In their first year, the South Georgia Tormenta won the PDL’s New Franchise of the Year Award. Owner Darin Van Tassel and General Manager Ben Freakley put together this club with the idea of making them a standard-bearer for soccer in the South. With new head coach John Milgarese taking the helm in 2017, the sky appears to be the limit going forward.
Thanks to the club for taking the time to speak to us about the work they are doing in Statesboro, Georgia. Check back tomorrow for an interview with Ben Freakley, please enjoy today’s conversation with Darin Van Tassel.
Jon Nelson: How did the idea for the club come about?
Darin Van Tassel: I had been involved with the International Baseball Federation from 1989 – 20010, and during that time I was fortunate enough to be in three Olympics, two World Cups, 4 Continental Championships, and 2 World Baseball Classics. And I was able to travel to over 40 countries during this time. So while the IBAF is a smaller international federation when compared to FIFA, their missions are the same: use the power and global language of sport to build bridges among the peoples of the world through such competitions. That experience helped me understand that sport is more than just entertainment. And when you couple that experience with what I was witnessing in terms of the growth of soccer in the United States, I knew we could do something big. The USL’s Premier Development League was an ideal place to begin.
JN: Take us back to the first game last year, what was it like to see all of that work come to fruition?
DVT: It is much like raising a child. My wife Netra and I are both active owners. She has an incredible business mind, and between the two of us, we hit the ground running. Everything we did had to feel and give the appearance of a professional organization. So when we opened up on the road in May 2016, we went from not having a team name and any players eight months earlier to having fans dressed in Tormenta FC colors and official apparel – traveling on the road six hours away in Johnson City, TN to watch us play our first match. You better believe we were both smiling.
JN: What did it take to get to Opening Day?
DVT: Our mission statement is Pros Start Here. We seek to put our players in a position to climb the professional soccer ranks. But we also seek to create an environment where members of our front office staff and our executive team will be able to migrate on to the higher professional ranks as well. That is important to me. Whether one works and plays for the Atlanta Braves, the Chicago Bulls, the Dallas Cowboys – or Tormenta FC – I believe that everyone in our organization has to have the same skill set of professionalism and understand how to grow a franchise. The scale might be different in these organizations, but our processes should be identical.
JN: How has the response been in your community?
DVT: Part of the reason for basing the Tormenta FC franchise in here was because Statesboro is ready to be a “minor league city.” That brand means something to a community that is on the rise like ours. Our mayor, city council, county commissioners, university personnel were all graciously on board. Statesboro is a much more cosmopolitan place than people living elsewhere get to appreciate, quite frankly. There are over 27,000 college students in our three institutions here (GS, Ogeechee Tech, and East Georgia College), and when schools in, Statesboro is about the 15th largest city in the state. Georgia Southern University is the economic engine in our area, but the fans of our franchise reach well beyond the university – and that’s really the testament to the game of soccer. Our fan base is stretches to Savannah and Hilton Head, SC and out to central Georgia and Augusta as well. Sports tourism is economic development – which makes it big business — and college towns like Statesboro understand that reality all too well. We averaged over 2000 fans per game, and over 14,000 watched us play last season at home. That made us the attendance leader in the PDL for the Eastern Conference according to the League Office. Every one of our homes games was streamed live on internet and the play by play was done by ESPN announcers. With a pre-game band, an enormous video board, an outstanding VIP section, a raucous fan base sitting behind the opposing team’s goal – it really is a site to behold. Especially when one is reminded that this is soccer being played in a college football town. We do love our sports here in south Georgia.
JN: What was the biggest lesson you learned in Year One?
DVT: Process matters. Our business is the experience business. We knew that going into this, and everything we experienced along the way just confirmed it time and time again. We use the game of soccer to create amazing experiences. That lesson can never be lost on us, because it is the most important thing. And the most important thing IS the most important thing. The people running the video boards and TV production are just as important to the franchise as the attacking midfielder and GM are. Relationships matter.
JN: The club was recognized by the league for its work on and off the field. What did that mean to you?
DVT: Oh, that was BIG TIME STUFF. I was so proud of our franchise that day. To be named New Franchise of the Year in a league that is filled with amazing talent in the other franchises was such a rush. There were so many people that contributed to this award, too. Heidi Jeffers, David Ball, Netra Van Tassell…all the way to our chef John Witherington who prepared the amazing food we had in the VIP section every game. To be honored by one’s peers is easily the kindest award there is.
JN: What advice would you give to anyone who is thinking about starting their own club?
DVT: Take every cue you can from best organizations out there. Model your organization after theirs. It’s a difference of scale not a difference of kind. Every detail matters. And remember this: it’s about the community and the people in the organization – it’s not about you.
JN: What is Tormenta planning to do to follow up on its first year success?
DVT: It’s time to qualify for the OPEN CUP and win a championship. That is our goal. Doubling our attendance numbers I don’t think is out of the question either.
JN: Looking down the road a bit, how would you like to see the club grow and evolve?
DVT: Ultimately, the franchise exists to win championships and be a successful business enterprise. At some point, we need to build our own stadium here in Statesboro. And as we grow the youth side of our club, the ability to partner with a USL or MLS franchise would be a wonderful evolution for soccer in our part of the state. We have already partnered with three clubs in Europe, and those relationship promise to bear fruit as well. Great things await, and we are just getting started.