Welcome back to 11 Questions presented by Piedmont Natural Gas -- a weekly questionnaire series designed for you to get to know the people that make up Greenville Triumph Soccer Club. Each week, our own Marion Cole will ask someone from the organization the same ten questions, but the eleventh question will be from the previous interviewee. With players, coaches, and front office staff involved, we hope to bring you a fun look inside our club!
Thsis week, I'm speaking with club president, Chris Lewis. Chris, formerly president of the Greenville Swamp Rabbits from 2012-2018, has worked in the sports industry for almost 25 years after leaving a corporate financing job on Wall Street in 1996. Since then, the Villanova alum has worked for the Philadelphia Eagles (intern for Scott O'Neil, CEO of Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment), the Philadelphia Phantoms, the ECHL League Office, the Washington Capitals (Director of Marketing/Promotions/Fan Development) and Binghamton University (Assistant AD/Director of Development).
I think it would be about sports jerseys with a focus on “vintage” jerseys. I have a pretty solid collection of jerseys that runs the gamut of sports. The vast majority are focused on hockey, as I’ve spent most of my career working in hockey at either the minor professional or NHL levels. I have a number of different U.S. National team jerseys that span from the early ‘90s into the 2000s and tons of different NHL jerseys. The coolest part is that most of my hockey jerseys are authentic, meaning worn by the players.
My collection of soccer jerseys has become more robust since getting involved with the Triumph, but prior to this career move, I had a couple USMNT jerseys and a couple from the clubs I dreamt of playing for in my youth - the New York Cosmos from the original NASL and the NY Arrows from the MISL. Let's see, football...I have a few NY Giants jerseys and some other NFL jerseys in addition to my Brian Westbrook Villanova football jersey. I don’t wear many of them anymore except the soccer jerseys a bit down here and a Giants jerseys on the odd Sunday. But when we lived up north, the hockey jerseys were a staple on the weekend! So, I’d love to chat with folks about their collections on a podcast. [Triumph vice chairman & CBO] Doug and I get into this conversation from time to time, because he has a pretty robust collection as well, and we get to talking about favorites and jerseys from the late ‘70s & ‘80s that always bring me back to my youth.
So you feel like talking about people's jersey connections could lead you to understanding where they come from a little more? I could see that leading to very interesting conversations. Do you have a favorite jersey?
I have a number of jerseys I love – 2002 USA Hockey Olympic jersey signed by the entire team including Herb Brooks! There are at least a half-dozen Hockey Hall of Famers on that sweater. It’s framed on the wall now. But I think my absolute favorite -- and because it is my absolute favorite and I may want to wear it again, it is NOT framed -- is an authentic blue - which is VERY hard to find - 1996 Team USA World Cup of Hockey jersey signed Brian Leetch. I loved those 1996 USA jerseys and getting a rare blue one with my favorite player of all-time on it and signed by him is awesome!
If we are not playing at home and I’m not traveling with the team, then I really look forward to watching my kids compete with their club teams. The parent groups for both of our kids’ teams are great, and we are very much a “sideline family." If “kids soccer” isn’t on tap for the weekend, or they are playing in Greenville, then I like to watch the pro sports that are on TV with a nice cold beverage. It’s very relaxing to me to kick back on the porch or in our newly-finished, sports-themed basement and watch a golf tournament or a football game, maybe some Villanova basketball, NHL hockey or whatever soccer match is on. I really don't discriminate when it comes to live sports. I also enjoy getting out with my family. We recently went to Lake Jocassee for a day and tubing up in North Carolina, and it was great to leave my phone in a bag for a bit and just enjoy the scenery and family time!
