This wasn’t part of Jessica Poole’s job description. But when you’re the chief operating officer of an amateur women’s soccer club with only four full-time employees and lots of contractors and volunteers, you chip in where you can. So there was Poole last week, carrying a long corner flag one-handed off the pitch meeting at TCO Stadium after the unbeaten Minnesota Aurora drubbed the Chicago Dutch Lions, 6-1.
The hiring of Poole, a former college athletics administrator, represents the women-led Aurora’s most important step yet as it transitions from its community-funded origins to a full-fledged professional organization. Aurora’s founders dream big. They envision Aurora moving up from the USL W League to the professional USL Super League, which debuted this year, and ultimately the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL).
A lot has to happen before any of that, including finding a principal owner with deep pockets. First, Poole, 39, must assemble a staff and figure ways to generate year-round revenue to fund Aurora’s expanding operations. It’s not like she’s taking over a floundering club, either. Aurora reached the USLW championship game last season (its only loss in a 13-1-1 finish) and led the league in attendance at 5,626 per match, better than three of the NWSL’s 12 clubs. And this season, Aurora is 7-0 heading into Saturday’s home match against Bavarian United.
“It’s very rare you get to build something in sports, right?” Poole said. “In my experience in the college level, you’re coming into something and you’re asked to maintain it, or you’re coming into something and asked to completely redo it because it’s not working.
“This is a situation where, the foundation, the groundwork, the support, all of that is here. I have the ability to kind of craft it and make it, and make us, attractive to the next level.”
Poole’s arrival makes her the highest ranking Black female decision-maker among local pro and amateur clubs. A multi-sport high school athlete in Ann Arbor, Michigan (soccer, swimming and water polo), Poole took an less-travelled career path, starting out in athletic communications, aka sports information. That means she’s done everything from writing women’s basketball game notes to temporarily running an athletic department.
After earning a journalism degree from the University of Missouri in 2005, Poole spent more than 11 years in sports communications roles at North Carolina-Greensboro, Michigan, Dartmouth, Mississippi and Vanderbilt.
In September 2018 she moved into administration, as senior associate athletic director for external relations at Florida Atlantic University. Seventeen months later, she headed to Chicago State University as executive senior associate AD. Soon promoted to deputy AD/chief operating officer, Poole spent four months as interim AD in 2022 after Elliott Charles resigned. Last year she became the first Black woman to serve as president of the College Sports Information Directors of America (CoSIDA).
When the COO search began, Aurora President and Board Chair Andrea Yoch asked Matt Privratsky, another founder and board member, to contact area college ADs for recommendations. Macalester College’s Donnie Brooks urged the founders to consider Poole, a former colleague at Dartmouth.
“She was so committed and extremely passionate, especially about the sports she worked with and the student-athletes she was serving,” Brooks said. “As I saw her go chase her dream, I started to see the rise … When this job came open, I knew she’d be a great person to bring that passion and that commitment to the program.”
Yoch said it made a ton of sense to hire someone with a college background.
“First, our athletes are amateurs, so we deal with a lot of NCAA regulations,” she said. “Also in college programs, you’re dealing with budgets and (public relations) and fundraising and athlete health and wellbeing and facilities and schedules – a lot of the things we need a COO to do.
“Figuring out the budget for road trips is not a foreign conversation. It’s something Jessica has done for many teams. While Aurora is new to her, running a team is not new to her. That made the transition a lot easier. She understands things about the budgets and the books and payroll and insurance, all the things you need to be a strong business and have a good business foundation.”
Aurora put together a near-championship inaugural season with volunteers, freelancers, contractors and one full-time employee – marketing and communications coordinator Brenna Keeler. Now it has four full-timers: Poole, Keeler, Merchandise Manager José Sanchez and Vice President of Community Andréa Carroll-Franck (also a founder).
Poole, who started working remotely from Chicago in March, still can’t believe Aurora accomplished so much with one full-timer.
“I thought it was pretty amazing,” she said. “I think it’s unbelievably rare. I think it’s unbelievably commendable. And I would not advise it for people. You very quickly learn that you need someone that’s day to day in the grind to keep tabs on things.”
Yoch said the club is trying to hire a vice president of sponsorship, a role Yoch assumed and sought to ease out of when she broke her right tibia in a bicycling accident a few weeks back. She attended Aurora’s 5-0 opening night victory over Rochester FC in a wheelchair, pushed by her husband Steve.
Poole plans to expand Aurora’s marketing and communications departments as she seeks out more revenue. With only six regular-season home matches, Aurora badly needs other sources. Average attendance at the halfway point is down slightly from last season, from 5,138 to 4,864. Aurora anticipated a sellout crowd of 6,000-plus Wednesday night for Green Bay at TCO Stadium, but issued ticket refunds when the worst recorded air quality in Twin Cities history forced a change of venue. (Aurora won, 5-0, indoors without spectators at the St. Croix Valley Recreation Center in Stillwater.)
But sponsorships are up, with several clients contacting Aurora instead of the other way around. One of the newest sponsors, Ghiradelli chocolate, opened a free s’mores booth with three fire pits inside TCO Stadium. Yoch said Ghiradelli’s local sales rep messaged her on Twitter after bringing his daughter to games last year.
“I’ve been in the business 30 years, on the sales and sponsorship side for a number of those years with KARE-11 and Minnesota United,” Yoch said. “I’ve never received inbound emails like this team has. It says a lot about people understanding women’s sports are a legitimate place to put your money, and that this team is doing something special, that our audience is special and different from other teams.”
Aurora still has about $500,000 remaining from the $1 million in seed money kicked in by more than 3,000 community owners. But that’s for special investments, not the day-to-day bills.
“That revenue generating piece is something that is keenly on my mind every single day,” Poole said. “We’ll get there. I’m really excited about some of the opportunities that we have.”
For now, Poole and her two-year-old son are settling into a home in St. Paul’s Mac Groveland neighborhood, a few blocks from Brooks, his wife Shevie and their three kids. Certainly, Poole has a strong product to sell. On the pitch, the roster assembled by Coach and Sporting Director Nicole Lukic might be even stronger than last season.
Again leading the Heartland Division, Aurora scored 25 unanswered goals before allowing its first of the season, on a free kick in its fifth match. Hannah Adler, a University of Denver standout who played professionally in Europe, leads Aurora with eight goals, two more than South Dakota State University’s Maya Hansen of Savage, a holdover from last year. In goal, Amanda Poorbaugh ably replaced the retired Sarah Fuller. Fuller now works for the club as a sponsorship coordinator.
With Poole on board, game days are a lot less stressful for Yoch and the rest of the board.
“I’m looking forward to actually allowing the founders and everyone to just kind of enjoy games,” Poole said. “Come and watch. Let me put out the fires. You guys have built this. Let me carry it for you forth.”