How a fight over turf helped sink an NASL club, and what it taught the league
At 6:30 p.m. on August 23, 2016, Sean Jones, minority owner of one of Oklahoma City’s professional soccer clubs, sat in the parking lot of Yukon High School. A few students were on the field, going through marching band drills, but Jones and the few associates he’d brought along were not there to admire the syncopation of snare drums.
They were there to pull off a heist.
Forty pallets from the 96-pallet turf used for the homes games of Rayo OKC, Jones’ team in the North American Soccer League, would be taken under cover of darkness in what became the most infamous incident in reborn league’s short history. A few days later, when Rayo traveled to a game in Minnesota, the home supporters took delight in mocking the first-year club, chanting, “Where did your turf go?”
Jones had embarrassed his club. Why he chose to do so would become emblematic of why Rayo OKC is no more.
No matter how it starts
The root of OKC’s drama dates back to 2011. That’s when Jones, Tim McLaughlin and a few other partners were in conversation with the United Soccer League to bring a franchise to Oklahoma City. At the time, Jones’ existing team, OKC FC, was playing in the fourth-tier Premier Development League, but each partner felt they had an unspoken agreement with the third-tier USL. The league eventually awarded an Oklahoma City franchise to another group, one headed by another local sporting powerhouse, Bob Funk, Jr.
Forced to switch courses, Jones’ group started negotiations with the NASL in April 2013, with McLaughlin targeting the ideally-located Taft Stadium as a potential site for the new team. Funk’s group eventually handed Jones’ group a second disappointment, securing the right to play at Taft Stadium after luring McLaughlin to their cause.
In hindsight, the loss of Taft Stadium was the first domino to fall.
The defection left Jones and his Sold Out Strategies group committed to the NASL without enough funding or a stadium. Over the next year, SOS attempted to find a majority owner, since its assets did not meet the $20 million in net worth U.S. Soccer requires for ownership at the second-division level. The group had a term sheet drawn up a head coach, former Indy Eleven boss Tim Hankinson, and it was Hankinson who helped broker a deal with a surprise Spanish backer.
“I reached out to an agent in Spain to see if there would be a club interested in getting a foot in the door,” Hankinson said. “This agent knew (then-La Liga club) Rayo (Vallecano) might be interested. We all flew to Madrid, and things came out positively.”
While Hankinson eventually departed for Indianapolis, Rayo Vallecano’s president, Raul Martin Presa, and his representatives were negotiating with SOS and Jones. The two hit it off.
“Raul’s a nice guy. We got along really well,” explained Jones. “We settled on a 65 percent-35 percent ownership.”
Presa actually wanted a desired 70 percent ownership, which would have given him the supermajority vote. Jones’ refusal to give him that veto power was the first frictional element in their relationship, with Jones wanting to meet the 35 percent standard that would keep him, by NASL’s rules, as a “principal owner.”
After a slew of emails and some signatures, OKC FC was officially dead, and Rayo OKC was born. The next step would be convincing the NASL.
Your ears should be burning
Come August of 2015, Presa was presenting his vision to the NASL board of directors, who needed to be convinced the group could secure a new stadium. The league felt a high school stadium would not suffice in the long term.
“They showed us a plan we thought would work. Based on projections, that seemed realistic at the time,” the NASL’s current interim commissioner, Rishi Sehgal, told FourFourTwo.
We should have studied the market better, yes. Mistakes were definitely made.
The NASL vote was ultimately unanimous, but the league had additional concerns.
“Concerns related to facilities, the involvement of Rayo and the level of their commitment,” Sehgal explained. “But, there were assurances made that got us over those concerns.”
Another concern should have been the competition with OKC Energy, Funk’s team that was occupying Taft Stadium. According to Jones, he and Presa convinced NASL that there remained an unexplored market of supporters from which they could draw 4,000-6,000 fans.
Sources within the club suggest Rayo did not understand the need for marketing. Seemingly unaware of Oklahoma City’s niche soccer audience, Rayo was convinced it could attract fans on name value alone. The club also believed it would be able to send over an entire squad of players, unaware of the NASL’s roster limits on foreign players.
“We should have studied the market better, yes,” a source close to Rayo told FourFourTwo. “Mistakes were definitely made.”
