GOALS

RENEE MEIER

Administrator, Western New York Flash

Meeting Renee Meier for the first time is like picking up with a longtime friend.

Even through the not-so-steady connection of a Google Meet, it’s effortless to fall into a conversation about family, careers, Buffalo Bills football (she would have made that call every time), and, well, life. But as the talk gets deeper into the matter at hand, it’s clear she is exceptionally fierce and fervent about running a youth soccer club.

As the club administrator for the Western New York Flash, a rapidly expanding club headquartered in brisk Buffalo, she describes herself as once a mother to three, but now a mother to 1,000. She keeps a watchful eye and hands-on approach to make sure no detail is missed, no message is muddled, and no stone is left unturned in delivering the best possible youth soccer experience for families. Her #FlashFamily.

In this interview, Renee gets real about her journey from banking to food safety to youth soccer, a relentless obsession over building a brand (which is also her biggest worry), why she is known as “the work-maker,” and, in typical mom fashion, why we all need to get more sleep.

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What were you doing right before you joined this call?

RM: We have two businesses here, the Sahlen Sports Park, which is a 200,000 square foot indoor facility, and The Flash. We have a new employee who is working the social media, marketing, and advertising for both businesses, and we were just talking about the fact that as we’re growing as a club into other regions, how are we going to brand it? How are we going to market it? It was suggested that she set up a separate Facebook and Twitter for a location that is about 100 miles away from us. And she goes, “You know, that creates its own set of obstacles.”

And it does, because now you’re trying to consistently brand, and it doesn’t make sense to separate your brands. If you want to be club-centric, you should have everything branded under just The Flash. It shouldn’t matter if you’re at the central location or the east location or the north, you should be branding under just The Flash. I think that there’s power in numbers. Followers should be as many as they can have, and I think if we put everybody under just The Flash, we will look bigger than we really are.

You do it all as a club administrator, including thinking about marketing and building your brand.

RM: I probably think about it too much. How do we continue to have consistency with our brand, but grow as much as we are? It’s top of mind for me every single day, and I think it probably sidetracks me from a lot of other things that I need to do. But right now, I’m going to try and transition to my new assistant that we’ve hired, to be that person and make sure that that messaging and branding don’t get lost.

Why do you think it weighs so much on you?

RM: I‘m looking to retire at the end of next year. My biggest fear is that here we are in the middle of all this extensive growth, 33% last year, and 33% again this year. I fear that our brand will get watered down, meaning we will not be able to monitor and maintain the consistency necessary to sustain this recent growth and anticipated future growth.

You weren’t looking to become administrator of a youth soccer club. 

RM: I was not looking for this. I was working in food safety at the Sahlen Meat Packing Company, helping to write processes and procedures so that we could get certified because only certain businesses would buy your product if you were certified. It took following a humongous manifest of information to realize that I’m a process-driven person. To a fault, maybe. But you have to take the bad with the good, right?

The owner had seen me in action in the office for the first six months, and he goes, “You know what? I think you’d be a good marketer for our women’s professional team. Think about it.” And I said, “Put me in, Coach.” Those were my exact words. And so I kind of did both jobs at the same time. You know how that goes, right? He came back and said, “I have the soccer job that’s full-time, and the food safety job that’s full-time, which one do you want?” I told him to put an ad out for both of them and whichever one is filled first, I’ll take the other one. That’s how I ended up here on the soccer side. I think it was fate, though. I think I was meant to be here.

Before working in food safety, you were in banking for more than 30 years. How has that background influenced your work now?

RM: I learned the finance side of a business from working at a very small financial institution that turned into a pretty big financial institution. I don’t think people see soccer clubs as being professional businesses. I think they look at them as nonprofits or think everybody’s volunteering. They don’t look at the fact that it does cost money to be in the business of soccer. A good example is COVID. A lot of money was spent on infrastructure, coaches, fields. We had to find a way to manage our customers and our customer service. It had to be a win-win. We don’t have all that money to give away. We wanted to keep our coaches, we wanted to continue to keep our infrastructure in place because we thought it was a temporary thing. Being a business person at that time helped me immensely because not only was I on the financial side of it, but I was also in customer service, so I had experience with both sides and I had to bring them together.

FLASH FORWARD

Can you give us a little more background on how The Flash came to be?

