Chris Keem is the CEO at the Oahu League of the Hawaii Youth Soccer Association. Although soccer is not the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about Hawaii, coming across Chris’ Linkedin profile intrigued my interest and I wanted to learn more about his organization. Chris shares his passion for soccer every day while being six to seven steps away from the beautiful Pacific Ocean. With this beautiful backdrop, Chris works tirelessly ensuring the league is flourishing throughout Hawaii and providing a safe space for young athletes in the state. Through this interview, Chris shares what his position exactly entails, and a little bit about why he does what he does, and exactly how he does it.
Please note: The interview with Christopher Keem was conducted via a typed conversation. Editing changes were made to make it easier to read while maintaining the voice of the interview.
For our organization we have changed slightly as the major part; the games, are in suspension as we try to follow guidelines from CDC and our local government. We can only be so hopeful that the world gets back to a normal setting (although it will be a new normal) sometime this summer. Our 3rd Quarter revenues will be down significantly, and the 4th quarter looks even worse. Even if we can move forward in mid-May through June, it’s not a rosy picture, but we will adjust. I’ve been lucky to move to an organization with a healthy reserve. We can weather the storm for the rest of the fiscal year.
As for what we are doing while there are no games, I’ve been meeting with our staff, contractors, and committees via zoom. Discussing possibilities of what we could be doing, extending the playing season, or coming up with mini-tournaments and festivals to get the kids out and playing.
Trying my best to learn as much as I can about managing through a crisis like this, as I’ve been doing a lot of reading from the Harvard Business Review. It has given me time to develop some classroom sessions for our clubs, as the recent Wall Street Journal the “Coronavirus Could Cause Youth Sports Recession” By Rachel Bachman, really spoke about the future of youth sport and what could be expected. It has just accelerated what I was going to do with the clubs and given me the time to create. http://edspora.com/ is a great resource developed by one of my mentors, Andrew Donnery, and is the platform I’ll be using in the next week for all of that.
I’m still able to work on the partnerships for the league. It was vital to get these done this year as we had not had any partnerships. So, we are finalizing soccer equipment suppliers, goal suppliers, match analytics firms, and more. The Corporate Partnerships side will be on hold as the sponsorship market will undoubtedly be affected much as it was in 2008. We were just beginning to put plans in place for that, as we had never done that; however, we are still able to get items put together for an inventory of what we have. What any partner may want to invest in us will change now in this new landscape, but we still want to diversify our revenue sources to get away from solely fee-based revenues. This will help us in the future.
I want to add value to our members and stakeholders, my focus is trying to create content (or finding other content) to provide to our membership through our social channels, while also developing ideas that maybe engage them. We have a lot of players that have moved onto pro soccer from our league, so hopefully, we can get some Q&A’s with them over the next couple weeks keep the players and coaches engaged. If we can provide meaningful content from the Government to help with their Business/Clubs, some personal connection, and just saying “Hi, how are you and how is your family, we hope you’re staying safe”, I think will really help mentally. Everyone is stressed, our Island has been really affected, as the Military and Tourism are our main drivers of economic activity. A lot of folks are out of work, so we can just do our part to help. As Jurgen Klopp says, “Soccer (Football) is the most important of the least important things.”
I’ve been very fortunate to be the first-ever President & CEO of the Oahu League of Hawaii Youth Soccer Association. Currently, we are trying to weather the pandemic caused by COVID-19, like everyone. We have suspended our current Spring Seasons (3 of them – Futsal, Scrimmage Season for the U6-U12 age groups, and our competitive u13-U19 age groups), so managing expectations, paying attention to government guidelines, and working on solutions, forecasts, and doing our best to stay as engaged as possible.
Typically, I have the best office in the world, I think. I overlook the Pacific Ocean, and it’s about 6-7 steps to the water from where I do most of my work. It allows me to think of the strategic initiatives we are developing between our volunteer board, myself and the staff. I oversee the organization and have a fantastic Operations Manager, Sayoko, is the person who has been full-time with the organization for a couple of years now. She knows all the ins and outs of our member organizations and is vital to our success. Typically what I’m doing is meeting with our members, sitting on the various committees, and using my experience as a club GM in Canada and the States to help guide some of our members who need the assistance, while also understanding where our larger clubs are coming from. I’m also working on many corporate partnerships now.
