Welcome to the NPSL: Denton Diablos FC
Michael Hitchcock is a busy guy, hard at work growing the game of soccer in the United States. He is a soccer executive with over 20 years in the business, and you will be hard pressed to find a more impressive and diverse executive resume that spans all levels of the game in the USA. Hitchcock got his start in the soccer business in sales roles with D.C. United and the Colorado Rapids in the early days of Major League Soccer, before joining the LA Galaxy as their Vice President of Sales. His next role brought him to the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, as the General Manager of FC Dallas and what was then known as Pizza Hut Park.
In 2009, after his time with FC Dallas, Hitchcock launched Playbook Management International, which took him into the world of American soccer beyond MLS. With PMI, Hitchcock helped the San Antonio Scorpions get off to a very successful start in the North American Soccer League. He would later return his efforts to the DFW metroplex to launch the Fort Worth Vaqueros in the National Premier Soccer League. Other projects include the Professional Futsal League, in which Mark Cuban is a lead investor, a relaunch of the Dallas Sidekicks indoor soccer team in the Major Arena Soccer League, helping the Puerto Rican Soccer League relaunch and his latest effort in NPSL, the Denton Diablos. Outside of the US, Hitchcock holds ownership stakes in Alfreton Town FC (National League in UK) and Tobago FC Phoenix (Trinidad & Tobago). Word on the street is that Hitchcock has also played a key role in the NPSL Pro project, but he was not able to speak about that project at this time.
I was able to sit down with Michael Hitchcock and discuss his new project in Denton, as well as get an update on several of his other irons in the fire.
1. You currently own the Fort Worth Vaqueros in NPSL – what inspired you to start another club in the Dallas area?
Dallas-Fort Worth is arguably one of the top soccer markets in the country, right up there with Southern California. After I was a VP for the LA Galaxy, I came to Dallas to become the General Manager of FC Dallas, and that role led me to get to know many people in the metroplex. Soccer is so important here. With the Fort Worth Vaqueros, we really got to experience building a grassroots effort focused on giving back to the community and providing opportunity for local players. In addition to local adult players, the Vaqueros also provide opportunities for youth players in a structured environment through our free Vaqueros youth soccer Academy .
What brought me to Denton, is that it is a distinct part of the Dallas-Fort Worth market that is underserved. Denton is 40 miles from Fort Worth, so the Diablos won’t eat into the fanbase of the Vaqueros. I was fortunate to find a great partner and local business owner in Denton, Damon Gochneaur, who shares in the vision of bringing high level soccer to that community.
2. Is the ownership group the same as the Vaqueros, or will Denton have its own unique ownership group?
I will be the only common partner between the two ownership groups. In Denton, I have a 50-50 partnership with Damon Gochneaur, a local successful business owner whose business is based in Denton right on the square, a popular part of Denton. He runs a successful digital marketing firm, Aspiro Digital Agency. Damon played soccer in college, and his son is in the FC Dallas youth club. You couldn’t find a better community oriented guy who loves the game to partner with on this.
3. Does the NPSL have an rules around owning multiple teams in a Conference?
My fellow members in this conference had the opportunity to vote on whether I could have a stake in a second team in the market. I recused myself from that vote, naturally. They decided it was okay for me to do the team in Denton because they have confidence that I will do a good job and add another quality team, which will benefit the conference as a whole.
4. Where will the Diablos play?
The team is going to play at University of North Texas’s Mean Green Soccer Stadium, a cool little 1000 seat stadium right in the heart of the city. It is in a great part of Denton in the hub of UNT Athletic facilities, not far from a cool bar scene and local breweries. Denton in some ways is more like Austin culturally than the rest of the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, and the stadium is right in the heart of that.
5. You have also recently launched a Major Arena Soccer League team, the Dallas Sidekicks. Can you tell us a little bit about that project?
The Dallas Sidekicks are an iconic brand. A lot of fans my age grew up on indoor soccer. For me it is really cool to be re-launching an iconic team which I remember from when I was a kid when they came to Kansas City to play the Comets. It’s a really strong dynamic ownership group that I am happy to be a part of. The MASL seasons are also very complementary with outdoor soccer, because they start right as outdoor soccer ends. In theory, the same players could play half the year outdoor and the other half indoor to earn more income from the sport they love.
6. The Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex is a fast growing market, and very spread out geographically with long travel times from one part of the market to another. Can you see DFW supporting multiple professional outdoor soccer teams in the near future?
