This is part two of a three-part series.
Read parts 1 and 3
The Oakland Roots soccer club was born, in earnest, in the summer of 2016, when Edreece Arghandiwal, a marketing director and entrepreneurial creative type who’d worked on projects for brands such as Apple and set designer Susan Linss, met Benno Nagel, a veteran soccer player and coach who’d previously worked for clubs in Croatia and the Netherlands. The two were acquainted through the blooming East Bay semi-pro soccer community; at one point, Arghandiwal was playing for a semi-pro team called the Oakland Leopards, which Nagel was also involved with.
They recognized in each other complementing skill sets. Arghandiwal had a background in marketing. Nagel was well connected in the Bay Area, and had in fact been working to start a new professional soccer club in the East Bay for a handful of months before linking up with Arghandiwal.
More importantly, Arghandiwal and Nagel both possessed a deep, abiding love for their hometown. Arghandiwal, whose parents fled Afghanistan during the Russian invasion of the 1980s, was born here; Nagel was, too. Together they recognized how underserved the East Bay soccer scene was. Though flourishing at a grassroots level, the only professional club that had managed to stick around for more than a handful of years was the San Jose Earthquakes—and they were owned by the famously frugal and patently uninspiring John Fisher. Arghandiwal and Nagel saw an opportunity to build an organization that could meet the growing demand.
“For a long time [Nagel] and I were just chopping like, ‘Hey, how can we take a club like the Leopards up to a different level?’” Arghandiwal told me. “‘A level Oakland deserves. What can we do?”
Arghandiwal told me this during the Roots’ match against Loudon that I’d attended, down on the field behind the visitors’ goal. It was cold, and Arghandiwal—32, tall, and possessed of an eagle-ish intensity that radiates from his eyes any time he talks about his team—was bundled in black Roots’ joggers and a black Roots’ hoodie, which he had cinched up over a black Roots’ cap. One could tell right away that he’d played competitive sports in a past life. As we watched over the game, he swayed on his heels with his arms crossed, betraying the impatient sadness of an athlete at rest, preserving energy while silently longing to be on the field.
It was clear, though, that Arghandiwal relished his role as an executive, too. That night, when he started in on the story of how the Roots had been built, he sounded like a startup founder—enamored of his vision and eager to explain how he had gone about bringing it to life.
The key, as I would learn the next day, when I connected with Arghandiwal for an extended conversation on Zoom, was the fusion of he and Nagel’s love for Oakland with their belief in the potential of sports to do good. At the time, Oakland sports fans were greeted almost every other day with news of another of their favorite teams either consecrating their impending departure, hastening it, or otherwise dissing huge swaths of the city. (The A’s, famously and repeatedly, have insisted that they can’t build a new stadium in East Oakland, for example, because the site there is not “economically viable.”) But this was part of the Roots’ opportunity. Fans were becoming hungrier for a professional sports organization that might serve to lift up their community rather than merely depress or plunder it.
“There was a gap in the market for a soccer team,” said Mike Geddes, who’d go on to become the Roots’ chief purpose officer. Arghandiwal and Nagel invited Geddes—alongside Tommy Hodul, who’d become the club’s VP of communications—into their tribe not long after getting serious about creating a club in Oakland.
Geddes and I connected one morning in April. He’d invited me to a free coaching clinic the Roots were putting on at their practice facility—the former Raiders’ headquarters—in Alameda. We spoke while former Roots players, along with volunteer coaches from Coaching Corps and Positive Coaching Alliance, blew whistles and ran participants through drills.
The need “was for a team that the community could care about,” Geddes said. “And that matters here. This community is fiercely proud. And historically, it’s expressed that pride through sports. That’s why our fundamental value proposition became to be by the community and for the community. We believed the people would respond positively to that.”
‘Purpose and impact driven’
The strategy was not solely altruistic. Lower-division tends to be a tough draw. Several lower-division clubs have been started in and around Oakland over the last 20 years. Each vanished nearly as quickly as they appeared. Even the Deltas—San Francisco’s former Division II soccer team—folded after just one season, in 2017, due to a lack of fan support, even though just that year they’d won their league’s championship. Ingratiating their club into the community—such that they’d be seen as truly representative of Oakland, and might in turn earn grassroots support—was something the Roots’ founders understood would be crucial to their business model.
Still, service remained paramount. And the groups’ ambitions remained buoyed by the belief that Oakland would want, or at least prove open to, the service the Roots would be selling.
“We became passionate about building something that was purpose and impact driven in a city that has through its history been at the forefront of political activism and arts and diversity and culture,” Arghandiwal told me. “We all thought, ‘Wow, what better place to deploy such a concept than in Oakland, California?’”
