SHELLY CLARK - MASL'S FIRST FEMALE MAJORITY OWNER
Like just about every sports team owner, Shelly Clark would love to win a championship or two.
But that isn't necessarily the top priority on her list as CEO of the St. Louis Ambush.
There are more important things to Clark, such as the Major Arena Soccer League team’s supporters having a good time at games and creating long-lasting memories.
"The thing that's most exciting for me, isn't necessarily what's happening on the field, but it's what I see in the stands," she said.
"The team obviously has to be doing well enough to be competitive. But it's not always about the money. There's more to life than the bank account. When I see kids dancing in the stands with popcorn buckets on their heads, that brings almost more joy than scoring a goal. It's those moments and it's those memories that kids and parents will remember forever."
Saying that, here's something that should be remembered in indoor soccer forever:
Shelly Clark is the first woman who is a majority owner of an MASL team, as she and her husband Will invested in the team in 2013, as co-owners. The Clarks started Cardinal Surveying & Mapping in 2003. They are licensed professional land surveyors in Missouri.
So, dealing with men and being one of a one or two women in the board room certainly wasn't anything new to Clark.
"The male owners in our league never made me feel that I was anything other than worthy of being in that room," she said. "I am called a “lovey” type of person. When I say hello to somebody, I hug them. I think that that probably took several of the gentlemen aback. I have a very different approach to how to do business. You can agree to disagree and still respect one another and not have to fight over every little thing.
"I don't think there's a single person in our league that I wouldn't consider my friend. There isn't a single owner that I couldn't pick up the phone and have a very level-headed conversation with, whether we agree on something or not. I think that my talents, and my experience and my training with being a teacher has brought some accountability to the league. I've been appointed as the secretary for several years now, and it's not because I can take good notes. It's more about the organization. It's more about getting things executed in a timely manner, keeping people accountable."
Sometimes it is about listening and learning.
"I believe I have the respect of everybody," Clark said. "I sat very quiet for the first two years and observed and learned before I spoke. I think whether you're a male or a female, sometimes we forget that we have two ears and one mouth. People often don't tune in to what’s being said before they react and speak out.
"I feel like I've had an impact on this league in a positive way, and they've also had an impact on me as well. I have learned a lot of things that I probably would have never learned in day-to-day in my other business. It's provided me with a lot of unique opportunities. And there's a lot more to come. The league is growing. We're bringing in some really exciting new owners, expanding markets. I feel like this is just the beginning."
Growing up in Ohio, Clark played recreational soccer, but eventually gravitated to tennis in high school.
"My dad was an avid tennis player, and I became part of the tennis team," she said, adding that she also played in some indoor soccer leagues "as a substitute when they needed somebody kind of thing, but never played at a high level."
Clark said that she has preferred indoor over the outdoor game.
"I'm not a purist in the sense of it," she said. "It's about the action, the activity, and it's not just what's happening on the field. It's the environment that's created. Our league is amazing from the standpoint that they allow us to play music at all times, whether the play is going on or not. We have contests. We have dance cams, and other activities to help keep fans of all ages engaged and entertained throughout their entire stay with us.
"It's much different from a professional baseball game, or hockey game or even an outdoor soccer game. We really focus on this being a family friendly environment. I think that it's one of the reasons why we see the success that we have, especially with our youth clubs, and large groups coming out. It's something that everybody can enjoy whether you're a soccer fan or not a soccer fan because there's so much going on, that it's just a good time. We try to provide our guests with not just a soccer game, but a total entertainment experience.”
About a dozen years ago, a friend of the family invited the Clarks to an arena football game. They took their children and loved it.
"We fell in love with it," she said. "Before you know it, we became a sponsor of the team, which really was just a way for us to support the community. But more importantly, we got tickets to go to the game."
The Clarks took clients to games, "because interacting outside of businesses, that's where the magic happens," Shelly said.
They became minority owners, but the team folded. Another arena football team popped up, and the Clarks became minority owners. The majority decided to add an indoor soccer team and resurrect the name St. Louis Ambush and the Clarks came on in a similar role. The original owner wanted to move to Florida after the 2015-16 season.
