (and a very long pandemic) since that coffee shop meeting but Street FC is up and running in a big way. We’ve hosted close to 1500 games (!!) across five cities (NYC, Austin, Philly, Atlanta, Minneapolis). Our weekly schedule of games sells out within minutes of our Sunday night “game drops”. We’ve hosted games for beginner players and former pros, we’ve hosted women’s games and youth games. We’re growing our online community and then bringing those people out into the streets to kick a ball IRL (In Real Life). We have a growing group of “Members” ($35/mo subscribers) who enjoy unlimited-play and access to our online community and offline events. We’re assembling an army of Game Captains and Club Ambassadors (think: City Managers) who are helping us scale up city-by-city. It feels like the wind is finally at our back with COVID fears subsiding (hopefully!), the weather getting warmer, and the 2022 World Cup right around the corner.
I’ve been playing the role of CEO since last summer, Kyle has been focused on the game experience and building the community, and we brought on a brilliant operator in Stephen Francis to join as our COO last fall. We’ve been working out of Grand Central Tech in NYC, heads down on building out our team, scaling our ops to other cities, and kicking off a fundraising round to help fuel future growth.
In the spirit of “building things in public” let me tell you about some of the things that I think make Street FC so interesting:
- Software that changes the way people use cities. Think of Street FC games almost like flashmob soccer games. People tell us when and where they want to play, we create games and notify our Members, people then race to RSVP (or jockey for slots on the waitlist if they miss out), and then *poof* 15 people show up to play.
While most of our games happen at places we’ve secured via permits, some of our most magical games have been pop-ups at random spots — Washington Square Park or the West 4th basketball cage, for example. One of Street FC’s superpowers is that we can play anywhere and we can use software to spawn games at any time. It’ll be fun to see how we can flex this when we have closer relationships with city agencies / municipal offices around the country.
- Reclaiming unused & underused spaces. We make soccer games where soccer games didn’t previously exist, often in spaces where people have never played soccer before. A lot of the spaces we play at are “found spaces” -– unused or underused spaces. After playing in a spot called “The Pit” in lower Manhattan for the better part of a year, our consistent usage caught the attention of NYC Parks & Recs who came along and transformed the space by simply cleaning it up and painting soccer lines on it. By playing soccer there we turned it into a place where others could play soccer too. We’ve found that helping others *see* an unused or underused public space in a different way has the power to *transform that public space* into something better suited to the community.
Over the past few months, we’ve been talking to Parks & Recs groups around the country. Our ask is always the same — “send us your best worst-space”. We’re finding that we’re really good at turning underused spaces intro thriving street soccer ecosystems. Everyone knows about the West 4th Cage or Rucker Park in NYC as meccas for street basketball… so how do make those — but for soccer — across every major city around the US?
(pssst… know a space where we can play? Let us know!)
- Re-imagine a familiar game, just on concrete. TBH, this is one of the biggest hurdles we have to get over with new players (though once people play their first Street FC game they tend to “get it”). The fast surface and smaller space (think: basketball court) focuses the game more on skill than strength which means bigger and stronger players have less of a physical advantage. “Less physical advantage” means the games feel more balanced, which allows us to mix up players of different ages and genders. Also, you never see slide tackles on concrete — and with fewer hard challenges the overall experience feel safer, even though it’s faster. Plus cities are FULL of unused and under-utilized concrete and asphalt spaces just begging for people to reimagine them through play.
- Make pickup soccer feel like a video game! I can’t tell you how long I’ve been wanting to work on a project focused on gamifying soccer. Street FC uses simple game mechanics to encourage people to make play part of their regular routine. Our goal is to get people out to play at least 1x/week, and we use basic stats & status (think: FIFA22 cards, except it’s you!) and leaderboards (Games Played & Weekly Streaks) to motivate players. We want to do for soccer what Nike+/Nike Running Club did for running. We also use a peer rating system to assign “skill” and “chill” ratings that make sure the right players are being slotted into the right games and to highlight improvement in your own game (especially for beginner players). Creating games is easy, making games feel “balanced” is hard. Making peer-ratings a core part of our playing experience has been a big part of Street FC’s secret sauce.
- Use software to inspire people to get out and play! A lot of the projects I’ve worked on in the past (Dodgeball, Foursquare) have been about making everyday life feel a little more playful. Street FC is no different — making it easier, more accessible (and dare I say more acceptable??) for grown-ups to get out and kick a ball in the street. Our goal is to get more people to play more often and to make play part of their regular routine (and I use “play” in the general sense, not just soccer!)
In our Street FC universe, 5-star players (ahem, Kyle) are just as important as the 1-star players (ahem, me!). We found that when we do make soccer more fun and more accessible for more people (and more types of people!) then – surprise! – more people actually want to come out and play, whether they’re active soccer players, lapsed players (e.g. gave it up after high school), or folks who have never kicked a ball before. And TBH, after 2+ years of COVID, it feels like we could all use a bit more play in our lives.