One question remained, though: how to do it right? To find out, the group assembled a community advisory board, composed of a dozen or so Oakland residents who’d been working on behalf of the Town for many years. The board included Joanne da Luz, Co-Founder of My Yute Soccer; Keith Williams, who founded the skate park at DeFremery Park; and Ben Gucciardi, who heads up Soccer Without Borders. The group met with the board ten or so times, discussing, among other things, what Oakland might actually want out of an organization such as theirs. Then they repeated the process at scale. With the help of the advisors, the group scheduled a town-hall meeting with a much larger swath of the public—attended by several hundred community members in total—at the CLIF Bar headquarters in Emeryville. For several hours they fielded questions they didn’t necessarily have answers to: where are you going to play? How are you going to ensure this is actually inclusive?
It was difficult, said Arghandiwal. But the process forced the young men to think strategically about their model. The end result was the rendering of a more refined conception of what doing right by Oakland should ultimately look like. And what it had to look like, Arghandiwal said, was an organization committed earnestly to “being about the Town in an authentic way.”
“We believed,” Arghandiwal told me, “That as long as we showed the community real authentic love, they would love us back.”
Next came the task of building a brand. The first step was deciding on a name. In collaboration with their advisory board, the founders discussed a number of options—a few names that were thrown around included Bump City FC, the Wolf Pack, the Town, the Funk—but finally they landed on the Roots, in no small part for what it conveyed about their ethos: namely, that they were genuinely rooted in and committed to this place.
The same inspiration informed the design of their crest, logo, and kits, which, after months of iteration—facilitated over mood boards and with additional guidance from community advisors—finally materialized in its present form: an oak tree rising proudly from multi-colored soil, the club name draped like a street banner across the tree’s canopy, imprinted onto which, in a nice flourish, would be the outline of the map of Oakland.
Then, in collaboration with local retailer Oaklandish, the group dropped the merch, and that’s when everything changed. The designs went viral, selling out, and creating a local sensation. Suddenly the Roots’ logo was everywhere. It seemed to become synonymous with the city of Oakland itself. Much of the initial excitement, in fact, came from people who weren’t even aware the shirts, hoodies, and jackets they were buying or sharing on social media were affiliated with an upstart soccer club. They just loved the design. No matter. The more who interacted with the merch, the more who learned of what the Roots were trying to do. Soon, the club had an online database consisting of thousands of names and email addresses, all eager to follow the Roots on their journey from concept to competition.
At this point the group had little in the way of money. Nagel and Arghandiwal had raised a bit of capital from a pair of investors early on, but all involved had been working mostly for free, often at night. After that first drop, however, investors came calling—including, importantly, the two men who’d given the group that first investment early on, Barney Schauble and Steve Aldrich, the former a principal at Nephila Capital, the latter the former chief product officer of GoDaddy. The two increased their investments substantially, and each soon owned a 31% ownership stake.
Arghandiwal and Nagel had some hesitations about giving away so much equity, at first, but they maintained operating control, and with the funding, the club had what it needed to really get started putting together a soccer team—which meant finalizing their search for a stadium and a league, bringing on full-time personnel, and establishing an on-the-ground presence in the community. “I think we had Tommy out there at every First Fridays for a year,” Arghandiwal told me.
With the new funding however, the club was also finally given license to begin building the infrastructure with which it would carry out its mission of transmuting “the power of sport” into a “force for social good.”
Into that infrastructure, the club made a number of key investments. Perhaps the most important was the designation of Geddes as chief purpose officer—a position partially inspired by similar roles found in companies such as Ben & Jerry’s and Patagonia, and for which, at the time, there was virtually no precedent or corollary in the wider world of American professional sports. Of course, just about every American professional sports organization claims, in some fashion, that they want to be a force for social good. Most engage in a certain amount of philanthropic work, too. But these organizations often keep their community engagement efforts—the means by which they do the most tangible “good” in the cities they call home—isolated from the rest of their operations, and attend to them as a definitively tertiary concern: a box that needs to be checked. For example, community partnerships are often tendered through some sort of fund, governed by a set of goals and priorities separate from and subordinate to the goals and priorities of the rest of the organization—that is, the front office and the on-field personnel. The role of chief purpose officer for the Roots, according to Geddes, was conceived as a means of holding the club more accountable to their initial philanthropic goals—and of ensuring they didn’t just talk about “doing good” or being a “community asset,” but that they pursued those goals with the same sort of systematic and strategic focus with which the club pursued its on-field ambitions.
“The role of a chief purpose officer” is to “ensure that purpose is the lens through which every decision is made,” Geddes told me in the Roots’ practice facility. We were standing now beside rows of weight-lifting and cardio equipment. A few feet to our right, a film crew from the local FOX affiliate was filming a segment. Geddes seemed not to notice. “The goal is to operationalize that commitment. To make sure that it’s not just something that you say, or you write on a document or write on a wall and then never think about again.”
According to Geddes, against forces of external pressure, his department functions as a bulwark.
“We are conditioned, in this society, to just think about one type of value. Especially if you work for a for-profit entity,” said Geddes. “My job is to work across every single department in the organization, whether it’s our technical team or our marketing team, or our operations team, and help them think about how that purpose shows up in every decision they make.”
