In Part One of “Remembering the Spokane Shadow” I talked with former Shadow public relations employee Gerald Barnhart about the glory years of the Lilac City PDL club.
In Part Two we catch up with what Barnhart did after he left the Shadow, and his take on Spokane as a pro soccer market today.
It is important to note that the Shadow lives on today in the form of a very successful youth soccer club. See their website here: http://www.SpokaneShadow.org. The Shadow were named one of the top ten elite soccer clubs in Washington State recently.
Gerald Barnhart interview, Part Two
David Falk: When did you leave Spokane, and to where?
Gerald Barnhart: The Final Four event was the culmination of my time with the club, though I kind of hung around for a while at the stadium where our office was, attending and somewhat overseeing the high school soccer games. Jeff Robbins had become an established member of the league’s executive committee and was well-respected around USL and at the league office, where he had been putting in a good word for me over the past year or so knowing that I would need to move on as the Shadow gig was really only full-time during the four or five months of the season and they couldn’t really keep me on given I had graduated and needed a true full-time job.
The timing of everything kind of worked out perfectly for me as the USL PR staff had been cut to one person at the time and since I was a high quality PR person at the time, they relied upon me to handle communications with him staying in touch with me from Tampa as he managed all of his other responsibilities. It proved a good trial run as it were. In the meantime, I eventually joined the staff and was one of the last people Francisco himself literally interviewed. As a former PR guy, he was obviously more interested in that role and was concerned at the time that I had only really been involved in the game for a few years at that point. I don’t recall that phone conversation too much beyond the fact that it was a bit awkward, but obviously between it and the recommendations of others it led to the gig alongside Scott Creighton, who had joined the staff a year earlier from the Milwaukee Rampage.
What also helped land the job was something I started that kind of reminds me of what you have done with www.goalWA.net. I had started up a NW Weekend Update piece that was kind of the modern day news blog I guess. Teams and media were still heavily reliant on fax just before the turn of the century and I would literally come in on Sundays by myself and put together a 1-2 page recap of the division’s matches. All the teams would fax their scoresheets to our office as well as to the league and I would do a run-down of what happened in each game and highlight top performers using Quark (pre-curser of Pagemaker and In Design) on a crap little Mac that was just barely good enough to operate the program, but two years behind the curve as it was a cast-off from one of the other teams. I’d put the Update together and send it to our media, back to all the other teams for them to disburse to their media, and of course the league office, where it helped increase the exposure of all the teams and their players in the division nationally as the league’s weekly news coverage and percentage of NW players on the Team of the Week increased. It was hit and miss at the start as team’s weren’t all that motivated to fax me their scoresheets, but after a few weeks of seeing ‘Game not Reported’ on it when they got the Update, the tide turned and it became a popular tool around the division as most teams did not have a PR person at all. It turned out to be good preparation for working at USL where you are processing multitudes of games on any given night, let alone a full weekend.
What was your role with USL?
I was literally thrust into the action. During my ‘break’ I would watch the Rhinos win the US Open Cup on ESPN and then later moved to Tampa two weeks before the A-League (USL First Division) championship. Unfortunately, having moved to Florida I didn’t bring any cool-weather clothing and ended up freezing my arse off in Minnesota working inside the television production truck as part of the contingent as the Thunder hosted Rochester for the final.
Since Scott was the pro guru having come from an A-League team and I knew the PDL fairly well, we really worked well side by side for a few years before he departed on unusual terms. Over the years as the pro league gained more prominence in the soccer landscape and I was the most experienced on the PR staff, I became more heavily involved in handling the pro league communications while overseeing that of the other leagues handled by my associates. When the idea of moving on to USL first came about, I will admit that I did kind of see it as a possible stepping stone to the NFL as I was passionate about the league, but after some time my devotion to helping progress soccer at the minor league level was far greater. I had seen the ill affect of the previously revolving door of USL PR staff coming and going every year or two and was determined to bring a stable, long-term presence to the department, choosing to stay on board as other staff regularly moved on. I think that helped from year to year push things forward as new people did not have to come in without any existing knowledge of the leagues and teams, setting things back.
I have to say that since my first days working with the Shadow in 97 to today, the changes in the communications aspect of the sport have gone through a multitude of evolutions that are simply amazing. From fax to email to websites to webcasts and now social media, the technology has revolutionized the sport in this country probably just as greatly as Major League Soccer has, if not more given how it has aided MLS.
How to do you view Spokane as a ‘soccer market’ today?
I’ve been away for such a long time that I am not as acutely in tune with the soccer scene in the city these days, although I do still have family there. My father continued to attend Shadow games and occasionally Spiders matches, but I know things were never really the same once the Shadow closed up shop after the conflict with City Hall over field renovation.
Timing in that regard never favored the team. The Albi renovations were fantastic and the artificial turf they put in at the time was great as it was a new cushier flat surface compared to what used to be at the Kingdome, Memorial Stadium and other fields around the Seattle area that felt more like track surface than grass. The problem was that in time it apparently grew hard and sadly only a couple years after its installation the new blade-like synthetic grass surfaces came on the market. I know Jeff investigated to exhaustion how to get the field replaced and the fight with the city, which never really managed the facility well, led to Brett Sports deciding to cut its losses.
By then though, the Shadow youth club was up on its feet and walking. I remember Jeff never really being interested in expanding to youth development and resisting the urging of the SYL Director Matt Weibe at the time. Like many other USL clubs, they eventually made the move (years after I left as the SYL itself started up in 99) and today, as far as I can tell, the Shadow youth club is a strong, stable entity in youth development in the city.
Part of the reason the Spiders never really got a foothold and what will make it difficult for others in the market is you must be a professional sports business to reach those heights enjoyed by the Shadow. Brett Sports is still a dominant player with baseball and hockey and the new arena football team, which just won the league title, has operated in that same manner. It is not easy, and a mom-and-pop business strategy will not work. Even as part of the Brett Sports empire, we had to fight and go the extra mile to earn professional respect and maintain the coverage we got in the local media. It got us in the door, but never guaranteed anything.
I think there is promise though, but it would take an organization with resources and a lot of patience. The city really reminds me a lot of Rochester, where I have been several times, both aesthetically and in mindset as it is a city of good quality minor league sports franchises. The Rhinos, like the Shadow were, are the big fish in a small pond and that could once again be the case for men’s soccer in Spokane given the right operation. USL always wanted the Shadow to jump up to the A-League, but Brett Sports always thought in terms of the bottom line and refused to go from bordering on breaking even to likely losing six figures or more.
It is tough for me to really judge from afar not being in tune with the city anymore, but I would actually think it more likely for a Women’s Pro Soccer team to flourish there as it would be something new and different for the community and would, in essence, be the first ‘major league’ team there. If things worked right, you could build a nice little four-team WPS division in the Northwest piggy-backing off the MLS success with a team in Vancouver, where the Whitecaps Women have always done well, along with clubs in Seattle and Portland, where the university has been supported well. Travel beyond that in regular occurrence becomes too expensive of a proposition for teams looking to control costs.
•USL PDL Northwest Division Champions 2003
•USL PDL Western Conference Champions 1999
•USISL PDSL Northwest Division Champions 1998
•USISL PDSL Northwest Division Champions 1997
•USISL Premier League Western-Northern Division Champions 1996