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Sports Then and Now

Women’s Professional Soccer Comes to Buffalo

Posted on December 01, 2010 by John Wingspread Howell

Team to be called Western New York Flash, Owner’s Story is Classic Buffalo Tale

If this isn’t a classic Buffalo story, I don’t know what is.

Joe Sahlen, owner of a multi-generational family owned meat packing company and maker of the local favorite Sahlen’s Hot Dogs (the official hot dog of the Buffalo Bills) has made his apparently large amount of money honestly. True, he inherited the company from his father and grandfather before him, but he’s done a good job keeping the business from running into the ground like a lot of subsequent generation executives often do. He’s scrappy, intuitive, flies by the seat of his pants, and does things because he wants to.

When his daughter, Alexandra Sahlen, was having to commute all the way to Rochester to play minor league soccer for the Rochester Rain, Sahlen did what any good soccer Dad would do— he bought his daughter a team and brought it to Buffalo, calling it the Buffalo Flash, making sure the team logo looked a lot like the Sahlen company logo, lest anyone forget the connection.

Alexandra had made a friend in Rochester. A man named Aaran Lines, a former New Zealand international was finishing his pro career in the US minor leagues, playing finally, for Rochester Rhinos. Lines had been a decent player but had never coached at any level. Sahlen must have had a good feeling about Lines, because he hired him as the Flash’s head coach.

The team first took the field in the 2009 season in the developmental “W-League.” Despite having difficulty recruiting the best players due to the inception of a new major league for women, Womens Professional Soccer (WPS), Sahlen was able to assemble a good enough team to make the playoffs in their first year. And apparently Lines was a good enough coach to get them there. They lost in the first round but they made the playoffs. Not bad at all for a first year team with a first year coach.

It’s the kind of thing that happens in Buffalo every day. People come up from nowhere and get a shot at greatness, and more often than not, they take advantage of their shot. No doubt the original Mr. Sahlen has a rags to riches story, how he started out butchering hogs before eventually ending up selling dogs.

It’s an underdog story. Buffalo is nothing if not an underdog town full of underdog teams, underdog fans, and underdog companies. While the teams don’t win so often lately, a lot of the underdog companies do. A lot of the no-name people do. Buffalo’s the kind of place where belief is in the water. You do it (as in believing), or you gag on your drink and die.

Goalie Ashlyn Harris is the first free agent signing for the Flash.

Back to the rookie coach and the expansion team. Building on that success—playoffs in year one, who cares that they lost in the first round– Lines was able to recruit more talent and in 2010 Buffalo Flash went undefeated, seldom-scored upon and won the W-League Championship.

It wasn’t long after that (we’re talking hours, not days) that Sahlen began to think again. He said, “It was never our intention to remain minor league.” He said he hadn’t paid much attention to WPS up until then, but “if WPS is the best league, we should be in it.”

Now that’s a Buffalo attitude too. Outsiders may have all kinds of opinions about Buffalo, and probably not much of it is good, but Buffalonians are too optimistic or too stupid to know they can’t do anything, so they just assume they can, just assume they should have the best, be the best, be at the party when the princess comes to town. So why shouldn’t we be in it?

Sahlen had the audacity to contact the WPS expansion committee and invite himself into the league. Fortunately they took him seriously. Having Sahlen come into the league as a single owner with deep pockets and a corporate business infrastructure into which the operations of his new club could be integrated meant that the new club wouldn’t be likely to teeter on the brink of default as most of the rest of the league’s multi-owner/investor franchises have done. Three have already folded. Chicago is on the brink and will shut down on December 15th if they’re unable to raise significant cash. In fact, should Chicago not make the grade, were it not for Sahlen, WPS would  be down to five teams and not viable to compete in 2011.

And there you go again, Mr. President. Buffalo is the home of a lot of neat inventions: everything from air conditioning to windshield wipers to the electric chair to sponge candy. So why would someone from Buffalo assume it’s necessary to have a whole separate organization to manage the soccer club. He has a perfectly good management team and administrative infrastructure at Sahlen’s Packing Company. Why not use them and their systems to run the club. That saves a few top drawer salaries there. More money for players on the pitch rather than players to make a pitch. Pure unadulterated Buffalo wisdom. No wonder the WPS was happy to see Joe Sahlen coming.

When it comes to marketing his team, Sahlen says two very interesting things. First he says, he didn’t sell many tickets last year to the W-League team, but he didn’t try. It didn’t matter to him. He wanted to own a team. Wanted a team for his daughter. Wanted to field a winner. To hell with tickets. People would come if they wanted to. His team would win if it wanted to. It did, and it did. And as it turned out, people also started coming in spite of the lack of any promotion by the team.

Second, he says he definitely must sell tickets to the new franchise, but you sell tickets the same way you sell hot dogs: in supermarkets to women and mothers of young girls.

But there’s more, the soccer club is part of his corporate marketing program. His investment in the club is partially an advertising expense. The team will promote his brands. His brands will promote the team. His Sahlen Sportspark complex will promote both. And both promote the complex.

The more I listen to him talk, I’m thinking the guy’s a genius. He also seems to be completely intuitive. I don’t get the impression he’s spent a penny on market research. He has a feeling about how things should be, how things are, how things can or will be, and he goes off half-cocked with that world view until he makes it a reality if it wasn’t in the first place.

He couldn’t be more of a Buffalo guy. Typical Buffalonians are very intuitive, real gut-followers, real seat-of-their-pants fliers. They are opinionated and passionate and impulsive. They’re also great family people. In Buffalo buying a soccer team so your daughter doesn’t have to commute to the next city isn’t strange or unthinkable at all. It’s what you do for your family. Especially your kids. Especially your daughter.

And now that the Buffalo Flash of the W-League has become the WNY Flash of Women’s Professional Soccer, Joe Sahlen is talking world domination, one hot dog in the hand of one little girl at a time. He’s still hiring people outside of the box, taking chances, making opportunities for others to come along with him, and what could be more Buffalo than that: striving for excellence, your way not the highway, and bringing your neighbor along for the ride.

Alex Sahlen may or may not make the squad now that the team has gone world-class but that’s okay, Joe Sahlen has an ap for that. He’s made her team president.

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