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Hudson River Blue talks with Rox Fontaine, President of Third Rail SC

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Rox Fontaine gives us his thoughts about smoke bombs, ultras, the front office, The Third Rail's finances, and a whole lot more.

Third Rail President Rox Fontaine
Third Rail President Rox Fontaine
BKBOOTH!

Right before our loss to Columbus at Yankee Stadium, I talked with Third Rail President Rox Fontaine. At the game, shortly after our interview, there was an unfortunate incident involving security. You may be interested in reading Fontaine's petition regarding that incident and other matters -- as of this writing, the petition has been signed by nearly 500 people.

Hudson River Blue: Where are you from originally?

Rox Fontaine: I was born in Florida, raised in Harlem, and made in Japan.

HRB: How did you first get interested in soccer and NYCFC?

RF: I first got interested in soccer when I visited Spain in high school. Real Madrid was my first love. I would play soccer video games just to play Real Madrid. My interest in the sport really took off in Japan, actually. Before that, I was mostly interested in American Football. I served in the U.S. Air Force in Japan, and I played football on the base team. After the service, I was going to play semi-pro football in Japan, but it didn’t work out. My wife and I lived in a small town in Japan called Ina, a really tiny town. I worked nearby in Omiya for a while, and I heard they had a J-League soccer team. I was dying to see pro soccer, so we went to check it out. I lived in Japan for about eight years. When I went to this game, I felt for the first time ever like I belonged.

Normally, being 6’2" and black in Japan, everyone said to me, "You’re tall. You play basketball?  Where are you from?" At this game, there were none of those questions. People wanted to know if I liked the team, whether it was my first game, where I was sitting. That immediately turned me on to the sport.

Shortly thereafter, I came back to the U.S. for health reasons. I was still interested in the sport, so I checked out the Red Bulls online. But there’s no place like home, and Red Bull Arena never felt like home. So, as much as I said in my mind that I was going to go to a Red Bulls game, I never did. Once NYCFC was announced, a friend of mine called me up and said, "Let’s get season tickets." Ten minutes later, we were on the phone with Dave Hiller, my ticket rep.

That year, I followed every single move. I went to the SuperDraft, Third Rail meetings -- I was at everything. My schedule revolves around gamedays. If something else is happening on a game day, I’m not going to be there. Finding out that there was going to be a team at home, it was automatic for me to attach to it.

HRB: Where do you sit at Yankee Stadium?

RF: I bought my tickets in Delta SKY360. There were seven of us. This was our first time owning season tickets, and we wanted to be someplace we could conduct business, somewhere we could take a client if we needed to.

All of my friends are some degree of professional. My friend Dwight is in real estate and is a Marine reservist. My friend Cav is NYPD and a Marine reservist. They’re actually in Bahrain serving right now. I have a friend, Sheron, who sells energy and works in construction. We wanted to enjoy the team and games, but also have the option to bring a client in, to push a sale. It was the right price point, since MLS is a lot cheaper than MLB or NFL. I am by far the most hardcore of my friends. I don’t miss home games. It’s not optional. It’s not happening, probably for the rest of my life.

HRB: Has NYCFC been what you expected it to be?

RF: It met my expectations, and exceeded them in many ways, just in terms of the attachment the city has to the team. I knew that people really wanted a club here, and that we would have a committed fan base, but I didn’t know it would be to this level. I can’t even imagine what it would be like if we had our own stadium.

It has fallen short in that I never expected people to be so fussy. It’s a new club, and most of the die-hard fans have a prior relationship to the game, so they understand that many foreign clubs have histories of more than a hundred years. I don’t know why they expect us to have that atmosphere and attachment now, since we’re in year one. We have a long way to go.

The league is only 20 years old, and many of the clubs that have been in the league since the beginning still don’t have as much support as we have now. We’re selling out games with 29,000 or 30,000 people on a regular basis, and there are still clubs that can’t regularly get 15,000 in a 20,000 seat stadium. People are absurd at times. You want things for the future, but you have to engage in the process right now to get there. It takes time. It has to grow, it has to evolve. Love deepens. Fire burns hotter. That takes time. It doesn’t happen overnight.

Rox Fontaine in the stands

Rox Fontaine in the stands - photo by Chris T. Burdick

HRB: There have been a lot of contentious issues within the Third Rail, and of course, there are also a number of other supporters clubs. You’ve stepped into a situation that seems somewhat volatile. How are you dealing with that?

RF: One of the great advantages I have is my military experience. I have zero reserve about leading from the front. I hear all of the chatter, and I see all of the comments, but I’m not married to that as my mission. My mission is to make the Third Rail the best supporters group it can be.

