In 2015, Jonathan Wardlaw got a “harebrained idea” to start a minor league soccer team in Little Rock. His big dream turned into a reality, and in the summer of 2016, the Little Rock Rangers played their first season at War Memorial Stadium.
Now president and general manager, Wardlaw has seen his idea grow significantly in just six seasons. They had to take a break in 2020 when the pandemic hit, but now the team is two seasons back in and looking to the future.
“Soccer here needed help getting better,” Wardlaw said, explaining soccer parents noticed it when their children were traveling to compete. “When we’d travel out of state, we'd just realize how far behind we were. I dreamed up creating a minor league team, and everything just kind of fell in place and it was like no huge hurdles or resistance. So I just kind of kept tripping and stumbling and then the next thing we knew, we had our first game, and it was nuts.”
Creating the team came with a hefty price tag, so Wardlaw reached out to other soccer fans he knew and 16 founding families put together the $25,000 it took to join a league and buy a franchise among other startup costs. These 16 families and the 2016 starting season are represented by a 16 on the team’s crest.
The team is set up as a nonprofit, a decision Wardlaw made so they could accept donations, even though they hadn't accepted any toward the end of the 2022 season. That paid off when COVID shut down everything after nearly $20,000 had been dropped on uniforms and other expenses, and Wardlaw could accept pandemic aid.
Currently players are not paid, as many players are from NCAA schools, and the organization has a rule that if any NCAA athletes are on the roster, no one can receive pay.
Revenue comes from three main sources: ticket sales, merchandise and sponsorships. That money is used to pay league and player registration fees, rent War Memorial and pay for uniforms and travel expenses for the team.
While the Rangers get the funds from ticket and merch sales, War Memorial controls all concessions. But Wardlaw was able to get food trucks at the games to give them a more unique atmosphere.
Sometimes the team loses $10,000 a season, and sometimes they may have a surplus of $20,000 but they mostly break even, Wardlaw said. He joked that soccer is the only sport where you can do well and “get poor while doing it.”
“Our main sources of income are butts in seats, but we do have sponsorship money that has actually stepped up quite a bit recently,” said Wardlaw. “Really and truly in professional sports, and especially minor league sports, you just hope to break even at the end of every season, and we've done that. I typically go into it with an open mind of, ‘we're just gonna see what this season throws at us’ and hope for that surplus. It tends to work itself out.”
But they’re not in it for the money. Instead, Wardlaw wants to create a sustainable “European-style” soccer club in Little Rock that will lead to smaller clubs sprouting up around the state and generate a strong soccer community in Arkansas, with an anchor in Little Rock.
A direct path to Major League Soccer
Wardlaw’s other dream? Only creating a United Soccer League (USL) Championship team out of the Rangers, just one step below Major League Soccer.
This comes after a huge move by the Rangers during the pandemic, a switch from the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL) to the USL, which provides a direct route to a championship team and MLS. Now they play in the USL 2 mid-South division against teams from Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi.
This also means the Rangers are part of a more organized and popular division, something Wardlaw says has made a big difference.
“This league that we're in now is definitely run more professionally. It costs more money to be in it, but it's definitely one of those things where you get what you pay for,” Wardlaw said. “The USL has a league that's directly under MLS. Then a league that's directly under that and then where we are, so we're in fourth division. It was just a better move to switch, to be able to have the affiliation with the pro leagues, and we aspire to be one of those teams eventually. There's just a lot of hurdles that we have to jump to get there, and the USL wants us to.”
Hurdles, indeed. Despite the USL wanting the Rangers to move up, they have professional league standards the team must meet.
“We check so many, all of these boxes,” Wardlaw said. “Except two.”
For one, the USL requires a playing surface that meets FIFA standards to join their upper divisions. War Memorial’s field is too narrow to qualify, Wardlaw explained. To move up, they would have to leave War Memorial or the stadium would have to make structural changes.
But where else would they go? Wardlaw said they have to have locker rooms, and fans want beer at the games, “so we're kind of handcuffed where we are.”
