Photo: Courtesy Oakland Roots SC
Oakland is a city known for its deep roots, especially when it comes to supporting sports teams.
The best example of this is the devotion of Golden State Warriors’ fans who backed their NBA team through 12 consecutive losing seasons, eventually to be rewarded with three championships in five years. But now Oakland’s sports scene is at a crossroads: The Warriors are gone to a new billion-dollar arena in San Francisco, and the Raiders are in their final season at the Coliseum before moving to their publicly funded stadium in Las Vegas.
Hoping to fill the void a new professional soccer team, the Oakland Roots, is attempting to win the heart of the Oakland community through a strong branding and marketing campaign that emphasizes its deep ties to the city. The Roots will debut this Saturday evening at Laney College in the newly minted National Independent Soccer Association. Their first opponent is the California United Strikers.
With his years of experience analyzing the city’s sports landscape, former Oakland A’s and Golden State Warriors executive Andy Dolich believes the Roots are starting their team in Oakland at the right moment. “It’s a multi-ethnic, very diverse marketplace and their group has done a good job up to this point,” he noted. “The question is is there enough bandwidth in the marketplace to get the message out and have fans celebrate this as their team?”
The task the Roots face is not dissimilar to what the Athletics tackled when Charlie Finley sold the Major League baseball team to Walter Haas Jr. in 1980. After moving from Kansas City to Oakland in 1968, there was a disconnect between the team and the community. The Athletics were never a massive success at the ticket gates in the 1970s, averaging between 10,000 to 15,000 fans per game, even while winning three consecutive World Series from 1972 to 1974. But that was all turned around after Finley sold the team to Levi Strauss CEO Walter Haas Jr.
Haas brought in a new executive team that included Dolich as the team’s Vice President of Business Operations, who performed a marketing miracle that led the A’s average attendance to skyrocket to nearly 36,000 per game by 1990.
His marketing secret was one the Roots appear to be mindful of as they try to connect with the Oakland community.
“We did everything that we could to be proud of being in Oakland,” he explained. “You can’t fake it. It has to be real. If (fans) don’t see it as a two-way street, that is where you get disconnects if things are going poorly.”
Photo: Douglas Zimmerman, SFGate
Bringing a professional soccer team to Oakland is the brainchild of Oakland residents Benno Nagle and Edreece Arghandiwal. Nagel is a former professional soccer coach who has worked with clubs in the U.S., the Netherlands, and Croatia. Arghandiwal has a diverse background in marketing, tech, and charitable work.
They encountered skepticism from many people as they pitched their idea.
“Anytime you tell anyone you want to put a professional team in Oakland there is always going to be red flags,” explained Arghandiwal.
Determined to represent Oakland, they reached out and held meetings with pillars of the community to build an advisory committee. The group included Keith’ K-Dub’ Williams, who built a DIY skate park in Oakland, and Rovel Sparks of My Yute and who provides free soccer camps in the city.
“Benno and I are not super-rich guys, and at the time we engaged with [community leaders] we had zero funding. What we were saying is that we are two guys and passionate about soccer in Oakland and we’re even more passionate about the notion that soccer can act as a vehicle for change in a city that we all love,” said Arghandiwal. “We wanted to do things the right way by incorporating their opinions and ideas in the very early stages when we got started.”
They received feedback from their community advisors that a team in Oakland could only succeed if it was authentic and earned their support.
Arghandiwal’s branding and marketing background, which included stints with Sean John, BET Television and Apple, was instrumental in constructing and creating the identity for the first-year soccer club.
“The tagline ‘Oakland. First. Always’ is a strategic play on our advisory board and to always have that lens whenever we are making important decisions of the club,” Arghandiwal explained.
The name for the soccer club, Roots, was settled on as well through the community’s advisory board meetings. “We talked a lot about knowing where you come from and knowing your roots, and we landed on the name ‘Oakland Roots.'”