As of right now, we are the only officially recognized supporters group. For that reason, we have an entirely different set of responsibilities that the other supporters groups don’t have. It’s not their fault, it’s not our fault, it just is. They need to be okay with me having different responsibilities. Most of the membership, and NYCFC supporters in general, see and know that I’m in it for everyone’s benefit. I don’t care what supporters group you’re in. I have friends in every supporters group. They continue to be my friends. I’m going to make friends in other supporters groups, I’m going to lose friends in other supporters groups. That’s just life. They all matter to me, but my primary concern is the Third Rail, and their objectives and responsibilities don’t always meet wants in the crowd.

Where there is compromise, I will look for it and fight for it. Where there isn’t, people have to understand, and let’s shift our focus to somewhere positive. My vision for the Third Rail is for us to be a legend when I’m done. I want a process that’s so efficient, effective and of great benefit to everyone who comes after me that every other supporters group in the MLS says, "We’ve been doing it wrong for 20 years." I can do it. I have no doubt I can do it. What I need is people to give me the opportunity to do it. If there are problems, tell me, and I’ll address it. If there’s an issue you have with me as an individual, tell me, and I’ll address it. I posted my email address in the Third Rail Facebook group, so everyone can have direct access to me.

I work full time, I’m married, and I have a son whose starting ninth grade this year. At the same time, I said I was going to be available for Third Rail, and I am available. There was a supporter who called me at 11 last night, and I answered the phone. If you email me, I’ll respond. The most I’ve seen anyone wait for a response from me is maybe four hours.

A lot of the stuff being thrown at the Third Rail is valid, and I’m actively working on addressing those issues. Everything I’ve said I was going to do, I have done. If I have not done it, it’s because I’m still working on it. That’s my guarantee to every single member. But at the same time, a lot of what’s being thrown at us is absurd. I don’t deal in absurdity.

HRB: What’s one example of a valid criticism, and one example of a criticism you feel is absurd?

RF: One thing that’s valid is the finances. A lot of people had questions about that, and I had questions about that. It’s a well-founded concern.

Before I signed on, the previous board put together a report, as best they could with what they had. Was the report perfect? Absolutely not. Why? No judgment, but they just didn’t prepare themselves for that question. Saving receipts? They didn’t do it. Using a proper back office software, like QuickBooks? They didn’t do it. Inventory, keeping track of what you ordered, what you sold, what was that money going to, was that pool of money separate from member dues. All that stuff should have been done, but it was not done. Questioning the finances was absolutely valid.

There is not going to be a perfect report for that period. It just can’t be. When we had the recent member meeting, we had just voted in a new treasurer, Eunice Montenegro. Item number one on my agenda was finances. I had her speak about her plan, and I knew what her plan was. It’s clear, it’s concise, it’s organized. She knows what she’s doing, because she did it for American Outlaws. If people want to beat a dead horse, and ask for a perfect financial report from that period, they’re going to be upset. I can’t pull receipts out of thin air or produce documents that just don’t exist.

What I can do is work with what I have and produce perfect reports going forward. We will be using QuickBooks, and I’m working on another software product that’s going to streamline our entire membership process. I have about a dozen people testing it out right now. When I leave here, I want the process to be so tight, and so precise, that people will say, "He did everything he said he was going to do." I don’t like to talk myself up and not follow through on what I said I was going to do.

Something that’s absurd is the idea that the Third Rail and me specifically are just puppets of the front office. No. Anybody can tell you that I’ve spoken with the front office twice. I’ve not even had a meeting with them because what I need to do for the Third Rail doesn’t even involve them. The relationships I need to build in [bleacher sections] 236 and 237 doesn’t involve the front office. Taking care of our finances doesn’t involve the front office. Streamlining our member process and our dues, merch, inventory -- none of this involves the front office. I’ve just spoken with them on game days, and that’s me asking if we’ve made any mistakes, if there’s anything they need me to do, if they have certain expectations of me. That’s it. I represent the people of NYCFC, not only Third Rail, just with a strong focus on the Third Rail.

HRB: What do you hope will be your relationship, and the Third Rail’s relationship, with the front office going forward?

RF: Mutual respect and trust. I want the front office to respect and trust me and our membership so much that where they’d otherwise never concede on items for the benefit of the membership, that have to do with soccer, and how we participate as fans, they’d say they can’t break on that, but they'll bend a little bit here, and they’ll give us this. I want them to say to me, "Promise me XYZ won’t happen," and I’ll say, "You have my word."

