Grassroots game Featured

8:59am EDT December 3, 2001
The Cleveland Crunch's "Soccer In The City" program resulted from an impromptu meeting in, of all places, the Cleveland City Hall men's room between Crunch General Manager Paul Garofolo and Cleveland Mayor Michael White.

The Crunch had just received an award from the city for its 1998-1999 championship season. After the celebration, White stopped Garofolo on the way out of the men's room to tell him he wanted the city's youth to be more involved in soccer.

White, a former high school football player, told Garofolo he liked the fact that you don't need to be "7-feet-tall and weigh 300 pounds" to be good at soccer.

"I told him, 'Mayor, everywhere in the world, except for America, soccer is an urban sport,'" Garofolo recalls. "He said, 'Well, I want to be on the cutting edge of communities in the country that are developing the urban soccer market.'"

With help from the city's recreational centers and the Cleveland Municipal Schools, Garofolo and the Crunch kicked off the "Soccer In The City" program, the cornerstone of the Crunch's community service programs. Crunch players ran instructional soccer clinics that reached 1,200 children in the city's 19 recreational centers.

At the end of the season, the city of Cleveland Indoor-Soccer Championship game was moved from Euclid to the Crunch's field at the Cleveland State University Convocation Center and played before a Crunch game. Recreational center players were outfitted with special uniforms and their names were announced over the center's public address system.

"To be a part of the community, it truly has to be a two-way street," Garofolo says. "We receive their support, they come to our games, they buy our merchandise. We need to give back to the community as much as the community gives to us."

For Cleveland Municipal School Day, 10,000 students are invited to a Crunch game specially scheduled in the morning for them. The field trip is tied to a program called "Kick In and Win," in which players visited 22 middle schools to promote fitness, education and academic achievement.

"In a sport like ours, grassroots marketing is critical because we don't have million-dollar plus advertising budgets like the major league sports franchises, but we've got something they don't have," Garofolo says. "These are a way to go out one-on-one, develop the fan base, create hero worship by having the kids identify with players that don't park underground at Gund Arena or inside a fence at Jacobs Field. For a 7- or 8-year-old kid, Hector Marinaro is a big a star to them because they can actually relate to them."

The Crunch is involved in other efforts that have garnered the organization recognition with a 2001 Pillar Award for Community Service.

The Crunch's "Score Big with Reading" program with the Cuyahoga County Public Libraries had players in all the libraries reading to young children and posing for promotional posters that read "Got Books?" Players teamed up for the Parma City Schools "Contract to Read" program which involved 14,000 kids in the Parma School District.

The Crunch's involvement in these efforts and others have garnered the organization recognition with a 2001 Pillar Award for Community Service.

"Our players are really wonderful guys," Garofolo says. "For players who are not natives of Cleveland, this is a great way for them to interact with the community, make friends and create opportunities for post-career play.

"They've been very cooperative in all our efforts and we share this award with them." How to reach: The Cleveland Crunch, (216) 896-1140

Morgan Lewis Jr. (mlewis@sbnnet.com) is senior reporter at SBN Magazine.