After meeting with a small handful of season ticket members on Tuesday, Dynamo president John Walker, along with several members of the club’s senior executive team, spent Thursday afternoon visiting with representatives from the Facebook group Dynamo Fans for Change at BBVA Stadium to discuss the future of the club.
Walker was joined by Sr. Vice President and General Manager Matt Jordan, Chief Revenue Officer Dionna Widder, Chief Marketing Officer Katie Scallan and BBVA Stadium General Manager Juan Rodriguez.
Dynamo Fans For Change arose organically on Facebook in the aftermath of Houston’s 5-0 loss at Atlanta in mid-July.
“People were just fed up with the way the team was playing, the direction, the overall way that we were moving, and we just decided to come together,” said Nick Santowski, a frustrated fan who has had season tickets since 2007. “It’s become a really positive place for us to say, ‘We really like this,’ or ‘We really don’t understand why they’re doing this,’ or ‘Why are they doing that?’ It’s just been a good group for the real fans, the die-hard fans, to come together and say ‘We deserve better.’ As paying fans, as long-time fans, we deserve better from the team than what we’ve seen.”
The meeting was arranged after Walker received an e-mail from group leader Tony Quiñones last week outlining many of the group’s frustrations with their club. Scheduled for 90 minutes, it lasted more than two hours before some club execs had to leave to get across town to the annual Meet the Dash fan event.
Santowski and his fellow representatives came prepared with a list of questions, some of their own and some submitted by group members who were unable to attend. After a couple of initial prepared questioins, however, the conversation began to flow naturally.
The meeting kicked off with Rodriguez fielding a question about adding shade structures to BBVA Stadium in the interest of fan comfort. Rodriguez, who worked at NRG Stadium when it was built, pointed out that the challenges were multi-faceted, chief among them being the fact that it would be cheaper to demolish and rebuild the entire existing stadium than to add a roof to the existing structure.
Walker, who joked that he was going to wear a “DEFC – Dynamo Employees For Change” sweatshirt, addressed the club’s television broadcast agreement with KUBE 57 and the group debated the pros and cons of other broadcast options. He also addressed the club’s decision to drop English radio broadcasts, noting that radio deals hadn’t made financial sense based on the number of listeners and that the amount of feedback the club received after making the decision was fairly minimal.
Not surprisingly, team performance and the direction of the on-field product were a major topic of conversation, and Jordan was asked about the Dynamo being unrepresented in the recent U.S. Youth National Team rosters at the U-17, U-20 and U-23 level – aside from Dynamo Academy alumnus Marcelo Palomino, who remains unattached. Asked directly about Palomino, Jordan explained that the club had offered him a “very competitive” multi-year contract, but that he and his family wanted to explore options in Europe.
On a broader scale, Jordan went in detail about his plans with the Dynamo Academy and the work that has gone in behind the scenes so far to put a solid foundation in place, saying that they had to essentially “tear it down to the studs and rebuild it.” Among the programs he mentioned was a transportation program and the creation of “Centers of Excellence” around the Houston area, modeled after a program at PSV Eindhoven, to ease the burden on parents of promising young players in the 12-14 age range.
Jordan was asked about partnering with a foreign club on the developmental side and acknowledged that he’s been approached by some of the giants of the soccer world, including clubs in Scotland, Buenos Aires, Spain and Germany, but that he felt that the Dynamo need to “tend to our own garden first” before branching out. “A press release is nice, but what’s it mean?” he asked rhetorically.
He also noted that one factor in his decision to hire Paul Holocher away from San Jose when he reorganized the youth setup was the fact that Holocher wasn’t from Houston and could begin new conversations with several clubs in town. The benefits of that clean start are already showing with Holocher’s Partners in Development program.
“The biggest thing that stood out to me with everything that was said was definitely the Academy factor,” said Dynamo Fans For Change member – and co-host of The Peel – Justin Finger. “It’s one of those things where it can make or break you in MLS now, and Matt being more candid about the current state of the Academy and what it was prior, to where it’s going to go.”
