What sports fan hasn’t imagined owning their own team? Giving it a name, picking the colors, building up the fan base, becoming a pillar of the community … it’s a reverie worthy of Walter Mitty.
And yet some UB alumni are making it happen. Nick Mendola (BA ’05) and Donny Kutzbach (BS ’96), along with Scott Frauenhofer, who also attended UB, are the proud owners of FC Buffalo of the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL), a top amateur league in the fourth tier of the U.S. soccer pyramid. They purchased the rights to the football club in 2009 with six other Buffalonians who have since dropped away, leaving the three UB men in charge.
“At its best it’s intoxicating,” says Mendola, a sports journalist who writes for NBC Sports. “Assembling a roster and hiring coaches, getting the food trucks to come, working the PA. And when we win and you pop on Sam Cooke, ‘Bring It On Home to Me’—just looking over the stadium and seeing all the happy people and the happy players….”
Owning a team at this level, however, doesn’t mean sitting back, collecting a paycheck and getting rich. Mendola says it cost about $1,000 to buy in, but that was just the start. “We had to hire people, buy uniforms, arrange bus charters for games as far away as Indiana, rent All-High Stadium.” The overall budget was close to $70,000 a year. Before commercial sponsors came onboard, the owners had to use a lot of elbow grease to keep costs down.
“For the first few years it was a lot more work than I would’ve expected,” says Kutzbach, who co-owns the Town Ballroom and the booking agency Funtime Presents. “On game day, the nine of us would get to the stadium early. I’d go to the grocery store and buy 50 oranges, 100 granola bars and eight cases of water for the players. I’d end up manning the pizza tables, selling slices. Halftime, here they come, they’re all gonna get pizza! We’d bring in the stuff for the locker room, all the equipment, the signage for the game. Zip-tie it up. We’d be pulling up in eight cars, loading, unloading.”
All that effort has helped make FC Buffalo—nicknamed the Blitzers, after Buffalonian and UB grad Wolf Blitzer (BA ’70)—a small-scale success: Crowds of 100 in the first season have grown steadily over nine years to the current 1,000-to-1,200 range. Modest, to be sure, but in a city that was utterly bereft of soccer culture when the nine investors first pooled their savings, there is now a loyal cult of singing, flag-waving, scarf-flourishing FC Buffalo fans.
The team’s amateur status helps make it a viable venture for the owners. The NPSL is a summer league with rosters comprising mostly NCAA players on break and others trying to make their way up the soccer pyramid (three FC Buffalo players have been drafted by teams in Major League Soccer, the top-tier league in North America; another player went to the top league in Finland).
A few stick around just because they’re into it, like Chris Walter, a Nichols School and Hartwick College grad now in his eighth season with FC Buffalo. “Who wouldn’t like playing in front of people who sing their name?” says Mendola.
How many teams are named after news anchors? At least one: the FC Buffalo Blitzers (alternate nickname, the Wolves), in honor of CNN anchor and UB alumnus Wolf Blitzer.
“We wanted to have a nickname, something organic and fan-voted,” team co-owner Nick Mendola says. “We looked at the lightning bolts that surround the city flag, and we made a joke: Lightning. Lightning Storm. Blitz—Blitzers. We laughed, because some of us went to Kenmore East High School, Wolf Blitzer went to Kenmore West, and we also went to UB.”
The name polled well in fan voting, and somehow got onto the Facebook page of Blitzer’s CNN show, “The Situation Room.” Soon after, a CNN reporter aired an interview with Mendola and co-owner Scott Frauenhofer about their Blitzers campaign. (The Wolves came about later, says Mendola, “because we wanted a mascot, and buying a wolf costume was a lot cheaper than getting a Wolf Blitzer one made.”)
A couple of years later, Blitzer returned to Buffalo as part of a “Roots” series about CNN personalities. That 13-minute piece opens and closes with FC Buffalo fans greeting the newsman at the Hertel Avenue soccer bar Mès Que.
“It was a really cool thing,” says Mendola.