And we’ll do things. I want a relationship through the front office that connects me to the players. After the sweep, the Red Bulls reportedly sent us a red broom. I told the front office that if the broom shows up, I want that broom. I don’t want to break it. I want to send a message to the players by hanging it on my wall. I want to show these players what it means to play here. I’m going to hold this broom until you complete the sweep the other way. I wanted to send a direct message. I didn’t want to break it or smash it, which would send the message that we’re sore losers. Red Bulls did what they were supposed to do, and I’m going to do what I’m supposed to do -- fire my boys up, and give them incentive to win. If anyone at the front office is reading this: If that broom was actually delivered, I want that damn broom!

HRB: Of course, one of the big issues has been the smoke bombs. What are your thoughts about that situation and how to handle it? What about incidents like the GSU fight against ESU in New Jersey?

RF: Allow me to be frank: just stop with the smoke bombs.

There’s so much other stuff I want to do, much cooler, much bigger in scope, much higher profile. If people would stop with the smoke bombs, the stuff I’d be talking about with the front office about allowing us to do, people would say, "Who are these guys, and how did they get to that point in year one?" Until the smoke bombs go away, I can’t have those conversations. Personally, I have no issue with the smoke bombs. If we’re doing a tailgate, I’ll light them up with you. But don’t bring them into the stadium. Just don’t do it. It doesn’t benefit anybody. It makes you feel all charged up for five minutes, all hooligan, all ultra. But at the end of the day, it ruins it for everyone else. It has to stop. So far, the response has been great, and we have to keep it rolling.

(Editor's note: There were no smoke bombs at the Columbus game, which took place right after this interview was conducted, and counting that game, two of the three home games since Fontaine became Third Rail President have been free of smoke devices.)

The GSU vs ESU fight is another unfortunate thing. Some people, that’s just their attachment to soccer. Some places, ultra support, hooliganism, fighting, and brawling is a real thing. However, this is MLS, and this is New York City. We play in Yankee Stadium. You’ve got to turn it off. You’ve got to be aware enough and responsible enough to turn it off. There’s room for everybody to participate the way they want to participate, but you have to do that without ruining it for everybody else. If you want to get into a fistfight, I don’t care. Just don’t do it in places where MLS is going to see you, and it becomes a problem I have to deal with, and 2,000 other supporters, or 5,000 other supporters have to deal with and they had nothing to do with it.

It was eight people who decided they were going to kick up some dust because their guys kicked up dust in front of our home bar. You have to think about what that means for everybody else. We’re getting coverage all over the world. That tells you how much we’re being watched. We have the opportunity to set so many precedents in this sport, because we’re New York City. When GSU came here 50-75 deep and caused trouble, no one cared, but when eight people went to Jersey and caused trouble, it was everywhere.

The only reason is that it’s New York City. Everything we do is amplified by 1,000. If we can get all of the petty stuff out of the way -- stop trying to be remembered individually -- we can collectively do something memorable. That’s what I want to see.

HRB: There are currently about 2,000 Third Rail members?

RF: Yes. I’m trying to pin down the exact number. I’m member number 384. I remember when we hit 700, 1,000, 1,600. I’m sure the numbers are still moving, slowly and steadily. I plan to grow that number. I want to be at 4,000 members before my first term is over.

HRB: How will more people hear about Third Rail? What’s your plan to expand?

RF: I’m working on something I can’t talk about yet. I’m going to put it out, and it’s going to make our entire process 500 percent more effective and efficient. It’s going to change everything. When that is in place, I can focus more of my energy on advertising, member drives, and community service events. I did a beach cleanup every year for the past five years. This year, I went in as President of the Third Rail. One of the directors of events at New York City parks was there. I spoke to her. She said she’d love to work with us, on anything we want to do. Soccer on the beach? Youth initiatives? They’re always looking for volunteers, and it’s a perfect opportunity for them.

Rox Fontaine in the streets

Rox Fontaine outside Yankee Stadium - photo by Chris T. Burdick

HRB: What others kinds of charitable and community work do you want Third Rail to be involved in?

RF: I want to go to schools. I’m big on education. Being that the league is so new, and the club is so new, if we can get into schools next year and talk about fandom, we can educate the next two generations of fans, about what it means to be a fan in America, in MLS, in New York City. We can continue to grow the game here. We can develop initiatives other supporters groups and cities can follow.

All of my initiatives are major in scope. This is a once-in-a-lifetime shot. People usually don’t get to see the beginning. The people who saw the first Real Madrid game, they’re not alive anymore. I’m not going to piss my time away on smoke bombs, conflict between supporters groups, or t-shirt design. I’m excited about the education of youth, youth initiatives, charity events, growing the game, and growing the soccer culture here in New York. I also want to grow the brand Third Rail -- not as a business, but as an organization that brings in people, who bring in money, which leads to a show of massive support, which then pushes the conversation on a stadium. I want Third Rail to become a strong voice to New York City, saying "We need programs in the Bronx. We need programs in Queens. We need programs in Harlem. We need programs in Brooklyn." We can man these programs if you give us the money, and we can do that because we have 15,000 signatures. We can do that. That’s what I’m thinking about. T-shirts don’t matter to me. I want people to be happy and have a good experience as we plug along, but it’s not my grand vision.