Without Taft Stadium, SOS hurriedly pushed through a deal to play their games at Yukon High School, a venue 16 miles west of downtown that did not meet NASL requirements. The venue couldn’t re-draw the right soccer lines on its football field. Jones came up with the idea of purchasing artificial turf to facilitate painting as well as a “closer feel” for fans.
The turf pulled the two parties apart. Rayo repeatedly asked SOS to not buy the turf, pointing out the error in judgement made by the SOS group in securing an inadequate stadium. SOS, in turn, argued that the quickly approaching season made artificial turf the only option. According to sources, the disagreement made Presa suspicious of how the money was being spent, with Rayo ultimately refusing to contribute to Jones’ turf solution.
Presa’s suspicions led to new scrutiny of Jones’ decisions, with a source using the example of an unauthorized sponsorship commission to highlight the Spanish club’s concerns.
Jones provided forthright explanations for allegations of financial misdealings. For example, Rayo sources suggested that SOS initially misrepresented the club’s financial prospects in its pitch. Rayo says a $3 million profit was predicted for year one. Jones called that allegation “ludicrous” and said SOS projected a $1 million loss.
Rayo was similarly perturbed by the disconnect between reported attendances and the actual money generated from ticket sales. Exaggerating attendances would help draw sponsors and have a beneficial effect in the long run, SOS felt, but Rayo was frustrated at the magnitude of the exaggeration.
“The average attendance was reported to be about 3,700, but real attendance was probably a third of that,” a club source told FourFourTwo USA.
With a fractured relationship and increasing tensions, it came as no surprise when Presa decided to take more direct control of Rayo OKC’s operations. Jones resigned as governing manager in July 2016, and Alberto Gallego was sent from Madrid to take control. Additionally, Rayo interim general director Djorn Buchholz was sent on behalf of NASL to help Gallego with the nuances of the American soccer business.
At this point, Rayo and OKC were working against each other.
I don’t want to be your friend
“It all started because of a tweet,” an SOS source says. That’s how the group was informed Rayo representatives were planning on selling the turf to the New York Cosmos. Jones, at this point, had been prohibited to take part in NASL ownership conference calls, but he was not ready to lose his turf.
I had so little trust in them that I genuinely believed they were selling it.
He decided to take immediate action.
“I had so little trust in them that I genuinely believed they were selling it,” Jones explained. Asked if it would have been better to reach out to Rayo, Jones said his thought process was, “let's move part of it and then talk to the guys and figure out what’s going on.”
“In hindsight, I shouldn’t have done it this way.”
That night at Yukon Field, once the marching band left the field, forklifts removed 40 of 96 pallets of artificial turf. Sehgal, on behalf of NASL, intervened.
“It was helping the sides help each other,” explained Sehgal. “Sometimes during frustration, people aren’t communicating with each other.”
While the communication between Rayo and SOS never improved, Sehgal’s intervention convinced Jones to relent and allowed the partnership to temporarily continue.
No matter how it ends
Days after losing to the Cosmos in a semifinal playoff game in early November, a few players received eviction notices from their housing companies. Their rent had not been paid. Some players got in touch with SOS, who calmly informed them that the group had been frozen out and, while sympathetic, would not be paying the rent. Rayo eventually stepped in, paid rent for the next two months and set aside money for the players’ flights to their respective homes.
As players bid farewell to Oklahoma City, Rayo did too. Similar to the turf, most Rayo OKC staff members were gone overnight. Rayo felt SOS was responsible for the remaining dues to vendors. Jones claims he is still paying those dues and may be liable for an exit fee to the NASL
Rayo Vallecano is currently battling to even stay in Spain’s second division, and the club is disappointed by how things played out in the United States.
“We won’t stay in OKC, but not because we don’t want to,” a Rayo source explained. “It’s because the city doesn’t want us.”
The NASL has certainly learned some lessons from the Rayo OKC experience.
“Our new expansion process will be more rigorous,” Sehgal says, “where we take a more scrutinizing look at partnership agreements to ensure part disputes to not impair the health [of the league].”
Jones is still paying for the storage and purchase of the 96 pallets of turf.
Follow Nipun Chopra on Twitter @NipunChopra7.