Catching up with Joe Wagoner
In this week's Q & A series, I spoke to Sacramento Republic FC vice president and co-founder Joe Wagoner.
First, a note on the image I chose where Wagoner is pictured with Republic vice president of corporate partnerships Brent Sasaki. Wagoner doesn't know this, but I just grabbed this from his Facebook page because I believe it represents who he is better than almost any other photo.
While he's one of the hardest-working people I know in pro sports, Wagoner is also a complete goofball. If you want a more professional image of him, this is the one they run on the Republic website. Still goofy, I know.
I'm unsure if most Republic fans actually know who Wagoner is, but the reason there is a soccer team in Sacramento is because of him (but he'll brush off praise like this). Though he partnered together with Warren Smith to create the club, the team's idea was actually his, and he actually had to convince an unsure Smith to join his efforts.
There's a much more detailed story about this in my upcoming book, but after Wagoner worked in minor league baseball and hockey, he worked his ass off to create the Republic. Oh, and growing up in the the middle of nowhere in the Midwest, he hated soccer.
I spoke to Wagoner about how he made a 180 on his views of soccer and became one of the most important people in Sacramento soccer history. Conversations with Wagoner tend to run long, as he's a sure people person, but his story is unique and worth the space. As always, the interview is edited for content and clarity.
Me: I know that you were a soccer hater for much of your life, so how then did you fall in love with the sport of soccer?
Wagoner: We didn't have soccer beyond the age of 10 where I grew up in rural Illinois, we simply didn't play it. You played traditional American sports or you worked. That was it.
It was September of 1995 -- I played baseball in college for a few years, but I stopped playing when I finally realized that I sucked after sitting in the bullpen for two seasons. Knowing that I had some time on my hands not playing ball, my buddies convinced me to join the college's club soccer team because there weren't enough players and we could drink beers after the games. I agreed to do it as long as I could wear jersey No. 55 -- Orel Hershiser was a hero of mine, not the Dodgers, just Hershiser.
I ended up getting a concussion and breaking my nose less than 40 minutes into my soccer career. I spent 16 years of baseball with no injuries and with just 40 minutes of soccer, my face will never work correctly again. It takes a few beers to tell the entire story. I'll spare you the glory details, but that was my first and last soccer match.
Then in July of 1999 there was the Brandi Chastain World Cup [winning penalty kick]. We had booked her for a U.S. Soccer night promotion we were holding in August of '99 while I was selling tickets and running promotions for the Sioux Falls Canaries Baseball Club. When we called U.S. Soccer in April of '99 to book a player for our event, Brandi was the only player available for our game date -- every other player was booked solid -- so we took a chance on booking her.
Obviously, having her attend our game two weeks after scoring that epic World Cup [penalty], it was a massive success. Her appearance fee went up approximately 600 percent after scoring the goal, but she honored the pre-World Cup price and was an absolute hit. She did a sports bra gag with our mascot...she was incredible.
Fast forward to June 2010 and Landon Donovan's goal against Algeria in the World Cup was the moment I knew it was time to seriously consider starting a club. I was watching the match at what is now Hook and Ladder and the place went insane. I went insane. The reaction videos that popped up on the Internet were the final push -- it was time to start working on a plan.
But the moment I really fell in love with soccer was in April of 2014. It was the Tower Bridge Battalion coming over the Bridge from Track 7 towards Hughes Stadium for the home opener in 2014. I wanted to cry at the beauty of the moment and fight anybody that doubted Sacramento at the same time. Seeing the flags and hearing the chants in the distance...I was absolutely in awe.
Me: Take this however you want, but what is your most memorable moment in soccer?
Wagoner: For me, there are two moments that stand out. First, when it started drizzling during the Miracle at Bonney match, everyone in attendance knew something special was about to occur. The rain washed away any doubt. I remember looking at [Republic camps and clinics manager Kenny Cooper] and saying, "some awesome shit is about to go down."
There's also the moment we introduced the crest on Sacramento Soccer Day. [Republic director of finance Brett Reitter] and I were in the third base dugout camera well at Raley Field watching the crowd react to The Chant and the unveiling. That moment could have gone many different ways. Thankfully the fans loved everything and we were off to the races.
Me: Not many people know this, but the Republic was actually your idea originally. Why did you decide to create the team?
Wagoner: Well, there were many individuals -- and an entire city -- involved in the creation of SRFC. I can't take credit for being the guy, but I started working on the project for a number of reasons.
From a personal standpoint, I was obsessed with creating the perfect sports business plan. I had a chip on my shoulder after working in sports for over 14 years and never landing a General Manager job. I always thought I could do it better if given the autonomy to write and execute the entire plan, as well as hire the right people. It was time to do it or shut up. Somebody was eventually going to write a successful professional soccer business plan for the city of Sacramento. Why not me? Why not [Reitter]?
Me: From the sense I've gotten, you wear a ton of different hats within the club. What's the average day in the life of Joe Wagoner look like at Sac Republic?
Wagoner: I wake up at 6:00 a.m. to screaming kids and a wife that has already been up for an hour -- her (Rachel Wagoner, the Chief Consultant at the California State Senate) job responsibilities make mine look like child's play. She is a total badass.
Then I read emails and The Sacramento Bee online and attempt to get the kids ready from 6:00-7:30 and drop them off at school and daycare by 8:00 before grabbing a McDonald's coffee and two bags of apple slices around 8:15. I'm in the office by 8:30.
From 8:30-9:00, I catch up with Warren Smith and Reitter, then check the overnight ticket sales numbers and then adjust the plan if need be. I also check in with [director of club partnerships Sean Morrison] on the day's ticket efforts. At 10:00 I stop by Brent Sasaki's office to check in and see how I can assist the corporate partnership department.
At 11:00 I briefly catch up with [Republic vice president of communications Erika Bjork] to discuss sales numbers, paid and earned media efforts, as well as upcoming exposure opportunities. I then make a noon run to Jamba Juice before again checking emails and reviewing social media. Then I meet with [director of ticket sales] Chris Nasser and the premium seating department to update prospects, pipelines, and discuss service challenges or upgrades.
At 2:00 I run out to Bonney Field to do a walk through with the Ovations (the company that provides concessions at Bonney) general manager and the stadium cleaning company. Around 3:30 I host a meeting to discuss the 2017 season ticket renewal plan, then return calls from the day, check in with Warren.
By 5:45 I'm running to pick up the kids, have dinner with the family, give the kids showers, help with their jammies, and read bedtime stories, and make sure they fall asleep.
I come back to the office at 9:30 p.m., plug in the iPod and work on the 2017 season ticket renewal plan, the 2017 SRFC sales plan, continued research projects from 2016, our July front office bonding event, upcoming group sales brainstorms, reviewing updated budget numbers for upcoming departmental budget meetings, write the agenda for the executive management meeting, update donors on the Glory, Glory Sacramento Fund, and then write a thank you note for any gifts I've received from a supporter.
At 12:01 a.m. I always briefly check The Bee online to see what the news will be tomorrow...well today. Finally, I head home at 2:00, watch St. Louis Cardinals, college football, and select soccer highlights. I'm asleep by 2:30.
Me: Well, that's certainly quite the schedule. One last question, again to take in any direction you want: what's your prediction for the Republic in 2016?
Wagoner: I think we finish the regular season in the top four in the Western Conference, secure a home playoff match, and then anything can happen from there. I also think there's an MLS announcement before November.
Thanks to Wagoner for spending a bit of his clearly-busy schedule with me. Check this space next Tuesday for yet another "Catching up with..."