It took about 40 minutes, but Santowski finally brought the discussion around to “the elephant in the room” and asked Walker and Jordan about the club’s ownership group and their level of engagement and commitment.
Both men agreed that although majority owner Gabriel Brener may not seek the spotlight or do many interviews, that doesn’t mean he isn’t deeply involved in the club. “I’m on the phone with Gabriel two or three times every day,” Walker said, with Jordan agreeing.
Walker pointed out that Brener has investments and business interests around the globe, saying, “Every time he calls me, I have no idea where he is, but where ever he is, he’s thinking about the Dynamo.”
The last half-hour of the conversation focused on the team sitting at the bottom of the league’s payroll chart and on the go-forward plan for the team, on and off the pitch.
“We all understand we’re at the bottom, and that’s probably not the best place for us to be,” Walker admitted, adding that Brener has asked Jordan to compile a list of high-impact players that could be added to the roster during the winter transfer window.
Jordan talked about the coaching search and said that the most important thing is finding a coach who understands where the club is, what it’s building, and who buys into the overall plan. He said he’s gotten inquiries from coaches around the globe, and he and Walker said that the goal is to identify a coach by late October.
Widder, who joined the club in February, and Scallan, who started last month, were asked about the club’s plans to engage both current and new fans.
On the season ticketing front, Widder said that, “how we connect and engage with fans has purpose.” She pointed out that for the first time in club history, season ticket renewals and new season ticket sales are happening concurrently and noted that renewal numbers have already exceeded the past few years while the club already has more deposits for new season tickets than it sold all of last offseason.
Scallan added that club is reevaluating its marketing and advertising plans for next year, acknowledging that the Dynamo need to be more visible throughout the market and throughout the season, and she noted that the club is creating a Fan Board which will meet regularly throughout the year.
Asked about a perceived lack of savings for season ticket members versus single-game tickets, Widder noted that single-game pricing and season ticket pricing hadn’t been considered together in years past, noting that often single-game prices were created for marketing campaigns, rather than as part of a holistic pricing approach. For 2020, she said that all prices were set in coordination with one another, including the highly-successful 713 offer, which attracted more than 80 percent first-time fans.
Widder also addressed the expanding Supporters section and noted that the club is planning to go standing-only in the North End for 2020. As a first step toward a full safe-standing section, the club will remove the seat plates on all of the seats in the Supporters Section to create a standing-only area.
Asked for their reactions after the meeting, several of the Dynamo Fans For Change members expressed pleasant surprise at the level of candor displayed.
“My expectation was total lip service. I thought we’d get a bunch of totally canned responses and we would have a forced agenda on us,” Santowski said. “The reality was totally different. We came in and it was a relaxed atmosphere, we got to ask our questions; we went off on some tangents, got some really good information, really good feedback to take back to our group and let them know it’s not just lip service. We were heard. I feel like we had really good information, and I think the biggest takeaway from tonight is that the type of information we heard needs to be shared en masse with the larger group of Dynamo supporters.”
“I have a lot more respect for Matt Jordan, honestly, from a standpoint of his future vision,” said Josh Duplantis, Finger’s co-host on The Peel. “It was very detailed and concrete on what he went over for the future plans. I understand it’s going to take some time to change, but I’m excited for it.”
“Our voices are being heard,” he added. “It’s not just everybody blabbing away on Twitter and ‘They’re not talking to anybody.’ It’s ‘OK, they see it, too.’”
Finger summed things up by pointing out that he was pleased to see that the fans aren’t the only ones who see what other clubs are accomplishing and want the Dynamo to reach the same heights.
“They also understand that MLS is completely different than what it was even two, three, four years ago. You’ve got these teams like LA, Atlanta, Portland, Seattle, Minnesota and you can see – hopefully you don’t see it, but you can start to see that divide with the following that they have, the grassroots efforts that they have, how much they actually connect with the community about getting people to the matches,” he said. “It’s a hard hill to climb when you’re behind the eight-ball, but it seems like they definitely genuinely want to make a change in the right direction.”