Bohemians Rhapsodizing: The Joy and Pain of Starting A Minor League Team

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We've written before about the Baltimore Bohemians, an upstart minor league soccer team based in Charm City with some unusually swagged-out uniforms. Now, we're turning the honors over to Joe Tirabassi, one of the Bohs founders (and designers of that awesome kit), who will keep us posted at regular intervals during the season in a running diary that we are calling, rightly or wrongly, Bohemians Rhapsodizing.

For most of us, the sports teams that we cheer and suffer for are assigned before we even enter the world. Be it through sentimental familial ties or a practical accident of geography, many sports fans have their teams designated at birth. We stick with them, or are stuck with them, after that. The system works, at least insofar as being a fan isn’t going out of style any time soon, but this also means that the prospect of a new franchise is a hard sell. If we’re handed our fan identities sometime around when we get our birth certificates, how could a new team hope to win over fans with all those old allegiances?

Inevitably, some will view such a venture as a cash grab. It’s cynical, but it makes sense: an invented identity is a tough sell, especially when what's being sold is meant to represent your home and yourself in the way a favorite team does. But while sports are a business, and while no one starts a business to go broke, persuading fans to adopt a team as their own—to accept its identity as a part of theirs—is not an easy task, and not one with especially great odds for owners who lack the luxury of institution. As a sports fan, I understand this skepticism. But as the Director of Marketing/creative force/secretary/minority owner of a lower division soccer club called the Baltimore Bohemians, I've made it my mission to combat this. If we're going to succeed, I'll have to figure out how to do it right.

We’re a family operation. My dad, brother and I are behind the scenes, trying to get this off the ground. It’s something we’re doing because we love this game, and because of the same sort of fan’s birthright I wrote about above. We’ve been involved with soccer in Baltimore since our family came to this country. We’ve played the game and coached it, ran tournaments and lost titles. My grandfather was a Baltimore City cop named Lou Tirabassi, and he, along with a few other men, used some money he had saved to invest in a soccer team called Baltimore Pompei. That team went to the final of the US Open Cup in 1958, back when the sport was still viewed as—and largely was—a game played solely by immigrants. This is in our blood.

Our team plays in a minor echelon of American minor league soccer called the USL Premier Development League. It's a combination stopgap and sometimes last chance for MLS hopefuls, something like what the USBL was for basketball or the Northern League is for baseball. The game is played in pockets of North America like Des Moines, Laredo, Thunder Bay and, um, Bermuda. Players don't get paid, but they do get treated like professionals. They sign autographs for kids and pose for pictures. They wear polos emblazoned with the team crest while riding a chartered bus on their way to the next town. And, most importantly, they’re both good at the sport and take the game very seriously, despite usually playing in front of only a handful of fans.

The average attendance for a PDL game hovers somewhere between 500-600 spectators, and because I’m dedicated to keeping the whole Baltimore Bohemians experience cheaper than a night at the movies—and because those trips to Bermuda aren't cheap—this means our profit margin is very narrow. Take all of that together—a new team in a minor league of a non-big-four sport—and the odds are admittedly kind of stacked against us. To start a minor league team in any sport, you need to be a little crazy. To start a minor league soccer team, you need to be very crazy, or at least a special kind of crazy. Luckily or unluckily, this part is in my blood, too.

Everyone involved with the Bohs holds a full-time job outside of our duties with the team, but the Bohemians occupy our nights, weekends, lunch breaks, discreet intermissions from work, dreams, nightmares and that thing we used to know as “free time.” You can count our entire staff on one hand. I know, because I count it often.

Which is stressful, as you can probably guess. Things like website launches and press releases do more to disrupt my sleep pattern than any amount of caffeine ever will. And when something doesn't go the way it's supposed to, the fans let you know it. Which is what fans do, but which—when you factor in the sleep deficit, emotional investment, family-business aspect and everything else—can make it tough to deal with even the goofiest negative Facebook comment, especially given all the time we’ve already put into the team and the fact that the team has yet to so much as step foot on the field. I can attest that being called a rich so-and-so on your team's Facebook wall by someone you've never met hurts more than any breakup ever will. It hurts because I'm neither rich nor much of a so-and-so, but mostly it’s upsetting due to the fact that we got into this because we're fans. I get frustrated when West Ham is relegated, or if I can't afford Ravens tickets, and being familiar with that part of being a fan is something that we, as an organization, get. And it’s something we want to do our part to fix. Disappointment is the great shared emotion between sports fans, after all. We feel it, too, when something goes wrong. Deeply.

Look, I can't speak for the big leagues, but I can promise you that 99% of minor league owners are doing this because they, just like the people they hope will pay to come to games, are fans. Owners want something that represents their home, that delivers some entertainment and that other more complicated kick that sports can give, just as much as fans want it. That’s why they put their backs (and money) into it in the face of long odds. Those are the odds we’ve got, but they’re also the odds we’ve chosen to play.

And play is the word: this is supposed to be fun, and I sure hope it will be. If we drift into oblivion like countless minor league franchises before us, we’re going to make sure that at least our flash in the pan will be so bright as to be impossible to ignore. That said, though, it will be fun to get out there and finally start playing some soccer. That day is coming soon enough.

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Great article. I'm a follower of the Baton Rouge Capitals (USL PDL Mid-South division Southern Conference) and I can't tell you how nice it is to have even a semi-pro team in my area. Best of luck to the Bohs and go Caps!

This is awesome and I am excited to follow along and, maybe, even make it up for a game.