Warren Smith updates USL backing, branding, naming

by Paul Gatling ([email protected]) 1,109 views 

Sports industry executive Warren Smith of California is one of two majority partners of USL Arkansas, the group planning to bring minor league soccer teams to the region by 2026.

Plans to bring professional soccer to Northwest Arkansas are in their infancy, but the enthusiasm is already evident — perhaps most importantly, from initial investors.

“I can’t say enough about how this community has responded to this initiative,” said Warren Smith, one of two majority partners of the group planning to bring minor league soccer teams to the region by 2026. “It’s been cool to see how the public wants to play a role.”

On July 12, the United Soccer League (USL) and USL Arkansas revealed details in a news conference to create both men’s and women’s soccer teams alongside building a 5,000-seat stadium north of Pinnacle Hills Promenade in Rogers. Smith, a sports industry veteran who lives in San Diego, and Rogers businessman Chris Martinovic are the majority partners of USL Arkansas.

Martinovic, a former professional and college soccer player, moved to Northwest Arkansas in 2007. He started working to bring pro soccer to the region about four years ago.

“All in all, since I started this in 2019, the excitement has grown year to year,” he said. “The support from the community for pro men’s and women’s soccer teams and a multi-use facility is at record levels in Northwest Arkansas.”

The men’s team will be part of the USL Championship — the level just below Major League Soccer — and the women’s team will compete in the startup USL Super League, whose inaugural season will begin in August 2024.

Initial assessments suggest an approximate cost of $15 million to $20 million for the Rogers stadium, including land costs, to unveil in early 2026. USL Arkansas will build the stadium on 11.5 acres at the southwest corner of Lazy L Street and Bellview Road, north of Pinnacle Hills Promenade. USL Arkansas is expected to buy the land through an agreement with Rogers philanthropist Johnelle Hunt, the landowner.

USL Arkansas officials didn’t reveal further financial details at the news conference. However, USL Chief Operating Officer Jason Papadakis told Sports Business Journal earlier this year that the expansion fee for USL Championship clubs is $20 million. He did not disclose expansion fees for women’s clubs.

Smith said USL Arkansas has to pay the $20 million expansion fee before the team is granted into the USL schedule. The Tampa, Fla.-based league typically releases its schedule the preceding fall, meaning if USL Arkansas intends to compete in the 2026 season, the fee is due by the fall of 2025.

“The whole thing comes from investors,” Smith told the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal. “It’s a big project; the stadium build, the team build. It’s a group of investors. We’ve been raising money and doing a very good job getting money and interest behind this endeavor.

“I’ve done this in multiple markets and have not seen this type of response, frankly. You’ve got a region where people care deeply about this community.”

Smith said he got into sports by accident. Living in Sacramento, he left a telecommunications career in the mid-1990s, spurred by a conversation with a good friend — California newspaper heir Kevin McClatchy.

In 1995, McClatchy unsuccessfully tried to buy the Oakland A’s and move the team to Sacramento. Instead, he was the lead investor and public face of a group that bought the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1996. Before purchasing the Pirates, he owned the minor-league Modesto A’s.

Smith recalled that conversation with McClatchy during his California-to-Pennsylvania transition following the Pirates acquisition.

“My wife was pregnant at the time, and I wanted to do what my dad had done with me, and that was to take him to baseball games,” Smith recalled. “I told [McClatchy], ‘Don’t give up on Sacramento. We deserve at least AAA baseball.”

McClatchy responded with a question that changed Smith’s life.

“Why don’t you do it?”

Smith responded as most people would.

“I laughed because I didn’t have the money and didn’t know what to do,” he recalled. “But, it’s all about getting people excited about something and building community.”

In October 1997, Smith quit AT&T to pursue baseball full-time. He was the principal that led the effort in 2000 to bring AAA baseball to Sacramento when his group built Raley Field and moved the Vancouver Canadians to northern California and became the Sacramento River Cats.

“The process was really fun for me,” Smith said. “I had to get out and talk to people and build partnerships and understand what was important to people and help deliver that to them.

“Sports is a fabric of life. It really touches peoples’ lives if it’s done right.”

After nearly a decade, Smith left the River Cats to pursue a career in clean tech. In 2009, he founded Clean World Partners. As its CEO, Smith led the company in acquiring the exclusive licensing rights to an innovative anaerobic digestion technology invented at the University of California, Davis, his alma mater. Smith led the company through a strategic acquisition by Synergex Ventures, where he remains a board member.

He later built top-performing soccer teams, including Sacramento Republic FC and San Diego Loyal SC, and in 2014 he was named USL Executive of the Year. Recently, he’s focused on helping cities build soccer clubs across the United States, including in New Orleans and Oklahoma City.

Smith said he’s been visiting Northwest Arkansas since 1990, when his grandmother moved from Missouri to Bella Vista, and his parents moved to Bella Vista in 2003. His 88-year-old father still lives there.

Along with the two founders, potential investors are also being deliberated to be part of USL Arkansas’ long-term ownership group. Some will be involved in daily organizational operations. Others won’t.

For example, Tim Tebow, the sports broadcaster and former Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback at the University of Florida, is part of the ownership group of a new USL franchise planned for Jacksonville, Fla., beginning in 2025. Ricky Caplin, founder and CEO of the healthcare IT consulting firm The HCI Group, is the franchise’s lead investor.

Beyond Tebow, veteran soccer consultant Steve Livingstone and Jacksonville business leader Antonio “Tony” Allegretti are founders and managing partners. They manage the team’s daily operations.

“We have multiple parties interested [in USL Arkansas],” Smith said. “Right now, Chris and I own the team. We meet the league’s requirements for this stage. It’s our goal to find the next one. It takes a while. Fortunately, we’ve had some really good conversations with people you would know in the community we think would be fantastic leaders of this organization.

“Our goal is representative ownership, meaning somebody in charge of this thing that’s local. We’ve had several good dialogues.”

Smith expects to finalize the ownership group and announce it next spring.

“It may happen sooner; we’ll see,” he said.

2023 GOALS
For the remainder of the year, coming up with a name for the USL Arkansas franchise — with fan input — and building a brand around it are at the top of Smith’s workload.

“I expect we’ll have that [finalized] this year and announced in the first two months of [2024],” he said. “A couple of ideas have emerged, but nothing we have landed on. It’s easy to do Ozark FC or Northwest Arkansas FC. That may be where we end up, but we’ve got to explore everything before we make a decision. And then test it. We’re not at that point yet.”

When the franchise names are selected, Smith said USL Arkansas will hire a branding agency to “help us bring it to life.” Other immediate goals are to release updated, more detailed stadium renderings, grow a fan database and make season ticket deposits available.

Much of that work falls to Wes Harris, managing director of USL Arkansas. He is the group’s first employee and is tasked with building the club from the ground up.