Sports Endeavors, the parent of Soccer.com, recently sold a majority stake in the company to Seawall Capital. In an interview with SGB Executive, CEO Mike Moylan, shown left above, said the funding is expected to support continued momentum around the sport of soccer that’s expected to reach another inflection point when North America hosts the 2026 World Cup.
“It’s an exciting time for soccer globally,” said Moylan. “Seawall Capital’s investment will help us build our company aggressively to meet the upcoming opportunities we see arising from youth soccer participation growth, the continued rise of the men’s and women’s North American professional leagues and success on a global scale, and the U.S. co-hosting the Men’s World Cup in 2026.”
Sports Endeavors, based in Hillsborough, NC, was founded by Moylan and his brother and current COO, Brendan Moylan, shown right above, in 1984 when both were in high school. They remain significant minority investors.
The idea for the company came from a high school senior project Moylan had that called to make your “avocation into your vocation,” or your hobby into a career.
“I grew up in a big family and everybody played soccer, mostly through college,” Moylan told SGB Executive. “And we turned what we knew as young players finding it hard to find equipment into the idea that there was a need for a soccer catalog.”
His father, who ran the family dairy business, liked the catalog idea and notion of launching another family business enough to lend the brothers $20,000 to explore the opportunity. Moylan admits he and his brother also had some help from others in the early years. He said, “The benefit of starting a business when you’re 16 and 17 years old is everybody wants to make sure you’re successful. Maybe we had some bad ideas at the beginning, but we got a lot of support from everyone, including the brands in the early days.”
With the internet still about a decade away, Sports Endeavors started as a catalog called Eurosport. Although Pelé’s three-year stint with the New York Cosmos in the North American Soccer League (NASL) in the mid-seventies sparked an uptick in interest in soccer in the U.S., the name came from sports media continually referring to soccer as a “European sport.”
In 1994, on the first day URLs were available to register, Sports Endeavors acquired the Soccer.com domain for about $25. By the time the 2006 World Cup was held in Germany, Sports Endeavors had transitioned from Eurosport to Soccer.com.
Sports Endeavors’ initial launch came as the sport of soccer was struggling to gain a foothold as a spectator sport. The North American Soccer League (NASL), which included the New York Cosmos, folded in 1984, the year the Eurosport catalog debuted. The Major Indoor Soccer League (MISL) folded in 1992.
In 1990, the U.S. men’s national team would qualify for the World Cup for the first time since the 1950s but the accomplishment received minimal media coverage.
A breakthrough for soccer fandom, according to Moylan, came in 1994 when the World Cup was held in the U.S. Said Moylan, “I think it opened people’s eyes to not only what was happening on the national level, but internationally as well.”
More Americans became fans of teams and players from European leagues and the arrival of the internet, also enhanced exposure. Previously, soccer players relied on the Eurosport catalog for updates on the European leagues. News of games would often be delayed by four to five weeks, said Moylan. He remarked, “We talked to a lot of players on the U.S. national team that were playing in the 90s and early 2000s and they had a story about the catalog coming in the mail and sewing their connection to the game globally.”
The reward of the World Cup also set in motion the founding of Major League Soccer in 1996. With some controversy around holding the World Cup in a country where soccer was not a nationally popular sport, FIFA made creating a professional soccer league a condition in awarding the event to the U.S.
For women, players from the national team in the 1990s trained in Chapel Hill, NC, and many, including legend Mia Hamm, worked the call centers and warehouses at Sports Endeavors to earn money with little income from playing soccer. The U.S. women’s team broke out at the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup when the event took place and was won by the U.S. with Hamm, Julie Foudy and Brandi Chastain becoming household names for soccer fans.
Soccer is now the fourth most popular sport in the U.S. after football, basketball and baseball. Thirty-one percent of Americans call themselves soccer fans, an all-time high, according to a 2019 Gallup poll.
Soccer.com benefited from the expansion of youth participation in soccer over the last several decades as a provider of team uniforms to youth soccer clubs and academies in the U.S.
In 2021 and 2022, more than 800,000 students played on high school soccer teams, ranking soccer fourth after track and field, basketball and football, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS). In 1969 and 1970, soccer ranked 11th in popularity, with fewer than 50,000 students playing high school soccer.
Sports Endeavors operates one of the largest sports jersey customization facilities in the U.S., but Moylan said the biggest differential for Sports Endeavors, from a competitive standpoint, is a proprietary technology that enables the company to organize, manage and manufacture uniforms for its club and academy partners.
“Some of our partners have 20,000 youth members,” said Moylan. “So that’s all the jerseys, shorts, socks, and warm-ups, along with the bags, balls and anything else that has to go along with that. And we do that from a unique front end in terms of the customer-facing side in that we deliver all that to the individual customer’s door. In the past, a manager or coach might have organized all the uniforms, collected the money and sent in the numbers and sizes. We form a relationship with individual players and individual players’ families so the uniform gets delivered to their door.”
Moylan said that technology and the overall soccer focus have helped make Sports Endeavors “probably the biggest performance-based retailer of soccer in the world. That’s what’s been told to us by the brands.”