“The Roots is about a vehicle impacting change in our city, “Arghandiwal added. “It’s building a cultural identity here in our community that appreciates the Roots and its message and allow soccer to be its vehicle. We want people to identify with the brand and when they find out it’s a soccer team, it’s an additional bonus.”
Arghandiwal enlisted graphic designer Matt Wolff to develop the crest for the team. Wolff has an impressive sports design background. He creating the crest for the MLS’s Los Angeles Football Club and the design for Nigeria’s soccer team’s jersey for the 2018 World Cup. With the Roots, his design played off the iconic oak tree that is the symbol of the city. The logo also features multi-colored roots under the tree to embrace the city’s diversity. An outline of the borderlines of the town creates a ray of light that pokes through the tree’s leaves.
The team partnered with Oaklandish, a popular lifestyle fashion line that promotes Oakland’s civic pride, to work together to build a clothing line for the brand.
Over the past year, the Roots have established their brand with a hip and distinctive clothing line. Even Oakland native and NBA star Damian Lillard was spotted wearing a Roots t-shirt before an NBA playoff game for the Portland Blazers, drawing widespread attention.
“When you start coupling good community work with a good aesthetic, then you can tap into something special,” said Arghandiwal. “There’s a lot of positive sentiment, but at the same time, there is still a lot of positive work to do.”
Social media also went crazy when the club introduced its first soccer player, Devante Dubose, in an only-from-Oakland release video. Dubose, who grew up in Oakland, was drafted by the San Jose Earthquakes and had bounced around pro soccer in the United States before signing with the Roots.
Before the filming for the video Arghandiwal told Dubose, “This is your day, we want to capture you in Oakland in your element.” Dubose suggested having his friend come out and car draft around him. Although Arghandiwal was skeptical at first, the video received a lot of attention on social media.
“We don’t have to always do what every other club does in America,” Arghandiwal said. “We can be different.”
After months of grass roots marketing, the launch culminated in late June, when a few hundred people lined up outside the Oaklandish store on Broadway in downtown Oakland to be among the first fans to buy a Roots soccer team jersey.
Photo: Courtesy Oakland Roots SC
The importance of the moment was not lost on Roots midfielder Benji Joya. “As a player, it motivates me even more,” he said about the community’s response. “I have to make sure that we’re not just selling a brand or selling a name. We’re giving back to the community. We’re trying to engage people to understand that we’re here for them and hopefully they are there for us as well.”
One of the team’s devoted fans is Oakland resident Martin Uriarte, who formed the Roots first fan supporter organization, Hidden Leaves. Since learning about the club through a Google search two years ago, Uriarte has been impressed by the team’s mission and connection to the city. He is determined to help build the club’s fan culture in Oakland.
“They are very much ingrained in Oakland and hold the same vision for Oakland that most of the community does,” noted Uriarte. “Oakland is more than just a zip code; it’s a lifestyle. It’s someplace that you can start to feel some ownership and pride in its progress. I truly believe the Roots will be the next big thing to come out of the Bay Area.”
On Saturday night, the Roots will see if the grassroots efforts have paid off.
“I hope we’re around for a long time. I hope the community appreciates us and loves what we’re building here,” said Arghandiwal. “I hope that we can play soccer at the highest level possible and provide a vehicle for kids that are growing up in this amazing city that you don’t have to leave to become great. You can blossom where you are planted.”
WHO and WHAT: The Oakland Roots take on the California United Strikers. Online sales are sold out but limited tickets will be available before the game.
WHERE and WHEN: Kickoff is at Laney Football stadium in Oakland, California on Saturday August 31st at 7 pm. The team will be holding a block party for the community outside the stadium from 3 to 6 pm on East 10th Street.
WHY: It will be the first-ever game for Oakland Roots and for the National Independent Soccer Association, a new third-division professional soccer league.
Online Photo Editor Douglas Zimmerman oversees SFGATE’s Instagram and covers the Bay Area soccer scene on SFGATE’s Beautiful Blog. View his latest stories and send him news tips at email@example.com. Follow on Twitter @zimpix