RM: Joe Sahlen owned the professional women’s team, the Western New York Flash in the WPS, which went defunct in 2012. We had a good following so we then decided to start a youth club. We started with five teams in the 2012-2013 season – three boys, two girls. We grew from five to nine to 11 teams. We hired a director of coaching, we went through our first director, got a second one who came to us from Texas. He was tremendous in bringing together the boys’ and the girls’ sides. Our girls were accepted into the ECNL, which was great, but this made The Flash known as a “girls club.”  We didn’t offer teams for boys past U12 so we could focus our efforts on the girls’ side. It was difficult to bring the boys back, but we did when the ECNL expanded with the Boys ECNL.

Then we realized we had something special growing here. We added the boys and the ECNL to the boys’ side as well. We hired Eric Dade, who came to us out of the South and just so happened, his mother lives in Buffalo, and he grew up here. Welcome back to the snow.

What was the youth soccer environment like in your region at the time?

RM: I think one of the biggest struggles we had in the Buffalo area, was that if your soccer club did not seem to fit my kid’s or my team’s needs, we’ll just start another club, or we’ll take our team and we’ll be a one-up. That’s what happened in Western New York. But when The Flash came into the picture and started getting stronger and focusing on the consistency of a club-centric platform, more and more families wanted to be part of it. I was once told WNY isn’t even on the map for soccer, something that needed to change. We sold the professional women’s team to North Carolina after winning the Championship in 2016 and our head coach decided to coach three of our girls’ youth teams and we have not looked back.

When somebody asks you what you do for a living, how do you answer? 

RM: I’m the administrator for a youth soccer club, and I have 1,000 kids. I went from being a soccer mom to three to being a soccer mom to 1,000.

And what are some rules you live by in “your house?”

RM: Sometimes a coach will send me a question that can’t be found in our policies, player and parent handbook, or Team Management Guide. I make sure the answer is standardized for all to see. My goal is to avoid answering the question twice. I’m a believer in teaching people to fish, not throwing them a fish!

Other than nurturing a #FlashFamily brand, what are some other challenges you’re facing today?

RM: Unfortunately, the primary youth league in Buffalo only allows non-profit clubs to participate. Because of this our kids and our club are not allowed to play in this league. They don’t want us and it’s sad as all kids should be playing. If you want to tell us that we’re at this premier level or we’re at this higher than premier level, have us play a year up or something. Find a way to have our kids play. That’s what’s important. We have 12 teams in Rochester now. Rochester has a Youth League also, and we are hopeful our teams will be allowed to play as we expand into the area. If our youngest players are not going to be allowed in League play, where do we go? Do we create our own leagues? What do we have to do to get our kids playing?

What do you think should be done? 

RM: Some years back, I attended a few meetings to understand why they felt the way that they did. And what I got out of it is that if a player was on our team and a town team, they would prioritize our team because it was at a higher level, which meant town teams wouldn’t have enough players to play games.

So, the League now limits town teams to two or three players from a premier club such as ours. I personally think it’s time to open the conversation once again. Although they think they’re doing it for the right reasons, the league should bring premier clubs to the table so we can work together. I know there are answers out there. I find that in our area, change is difficult, and everyone holds onto their own. Maybe not too different from other areas.

THE WORK-MAKER

How have you seen the greater youth soccer landscape change from where you sit?

RM: The change that I have seen is just really our foothold in our local market and now it’s transcending out into the Rochester area, where they’re saying, “Please, please take us in. Please come here.” And then the Development Academy folded, another local franchise-type club folded, and people were scrambling for a club. Now we’ve got them, that growth I talked about. What do we do? How do we sustain the delivery of our services to meet customer and Flash expectations? Because as fast as families come here can be as fast as they leave. And if we say we’re one thing, we better deliver what we say.

What makes families leave? What delivery concerns do you have?

RM: Sometimes it’s because of the coaching. One year they get a coach they like, but the next year, coaching may change and they follow a coach. I hear all the time that families should be coming here because of the club, not just the coach. That would be great, but I’m not so sure that’s reality, at this point. These families have been programmed that everybody wants the best coach. Do you think that everybody in our club wants to be coached by Aaran Lines, head coach of a professional women’s team that won the championship twice? Yeah, I think they probably do. I’m not saying there aren’t other good coaches, but people are programmed that way. People have to be a little bit more resilient. Everybody has something to offer. But shame on us if we’re not making sure people know that our coaches are competent, that they represent our club’s methodology. I think clubs have to do a better job of that.

In your eyes, what is a “better job” of doing that?

RM: I believe Directors “manage” their coaches just like coaches “manage their players.  You must spend time with those you manage to make sure they understand what needs to be accomplished, helping them grow through mentoring.  I don’t think soccer clubs have this type of management like other businesses do.  A business must invest in the development of its workers, in our case, it’s our coaches. A new coach costs more than investing in one who has been with you.