Oooofff, that’s a tough one. I don’t know that I can zero in on one particular meal, but I can tell you what one of my favorite meal-related things to do is? A number of years ago, we decided to transition from a big sit-down Christmas Eve meal and just do a collection of appetizer-type foods. It is now a family tradition and something the kids really look forward to. In fact, the kids now start making their appetizer lists as soon as December rolls around. It works really well as we prepare the different apps as a family -- we probably have a dozen different choices -- from slicing different kinds of meat and cheeses to wrapping pigs in a blanket to mixing up meatballs and baking brie. Things just get warmed up or put out on platters so that once we get home from church, we can dive right into the cold stuff while the other apps are warming up. The appetizers make for GREAT leftovers too! Other than that, I’m a pretty simple food person. I LOVE good wings with blue cheese dressing, and there is a place in the Philly area, right by Villanova, that has incredible wings and chicken fingers and fries with cheese that makes for a memorable meal any time we can get back up to the good ole alma mater. In fact, Diane and I are such big fans, that she even got an order, packed it up and wrapped it to keep it warm and brought it up with her on a visit to Massachusetts while I was in grad school. The last time I ate there was actually with Doug a couple of years ago. About a month after it was announced that Greenville was getting a League One club, we went up to visit with the Philadelphia Union, Bethlehem Steel and Nova’s coaches and I made a point of bringing Doug to FWOT (Fingers, Wings & Other Things). Our eyes were definitely bigger than both of our stomachs during that visit!
Professionally, it was probably while I was waiting for the results of my Series 7 securities licensing exam to pop up on the screen. Back then, this was 1992, you took it on a computer and after you hit “submit,” you waited for what seemed like a year, but was actually about 15-20 seconds, and your score comes up telling you whether you scored high enough to pass. If I failed, it was back to studying again, and I couldn’t start my job yet. In my sports career, one of the most nervous times I have had was when I worked for the ECHL League Office, which was my second job in sports. We were able to work with ESPN to get the League’s All-Star Game on ESPN2, and one of my responsibilities was to cue the PA announcer so that he was synced with the start of the broadcast. We had an issue with the headsets, and I lost contact with the director from ESPN so I had to make the call on my own. Thankfully, my gut served me well and the PA started at exactly the right time, saving us from a live TV gaffe and me having to face my boss and the ESPN director. Personally, the most nervous I've ever been was the day I proposed to Diane. Not because I thought she was not going to say yes. I mean, at that point, we’d been dating for 10 years. But I was nervous because I was proposing at Villanova, and it was at a time when folks were on campus and she wanted to stop and see her professors from senior year before we made our way to my designated proposal spot. The ring was burning a hole in my jacket pocket. I was afraid I’d lose it somehow or that we’d run out of time because we were supposed to meet friends for dinner that night. I thought all of the visiting with the chemical engineering professors would carry us right up to when we needed to head out to meet our friends. Thankfully, however, I was able to get her out of the Chem-E building after she saw a couple professors and down to my proposal spot. The rest, as they say, is history!
You said you and Diane had been dating for ten years, which is, I'm assuming, way longer than both of you were at Villanova. How did you two meet?
She’s a couple of years younger than me. We met at Nova about 2 weeks into her freshman year -- I was a junior. I had pledges go interview her and run errands for her, and that led to inviting her to fraternity parties and formals. Then all of a sudden, we’ve been dating for 10 years and I have a ring burning a hole in my pocket waiting to propose while she’s re-living the “good ole days” with her former professors...
Like many prior to me have said, my days of being up at 2AM are behind me for the most part! But, as others have said as well, Taco Bell was certainly an old go-to. Nowadays, it will likely be getting out some lunch meat and cheese to make roll-ups. Or if the sweet tooth is active, I’ll be looking for frozen chocolate chip cookies.
It’s actually a sports stat that Doug shared with me a month or so ago. Being an NFL fan, I found this both amazing and mind-blowing: Cardinals wide receiver, Larry Fitzgerald, over the course of his career - which will undoubtedly place him in a gold jacket in the Pro Football Hall of Fame - has more TACKLES than DROPS...Think about that!! A wide receiver, with a career that has spanned 15 years, has made more tackles than he has dropped passes. Incredible!
I think it would be amazing to have Coach Herm Edwards attend a match. I loved listening to Herm when he was a commentator and on-air personality with ESPN and always find his insights entertaining, informative and more times than not, inspiring. I think it would be incredible to sit with him and hear his take on what was happening on the pitch, hear how his brain processes the game. I also think he’d give an amazing locker room speech. So not only would he be great to spend time with at the match, he’d get the squad fired up and ready to run through the wall!