HRB: What are your hopes about the stadium, and what do you think is actually going to happen?

RF: I hope for a 35,000-seater. I think the best location -- the best compromise for a lot of different scenarios -- is Pier 40, on the water. We win our first Cup, and there’s a barge outside the stadium launching fireworks. I hope to see an experience unlike any other in MLS.

Pier 40 would make people feel something. You’d be right on the pier, and then you’d party along the river. Everything that’s New York City is there: the lights, Houston, fireworks, Statue of Liberty. Is it going to be Pier 40? I highly doubt it. Whoever puts up the money is going to want a significant return, which I doubt the city is going to want to give up. But I’ll still keep my fingers crossed. It has to be in the city, and it has to make people feel something. You feel something in Yankee Stadium. There are 27 pennants hanging in that building. That’s why we can do 29,000 on a Thursday night.

Choice two would be Willets Point. I know there’s a lot involved, but it just works. It’s near highways and public transportation, and it’s already handling a lot of traffic. Columbia, I don’t see it, without a lot of new roads. Just make it happen and get the stadium built. Somebody’s going to lose something on all sides. You’ve just got to find a happy medium and get a deal done. It’s not going to be completely comfortable for everybody. Just get over it. If the city is worried about housing, just think about the jobs that will be created, and the revenue from taxes and parking. Think about the public housing you will get out of the deal.

HRB: How do you feel about the team’s performance?

RF: We’ve done some incredible things, and some crappy things -- like losing three times to the Red Bulls. The team has played up-and-down, which is to be expected, with the lineup changes and people coming in in the middle of the season.

It’s a difficult situation for the players, but they’re pro athletes, and it’s their job to train, practice, and compete. As of right now, they’re very marginal at their jobs, except for Poku. Villa has been amazing, but I wish he was a more emotionally controlled leader. Nemec was a good signing at the wrong price point, but he was brought into the wrong system. Andoni seems really overwhelmed. He’s used to a quiet energy. He was a quiet leader there, but you can’t be that here. He’s a bit out of his depth as related to emotions, and who he needs to be for the backline. Angelino is boss. Shay Facey is boss. Mena, one on one, you want no part of him, he’s going to beat you. In transition, you’re going to beat him. He can work on that and improve. I think he’ll be an important part of our backline, going forward. It’s a matter of pace, which was solved by Angelino and Facey, but also getting some enforcers back there. Andoni hasn’t been an enforcer. They should be scared to enter his part of the pitch, terrified to come anywhere near you.

They’ll get better. I don’t think they’re awful. Defense hasn’t been our problem really. It’s that we’re offensively unproductive. They’re a competent enough team that needs proper guidance and tactics.

HRB: How long are the fans going to maintain their interest without this team being a real contender?

RF: Next year, this team is going to be consistently competitive, and we’re going to be in playoff contention. We’ll have a whole offseason to work on tactics, then there will be a pre-season, and exhibition games.

HRB: Are there things you’d like from the players for the Third Rail?

RF: I want them to go to West 4th and watch basketball. And Rucker Park. A public school in Harlem, to talk to some kids. The projects in Brooklyn, to talk to some guys standing on the corner, who you would otherwise be terrified of. I want them to know what it means to play here. Go to Chinatown and talk to shop owners, sit with them for two hours, and watch how they work. Go to Little Italy, and eat at the mom-and-pop. That’s what I want. When they have that, it will change everything about the way they play.

In the EPL, La Liga, Bundesliga, the players know what it means to play in those places. When you play at Real? Do you know what that means? I remember going into a hissy fit after we lost to the Red Bulls the last time. I said I wish I could talk to them right now. I would have told Jason Kreis that Third Rail is demanding the players play in white tank tops until they know what it means to play for this badge. You have to earn your badges back. Don’t lose to the Red Bulls. Winning isn’t optional. This is New York City. It’s different here.

It’s not L.A. or Paris or Madrid or anywhere else. By many accounts, even from people who live in other great cities, this is the greatest city in the world. They have to get out there and experience the real, gritty city to experience that. You need that base. You play at Yankee Stadium, step outside, go across the street, take a walk up Grand Concourse.

HRB: Anything else you want to say?

RF: I want people to know that Third Rail will be one of -- if not the -- premier supporters group in Major League Soccer. Signed, Rox Fontaine.