NEW YORK — Following a disastrous 2018 season, in which Sky Blue FC won just once while players worked, lived and traveled in below-standard conditions, the team is rebuilding under new management. Sky Blue currently is “in an exploratory phase” and is looking into several areas of improvement, according to interim general manager Alyse LaHue.
“As a club, we really had to start with improving the player experience,” LaHue told Pro Soccer USA in April, “because if they’re not having a good experience, it’s going to be difficult to get fans on board and supporting the club.
“It may be full-time staff. I think that’s an ideal situation but we’re not opposed to also potentially looking at outside contractors or consultants in a variety of areas. I think there’s so many potential areas for Sky Blue as a club to grow into, whether that’s looking at TV broadcasts, whether that’s exploring venues that we could play at in the future, training facilities, sponsorship — really, the list goes on.”
Though the team had begun its rebuild during the offseason with new living, working and traveling arrangements for players, the most obvious sign of the club’s interest in improvement came only four days before the 2019 season began. The club issued a statement announcing the departure of general manager and president Tony Novo after several months of calls from the team’s supporters’ group, Cloud 9, and other onlookers for his exit.
“After extensive internal discussions, Tony and the team agreed it was time for an organizational reset,” Tammy Murphy, the First Lady of New Jersey, told Pro Soccer USA in May. That reset is being led by LaHue, who joined the club as vice president last year.
“I think transitionary, it’s certainly a lot to take on,” LaHue said. “Any time you have the transition of a staff member, especially somebody that’s been a part of the club for so long, that’s a pretty big gap to fill and navigate, to understand all the responsibilities there that then have to be covered.”
Before Novo’s departure, the change that perhaps made the most headlines was Murphy’s announcement in February that she would be taking an “active role in club activities,” a role that she describes as the “owners’ representative.”
“Ownership strongly believes that Sky Blue can become a world-class organization,” Murphy said, “and felt that the front office would benefit from having more active support and a female touch.”
In part, her role is that of a liaison between the ownership and the club’s front office.
“Alyse and her staff have bounced ideas off me about housing, facilities and sponsors,” Murphy said. “As the owner representative, I helped the them develop a plan to address those topics and achieve our shared goal of an improved player experience.”
More directly, Murphy has been interested in connecting with the players. She is not a day-to-day presence at Sky Blue, but has been available in other formats. In the offseason, Murphy and her husband, Sky Blue majority owner and New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, hosted the players for dinner. The First Lady spoke in the locker room before the team’s 2-2 draw against the Portland Thorns in April.
“I’ve always enjoyed getting to know our players,” Murphy said. “Several of them have reached out to me, and I’m always willing to listen.”
LaHue described Murphy as “a tremendous resource for me” as she focuses on growing Sky Blue’s profile off the field. One of her main areas of interest has been fan experience, though she noted that the experiences of the players and the fans go hand-in-hand.
Sky Blue’s search for a stadium
One of LaHue’s immediate concerns is looking into a stadium for next season. The team’s current home of Yurcak Field, the Rutgers University soccer stadium, will not be compliant in 2020 because the locker rooms do not have showers. Located in central New Jersey, and therefore relatively close to both New York City and Philadelphia, Sky Blue could plant itself in a variety of places come next season. As the search begins, the team is committed to staying in New Jersey, LaHue told SportBusiness this month.
Before LaHue took on the role of the general manager, a doubleheader game with the likes of Major League Soccer’s New York Red Bulls was on the table, and it continues to be. Formerly the general manager of the Chicago Red Stars, LaHue has experience in this particular area.
“I think that’s something that would make a lot of sense,” LaHue said. “When I was the GM in Chicago, that was something that was important for us to explore and it was sort of a transitionary step as we, the Red Stars, moved into [SeatGeek Stadium] full time was that we started by doing a doubleheader with the [Chicago] Fire. It’s a great way to expose both fan bases to each other. It seems obvious that we’re both soccer teams, that our fan bases would overlap tremendously, and they do in some regards, but certainly the level of exposure can become so much higher when you work together.”
Outside of playing at a new stadium, LaHue noted that it is difficult to describe what Sky Blue might look like in 2020. As the club continues to explore options to improve in all categories, LaHue said “nothing is off the table.” One thing she promises, though, is the team will definitely improve.
“Maybe little by little,” LaHue said. “It may not be as quick as the fans would like during the season, but we’re doing everything we can right now within our means to explore what this is going to look like, enhance our game-day experience, enhance our training situation for our players, and treat them like the professionals they are and give them the resources that they need to compete at their best.”