Looking back, Andrea Yoch isn't sure how they pulled it off. When the Minnesota Aurora debuted last summer, none of their founders knew how to run a sports franchise, so managing the first season of the women's pre-professional soccer team felt a little improvisational.
"We didn't even know if anybody was going to show up,'' said Yoch, the Aurora's president and a co-founder. "It was absolutely a fake-it-till-you-make-it situation.''
She could laugh about that last week, as the Aurora geared up to face Rochester FC in Wednesday's season opener at TCO Stadium. The club now has a chief operating officer and other newly hired front-office staff. Twice as many sponsors will be on board this year, and with ticket demand high, Yoch hopes to build on a debut season that sold out six of nine home matches.
Last season felt "miraculous,'' Yoch said, as nine people created a team from scratch and watched it captivate the Twin Cities on its way to the USL W League championship game. Seventeen players return from that roster, and coach Nicole Lukic said her group will play the same dynamic style that produced a 13-1-1 record last summer.
But the fake-it-till-you-make-it vibe is gone, replaced by a professional staff managing day-to-day operations. That's freed up the founders to chart a course for turning one miraculous season into long-term success.
"When I think back to last year, I wonder, 'How did we do that?''' Yoch said. "Now, we've grown to the point where you have to have people that really know what they're doing, so you can get to the next level.
"We were able to make those hires in the offseason because of our success, because we brought in the revenue last year. I think we're in a great place. We're really excited to get going with the new season.''
Sponsorships keep rolling
The Aurora surpassed all their financial projections last season, with revenue from merchandise, sponsorships and ticket sales running as much as five times higher than anticipated. The enthusiasm didn't diminish in the offseason.
Yoch said the club has sold all available sponsorships, doubling last year's numbers. All six of the Aurora's home games will be televised on Fox 9+. Those broadcasts can also be streamed live or on demand, and Fox 9+ provided some advertising slots to the club, which also have sold out.
In addition to chief operating officer Jessica Poole, a longtime college athletics administrator, the Aurora hired people to oversee merchandise sales, ticket sales and community relations. On the sports side, they added a soccer operations director and expanded the coaching staff. Lukic and assistant coach Jennie Clark were made year-round employees.
Though the club set more aggressive revenue targets this year, it has already reached its goal for sponsorship income, and Yoch said it is "well on the way'' to doing the same with ticket revenue. Best of all, she added, companies are approaching the Aurora to forge partnerships, rather than the other way around.
"We had a tremendous amount of companies reach out to us in the winter,'' Yoch said. "The demand is there, and it's incredible.''
Lukic's aim is to keep the on-field product as appealing as it was last season. The Aurora won 13 games in a row before falling 2-1 to South Georgia Tormenta FC in the USL W League championship.
The coach, who added the title of sporting director in the offseason, said competition has been keen during training camp. The roster includes 11 newcomers, including some with professional experience. Defender Kennedy Faulknor played pro soccer in Australia after her college career at UCLA, while midfielder Hannah Adler played for Louisville of the National Women's Soccer League and in Denmark's pro ranks.
The Aurora have a major hole to fill in goal, after regular goalkeeper Sarah Fuller ended her playing career and joined the team's sponsor relations staff. Lukic has not named a starter, but returnee Taylor Kane had a goals-against average of 0.93 in six matches last year.
"We're still developing as a team,'' Lukic said. "But you can expect to see a really high-energy group with lots of creativity and lots of passion. And we're still trying to score as many goals as we can.''
The USL W League will look different this year, after it expanded from 44 teams to 65. The Aurora are committed to playing in the league through the 2024 season, but Yoch said the club is looking at all longer-term options. That includes the USL Super League, a new women's pro league set to begin play in August.
While it continues to search for a major investor to fund those ambitions, the team is keeping its goals a little simpler for this summer.
"We have to continue to show that women's soccer has a place in Minnesota,'' Yoch said. "And after getting our hearts broken in the championship last year, we want that trophy.''