TULSA, Okla. – For Lucy Gonzalez, the ride began about six years ago.
Two clubs and three leagues later, it’s hardly stopped moving.
“It was surreal,” said Gonzalez recently. “I ended up going within two or three years from being a volunteer working in the bowels of Vanderbilt football stadium to being the Creative Director of an MLS team, and launching a brand of an MLS team by the time I was 25. Insane.”
Now the Head of Marketing and Brand for the USL Championship’s FC Tulsa, Gonzalez’s rapid ascent – and the experiences that have come with it – from volunteer at then amateur and community-owned club Nashville FC to helping usher in top-flight soccer has been one almost as remarkable as soccer’s story in the Music City.
It’s also a story of serendipity. As a student at Vanderbilt University majoring in Art History while minoring in the History of Art and Corporate Strategy, Gonzalez’s aim was to form a non-profit community organization when she graduated.
Instead, she’s been able to bring the concepts of design and community involvement to the center of the approach taken both in Nashville and Tulsa, helping shape clubs that are more than just teams in their respective cities.
As part of the group alongside President James Cannon that drove FC Tulsa’s rebrand, ushering in a new era for the club late in 2019 following its purchase by the Craft family, putting the principals Gonzalez believes matter most has been central to the club’s rejuvenation in the Oil Capital of the World.
“I have a rule that I always want to stay passionately curious and try to act with intention and no waste,” said Gonzalez. “I want to be able to say, we want to create a brand that we can interject as much of Tulsa into, and then you ask who does this benefit down the road, or who’s benefitting from this?
I always want to stay passionately curious and try to act with intention and no waste
This is something in the [Diversity, Equity and Inclusion] initiatives we’re working on, but I want to make sure as much as possible that we’re benefitting them in a sustainable way, so we’re not going into people’s lives for one clinic and then leaving. I want to make sure we’re making a difference in their lives and asking them what their needs are.
“It’s a lot of work on the front end, but I want to sow the seeds so that it’s scalable, and that every good program is scalable so we can introduce them to other people, and other people who have similar needs. Let’s see the proof-in-concept so we can watch it grow and change the community.”
In another timeline, Gonzalez wouldn’t simply have been a student at Vanderbilt. As a player growing up in Dublin, Ohio, the Commodores were among the colleges she was considering as an up-and-coming player for whom soccer had become an integral part of her life.
She had begun to play when she was three – after bringing home flyers from Kindergarten seeking sign-ups for cheerleading and soccer, her mom declared ‘I’m not going to have my little girl wearing bows, and miniskirts.’ – and within a year her father was the coach of the rec league team she played for.
As she progressed, so did the level of competition, until she reached a serious level in club soccer.
Then, the concussions began.
In the space of 10 months across 2009 and 2010, three serious concussions brought any aspirations of a future on the field to a rapid halt. Gonzalez – who has been diagnosed with 15 concussions overall in her life – was forced to retire from competitive soccer aged 16.
Lucy Gonzalez (front row) was an on-field college soccer prospect before multiple concussions brought her playing career to an end aged 16 years old.
“I got my first concussion and that was at the beginning of Impact Testing, so I never really had a baseline,” she said. “But I had basically averaged a concussion a semester since my sophomore year of high school.”
Going from being on the field six days a week to unable to play was difficult. So was the disorienting nature of the aftereffects on her brain, and the stress it placed on her body overall.
Then came a call from Cristina Romanelli, and a life-changing moment.
“When I had my third concussion, I got a call – and after however many medications, I lost 20 pounds in two weeks, was really struggling – and I got a call from [Cristina], who was friends with one of my friends from other clubs,” Gonzalez said. “She was only taking three course periods a week in high school, and she called me and said, ‘Do you want to be like me?’
“That is something that has stayed with me because it was her strength in asking like, and what vulnerability from a 17-year-old girl to call and know her place, and know what this could mean. … That was huge, it was the pivotal thing that got me. I found art, new friends, a full-time job, I tried sailing – I did competitive sailing for a hot second – it was just small things that I never would have experienced before.”
Gonzalez’s willingness to talk about her experiences with concussions also created opportunities to speak candidly to local school officials.
“I was doing a lot of speaking about concussions in the classroom,” said Gonzalez. “I was on the front page [of the Columbus Dispatch] for my concussion work, so I would go to different schools around Columbus and speak to hundreds of educators and students.”
The story also caught the eye of then Columbus Crew SC Sr. Vice President & Chief Marketing Officer, Mike Malo. Gonzalez had grown up a Crew supporter – her father had taken her to the club’s inaugural home game at Ohio State’s Buckeye Stadium when she was three years old, and she’d been a regular at Mapfre Stadium off and on since the stadium opened three years later.
Recognizing her passion for the sport, and empathizing with her situation, he invited her to the stadium.