I’ve always wanted to be in a leadership position in sports. Since I was 15 or 16, I remember forming a team that went to nationals for the old “Arena Style” soccer. Literally formed the team, brought the coaches in and we qualified through Pittsburgh and went to Kansas City that year (it was Easter and so beautiful, spring came much earlier there than in Erie, PA!). From there I played in college at Buffalo State, when I tore my shoulder up, it was time to retire from playing and I moved into coaching after I finished my undergrad. I went on to assist at Buffalo State, and be the Goalkeeper Coach at Salisbury University, and Canisius College (plus coach youth in the OPDL in Ontario, as well as with the Ontario Provincial Program) with a couple of minor league teams in the US and Canada – Queen City FC & and Milltown FC).
In college, I formed a fantasy sports league, it helped me later with connections in the sports world because front office folks (along with my friends) played in this niche league. I ran it for 4 years before a company in Maryland hired me to run it for them.
When I was at Salisbury, I remember speaking to one of the hockey players I was friends with at Buffalo State, he just got a job working there as an assistant SID and I was seeing a bunch of athletes I went to school with getting jobs in college athletics, not volunteering as a coach, but getting paid. He said, do what we have done, take the Higher Education Administration Master’s Degree. So, I did, my goal was to be an Athletic Director, utilizing my playing, coaching, and sports admin experience that I would gain eventually.
After my Master’s degree finished in ’05, I had a crazy idea to start a team in Buffalo to play in the NPSL. I bought a Liverpool FC hat on my way up to see my GF in Canada, and as I was walking to my car, I thought – it would be amazing to start a soccer team, in Buffalo. That city has given me so much joy. I got to my GF’s house and said hi, I have some ideas. I need to get my laptop out, sorry! So, I literally went and sat down with my Laptop and started to develop Queen City FC. Called one of my good friends Dennis Behrens and said listen I have this idea…and it went from there. We called in Mike Strangio (teacher in Buffalo Schools now), Brendan Murphy (now Head Coach at D’Youville College), Kevin Brenner (Head Coach at Elmira College, and NCAA Division 3 National Chair now). We met at Cole’s in Buffalo and Queen City FC was born. I knew I wasn’t the best coach in the world, (I’m adequate and have had great mentors, so I can pass on what I’ve learned to help the next generation). So, I just helped randomly with Queen City FC and left Brendan Murphy and our Head Coach Mike Middleton to it.
We couldn’t get full-time jobs in sports at the time, so we basically just created our own company and went from there. We had a lot of amazing backers in Buffalo, and I still speak to a lot of the families that were involved. They push me every day. We also became the only soccer team ever from the city of Buffalo to win. We won the Northeast Region of the NPSL in 2007 and we finished as National Finalist that year as well. I knew from there; I was in the right career path.
My big goals, I would love to be US Youth Soccer CEO, or Ontario Soccer, or Canada Soccer CEO. The small goals continue to learn and be a positive and better leader. When I first moved to Canada, the soccer culture was extremely negative (it still is) – so that was tough. Folks did not want to help one another there, it started from the coaching licenses down to the clubs. It is not a healthy environment, especially coming from the US where it was much better in terms of camaraderie. So, I took on some of those negative traits and was not happy with myself.
As for weekly goals, I don’t. What I try to do is set up the plans for the year and set goals for my staff. For my staff, we don’t do formal reviews, we do Quarterly Goal Setting and try to see where we are on track and where we aren’t. Formal reviews are stressful for everyone, me and that staff member. I want a healthy relationship with my staff.
I do not believe in daily meetings with staff, or weekly for that matter. If you hire the right staff, you should be able to get quick updates in conversations with them. Meetings for meetings are pointless. 6-hour board meetings are pointless.
Speaking with staff daily, seeing how they are doing, and trying to help them through stressful times is better. We still have meetings to ensure we are on the same page, but that is bigger picture things.
I believe in empowering my staff. When they take ownership of their position they do well. If they need help or guidance, I have done their job at some point, so I can offer them help. It’s just like coaching players. For my career – I have been lucky at some of the organizations I’ve worked for to have great mentors (even one of the positions that I did not love – had a fantastic mentor that really helped me move on from there). Those mentors have taught me a lot about the management of business and sporting clubs (with Dr Matt Robinson and Andrew Donnery at United Soccer Coaches & University of Delaware -through the Director of Master Coach and Soccer Leaders Diploma, I have been fortunate to have two amazing individuals to help me with any issues).