Wow, there are a lot, so cut me off at anytime. But I'll start with my first New York Arrows game. I was about eight years old, and I loved that team - I wanted to be Shep Messing when I grew up. I think it was actually my first professional sporting event, and I remember being so excited and continuously reminding my dad that we needed to get there as soon as the Coliseum doors opened so we didn’t miss a thing.
Watching Super Bowl XXI with my dad was really memorable. It was the New York Giants’ first Super Bowl, and we went to my grandparents house down in Florida because they had bigger TV than we did. The Giants are the only team that I have been a fan of “from the womb” as that was the only team my dad didn’t leave to me to figure out on my own. That entire season was amazing and watching each Sunday with my dad and having it culminate into watching that Super Bowl victory is a special memory for me. On that same train of thought, watching Super Bowl XXV at Villanova with my fraternity brothers, many of whom were frustrated Eagles fans, and seeing the Giants win another Super Bowl was fantastic. And it made up for the fact that they went 0-8 vs. the Eagles in my four years at ‘Nova.
I have always said that, prior to marriage and kids, the Rangers 1994 Stanley Cup victory was not only the best sporting moment of my life, but perhaps the best moment in my life! I began my New York Ranger fandom at seven years old, so going on that ride as a fan was unbelievable. I watched Game 7 of the Conference Finals in a bar in Cincy with the college buddies noted above -- which is a whole other story for another day -- and then I watched Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals with a childhood friend who I converted to a from being an Islanders fan to a Rangers fan when we were young. I actually called in sick the next day, which the brokers who I worked for were totally expecting, all so that I could get in line to buy gear. I then went to the parade in NYC with one of my best friends from college and my desk partner at the brokerage firm. We told our firm that we’d see them tomorrow and we left to head to the Canyon of Heroes! That whole hockey season was incredible.
The next one is Game 4 of the 1999 World Series. My dad was a life-long Yankees fan. Through a good friend, I was able to get us a couple of tickets in the bleachers at Yankee Stadium for Game 4, which fell on the night of my dad’s 55th birthday. Being able to get my dad to a World Series-clinching game on his birthday and being able to have that memory and to share that experience was incredibly special.
Of course, how could I not mention the 2016 Villanova National Championship game where Kris Jenkins won the title with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer? Diane is a Villanova alum as well, so we watched it together in our living room. We were both standing on opposite sides of the living room jumping up and down, yelling like crazy people when that ball went through the hoop. I mean, we woke the kids up because we were so loud.
In a different way, my first NHL playoff series with the Caps, my first game as President/GM of the then Road Warriors, now Swamp Rabbits, and our GTSC Opening Nights -- the first-ever match in Statesboro and then our first-ever home match -- are all great moments and memories as well. See, I told you this was going to be a long one. And I didn’t even mention the 1996 World Cup of Hockey Championship won by Team USA. That championship game was the day of one of my fraternity brother’s wedding, and I thankfully found a TV at the reception!
It seems like many of your fan moments are actually centered around watching those events with your family. But I'm curious -- you mentioned that it's memorable in a different way when you're seeing the event as the president/GM. How is it different?
Good question! Those moments were either before sports became my career/lifestyle or were 'Nova moments that have a special place for me and for Diane. The moments that I said were memorable “in a different way” were moments after I was living the pro sports lifestyle, which you’ve probably heard me say to you and our staff: “Sports isn’t a job. It’s not even a career. It’s a lifestyle that you have to be OK with living.” That first Caps playoff series was surreal for me because I felt like I finally had achieved a part of what I set out to do when I went back to school to pursue a career in sports. Before the first game in DC, I just sat up in the seating bowl about two and a half hours before puck drop. I looked around the arena and listened to one clicking of the puck on a stick as one of the players went through a stickhandling routine in his flip flops on the ice. It was a really cool moment and something I made sure to do each year we made the playoffs.