“He said, ‘I want to show you, you can have a career in soccer without playing on the field,’” said Gonzalez. “It was kind of unprecedented the amount of insight he gave me. His office was right in the corner, by the corner flag, it was awesome. I still remember that – despite the 15 concussions, it’s really funny how many things I remember – and then he’d walk out and have me sitting there, he’d make the sound, the growl of the cat, then he’d show me the seal, and that they were the Hardest Working Team, and this, this and this.”
The culture is the sport, it is the game, and we just need to remember that because it’s so fulfilling for me to be able to watch somebody else find their spark.
Soon after, Malo reached out again, this time with an offer. The Crew were doing away with the cheerleaders that had been part of games in the club’s early years and wanted to form a street team, and Malo wanted Gonzalez to be part of it. The experience was one that left a lasting impression.
“Seeing that insight of how you run an event before and after the game, talking with people and supporters, that was really the beginning of it,” said Gonzalez. “The culture is the sport, it is the game, and we just need to remember that because it’s so fulfilling for me to be able to watch somebody else find their spark.”
“Sport for me is a great way – for me at least – to connect to people. … You don’t need to be the hero on the field, you can be the hero off the field to a certain extent and be able to pay it forward in the way sports gave to me.”
Working as a volunteer for Nashville FC, while also interning at local music labels as she completed her studies at Vanderbilt, was enjoyable for Gonzalez, but it wasn’t exactly going to pay the bills in an expensive city to live in.
“I was about to graduate in 2016 and I told [Nashville FC co-founder] Chris Jones, ‘I need to get a job, otherwise I’m going to have to leave Nashville, it’s not a cheap place to live,’” said Gonzalez. “And he was like, ‘hey, well let me know when you need that?’ and I said, ‘I’m getting a job offer in San Antonio, let me know.’”
Behind the scenes at the club, though, things were changing.
A trio of investors – David Dill, Marcus Whitney and Chris Redhage – had seen the potential the club possessed, and how it might fare in the professional ranks. After a year-long process, the community-owned club now had the financial backing to make the step up to the USL Championship, and the chance to start building a staff.
Alongside Jones, Gonzalez became the club’s first full-time employee as it began the road to launching a professional club and brand in the Music City.
“I was secretly working for them, doing the brand launch,” said Gonzalez. “It was just Chris Jones and I working in Chris Redhage’s ProviderTrust building. Him and I launched with the merch, the brand, I did the website flip, calling [USL Senior Vice President of Digital] Lizzie Seedhouse about SportsEngine. Figuring all of that stuff out just out of college, going to all of the community events, trying to get all these interns, it was really crazy, and you don’t really know it until you’re talking about it how much experience [you gained].
Lucy Gonzalez with Nashville SC players Justin Davis (left), Ropapa Mensah (center) and Bradley Bourgeois (right) during the club's time in the USL Championship.
“It was crazy lucky, but I was probably also crazy to just do it all.”
The launch event – held at Firestone Arena, home of the National Hockey League’s Nashville Predators – was a show. From the fans to the merchandise – Gonzalez still has the copy of the record sleeve that was produced in collaboration with the league to mark the occasion – it felt to Gonzalez that the club and the sport had landed with a bang.
“I was waiting for this website to be flipped, I was in the crow’s nest watching all of it,” said Gonzalez. “Incredibly exciting, you felt a shift with all of the supporters coming in. … You felt the market change within a crazy-short time.”
New staff began to arrive as the club built out, including former Major League Soccer executive Court Jeske as CEO and James Cannon, who became the club’s Vice President of Marketing, and Gonzalez’s new head of department.
“I make jokes about taking your boss’ job,” said Gonzalez with a laugh, “and there are some pros and there are some cons, because I was the Creative Director and he was the Head of Marketing.”
As quickly as the USL Championship announcement arrived, so too did the announcement that the club – now financially backed by local businessman John Ingram – would be making the move to Major League Soccer. Before the new club had even kicked a ball at the professional level in December 2017, it was heading to the top flight.
“We were changing again, changing offices as more people come in. It’s really very surreal,” said Gonzalez. “I remember coding that website, the microsite for MLS, and I couldn’t tell anybody about it in my house. I would hide my camera, hide my computer when I was working on it, it was a really cool thing for that city, to be able to do.”
At the same time, it was also getting to be a lot.
“I was thinking about where I am,” said Gonzalez. “Twenty-five years old and in a senior management position, you’re having something of a quarter-life crisis because you’re looking at what you set in college as your goals and you’re like, ‘well, I guess I developed a sports team brand, what’s next?’”
What was next proved to be a call from Cannon, and a chance to not only create a new brand, but shape a club’s ethos. Appointed President of FC Tulsa in November 2019 after his successful stint in Nashville, Cannon reached out to Gonzalez about joining him in his newest endeavor.
“James reached out and said, ‘it was really, really great working with you, we’re building this team, and just let me know,’” said Gonzalez. “I told him where I was at, because I didn’t want to be a standard marketing and brand person, I want to be able to create a brand that can utilize its community – and this is something we talk about a lot in the Impact Committee – but straight up I want to be able to use the past to connect the creative communities for growth by using this soccer team.