I try to read as much about business leadership to help me. Constantly trying to reference what I learned through my Higher Education Masters and the Master Coach Diploma. My goal was to be an Athletic Director, although I’m not at a school, I’ve been in an educational environment with sporting clubs.
The league we run is through US Youth Soccer, we are the largest league in Hawaii and makeup about 94-96% of the Hawaii Youth Soccer Association (State governing body). It is for 6-year old’s through 19-year old’s and we offer three outdoor seasons and 3 futsal (indoor) seasons. All told we have around 5,000 participants annually.
When I first came to Hawaii, all I would hear is that our players must move to the mainland to get ahead, the mainland does this, blah blah blah. I met individually with every club in our group (28 clubs). I would hear the same thing. Then I would say, but you have this many players in the NWSL, this many players that have played for the Men’s national team, this many players in the Youth National Team set-ups, this many players in MLS, this many in minor leagues, this many in Division 1 College soccer and so forth. Per capita, we have the highest rate of players playing at the next level than anywhere else in the country. Most European cities would kill for this. We have just over 1 million on this island and only so many play soccer, yet we are doing this well? Can you not see this??? I don’t think they really believed me, but then a recent article in TopDrawerSoccer.com pointed out that Hawaii has the highest number of Division 1 players per capita in soccer. I laughed and said there you go; actual research has proven my theory.
I love going to our facility, it’s a city facility with 23 fields and a lovely soccer stadium. We have some fantastic teams, there is a group that from U9-U11 are my favorite group, Athleta FC, their kids are amazing to watch. So many other groups are doing cool things here, various ideas on how to develop players, it’s fantastic with Asian, Hispanic, European backgrounds. We have so many NCAA and NFL players coming from here, there is no reason we can’t do that in soccer and have more MLS/NWSL and US National Team players.
I was brought here to bring value to the league, we have a lot of tremendous growth opportunities to help develop coaches that in turn will develop the players even more. Opportunities to help market themselves without having to fly all over the place all the time. Be more cost-effective in how we approach things.
Think I answered that inadvertently above. It’s always been a passion, I’ve played soccer since I was 6, my dad really dislikes it, but my mom thought it would be something to do when I was little. I played basketball and baseball, I was not a shining star in either, but I played and had fun. Soccer though for me, I was good at, it became my identity and I have been so lucky to work in it for the past 14 years.
My favorite part is talking to the coaches, club leaders,and parents at the sidelines. Making sure they are getting what they want out of it. At the end of the season, shaking hands with the players, saying hi. I want them to get what they want out of it too (it’s usually way different than what the other groups I mentioned want). Did they have fun? Can we do some cool things to make them even happier off the field?
I want to create Life-Long Enjoyment of Sport, healthy active adults, good citizens. That’s what my priority is. I love to try and figure out the issues that plague our sport, lack of match referees (just like all sports around the world), develop a coach the coach’s network, develop high-performance standards, how we can run the business better and serve our members.
Least favourite is dealing with discipline. Issues stem from lack of mentorship for referees and the coaches.
Both parties really need to be taught how to manage themselves and their emotions. I’m constantly trying to work with our Referee Association and the Club Members on how they interact with their folks and “manage” games.
I work in sports though, so honestly, I’m not in this for the money. It’s non-profit, and I love it. Probably could be in private industry and doing well financially but would not get the satisfaction I get each week at the pitch talking to folks.
I’ve had some great mentors as I’ve mentioned, Andrew Donnery, Dr Matt Robinson, Rich Hartis, Rudy Pompert, Dino Rossi, and Paul Varian to name a few. I just want to respect what I’ve done, know that at the end of the day I’ve helped accomplish my core values, and have helped my staff accomplish those as well.
Be Inclusive, Intentional Skill Development, Family Balance, Promoting Lifelong Enjoyment of Sport.
I mean how can you not love it?
One of the best movies ever and Queen City FC played in the stadium that was Wrigley Field in it! All-High Stadium in Buffalo, NY