TULSA, Okla. – Since the club’s purchase six months ago by Tulsa natives and brothers JW Craft, Ryan Craft and Kyle Craft, FC Tulsa has undergone a transformational period.
There’s a new brand and color scheme, new partnerships, including with global soccer brand adidas that have brought the club’s new look to life with the launch of its City and State kits. Today, the club also announced a new television partnership with Cox Media Group that will bring the team to local television for the first time.
Executing much of this regeneration has been President James Cannon, who was one of the first new hires made by the Craft Family following the conclusion of the 2019 USL Championship season. Most recently the Vice President of Marketing & Communications at Nashville SC, during which time he helped the side become a success on and off the field in the Championship before its move to Major League Soccer this year, Cannon brings extensive experience in the sporting field both at an organizational and commercial level.
We caught up with Cannon to talk about his arrival in Tulsa, the work that has been accomplished already in resetting the organizations relationship with the local sporting community, his experience in Nashville, and what the expectations are in one of the most historic cities in America.
Q: First, congratulations on your new position, how does it feel to be the President of a USL Championship club?
James Cannon: First and foremost, I didn’t take this job just to be President of a USL Championship club. It had to be the right club, in the right city and with right ownership group. Tulsa checked all of those boxes for me. This city has a great music scene with two of the top concert venues in the country in the BOK Center and Cain’s ballroom. It has a renowned history in art dating back decades. You go down the list and Tulsa has everything. The only missing piece is a professional sports team that the city can rally behind. FC Tulsa can fill that void, and it is what really sold me on this opportunity.
Q: What does it mean to lead this club into a new era as it comes under the leadership of the Craft family?
JC: The Crafts have an excellent vision for what this club should be for the city of Tulsa. Tulsa’s history with soccer is extends back to the 1970s and 80s with the original Tulsa Roughnecks of the NASL. They had games where over 30,000 people were in attendance. That magic hasn’t gone anywhere. The Crafts’ new direction for this club hopes to regain some of that magic with an increased amount of investment and attention that is being poured on the field in the roster we have built and off the field with the front office staff and the community-driven connection to Tulsa. The Crafts are Tulsans, and their relationship with the city and its residents is special. I am so excited to be helping to execute their vision for their hometown team.
Q: It’s been a very big offseason for the club, most notably thanks to the change in the club’s name and colors. How important was it for the club to reset its identity to move forward?
JC: We wanted to breathe life into this club and give it a fresh start. It’s no secret that in the past five seasons, Roughnecks fans have experienced a lot of losing and a lot of roster turnover. These hasn’t been much hope for Tulsa professional soccer. Only one playoff match in five USL Championship seasons is unacceptable for our fans here who are so devoted and loyal to this club. We want them to know that FC Tulsa is different. A more globally recognizable name and beautiful crest and colors are a great way to kick off a new direction for this franchise.
Q: I have to say, I like the new brand and the concept behind it. What did the group view as the being the most important details in putting this new identity together?
FC Tulsa President James Cannon was welcomed into the studios of KJRH following the unveiling of the club's new identity in December. | Photo courtesy FC Tulsa
JC: First, we wanted to know what was important to our fans. We heard loud and clear from them that it was time for a change, not just to the crest and colors, but top to bottom in how this club interacts with its fans and the community. Knowing that, we wanted this club to reflect not only the global sport of soccer with a traditional name, but to showcase modern Tulsa. For years, Tulsa was only known for its oil industry. In 2020, Tulsa is so much more than a boomtown. It’s a city of artists, musicians, and athletes; its full of diversity and rich cultural heritages from around the world. A professional sports franchise should mirror its city, and we took the fans’ feedback to heart in building our new identity.
Q: In addition to the new branding, there have also been changes aimed at improving the gameday experience for fans, including a change in layout for the pitch at ONEOK Field. What do you think the biggest benefit to fans will be from that move?
JC: The field orientation was a no-brainer for us. With the shift, more fans will be closer to the action and will have better sightlines. We want our fans to be as close to action as possible to give us the best homefield advantage they can. When we play at ONEOK Field, opposing teams should know that our fans are going to have an impact in the match. Putting our supporters directly behind a goal will give them 45 minutes to provide an assist to our defense and keeper in keeping our own goal clean and 45 minutes to rattle the nerves of the opposing keeper and help our offense create scoring opportunities. ONEOK should be a fortress for FC Tulsa, and this new layout will help us accomplish that goal.
