It’s a summer afternoon in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, which means it’s overcast and windy; a light fog rolls in off the water. But chilly weather has never deterred Bay Area sports fans. Cheers fill Kezar Stadium when the San Francisco Deltas score against the New York Cosmos, the three-time defending champions.
The CEO of San Francisco’s new soccer team, Brian Andrés Helmick, MBA ’05, makes his way through the bleachers, stopping every few rows to crouch down and talk to a fan. Many of them are friends, former Stanford Graduate School of Business classmates, and investors who have come out for Stanford Night.
“We’ve got Stanford alumni fingerprints all over this project one way or another,” Helmick says of the team, which he started in 2015. While its players hail from Europe, Canada, Brazil, and the U.S., its Silicon Valley-based investors helped build companies like Apple, Facebook, Google, and Twitter.
Home turf, Kezar Stadium, is where the San Francisco 49ers played from 1946 to 1970.
“Our startup starts where the 49er startup started,” Helmick says with a laugh.
Colombian-born Helmick first found entrepreneurial success by creating a virtual HR department called Algentis, and he says he’s bringing a tech mindset to operating a sports team. Another skill that he had learned at Stanford Graduate School of Business and employed at Algentis: “From a startup perspective, you just have to break down the challenges into smaller steps.”
Eight alumni from Stanford GSB invested in the project to bring the city its first professional soccer team. Most were in Helmick’s graduating class.
“There’s no question having these people I call family played a role in making reality what was a dream two years ago,” he says.
Indeed, it was other Stanford GSB graduates, including Danny Khatib and Bobby Jaros, both MBA ’05, who gave Helmick the nudge to start the soccer team, even when he was hesitant.
“When I think of pro sports teams in the U.S., they’re usually owned by the son of a billionaire. I’m not the son of a billionaire,” Helmick says.
Helmick says making money was never his primary goal; building a community was.
“If you look at the historical essence of professional sports, it was always about the community and the social effects of sports,” Helmick says.
For inspiration to build his team, he looked to baseball. The year after the stock market crash of 1929, attendance at major-league games hit a record high. The American sport gave people a sense of hope amid despair, an escape from their daily lives.
“The role of baseball during the Great Depression elevated the morale of Americans,” Helmick said. “That’s meaningful.”
At a time when the country feels especially divided, sports may be a way to connect with others. During the match against the New York Cosmos, Helmick greeted fans seated across the fifth row, a plate of paella in his hand. He wore a jacket with the team logo: a small triangle representing the Greek letter Delta, used to symbolize change.
Helmick takes that meaning to heart. The progressive team does a few things differently: Concessions are sold by participants in Juma Ventures, an organization that teaches job skills to low-income youths. The Deltas also partner with La Cocina, a nonprofit group whose mission is to help low-income female food entrepreneurs grow their businesses. Post-game street cleaning is handled by a San Francisco-based organization that employs homeless youths, called Taking It To The Streets.
“We need street cleaning, we need concession sales, we need VIP food anyway, so let’s make it have an additional benefit for the community,” Helmick says. “I firmly believe that you can simultaneously do well and do good; they don’t need to be mutually exclusive.”
Now Helmick is calling upon his entire community to help ensure that the team will succeed. The Deltas have struggled with building a strong fan base since their first official match in March of this year. In reaction to the low attendance figures, Helmick published a post on Medium in late July, seeking his community’s help as well as proposing some ideas for drawing more fans to games.
“If each of our 2,500 fans per game came back the next game and brought JUST ONE friend with them, we would have 5,000 in attendance,” he wrote. “If those 5,000 do the same thing … we would sell out all 10,000 seats at Kezar Stadium.”
He continued: “Fans, this is up to you. … There are 15,000 of you who have come to a game. If you want this to work, help us with some heavy lifting.”
As for the fans who came out on Stanford Night, they saw a win on the field: The Deltas beat the Cosmos 2-1.
— Jenny Luna