There’s a sense of ceremony that accompanies the start of every game in the USL. From the gathering crowds in local bars and restaurants, to the tailgate parties and supporter’s march to the match, to the player’s arrival and preparation that leads up to kickoff, everyone – from fan to coach to player alike – has their own traditions or rituals.
For FC Cincinnati Chief Financial Officer Sarah Huber, there’s one particular part of the buildup to a game that stands out.
“I think my favorite part of the ceremonial piece is when the players walk out onto the field,” Huber said recently. “It’s so fun to see the stands react. Our supporters groups, they sit in a section called ‘The Bailey’, and they go nuts. It’s setting a really cool tone, and I think it’s really fun for the players to feel the support from the fans and the city.”
As one of the senior executives who has helped FC Cincinnati come roaring out of the gates off the field, and a former player herself, Huber has been thrilled by the reaction the city has given to its new club. Having previously worked for major business consultant Ernst and Young, and local Cincinnati start-up Vantiv, joining the club took Huber down a new path in her career, one that she is enjoying greatly.
“The sports industry is one that’s pretty hard to break into,” Huber said, “so when this opportunity presented itself, once I got past the, ‘man, this is kind of a risk,’ it was, ‘but how cool is that, that I’m going to be able to combine my first love – which is soccer – with something I’ve been trained to do and have done for the last 10 years of my career?’ That’s like a dream for most people, so it was a pretty easy decision at the end of the day.”
With her decision to join the club, Huber immediately became one of a handful of female executives in the USL, joining Louisville City FC President Amanda Duffy, Richmond Kickers General Manager Shelley Sowers, and Sacramento Republic FC VP of Communications and Marketing Erika Bjork.
Huber and Duffy recently had the chance to team up at the USL Experience, hosted by FC Cincinnati just over a week ago, where the two executives got the chance to talk to the 35 elite female players who attended the event. Both former players, Huber said she and Duffy quickly struck up a good relationship, as Huber looks to build her base of knowledge in the sports realm.
“One thing I’ve tried to do so far in my career is try to have some good female role models, women who have been successful in having a career, but also having a family and maintain a personal life,” she said. ”Amanda’s also been able to do that, so it’s nice to now have a contact within the sports industry who’s been there and done that who I can bounce ideas off.”
As someone who competed collegiately for Davidson College before attending Ohio State University to earn her Master’s degree, Huber enjoyed getting the chance to shine a light on the path that could keep the players connected to soccer in the future, after their playing careers are over.
“I can remember what it was like to be in their shoes,” Huber said. “I knew I wanted to play in college, but I also knew there was life after college, and so I was able to share my experience and my path with them so that they know if you want to be in sports, it’s not necessary that it has to be on the field, you can be involved in other ways.”
After her previous experiences in the business world, Huber has brought a keen eye for detail and the importance of having set protocols within the organization to her new position. Overseeing the club’s finances, Huber has also taken advantage of the opportunity to expand her horizons on a daily basis in other areas of the club’s management.
“One of the aspects that was very appealing to me was I was going to get to learn more parts of the business from people whose specialty that is,” she said. “For me, what’s been most interesting has been having Jeff Smith, our VP of Ticket Sales, and Mario Cicchinelli, out VP of Sponsorships, and Kate Lackey, who does our marketing, explain to me their roles, how their roles work, what we have to consider to make their roles happen on a day-to-day basis, or every game day, and the cost involved. I like to constantly learn and challenge myself, so this has presented itself as a very nice opportunity for me.”
Another opportunity has come with the chance to be hands-on when it comes to the club’s game-day preparation and presentation. After welcoming more than 35,000 fans to the club’s first two home games – including a USL regular-season record 20,497 against Louisville on April 16 – Huber is quickly learning what it takes to put on the sort of show those fans are expecting off the field.
“It takes an army to put on this show, and what we’re doing as the front office is we’re helping to put on the show, we’re entertaining,” Huber said. “At the end of the day, the players are going to be there, there’s going to be a field, they will play a game, but there’s so many other pieces to the fan experience. It’s concessions, it’s halftime, it’s the anthem, it’s merchandise, it’s making sure people know where to sit and where the bathrooms are located.”
“As a player you don’t realize all the different pieces that go into making it happen, so that’s been a pretty interesting piece for me to pick up these first two homes games, what it takes to make it happen.”
It helps that the member of that army of full-time and game day staff have are there to both work hard, but also enjoy the opportunity to work for what has fast become a hot ticket in town.
“We all work our tails off, but we have a lot of fun and laugh a lot together,” Huber said. “I keep telling everyone we need to write our stories down, and we need to write a book about starting this franchise, because there are so many things that happen that we laugh about, or scratch our heads about. I think we have a pretty unique perspective that we could share with other people who may want to start another sport franchise, or just another business in general.”
The impact FC Cincinnati’s front-office team has had in the stands has certainly turned heads not only locally, but also on a national level. Their goal is to now build on that early success, and make the club one of the best in the country.
“Cincinnati gets behind Cincinnati things,” Huber said. “Everyone’s been working tirelessly, but we’re all working toward the same goals, so that makes it fun to come into work every day.”