Do you have a formal, written program or guide?

RM: Yes. We have quite a large methodology book. Our second DOC put it in place, and as a matter of fact, it just got updated again. We try to update this stuff regularly. We not only have a methodology, but I have a team management document, and that goes to coaches and team managers on how to manage their club and the expectations that are out there, and how to keep things consistent. I have a signature page where they can copy and paste and just add their name and team name so that all the signatures on our emails are the same. I think that’s important. We’re a small club, but I think big.

Is that why you’re called the “work-maker” in the club?

RM: I can go back and talk about the coaches. We need to make sure our directors have the time and the tools to mentor their coaches. Directors wonder when they’re going to have enough time. They’re so invested in the operations of what they do and making sure that their players, teams, and coaches are doing what needs to get done.

Embracing Technology and New Ways to Do Things

How has new software and technology helped – or held you back – in your work?

RM: I want to be self-sufficient as a software user.  I want our families to be self-sufficient too. Online software help must be up to date and give answers. We don’t need to answer the same question more than once. When I get a question a second time, my PlayMetrics software allows me to put answers on the “Club Resources” page which is easily accessible to all families through their online account.

How difficult – or easy – has it been to roll out new software to coaches and staff?

RM: The past couple of years it’s been difficult to get coaches to do the background checks and other mandatory training needed to complete their risk management pass because software products have been extremely difficult and inconsistent. The easier we can make it for our staff to learn new software as well as giving them a single source well-maintained software product when possible, the process improves for everyone. 

Since most coaches think primarily about the field, they’re not accustomed to having a software product where their lesson plans can exist. Now with PlayMetrics, directors can have all session plans saved online and know training can be consistent at all training locations.

Once again, what does it come down to? Consistency. Once learned, it’s also going to take more time to get up to speed so that it becomes second nature. Some will just push that aside and stick with their old ways of doing things, so we must sell them on the fact that it will be beneficial over time to them personally and for the club.

Have you had cases where you’ve sold someone on the benefit and they’ve come around?

RM: We hired a new youth director and the first thing he said was, I see this session planning out there and I like it. So we hooked him up so he could learn all about it and get started in it. If you can get one person on the project to maybe help the others, that’s a way to go. We now have an online player evaluation option.  When utilized, this will help to make sure all our players are being evaluated in writing. Keep it simple, but get started! Change is hard! I want to believe there’s a club out there using all this great stuff but are probably struggling the same way I’m envisioning it. I don’t have rec teams. I don’t have 13,000 kids. I can’t even imagine what it would be like and the feeling of being out of control that you would have.

Do you consider yourself a “control freak?”

RM: Yeah, but you have to trust people. You put the processes in place, put them in writing, and hope that they all follow it.

Who decides to bring in new software or technology to the club? 

RM: If it happens to do with the registration side or the financial side, it’s me. If it happens to do with programs that are going to benefit the players directly, the executive director would make those decisions, and then I see how it affects the budget. I’ll look at it and evaluate the risk and rewards. And we know how all that goes. It’s only as good as how they use it because if it’s a program and they’re not using it, get rid of it.

Have you shed some things over the years that just weren’t being used?

RM: I hated the software I had for two years. It was a lot of work to figure out where I was going to go. And I just happened to see an article from someone also named Renee, who is an administrator at another club. She has my name and she does what I do and she’s really happy. I got to check this out. I took that on and I knew it was going to cause me a lot of work. But I also looked at it and said, okay, if I’m going to eventually retire, I don’t want to leave this place in a bad place. You go to work for somebody and you want to leave it better than when you found it.

FROM PARENT TO PARENT

We should get into the fact that beyond your business experience, you also have experience as a soccer parent. 

RM:  Back in the day we didn’t know anything. We only knew what we were told because there wasn’t a lot of internet. I really knew very little about soccer and its structure. But what I did know is people and coaches who cared, and tried to bring people together, and I liked that part of it. My kids went to school in the small town of Holland, New York. They had rec soccer in the summer. There weren’t clubs like ours out there at the time. There was very little travel soccer. I had to go across town to find travel soccer for my daughter.

Do you think parents know a lot more about the game today?