Beyond the flagship business of Soccer.com, Sports Endeavors also owns worldsoccershop.com, acquired in 2005, and 431sports.com, which was launched internally in 2017.
Launched in 2001, World Soccer Cup was founded by Bernard Frei, who still runs worldrugbyshop.com, and the platform focuses on fan apparel and merchandise.
Moylan said Soccer.com sells a “massive amount of fan wear” with many buyers former players who first bought their performance gear on Soccer.com or through Eurosport. Worldsoccershop.com caters to fervent soccer fans introduced to the sport as spectators in their twenties, with most not playing the game. Many have become fans of one of the major European clubs, including Liverpool, Manchester United, Real Madrid, or Borussia Dortmund.
“When they looked at Soccer.com, they saw something that wasn’t part of their passion,” said Moylan. “There’s a lot of performance-based, technical-based products whereas World Soccer shop is just focused on the fan.”
He added, “They like that spirit of camaraderie that doesn’t involve 12-, 13-, 14-year-old kids playing on Saturday. That’s just not what they’re involved in. They complement each other in a massive way, and we run the businesses completely separately. Two separate management teams and creative teams allow independence. When they speak to the audience, it works.”
431sports.com has a split focus on volleyball and baseball. The platform brings Soccer.com’s Player Pass gear-ordering technology to a site tailored to volleyball and baseball players. Said Moylan, “We needed a space and a place that doesn’t feel just like soccer. You want volleyball representation and the same thing with baseball. But it’s been amazing. The volleyball, baseball part of the business has exploded in the last few years.”
431 refers to the address of Sports Endeavors’ Hillsborough headquarters.
Moylan said Sports Endeavors partnered with Seawall Capital because the investment boutique fit three criteria for the business.
The first was a cultural fit. Said Moylan, “We’ve done this ourselves, almost forty years. It’s a family business. Anytime you bring somebody into a family business, you want it to be smooth. You don’t want conflict. The money side of it wasn’t the primary driver at all. What we wanted was first, cultural fit.”
Second, Seawall had experience investing in the sporting goods space and understands the athlete customer. Other Seawall holdings in the active lifestyle space include Kent Outdoors, which owns 17 brands, mostly related to watersports and Movement Climbing Yoga + Fitness. The principals also had personally bought soccer gear from Soccer.com for their kids who played on travel clubs.
“We needed to make sure that in any investment, people understand our business,” said Moylan. “If you spent the first two years explaining how you do business or why you do certain things, that would slow the process down.”
Seawall’s principals also showed they understood the importance of community to the end user in the team sports space. He elaborated, “For many people, it’s not a hobby, it’s a passion. It’s their life. It’s something they identify with. Kids won’t say, ‘I’m an athlete.’ They’ll say, ‘I’m a soccer player.’ ‘I’m a baseball player.’ ‘I’m a volleyball player.’ That was super important.”
Finally, Sports Endeavors needed to secure enough funding to speed up investments to support expected amplified opportunities created by the 2026 Men’s World Cup, to be co-hosted by Canada, Mexico and the U.S.
“We recognize 2026 is just around the corner,” said Moylan. “There will be a lot of investment and interest in sport, specifically soccer. And, traditionally, we would have projects that would have a timeline of between 24 to 48 months, and we recognize that wasn’t going to work in the next few years. We didn’t have that luxury. We needed someone to come in and make that happen.”
The investments are expected to focus on adding robotics to automate about 70 percent of the uniform fulfillment process. The funding comes as Sports Endeavors is expected to have a record sales year in 2022. Moylan said, “business is great.”
From a profitability standpoint, Sports Endeavors, like other businesses, faced pressures from rising costs related to wages, freight and fulfillment. Inventories are also expected to end the year above plan due to the supply chain disruption. “With inflation, your top line has to continue to grow at a very healthy clip, and in a World Cup year, it’s massive from just the growth side, but the supply chain piece was difficult for everybody.”
Going forward, Moylan is upbeat about the outlook for soccer that should drive Sports Endeavors’s growth. Soccer youth participation has shown some recovery following softening during the last decade and concerns following the men’s national team failing to qualify for the 2018 Men’s World Cup.
Attendance at U.S. professional matches is rising. Both men’s and women’s leagues set record attendance in 2022, with Major League Soccer exceeding 10 million spectators and the National Women’s Soccer League surpassing 1 million.
Moylan also noted that the Men’s World Cup continues to draw attention to the sport every four years and introduces Americans to pro stars, including Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappé. He called Argentina versus France a “dream final” for global football. Moylan said, “That harkens back to the days in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s when you had these dominant teams.”
He said the U.S. men’s team “did well. If they’d done better, it would have accelerated some things.” However, he expects a steady four-year build-up to the 2026 Men’s World Cup to provide a catalyst to the sport and the pressure will be on the U.S. to field a strong team.
The games will be held across the U.S., Canada and Mexico with all three countries automatically qualifying.
“Americans love the big event, whatever it might be,” said Moylan. “So, I think, that in the next four years, we’re going see an increase in participation and interest in the game. There will also be the ability in four years for the national team to surprise some people. The expectations for the team are going to be much higher.”
Photo courtesy Soccer.com