"We were in a very difficult position because there was not a lot of interest in the team at that point," Clark said. "If we stepped back, we'd probably watch the team fold and somebody had to step up. My husband and I discussed it. We saw the potential. Our business was at a very good place. So we took the leap, became majority owners and the rest is history."
When the Clarks decided to invest in the second edition of the Ambush in 2013, they didn't plan on taking a leading role then.
At the time, the Clark's children were embarking on their teenage years.
"Just like our entire society, it seems like everyone today is focused on that piece of technology in their hands and not the person sitting next to them or across from them," she said. "This was a chance for us to interact with our kids, to cheer together, to put the phones away, to communicate with one another.
"The family unit is very important to me. Parents are passing on to kids their life stories, their life skills. That's been my focus of mine, which is maybe why we're a little slower to achieve the championship status. It's because I've got bigger plans than just winning a championship. Winning a championship is important, but it is, to me, not the most important piece of the puzzle. The most important piece of the puzzle is the people and I think it's one of the things that sets us apart."
Being the majority owners is different than being the co-owners.
"I had no idea what I was getting into," Clark said with a laugh.
But the Clarks had plenty of business experience, thanks to their land surveying company.
"We're not afraid of hard work," Shelly said. "Whether it's good or bad, we're workaholics to a degree, always looking for that next challenge, because that's how we thrive in our lives. It's where we find satisfaction. This has definitely has been a unique experience. My background is actually in teaching. I have applied my experience with organizational skills, communication skills, and planning skills, to running a pro sports organization.
"We have a lot of systems in place. There's a lot of strategies in place. The one thing that we can't control is how you think a player is going to perform on the field and how a team will perform collectively. That's something that you just continue to work on. As long as we're progressing forward, then it's worth the investment of time, it's worth the investment of money."
In her first four years in charge, the Ambush failed to qualify for the MASL playoffs. The team competed in the quarterfinals the past two campaigns but is a longshot to reach the postseason this year. St. Louis (6-10-1, 16 points), which sits in sixth place in the Eastern Division, trails Utica City FC (22) by six points and the Kansas City Comets (26) by 10 points for a chance to make the “play-in” game, entering this weekend's action. The Ambush has seven games remaining.
Clark certainly has learned from the ups and downs of running a soccer franchise. In her first season as majority owner in 2016-17, the Ambush finished at 1-19.
"That is probably one of the hardest periods of my life, loss after loss after loss," she said. "But I'll tell you what, that when we won, it felt like a million bucks, and I won't ever forget. I actually think I cried. I learned a lot that season. I'll be honest. Sometimes seasons like that help better define who you are, what your goals are, and what your strategy is to get there."
After a difficult 2017-18 season in which the Ambush only won three games, Clark, in a message to the fans, noted a game that the team had lost.
"The most rewarding part of the entire season for me occurred in a game that we lost," she wrote. "As the players were feeling defeated, discouraged, and even ashamed – they took the field to sign autographs. That night, in particular, I was worried about our goalkeeper, Paulo [Nascimento], as he had taken the loss as his fault. I could see the disappointment in his eyes and on his face. As I watched him take the field, kids swarmed him from all sides; everyone wanting his autograph and wanting photos with him.
"I could see the shock on his face, the disbelief. He looked over at me and smiled. It was in that single moment I was reminded of why I do this. In that moment, winning wasn’t what was important. What was important was that he played the game and gave it his all. And those kids knew it and looked up to him for it. Ambush players are role models to the youth in our community. They encourage kids to keep playing, no matter the outcome, and to never give up."
While talking to this writer earlier this week, Clark elaborated on how that dynamic can work both ways.
"Life is hard," she said. "I think unfortunately, so many people just give up. They get depressed; mental stress in our environment today is at an all-time high. One of the things that our players help people realize is that when you try your hardest, sometimes that is the victory. Even if the score on the board doesn't say that you are the winner, the score isn’t the indicator you have to live by. In a time where there's so much stress in our lives, and so much mental anguish, we have to cheer for one another, whether we had the winning score or not. It's about supporting people, supporting your community and I will say, that's one of the great things about the team that we have built. I have got the most phenomenal group of young men who truly are role models and mentors to these young kids.