“I think it’s a really cool way [to approach it]. It’s going to take a little bit of time if you’re going to touch people, right, but I saw the opportunity here.”
How do you create a brand that will not only represent a club, but a community?
For a team like FC Tulsa – which was not only entering its own new era but making a break from the city’s traditional soccer nickname – the objective for Gonzalez was clear.
“I want everything to be done with intention and purpose,” she said. “[On top of that], people are going to change and evolve, and I think a brand should be able to do the same and reflect its community. It should be something that people can see and think, ‘I can be a part of that,’ or ‘I see myself being a part of that,’ and that they feel safe enough to be able to attribute themselves to it. Like when you hear a band, you can say, ‘that’s me, and I’m unabashed about this. This is the other part of me outside of me working a banking job, and a part of me I’m so proud of.’
“The one thing you can control is that experience, that feeling of community, are you creating a good environment for people to attach [to] and feel like they can use in certain ways and make it better?”
Tulsa’s sporting history has been intrinsically tied to its identity as the Oil Capital of the World. Besides the Roughnecks – who first arrived on the scene in the NASL in 1978 – the city also boasts the Tulsa Drillers baseball team, and the Tulsa Oilers hockey team, which has played in the city for almost 30 years. Moving away from that – and finding the right style to fit Tulsa’s history – was the challenge.
In every way, Gonzalez and her team delivered. The new FC Tulsa logo – featuring Oklahoma’s state bird the scissor-tailed flycatcher and black, gold and patina green colors – was an immediate hit.
“The night before, we wanted to make sure we had all the supporters and unveil it,” said Gonzalez. “It’s hard because you’re trying to create a brand that represents Tulsa as not-a-Tulsan and what you’d taken, so we’d worked with a local agency to make sure we ended up steering [in the right direction], and then the Craft brothers – awesome people, incredibly awesome – so from there once you get back and say, ‘I want you go give me input, please, because we want us all to be owners of this,’ they just opened their arms.”
There was one other thing that stuck out about the night for Gonzalez, too.
“As a female, it was really awesome to see people walking up and saying, ‘when are we going to get women’s merch?’ and ‘how can we get this, this and this?’ that they probably wouldn’t have felt comfortable asking ordinarily.”
Finding avenues for inclusivity across communities has been a goal for Gonzalez, but in Tulsa it has come front and center. Having seen first-hand the blind-spots that can arise with a lack of diversity – one instance being going to a game and finding out there weren’t any women’s bathrooms in the venue – Gonzalez is working both in Tulsa and as a member of the USL Impact Committee to identify blind spots that can help both her club and others in the USL Championship and League One serve the broader community.
Lucy Gonzalez (center) and Nashville SC's staff welcomed U.S. Women's National Team player Kelley O'Hara (second-right) ahead of the team's game at Nashville's Nissan Stadium during the 2019 SheBelieves Cup.
“I think it’s the ability for us to learn for the path to become clearer, and then if you’re asking the right questions it will just get muddy again, right?” said Gonzalez. “Coming together to share best practices as we are through these weekly conferences, we’re having those calls and we’re talking about it. We’re making sure we’re not dropping the ball and we’re always keeping the conversation going.
“I think that’s the really important thing, we’re keeping the conversation going, we’re sharing best practices so we can always learn, and knowing we’re not always going to be perfect, but we do want to learn, and we want you guys to tell us, so that’s opening it up even further for clubs to see what we’re doing and hopefully be inspired themselves.”
It’s also how Gonzalez is aiming to immerse herself in the Tulsa community beyond her role at the club. She’s currently teaching as an adjunct professor at the University of Tulsa, while also becoming a member of Leadership Tulsa.
“What I would love to be able to do is connect creative economy and communities and create just open conversations to a more equitable future for individuals,” said Gonzalez. “My goal is to see if we can give everyone value and a support system, even if it’s that one person that they go to. What if one of our players shows up and they make connections after a reading partners thing, and they have something that the kids can look forward to, that’s something sustainable. How cool would that be?”
As Gonzalez’s future was sparked within the grounds of Mapfre Stadium, she’s now looking to offer the same opportunity for others looking to find their path while also charting her own course to the future.
“It goes back to the beginning of why I got into sports, how we connect people together,” said Gonzalez. “It’s been funny for me because I love seeing these community initiatives work, and the kids’ faces, and I think I want to create more meaningful programming on our platform. Not only are we going to benefit as a club, our community is going to benefit, our sponsors are going to benefit. I’d much rather pay an artist to do a mural and have that be a big community event than just pay for a billboard if possible.
“As long as you’re working from your base, core mission, you’re there, and hopefully this will impact many in a way where we can share our resources. There should not be a competition, a rising tide will lift all boats.”
There should not be a competition, a rising tide will lift all boats.