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SF Deltas, SF City FC take on difficult soccer market with different philosophies

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SF Deltas forward Tommy Heinemann celebrates one of his two goals against Puerto Rico FC at Kezar Stadium in Golden Gate Park on July 2. (Courtesy Robert Edwards)
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When the San Francisco Deltas kicked off their inaugural season in March, they entered a market yet to embrace local soccer with the same fervor as baseball, basketball or football.

It was also a market already hosting San Francisco City FC, a club founded in 2001.

Though the Deltas play in the professional North American Soccer League, and SF City plays in the amateur Premier Development League, they fight for attention from the same pool of potential supporters. But they’ve taken different approaches to finding a niche in the Bay Area sports scene. The Deltas are focused on taking advantage of technology to draw fans, while SF City hopes community involvement can drive growth.

“San Francisco is a tough market,” SF City president Jacques Pelham said. “There’s a lot going on and we’re a minor league club in a major league town.”

At first glance, the Deltas don’t seem aligned with technology or the fruits of Silicon Valley innovation.

They play at Kezar Stadium, first opened in 1925. Even the newly installed backed chairs from Candlestick Park, which replaced rows of worn wooden benches, haven’t concealed the venue’s age.

But behind the leadership of CEO Brian Andrés Helmick, the club has embraced a number of inventive projects.

While other NASL clubs operate under the league’s official website, the Deltas developed their own sleek online platform from scratch. A couple of months ago, they launched a mobile app featuring live stats, commentary and game day menus from the stadium’s food vendors.

From left, SF City’s defender Christian Deluna, midfielder Bryce Kaminski and defender Manny Padilla sport their S.F. Pride-inspired kits for a June 25 match. (Courtesy Alaina Preston)

The Deltas plan to introduce augmented reality in the form of virtual scoreboards viewable through mobile devices. Since Kezar doesn’t have a scoreboard — and the price of installing one would be too cumbersome for an expansion club — director of product management Bryant Harrison said he hopes the ongoing project can work as a creative solution.

“We have a blank slate because we’re a new team, so from the get-go, Brian has been adamant about questioning how we do everything,” Harrison said. “We’re trying to be innovative and take risks. Some things are going to work and some aren’t.”

SF City, meanwhile, brings a communal philosophy based on its membership-based ownership. Its member’s group controls 51 percent of the organization, a fan-supported model rarely used in the U.S. but commonplace in European soccer leagues.

Additionally, the club holds canned food drives for the SF-Marin Food Bank at every home game, and players and members often volunteer with organizations such as Habitat For Humanity and the Best Buddies Walk. On June 25, SF City wore rainbow-lettered pride kits to benefit ALRP, a legal resource for those living with HIV/AIDS.

“It’s about being a community asset and having it be an organization that is driven by the community, but is also very much structured to give back to the community as much as possible,” Pelham said.

Unlike the Deltas, SF City is geared toward developing youth players. A majority of their talent comes from local schools such as Cal, Stanford and USF, further cementing their status as a team with Bay Area roots, SF City coach Paddy Coyne said. Plus, SF City only plays league games during the summer months at Negoesco Stadium, while the Deltas play from early spring through the fall.

Though SF City and the Deltas compete at different levels, their long-term ambitions are similar.

In the next two to three years, SF City hopes to join the USL and become a professional club. After that, SF City wants to ultimately reach the MLS, a move the Deltas are also open to down the road.

Before that can be considered a reasonable proposal, though, the clubs must conquer the challenging Bay Area soccer market. Neither side currently averages more than 3,000 fans per game.

Whether that will change in the coming years remains to be seen, but both SF City and the Deltas believe their models will eventually win over local supporters.

“Both nationally and in San Francisco, you’ve got groups that are trying to become their city’s hometown soccer team,” Pelham said. “I think the Deltas and us have similar goals, we’re just going about it in different ways.”

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