RM:  I graduated from high school in 1973. It was the year of Title 9. We were a pretty active family, but when my kids asked me what sports I played I told them I was a cheerleader and in the marching band because we didn’t have sports for people like me. Even though I was into sports. My dad took me to football games since I was 7 years old. I realized I loved football when it didn’t matter who was playing on the field. I like a good competition. Like the Bills game the other night, which unfortunately came down to a slip with their quarterback. I would have made that call all day. You’ve done it nine times out of 10. You’re my guy.

We can reference a Buffalo Bills game, but we can’t reference professional soccer matches as easily because not as many people are watching.

RM: Yeah. Nobody knows. Try to find where you can view the NWSL game. If you like women’s soccer, try to find out where that is. It’s awful, right?

Do you think you have more positive experiences with parents than challenging ones?

RM: They’re not going to be perfect. And if there’s one thing I learned in banking, there’s a bank on every corner. You’re not going to make everybody happy. And there’s some point where we’ve got to march to the marching orders that we have. We’re here for the club, and we can’t fulfill everyone’s expectations and needs, but we have a good product and we’ll do everything we can to make sure that we’re delivering it to every kid that comes to us.

ONE TITLE. MANY ROLES.

If you had to break up how you spend your time in a day or a week, what would it look like?

RM: I’m also the HR person for the club so it depends on what’s going on. This year was different because I took on all of these coaches in the central region. They have volunteer assistant coaches, and we never had assistant coaches. So I had to go and take a look at everything that we do and change all of our HR stuff for volunteers. Fortunately, I’m trying to move over more of the operational day-to-day stuff to my assistant. So she’s the registrar. I did not register one person this year, so far. It’s a beautiful feeling. I’m trying to spend that time preparing this club for growth.

With your HR hat on, how do you identify the right fit to join your staff?

RM: Attitude is first. I don’t ask a lot of questions about the business of what we do, because the actual nuts and bolts of what we do are not what we’re hiring. I can teach you to register people. I care about paying attention to the details. I’ll ask when you were thinking of coming here, did you research any other soccer clubs? What kind of coworkers do you like to work with?  Tell me the number one thing that you were criticized for and what did you learn from it? Tell me the last rule you broke and why. You can listen to what they talk about and if they care about their self-improvement and they’re not blaming others. I don’t want to talk to somebody who complains about their employer and blames everything on somebody else. If you’re not happy, you should have left a long time ago. You’re off the pile.

What do you wish you had more time to do?

RM: I think surveys are a really good thing, and I’m not afraid of the truth. I don’t think we do enough of that. I don’t think I’ve spent enough of my initiative convincing people of that. If there’s something I wish I would have done more along the way and on a regular basis, it would be that. Unhappy people just leave you and they don’t tell you why. I want to know why. I want to know if it’s something within our control or if it’s something that just happens to be the way we do business. And if so, I’m okay with that.

If you were to pick one thing that your club does especially well, what would it be?

RM: The relationship our coaches have with our kids, the care that they have for them. I believe that word of mouth is what keeps people coming. Are they all the best that they can be? They may not all know the best they can be because they haven’t been challenged to be the best they can be. Now how do we continue to raise the bar there and how do we continue to make sure that they’re all marching to that same club concept? I think we do it better than anybody in the area, for sure. I’ve been told that, and I believe it. I do believe it because they work hard.

What keeps you up at night?

RM: This entire business. I dream about it all the time. I worry about the service. I eat it, I sleep it, I everything it. Sleep is the most important thing for your mental health and making sure that you’re going to bed at the same time or around the same time. I take the melatonin, and I’m trying to get my Fitbit on, and I’m seeing my sleep patterns, and they are getting better. I’ve made a concerted effort to do that. I feel better about it, but it doesn’t mean I won’t stop thinking about it. I’ll wake up in the middle of the night.

Are you looking forward to retirement?

RM: You know what? It doesn’t really excite me. At some point, you’re supposed to stop getting up at 5:30 or 6:00 in the morning. My best friend plans to retire around the same time and she says, “What the hell are we gonna do?” She’s the deputy supervisor of a town and she’s really busy, too. We’re a couple of people who have a lot of responsibility, but we also bring that on ourselves. She comes from a family-owned business. I had a business with my late husband. And when you come from that background, you tend to work like it’s your business.

Thanks for your time and perspective, Renee. Let’s close with one-word reactions. I’ll throw a few things at you and I want you to respond in only one word.

ECNL

RM: Opportunity.

Coaches

RM: Hard-working

TikTok

RM: Uninterested

Parent emails at 11 p.m.

RM: Wait.

Buffalo

RM: Home.

Retirement

RM: Scary.

#FlashFamily

RM: Love.