Q: The new branding also means a move away from the Roughnecks name, but not a complete departure with the introduction of the ambassador program that will be led by Charlie Mitchell and Victor Moreland. How important is preserving that connection to the past as the club moves into its new era?
JC: This club’s history is rich, and it’s a history that we are embracing. We will always be the Roughnecks, even if that is a nickname and not an official team name. There are no two more famous or impactful Roughnecks than Victor and Charlie. To have both on our side, helping us preserve that incredible Tulsa soccer history is a privilege. Fans can look forward to throwback nights as we honor that history.
Q: You’re arriving from an organization in Nashville SC that came a very long way in a very short time, what were the biggest lessons you learnt from your time in the Music City? What are you hoping to apply to this new situation?
JC: I think my biggest takeaway from my time in Nashville is the success that we had as a new USL Championship franchise in an extremely competitive market. That success was driven by grassroots marketing, getting out and engaging with our city, participating in community events and being active in promoting our product. It’s a simple recipe, but has been proven time and time again to be successful in professional sports. Our goal is to have that same level of success with a similar recipe here in Tulsa.
Q: Just as you had in Nashville, there is a strong central core of fans in Tulsa that have stuck by the club over its first five years, and it sounds as though the meetings you’ve had with those groups have been very productive. How important are they going to be in helping FC Tulsa make its mark locally?
JC: We have done our best to put our fans in the front of our minds in every decision we have made this offseason. From our fan-friendly ticket prices to our recently completed Supporters Cup, we want the fans, and especially our most ardent supporters, to feel like they are valued and appreciated highly by the club. We featured some of those fans in our jersey launch last week. There is no way we can make any sort of mark, whether that’s locally, nationally or globally, without our fans.
Q: One of the things I think you did very well in Nashville was putting a face on the product, whether that was players, coaches or fans. It certainly feels as though that’s been at the front of mind this offseason as the club has introduced returning players and newcomers?
JC: And you saw that exact thing with our City and State Kits launch. We featured both our fans and our players in our content that we released on social media and through our site. We want our fans and players to feel a connection with one another. This offseason, we made a point to sign our best talent to multiyear deals and announce them as such so our fans know that our best talent is staying in Tulsa. They can be allowed to get attached to their favorite players. You will continue to see us do our best to build that connection as we move through 2020.
Q: One thing that always seems to be a cure-all is consistent success on the field, and there are some very exciting new faces joining the side for the new season. How hopeful are you that this side is one that will jell quickly and make an impact in the Western Conference?
JC: Well you never know until a ball is kicked for real, right? And a lot of a team’s success is based on factors out of their control, whether that be injuries, fixture congestion, weather, etc. However, we know that Tulsa needs a team to cheer for that it believes can win every single time it steps foot on the pitch, home or away. The Crafts have led that vision, and it’s one I share. They have shown their commitment in a lot of ways, but one I believe is really tangible is the resources they have invested in the roster.
In one offseason, with their investment, Tulsa has gone from extreme underdog to legit contender in the Western Conference. Incoming talents like Lebo Moloto, Ariel Martinez, Bradley Bourgeois, Rodrigo da Costa, Marlon, Maicon and others whom we have signed show that commitment. We’ll see what happens this season, but I think we are going to open a lot of eyes around the league.
Q: What’s the biggest challenge you’re expecting to face in the next 12 months?
JC: That’s a great question. I think something that we have seen this offseason, is that it’s going to take some time to win back some soccer fans in this city. We have heard from some fans that the amount of losing and the way they were treated in past years was not good enough. We need to build that trust back. The only way to do so is to consistently deliver a great product on and off the field. We need to win games, have a great gameday experience, be a fixture out in the community, etc. We have to prove it. Every day.
Q: Is the opportunity to rise to that challenge one of the things you’re looking forward to?
JC: 100 percent. This wasn’t going to get fixed in a single offseason. It’s not a snap of the fingers to change the culture and perception surrounding the entire club. This is a long-term play for all of us here at FC Tulsa, and we will give this city a team to be proud of.
Q: Three years from now, where do you expect FC Tulsa to be?
JC: My expectation is that FC Tulsa is considered one of the class teams in the USL Championship within three years. Teams you think of right now are Phoenix Rising FC, Louisville City FC, Indy Eleven and New Mexico United. We expect to be in that upper echelon of franchises in this league. And if we have a gold star above our crest? That wouldn’t be so bad either.