"At the autograph session [on Sunday, Feb. 26], we had kids who wanted the players to sign their shoes because they wanted their autographs. They asked Will Eskay for his signature. What kind of joy is that going to bring him for that moment or two? Does that make a change in his life? I have no idea what those answers are. But I can tell you that it's truly going to be more positive than negative, and that's what's important."
Some three hours west on I-70 are the Kansas City Comets. On the carpet, the two teams are rivals, trying to gain supremacy in a derby that goes back four decades to the original Major Indoor Soccer League.
Off it, well, that's another matter, entirely.
"It's one of the things that I love about our league in particular," Clark said. "Is that one of my closest allies is that team in Kansas City. Their owner, Brian Budzinski, is on speed dial. We leverage each other to grow our business because when it comes down to it, there's two sides to sports. There's the competitive side, which neither he nor I are involved in. Neither one of us coach the team. Neither one of us really interfere too much with player selection.
"The other side of the sports is business. When it comes down to it we have to have business allies and Brian is a phenomenal business partner for us for many different reasons. It's far enough away where we're not competing for sponsors or season ticket holders so it's really kind of the perfect storm for me."
The teams have traded commercial time when they play in the opposing venue. "We're playing commercials, that highlight and focus on Kansas City businesses, which is what his business partners want, because all the people watching that game are from Kansas City," Clark said.
And vice versa when the Ambush plays at the Comets.
For the 2022-23 season, the teams tried something new in which season ticket holders were given free tickets to drive across state and watch their sides compete in an enemy arena.
"It created a really unique and interesting environment and gave the game so much more excitement," Clark said.
"It's a rivalry that that I love. I'm just ready for the year where we sweep them all six games. I feel like that one's not too far down the road for us."
The Ambush will have an influence on Major League Soccer's newest expansion team, St. Louis CITY SC, as its play-by-play announcer Joey Zanaboni was named in a similar capacity to do radio broadcasts.
"He's a phenomenal voice," Clark said. "He comes up with some of the strangest things I have ever heard but keeps you on your toes listening. One of my favorites is still, 'A beef salami in a bull shark aquarium.' What does that mean? That was an analogy for all the players that were in the box swarming. It was just this frenzy. He just has a very unique personality, and for me, makes the game very exciting. We're excited for him to be able to share that same passion and energy with STL City SC.
"I'm super excited about the team. They have their home opener this weekend and I'm excited about not only what that's going to do for the sport but what it's going to do for our city as well. I think that it legitimizes soccer in our community. Not that it wasn't legitimate before, but having a professional outdoor team just takes it up another notch."
Clark didn't become a team owner to make some history, but she realized the role she can play in inspiring young women into pursuing a career, whether it is in the front office of a sports team or in another part of business or life.
"I hope that I'm a role model," she said. "I'm hoping that I'll encourage some young woman to pursue whatever her passion is, regardless of what kind of industry it's supposed to be, whether it's male dominated or female dominated.
"I don't care what color you are. I don't care what race you are. It doesn't matter what your ethnicity is. I don't care about your sexual orientation. Are you a person who can be trusted? Is your word good? Are you a hard worker? That's where the bottom line is. I think that successful businesses are seeing more and more of that, and more of those barriers are being broken down."
Shelly Clark is doing her part, in her own way.
Michael Lewis, the editor of FrontRowSoccer.com, can be followed on Twitter at @SoccerWriter. Lewis can be reached via email at email@example.com His book Alive and Kicking: The incredible, but true story of the Rochester Lancers, recently was published. It can be purchased at https://tinyurl.com/2p8rzhpy.lk. His sequel, STILL AND ALIVE AND KICKING: The story of the 21st century Rochester Lancers, will be published soon. It will have many features about indoor soccer and MASL players.