Puerto Rico FC President Thomas Payne Ready to Put Up or Shut Up

IMAGE, PRIMERAHORA.COM

by JAKE NUTTING

Many would likely balk at the proposition of uprooting from Los Angeles and relocating across the continent to head up the launch of a NASL team in a market where a team already folded less than five years ago.

Thomas Payne dove headfirst into that challenge and has been working diligently as the first president of Puerto Rico FC to ensure the club is ready for its first kick at the start of the NASL’s Fall Season in July.

“I’ve been really, really happy with how people have received me and what we’re trying to do here, and how I’m trying to do things,” said Payne about his adjustment since moving to the island full-time back in December. “I think there’s a real soccer environment that’s changed a lot since I first came here with the Galaxy. I can tell already that there’s a much more significant interest in soccer and participation with soccer at the youth level.”

One of Payne’s top priorities in his first few days on the job was getting local supporters together with the front office as a first step toward establishing a strong relationship. The demise of the Puerto Rico Islanders, who began life in the USL in 2004 and suspended operations in the NASL at the end of 2012, is still a sore spot for some supporters. The disappointing loss of the Islanders understandably left some wary of a new group coming and talking a big game.

“I put together a meeting with the supporters groups that were left over from the Islanders who weren’t happy with the way things ended,” recalled Payne. “They were impressed and showed a lot of gratitude for the fact that the first thing I did on the job here was have a meeting with them where they could say anything they wanted or ask any question and get an answer from me. That was about making sure they knew I think they’re incredibly important to the success of this team.”

While the Islanders were consistently competitive in the standings of whichever league they played in, financial issues plagued the organization throughout its run. Payne didn’t offer a full autopsy on the defunct club, but the former president of business operations for the LA Galaxy believes that Puerto Rico FC will operate at a higher professional standard.

“I don’t know all the details, but I do know the last year [the Islanders] were understaffed,” said Payne. “They had people hired for one position having to do everything. Here’s the one thing I know firmly — in professional sports at any level, especially at the level of NASL or USL, if you don’t staff appropriately and invest in the business, then you’re setting yourself up to fail. I’m not somebody who wants to overstaff and have people for the sake of having people, but when you start asking somebody who is an assistant to start selling sponsorships, you’re setting yourself up for trouble.”

Payne has a unique perspective as one of the few executives running a NASL club that also has intimate experience as a longtime senior executive of one of MLS’s most successful clubs. Fresh off of league meetings where he had a chance to become acquainted with owners and executives from around the NASL, he’s confident in the path the league is on and believes it has a special chance to become a “tier-one league.”

“I think it’s so important for a league the size of the NASL to have appropriate ownership that is invested in the long haul and understands the grind and what it takes financially,” insisted Payne. “As opposed to people who have a little bit of money and want to own a team. In theory they could own a soccer team, but you can’t flub the business and not do the proper things in the lead up to your franchise and think you’re going to succeed.

“You can’t take shortcuts. If I were running one of these leagues, there would be a very distinct level of ownership. I think we’re going that way and it’s getting a lot better, but I notice some owners in other leagues that aren’t equipped to do that.”

Payne is certainly operating under a unique ownership setup in Puerto Rico, with NBA star Carmelo Anthony as the sole owner of the organization. Having an active athlete, let alone a superstar one, be the primary owner of a professional soccer team may be an uncommon situation, but Anthony’s engagement has never been a concern for Payne.

“One of the reasons I took the job was because of how impressed I was with him,” stated Payne. “He kind of came and got me. It’s a big move here from LA, but I shared his vision for us becoming a meaningful part of this community, really an inspirational part of this community. Hopefully we create a lot more kids playing soccer, help the sport grow here to the point where Puerto Rico has a meaningful national team that can win important games and someday qualify for the World Cup. We’d love to be a part of all that.”

Payne avoids bothering Anthony when he’s focused on basketball, though they do speak regularly and the New York Knicks forward does plan on becoming even more involved once the NBA season concludes.

“Our owner is really, really committed,” Payne said. “He understands what it’s going to take. He wants to build a club that everybody that’s in Puerto Rico can be proud of, as well as the five millions individuals who identify as Puerto Ricans. We want to be their team as well. That’s important to us. When we go to New York we want to have a good chunk of our fans up there watching if they live in the area.”

One way that Puerto Rico FC can make a mark and develop that type of loyal following at home and abroad is participation in the CONCACAF Champions League. NASL clubs based in the U.S., particularly the New York Cosmos, have placed high priority on qualifying for the competition through their only avenue, the U.S. Open Cup.

As a member of the Caribbean Football Union, though, teams based in Puerto Rico qualify for the CCL by finishing as one of the top three teams at the CFU Club Championship; a competition open to the top teams of all 31 federations in the CFU. The 2016 CFU Club Championship, which will determine who will qualify for the 2016-2017 CCL, is set to begin its group stage on February 24.

Payne didn’t feel it was prudent to scrape together a team on short notice just to compete this year. Although, it didn’t take long for Payne to realize the importance the supporters place on the CCL, admitting they took pleasure in reminding him how the Islanders knocked his Galaxy out of the competition in 2010.

He acknowledges some final details still need to be sorted on how Puerto Rico FC will participate, but he’s hopeful that the club will be taking part in next year’s qualification process.

“It’s one step at time with these things” stressed Payne. “Winning Puerto Rico would be very important to us, and then obviously winning the Caribbean Club Championship would be very big. We want to be the best team in this part of the world. We want to be a club that everyone knows about and one that other teams worry about when they have to play us.”

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So far, most of the conversation surrounding Puerto Rico FC has been about the celebrity status of its owner. For instance, the club recently garnered social media interest when pictures of special Air Jordans with the club’s logo and colors surfaced online — an obvious perk of your owner being an Air Jordan sponsored athlete.

Limited edition sneakers aside, Payne is sure to point out that star power alone isn’t enough to succeed.

“Carmelo can help us in a lot of ways, but at the end of the day it’s put up or shut up,” Payne bluntly stated. “We’ve gotta do things the right way. I’ve gotta lead the organization the right way. I’m a competitive guy, just like with the Galaxy I have the same mindset. I want to be the biggest team in the NASL. That’s going to take some work, time, investment, hiring great people, and putting together a great team. That’s what we’re aiming for. I wouldn’t do it otherwise. And Carmelo has the exact same feeling.”