Absolutely. There is no doubt about it. The market is really spread out geographically. When you add commute time and traffic, it can feel very big when traveling from one part of the metroplex to another. This is a soccer loving market that is going to continue to grow. There is no doubt in my mind that you could have multiple successful and sustainable pro teams in Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex
7. What is the long term vision for the Diablos?
We want the Diablos to become an important part of the Denton community. We want to inspire kids in the area to love the game and give them opportunities to play it. The game can change lives. This is going to be a community centric club, so time will tell what the community here will support. We are focused on giving to the community before wondering what they will give back to us. We think the community will respond to the fact that they have their own soccer team representing their city, with Denton across the chest.
8. What other projects has PMI been working on recently?
We have been doing some work with the Puerto Rican Soccer League. Before Hurricane Maria PRSL did a lot of good stuff in Puerto Rico. They are looking to relaunch and rebrand. We have been having a lot of fun working with some extremely talented and passionate soccer leaders in Puerto Rico, it’s been a really cool experience.
We are looking to get a soccer stadium built in Fort Worth and take the next step with the Vaqueros. Fort Worth is an incredible market who deserves a soccer specific stadium to be used by the Vaqueros and the local soccer community. It’s an important focus for the Vaqueros. If the Vaqueros are a level above NPSL and the Diablos are in NPSL, that could be a good brother club relationship. We also consult with teams and leagues internationally providing soccer management consultative services to help with their respective business operations. I’m extremely passionate about the game of soccer, the business of soccer and the community impact from soccer; so you could say, I’m living the dream!
9. You also own part of Napa Valley 1836 in NPSL, is that right? Do you see growing your footprint out in Northern California as well?
I own a minority interest in in Napa Valley. I have great local partners who are big time community leaders in Napa, and own local businesses, wineries in Napa Valley. Awesome guys that share the vision and my commitment of using the sport of soccer to give back to the community. Through the great efforts of Arik and Josh, the marketplace has really responded to the team. If we could figure out facility issues and build a soccer stadium, that is another team that could take a step up to the next level. Facilities limit what you can do, but we are looking at that and figuring out what the future can be for that club. We just got the ability to serve wine at home games at the end of this past season. Napa is wine country, so that is an important part of culture there.
10. Fort Worth Vaqueros name appears to be a play on Dallas Cowboys (Vaqueros is Spanish for Cowboy) – is there a story behind the Denton Diablos name?
The name Vaqueros came from the community. When announced that we’re bringing soccer to Fort Worth, we launched a campaign where we went to the community and asked them to help name the team. We gave the keys to the fans, and thousands of fans voted on the name of the team. It was completely selected by the fans. We let the fans vote each year on the jersey design that the players and season seat holders wear (the jersey is their ticket to the game), and one year we let the fans design the jersey. We do a lot fan engagement with the Vaqueros.
As far as the Diablos, my partner Damon and I developed the ideas for the launching a team in Denton at a local bar, Eastside’s over Texas whiskey and Texas Craft Beer. Damon is a strong marketing guy. He did some market research and the name Diablos resonated with people in the area. We created a cool logo and brand around it. Early feedback from the market has been very good. We did a World Cup viewing party for the final and let the fans vote on the final logo.
11. What will the Denton Diablos bring to the table for area soccer fans that they won’t find at an MLS match?
The beautiful thing about soccer at this level is the connection between the players, the organization and the fans. In lower division soccer, the players are part of the community and typically very appreciative of the opportunity the community is giving them. It makes for a fun game day experience, and a good atmosphere in terms of fan engagement. Tickets are affordable while the product on the field is good. Afterwards kids can get an autograph, and fans can connect with the players more easily. Not to mention, the connection to the fans and sponsors in the community through appearances, events and the always popular post game party where fans and players, staff, ownership get to celebrate a great night of the beautiful game.
12. What else should the readers of Midfield Press know about your the Diablos?
With the Diablos, we have committed local ownership. We are humble, hungry and hardworking. In my partner Damon, you have someone who lives in the community, graduated from the University of North Texas and runs his successful business right there in Denton. I compliment him as someone who brings a depth of soccer management experience at a variety of levels. We are bringing a lot of experience and expertise to match our passion and commitment to the community. We hope it results in a successful club that can serve as a focal point for community pride in Denton.