A European football club with Champions League aspirations that you could part own? Where’s the catch?
The good news is that there isn’t one. For as little as $500, fans can invest in FC Pinzgau Saalfelden, an Austrian third-tier club based in the shadow of the Alps. If you’ve not heard about them, you soon will. FCPS are managed by former German international and Bayern Munich, AC Milan, Tottenham, Liverpool and Middlesbrough star, Christian Ziege.
Founded in May 2007 by Christian Herzog, Siegi Kainz and Herbert Bründlinger, the club is still in its infancy, but are ready to go places thanks to the ambitions of three American investors.
Mark Ciociola had long held a lofty ambition to own a European club because of the frustration of no tangible benefits as a supporter and season-ticket holder at Real Salt Lake; Trey Fitz-Gerald is a media and marketing veteran in professional sports, whilst Steve Paris has 25 years of business experience in both big corporate and start-up settings.
FC Pinzgau celebrate a goal
“Fan Owned Club”, or FOC for short, is the vehicle that has been created by the board in order to give supporters the opportunity for early investment and a real return on their money if the team become as successful as most predict.
Unlike offerings elsewhere, where a token certificate is considered a ‘reward,’ your investment as a Fan Owner at FCPS will get you unprecedented access to, participation in, and influence on key club operational and strategic decisions. If your thoughts are that it’s too good to be true, then don’t take the club’s word for it.
Here’s one of the early-stage investors, New Yorker Eric Krajewski: “My first impression was this is a completely unique, possibly once in a lifetime, opportunity to be part of a soccer adventure. I live in Buffalo, New York and no longer feel connected to the local teams. So, I was in the market for some soccer in my life. And the FCPS opportunity came along at just the right time.
“Investing in the club financially has made me feel more invested in a supporting sense. The more my experience mirrors the experience of our executive team, the more compelling the project becomes. The best part of being a Fan Owner is caring about something and have that something care about you. The relationship is two way. I’ve collaborated with the executive team and they have been very receptive and positive.”
Chris Walz, like Eric, was intrigued by the whole concept, and he too has already invested in FOC: “It was such a novel concept. In this age of billionaire club owners, obscene transfer fees and outrageous ticket prices, soccer seems to have gotten farther and farther away from average fans. The vision of taking a small, lower-division club in a ‘smaller’ European country and creating a fan-owned club with the goal of rising up to the top division and qualifying for Europe was incredibly appealing. Just something about the entrepreneurial spirit and hopeful idealism of the whole thing was really compelling – especially in the middle of a global pandemic.
“Being able to call myself an ‘owner’ makes me feel invested emotionally in addition to financially. And the ability to have input on club decisions gives you a sense of involvement and impact you wouldn’t get otherwise. You genuinely feel part of something bigger than yourself. Almost like the first employees at a start-up company. it’s the opportunity to own part of the club and feel invested in a project with other fans just like you from around the world that was the primary appeal.
“It feels very personal and grassroots – the opposite of corporate. Being in on the start of a journey full of possibility with potential joy and heartache is super exciting. As they say, why follow a club when you can own one?”
FCPS came into being after the merger of Saalfeldner SK (established in May 1947, with blue and yellow colours) and ESV Saalfelden (established in 1952, with white and green colours). Given that the former was the club of businesspeople and a latter the club for the workers, there were a number of hurdles to clear before FC Pinzgau Saalfelden came into being.
Weeks of talks concluded with the club being called SG Saalfelden. The first team would play at ESV’s Stadium, the current Saalfelden Arena (main picture), whilst the youth teams would play at the old SK Saalfenden pitches.
With the newly-formed team aiming to insert the name of the region, Pinzgau, into the official club name shortly after – unheard of to that point – other local sides attempted to stop them from flexing their muscles. Their motives were clear, and it wouldn’t have helped that the first coach of the senior side was Wolfgang Feiersinger, a player who had won the Champions League with Borussia Dortmund.
Saalfelden Arena, home of FC Pinzgau
Although not immune to the criticism, the Austrian owners were clear on their vision and the club was eventually christened FC Pinzgau Saalfelden – or FCPS for short.
Turning professional was discussed, but nothing ever progressed as staying as an amateur outfit suited all three owners at the time. As the best in the area consistently, taking the club to the next level would eventually have to be talked about properly, but each time the owners got together, none could decide on how to progress things sufficiently.
FCPS then won their first-ever promotion from the Salzburger Liga, Austria’s fourth tier, into the Austrian Regionalliga West. Twenty-four wins, three draws and three losses, with a goal difference of +50, saw the title won in 2010/11, but a lack of consistency thereafter eventually saw Markus Fürstaller given the coach’s job at the beginning of the 2014/15 campaign.
His four finishes of 12th, 8th, 12th and 15th meant that the club was doing okay, but by now the Austrian owners’ ambitions had far outstripped ‘okay’.
Serendipitous, perhaps, but Ciociola had got word of FCPS at about the same time. Pitching an idea of the club becoming fan owned was unexpected to say the least, but the Austrian owners were gracious enough to hear what he had to say.
After a few conversations, Messrs Herzog, Kainz and Bründlinger were eventually won over by Ciociola’s enthusiasm, and when Alessandro Ziege joined the club, little did everyone know that his signing would end up shaping the future of the club further.
After the club cancelled Fürstaller’s contract, Alessandro’s father, Christian, offered to step in and help train the team. As discussions to make ‘Fan Owned Club’ a reality were drawing to a successful conclusion, Trey managed to tie Ziege Snr to sign a long-term contract.
That appointment had everyone in the locale – and beyond – talking, and FCPS were making the headlines once again. With all six co-owners now playing a significant part, the premise for the new venture was simple. Today, Austrian Regionalliga West; tomorrow, the Champions League. With the board able to broker deals with teams across the world, they quickly went to work.
A brilliant 2019/20 campaign was destined to end successfully under Ziege, but unfortunately the coronavirus pandemic hit at the worst possible moment. On the verge of playing in the Austrian Eliteliga West playoffs for the first time, with the potential for promotion to the second tier, the season was cancelled. A bump in the road certainly, however FCPS is committed to season-on-season improvements moving forward.
Maybe you’d like to join them on their exciting journey? Interested fans can pick up a piece of the club here.
By Jason Pettigrove