The other hurdle, finding a major investor that's worth enough for USL standards.
“For Division 3, they've got to be worth $10 million cash. Not just what you have, like I have to show a bank statement that says I got $10 million cash if I need it. You don't have to pay it, you just have to show you got it. And unfortunately, I just don't have that,” Wardlaw explained.
For the Championship division, Wardlaw says it can be up to or more than $50 million. There’s also a buy-in, but those are often negotiable.
Wardlaw says even if they get a Championship team, they would keep the existing USL 2 team.
“We would keep the amateur side going, because it's such a great development tool,” Wardlaw said. “Then they could feed our professional team.”
Youth academy and women's team
Another big Rangers move: the establishment of a youth academy for ages 4-16. While the men’s team is set up as a nonprofit, the academy is an LLC. And it’s proved profitable.
That profit is necessary because the creation of the youth academy took away some of the fanbase from the games. Now, Wardlaw said, members of competing youth clubs don’t want to support the Rangers.
“Kids that may play for other youth clubs now see us as a rival and do not want to support us, which that's totally their right to do that. I hate it, but at the same time youth soccer here needed to improve,” Wardlaw said. “We definitely go over and beyond what we do for these kids, and by doing that, that's caused the other clubs to step their game up a little bit, too. So indirectly we are improving other clubs.”
It all plays into the ultimate goal: to create that European-style soccer club where youth academies feed into minor-league teams that feed into professional teams.
Wardlaw owns the youth academy 50/50 with his partner Ante Jazic, a retired MLS player who moved to Arkansas with his wife, Annemarie Dillard.
Together they dreamed up the idea of having year-round soccer by creating a winter academy and a summer camp that lasted the whole summer rather than a couple of weeks out of the summer, which is the norm, Wardlaw said.
“It's been great. We are crazy growing,” said Wardlaw. The youth club will fielded seven teams last fall, and they recently expanded into Searcy. “We've had other communities reach out to us interested. I can't stress it enough that we're not in it for a money thing, we're not trying to grow so that we can count heads and make more money. It's got to be a good fit for us to do it, and something that we can see growth from. We are truly trying to build a club and a community and it's working.”
After seeing huge success from the men’s team in 2016, Wardlaw created a women’s team in the NPSL for the 2017 and 2018 seasons. But after coaching and organizational issues, he decided to let the team stay dormant until the Rangers were more established.
Now that the Rangers are in the USL, which has two female leagues the Rangers can compete in, a women’s team is back at the forefront of Wardlaw’s plans. He knows there is a market for it in Little Rock, and wants to create it, he just needs help.
“I hated [stopping] it,” Wardlaw said. “I really just couldn't manage it myself, and I've hoped that someone would approach me and say, ‘I wish you'd start a women's team back up and I want to do it,’ because I would do it. I just physically can't do it myself.”
The team has grown significantly since its 2016 inception. Wardlaw says they now have players from all over the world reach out to play with them, but the Rangers are looking ahead after the past two seasons left more to be desired.
The team announced only a day before their last game of the 2022 season that head coach Will Montgomery would be stepping down from the position he has held since the team began to spend more time with his family. The team hired Italy native Adriano Versari as Montgomery's successor.
Wardlaw says game attendance has plateaued, but awareness in the city is hopefully growing.
“Our brand and our awareness within the city has grown. The mayor is a fan, you know? And way back when, when I grew up playing soccer, I might as well have been a skateboarder because soccer was such an alt sport back then.”
He also wants the sport to expand in “flyover states” as well.
“The thing is there are athletes in Arkansas and the middle of the country. In order for sports in the country to get better, for the U.S. national team to get better, we've got to start making better players in the middle of the country.” Wardlaw’s goal is to not have great players uproot and move to bigger states to play, but to have opportunities in their home states. “That's what I hope happens in Arkansas. Break it down and we hope it happens in Little Rock, but we also want to grow in our state. So that's happening in Searcy. You've got to start getting smaller and smaller.”