Now, when I got to the point where I was leading the organization, it became more about what our whole team accomplished and the admiration and pride that I felt towards our staff. One of my best moments in sports was in Cincinnati after we lost in the Conference Finals in OT in Game 6. Megan Kolak [Triumph VP of Sponsorship Marketing] called me to ask if it was OK for a handful of the staff to come up to Cincy for the game. She said, "We’ve come this far. And if it ends tonight, we want to be there, and if it goes to Game 7 tomorrow, we DEFINITELY want to be there!” I told her to get everyone in the car and hit the road – I’d get them tickets. Anyway, we lost in overtime and we all were milling around the hotel lobby trying to figure out what to do next. The bus pulled up with the team and when they walked in, the staff stood up and gave them a standing ovation. The players came over and high-fived & hugged the staff and thanked them for all they had done. I’m getting goosebumps thinking about it – it was one of, if not, my best memory as a president.
This is another one with multiple answers. Like Ross mentioned last week, I’d love to go to the Ryder Cup. Ross and I would be on opposite sides in terms of rooting interests though! That event is so much fun to watch, save for a couple recent ones where Team Europe dominated. I think being there for it and being a part of the electric atmosphere would be phenomenal. I’d also really like to go to the World Junior Hockey Championship. The WJC is such a fun tournament to watch and you just can’t beat the intensity and atmosphere of a USA/Canada game...especially if that game is for a gold medal! Going to a FIFA World Cup would be great too – especially a Women’s World Cup because the US team is a powerhouse.
I played keeper, so I likely would be a last resort to take a kick. However, if I was shooting, I think I’d want to go first so that I could hopefully bury it, set the tone, then solely focus on stopping the kicks I’d have to face.
I assume he means besides the turf vs. ice difference? Joking aside, I think one of the biggest differences is the supporter culture in soccer. Hockey fans are passionate and intense, but for the most part, that is channeled into the game experience. Soccer is more of a lifestyle for supporters. Their passion, engagement and emotional investment in the game are present every day in some way, shape or form. From the sport side, there are also some differences with regard to player contracts, agent involvement and administration. In hockey, we operated under a CBA, so there were things that were clearly defined with regard to player and club responsibilities and everyone's obligations. In soccer, the USL and the USLPA are beginning that process, so there were some things that I had to adjust to on that front as well. In the end though, there are many things that are very transferable. Relationship management is key. Organizational culture is of the utmost importance and working the business side to create sustainability and viability is a must in both sports.
You're someone who left a career on Wall Street to pursue your passion in sports. You mentioned it above, but sports, at the end of the day, is a business. For the kid who loves sports and dreams of sitting where you are, what would you tell him or her? How would you suggest they go about learning the business of sport as opposed to simply being a fan?
As I mentioned above, to me, sports isn’t a job or a career- it’s a lifestyle. You work nights, weekends, holidays, anniversaries, birthdays and you miss things. Our daughter is starting her club soccer season in the National League this weekend in Georgia, and I’ll miss that because we are playing at home. There is sacrifice, as there is with many careers, and you have to be okay with that. Many folks, especially aspiring sports execs, have a romanticized view of what working in sports means. Don’t be blinded by that. Like you said, it’s a business and viability and sustainability of teams, clubs and leagues hinges on successfully running of that business. That said, there are also really cool aspects to working in sports that you can’t get in any other business. Those moments are what drive us. For those looking to get into this business, I always advise them to get practical experience via internships and working on game days. That experience gives you a look “behind the curtain” and for hiring managers, it let’s us know that you understand and have experienced the non-glamourous side of sports. I also convey that I look for three things in people who either report to me or work for people who report to me. Those things are competency: we need to know you can do the job you’re being hired to do. Work ethic: you have to be willing to go above and beyond to get the job done and do it, not because you expect reward, but because it’s what is necessary to get the job done. And lastly, loyalty. The loyalty is not to me, I have to earn that. The loyalty is to the organization and the owner(s) who provide us with the opportunity to have our dream jobs, careers, lifestyles. My experience has been that folks who possess those three qualities are successful in sports or anything else they pursue.
If you weren't a professional athlete, what career path would you have pursued?