In a time when the city’s professional sports landscape is looking increasingly grim, the Oakland Roots, a lower-division professional soccer club, has provided a refreshing “Oakland first” attitude it tries to embody in every aspect of game day. Perhaps most obviously — outside of the colorful oak tree crest — the Roots are committed to using local food vendors instead of a big corporate concessionaire.
At the Roots’ “pre-game functions,” block party-like events on East 10th Street outside the team’s home on Laney College’s football field, you’ll find food trucks and local pop-ups in lieu of hot dog stands and soda machines. It’s all very intentional.
“We’re trying to build the Roots as a purpose-driven sports organization, and that means that we are a professional soccer team but we have a purpose, which is for us to harness the magic of Oakland and the power of sports as a force for social good,” Mike Geddes, the team’s “chief purpose officer” and a co-founder, told Nosh. “And that purpose is what drives our whole operation, both on and off the field.”
The team began play in the bottom division of American professional soccer in 2019 and moved up to the USL Championship, the second-tier league behind MLS, in 2021. But to many local fans that might not mean much, as soccer hasn’t reached nearly the popularity here as it has elsewhere around the globe.
So for the Roots, appealing to a hyper-local fan base could be a backdoor method to converting new soccer fans.
“Our goal from day one is not just to attract soccer fans to our games, because we know that soccer, unfortunately, in this country, it’s not everybody’s sport. There are some communities which have had historical barriers to entry to soccer, whether it’s cultural or financial or geographic. And we really want to appeal to Oakland and not just ‘Oakland soccer fans,’” Geddes, who got his start in soccer as a reporter for the BBC in the early 2000s, said. “So we wanted our game day to be a reflection of Oakland; to look and feel and sound like a place where anyone can come and gather.”
And what better way to do that, in part, than through food?
The Roots have set out to create an experience similar to that of the popular (but currently paused) “Off the Grid” Friday night food trucks at the nearby Oakland Museum, Geddes said. With the help of an event management company, the team seeks out local food vendors and doesn’t charge them to set up at games, providing an opportunity to sell to crowds of around 4,000-5,000 people.
“We want to find local vendors, we want to create as much opportunity as possible for local businesses to come and sell at our events, and then for the team as a whole to put that into action,” Geddes said.
The plan is bolstered by a partnership with American Express that puts some extra oomph behind promoting one vendor per week. Then for players and for the group of kids the team hosts to celebrate a local nonprofit at each game, the Roots partner with The Town Kitchen, a prepared meal company that employs low-income youth.
There can be challenges that come with opting for independent vendors, however, like the occasional last-minute dropout. So the team has had to roll with a backup plan at times, like simply buying “rounds of pizza” to keep fans happy.
“That doesn’t deter us from trying to do things this way, because we think the right thing to do — especially now kind of coming out of the pandemic — is to provide people with as many opportunities as possible to generate revenue,” Geddes said.
Even when the team’s first home game of the season was postponed just minutes beforehand, out came free drinks, mostly local brands, to help assuage the situation.
Ale Industries, which brews a couple miles down the road from Laney, is the team’s first official beer sponsor. The brewery has a special “Town Roots” edition of its “Town Beer,” emblazoned with the Roots’ crest, and 5.1% of sales of the 5.1% ABV beverage go back to Oakland organizations like the East Bay Community Fund.
“I think [using local vendors] follows along with what they state in their mission,” Roots fan and Bay Area native Andrew Nguyen said at an August home game. “It definitely feels communal when I’m here. When they partner up with the library or the zoo, or with the vendors, it feels more connected.”
The Roots aren’t the first local sports team to look to food to connect with fans.
When the Golden State Warriors’ Chase Center opened in 2019, Oakland mainstay Bakesale Betty headlined the stadium’s food offerings. It was a small homage to The Town in a time when Oakland-based fans saw one of their beloved teams head across the Bay.
“When we knew we wanted to move the Warriors back to San Francisco, one of the big elements was making sure we were bringing the local community along with us,” Yoyo Chan, vice president of government and public affairs for the Warriors and Chase Center, told Nosh. “And obviously in the Bay Area, we know food is a huge piece of that, and so when we started our outreach process in San Francisco, one of the first things that we did was make sure we were talking to small business owners along the Third Street Corridor, and more importantly, making sure that there was Oakland reflected in our culinary offerings because they are such a big part of who we are as the Warriors.”
The Oakland Athletics, likewise, started bringing in local food trucks to each game in 2017 as part of an effort to spruce up the much-maligned Coliseum for as long as the team does stick around.
“[Food] is a great example of what makes Oakland special: this diversity and richness of different cultures coming together and creating mashups which are greater than the sum of their parts,” said Geddes, speaking shortly after a game that had food trucks featuring New Orleans Cajun, Mexican and Afro-Brazilian food. “You want to provide something which really leans into the opportunities that are present here in the city of Oakland.”