Such decisions, he said, range from which for-profit vendors the club invites to set up shop on East 10th Street before home games, to which non-profit partners the club decides to collaborate with on an ongoing basis, to what systems should be devised and implemented to ensure the club is “operationalizing its commitment” to using sport as a vehicle for good.
The Roots support everything from youth athletics to literary arts
When it comes to using sports to do good in the community, Geddes and his team have been wildly, inarguably successful. In fact, it’s the work they do that has won the club most of the praise and good press it has received.
Why is Oakland City Council President Nikki Fortunato Bas “proud the Roots are based” in her district? Because, as she told The Oaklandside in an email, the club “supports [Oakland] youth to realize their fullest potential through community programming and healthy outdoor activity.”
What have the stories about the Roots published in outlets such as The Guardian, The Athletic, and Hypebeast focused on? The Roots’ unusually emphatic prioritization of public service. (“How Oakland Roots built a community-centric club and took it to the USL,” reads the headline of the story published in The Athletic.)
Why is it worth caring about a lower-division soccer club like the Roots? Because through its approach to public service, the club is transcending such delineations of worth. Arguably the Roots are doing as much if not more to benefit Oakland as any of the major league teams who once called Oakland home.
The proof is in the partnerships. Today the Roots participate in a dizzying array of philanthropic initiatives and partner with a large and diverse collection of nonprofit organizations. The nature of the support the club offers ranges from symbolic to financial. Before the club played its first-ever game at Laney College they invited Corinna Gould, spokesperson for the Confederated Villages of Lisjan/Ohlone and co-founder of Indian People Organizing for Change, to bless the field. In June 2020, the Roots became the first professional sports organization in America to join Common Goal, an organization which supports non-profits working to combat gender inequality and systemic racism, and to whom every year the Roots donate 1% of participating player and staff wages, alongside 1% of all ticket revenues. The club also helped Common Goal start up its Anti-Racist Project, an initiative that provides anti-racist training for players, coaches, fans, and executives across the American soccer landscape.
“Their funds have driven the anti-racist project,” Lilli Barrett-O’Keefe, Common Goal’s Executive Director, told me. “They were a driving force to make that happen.”
That’s just the beginning. On their own, the Roots started the Oakland Roots Justice Fund to support campaigns aimed at increasing racial and gender justice. They started Project 510, which functions as something of a player development system through which the club can both recruit local soccer players as well as provide Oakland youth a more egalitarian pathway to opportunities within the soccer world beyond. “Youth leagues in America are pay-to-pay,” Hodul told me. “That excludes kids who aren’t from privileged backgrounds from participating in the sport.”
The club supports the Black Liberation Walking Tour, an organization that provides education on the cultural contributions of Black Oaklanders within West Oakland’s Hoover-Foster District. (The Roots ask players to go on a tour as part of their onboarding process.) They donate training expertise and equipment to the Oakland Parks and Rec Department’s Town Camp Program. They support Soccer Without Borders, which provides youth-development programs for under-served youth all across the country, Joanne da Luz’s organization My Yute Soccer, and outfits unaffiliated with athletics, such as Chapter 510, a youth writing, bookmaking & publishing center. The Roots help Chapter 510 put on city-wide events, such as Write Your Roots Day, for which volunteers, Roots players, and a wide assortment of students from across Oakland—including, specifically, Black, brown, and queer youth—collaborate on and perform an epic city-wide poem. This year, during halftime at a Roots home game on October 1, Chapter 510 students will be invited to read parts of the poem aloud to the crowd. The Roots also support Chapter 510 with financial contributions.
This is hardly an exhaustive list. But it’s worth highlighting because, as Janet Heller, Co-founder and Executive Director of Chapter 510, put it to me, it’s indicative.
“They don’t do this for PR. It’s not them just flashing our brand to make them look good,” said Heller. We met last month at the Grand Opening of Chapter 510’s new Writing Center, on the corner of 9th St. and Clay, at which Oakland’s first Poet Laureate, Dr. Ayodele Nzinga, gave a blessing. The blessing was received warmly by a crowd packed tightly into the creatively decorated center. The crowd included Roots’ head coach, Juan Guerra. “It’s not gimmicky, it’s real,” she said.
It’s also, according to Lilli Barrett-O’Keefe, of Common Goal, unique. “The Roots are paving the way,” she told me. “If there is any opportunity to enhance the connection between Oakland and soccer, they’ll say yes. We work with dozens of brands and organizations. They typically operate with a yes-but model. The Roots are just a yes organization, period.”
Here, though, we must pause. For though the Roots’ reputation as reliable stewards of community partnership—as providers of precisely the kind of utility all cities hope the pro teams they partner with will endeavor to provide—is inarguably well-earned, it does not paint a complete picture of who the Roots are, or how they became this way. For that, it pays to survey their struggles—along with the costs and controversies tied to them.
Part three of this series publishes next week.