- Syncing Digital <> Real World. I like to think of Street FC as “using the internet to help people get off the internet” (to borrow a line from my buddy Scott Heiferman). As we’re working to build a giant online community of people for whom soccer is a core part of their identity (as a player, fan, gamer, etc), we’re also working to bring those people together in the real world to play. Our “game product” is just as important to us as our “online community” product (currently a Discord channel). To better bridge the two (digital <> IRL) we’re syncing the status and rewards earned IRL (from playing in Street FC games) with your online Street FC presence. This manifests itself in rather basic ways today — e.g. play 100 games IRL → unlock the “Played 100 Games” status in Discord → get presented with your “Hundo Club” jacket” in front of your friends at your 100th game — but we’ll eventually use these tools to unlock access to VIP channels, merch, and access to IRL perks like VIP games/courts to play on, events, etc. (FWIW, this is something we always *wanted* to do with Foursquare badges, but were quite never able to get off the ground. It feels great to be able to go all-in on it with Street FC.)
- Let software deal with the logistics. We use data to make sure the right people are at the right games, and that games are at the right locations for the right people. We don’t think of ourselves as a “tech company”, but rather more of a “tech enabled brand and community”. That said, our app throws off tons of data about which games/dates/times/locations fill up quickly (and which don’t) and which courts appeal to which players from which neighborhoods (and which don’t). We’ve built an algorithmically driven waitlist to automatically spawn overfill games based on demand, location and weather. There’s an art to keeping every game full and keeping the schedule full of games that will get played (and not cancelled)… our data helps guide the process.
- Using soccer to bring people together. A few years ago I started a semi-pro soccer team in the Hudson Valley as a side project (Stockade FC!). It’s been a super fun and fulfilling experience — and as much as you want to think it’s about soccer, it’s really about bringing people together to building something meaningful within the community. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from building Stockade FC it’s that soccer is a great tool for bringing people together IRL — people of all ages, people of all nationalities (world’s biggest game!), people who are die-hard soccer fans and people that are new to the sport.
Btw, most Street FC games are full of “regulars” — the same people tend to RSVP to the same games week over week. This creates a pretty tight knit group of people who know each other, respect each other, and who naturally start to hang out outside of Street FC games. We’re seeing our “digital tools enabling play which then leads to real community” playbook work over and over and over again as we expand Street FC to new neighborhoods and new cities.
Sidenote: With the Men’s World Cup 2022 around the corner (and Women’s World Cup next summer, AND Men’s World Cup 2026 going to be hosted here in the USA) there’s no better time to be using soccer as a tool to bring people together. I imagine there will be a lot of partnership / activation opportunities for Street FC as we start expanding our footprint.
- Getting kids playing on concrete too. This comes back to changing the culture of soccer in the USA, especially youth soccer (think: how do we move from “minivans and orange slices” exclusivity to “street soccer in every neighborhood” ubiquity). Ideally every paid adult game we host should enable us to host a free youth game for kids in the same community. It’s been a challenge to host youth programming in these early days of Street FC (insurance, reliance on our app, etc) but our mantra is “host paid adult games today so we can host free youth games tomorrow.” Ultimately we want Street FC to help to raise a generation of players here in the USA who grew up kicking a ball in the street.
So, what’s next for Street FC? After our share of COVID false-restarts and a long cold winter, we’re finally starting to see the growth we expected. Our most closely watched metric is what we call “MAPPs” (Monthly Active Paid Players) which we’re tracking across the different cities in our “Discovery → Beta → Live” pipeline.
Our plan for the rest of 2022 is to scale from 5 to 10 live cities (and then onto 20 in 2023), aiming for a minimum of 350 MAPPs per market. We’re deploying a Foursquare-esque “superuser” model to help with city expansion, and we’re exploring Web3 mechanics to make sure the people who help us expand are rewarded for their efforts (no, not with NFTs!). Hitting this goal of 20 markets x 350 players/market would put us in a strong position to expand vertically (deeper into the soccer ecosystem, think: Street FC branded shoes and balls or a “Soho House for soccer” dedicated space to play, etc.) or horizontally (wider, and into other sports.… while this post is entirely about soccer, it’s *real easy* to think much bigger: basketball, pickleball, etc). Our whiteboards are already pretty full, and we’re just getting started.
All that said, this is where we could use YOUR help! If any of this has piqued your interested and you want to help us grow and expand, please reach out:
- I want to PLAY!
- I want to HOST games!
- I want to INVEST in your seed round!
- I want to WORK at Street FC!
Thanks for taking the time to read this (and congrats if you made it to the end of this blog post). I’ve had a lot of entrepreneurs ask me for advice over the years, and the #1 piece of advice I give people is “If there’s something you want to see in the world that doesn’t exist, then go build that thing.” This is especially true for things that seem non-obvious or even silly to some people. I can’t tell you how many people told me that Dodgeball was never going to work, or that building early Foursquare was a waste of my time. The most amazing journeys start at the intersection of the things you’re passionate about and the ideas you just can’t get out of your head. Street FC is one of these of these for me, and we’re psyched this is something we get to work on every day. Come join us for a game sometime and see what we’re all about!