The Firecrackers expand nationwide (9/22)

The Firecrackers expand nationwide (9/22)

The Firecrackers organization is taking over the world.

Well, it might only seem that way if you're at a tournament or even nationals and every other team that walks by has the Firecracker brand.

Tony Rico has built up the largest club organization in fastpitch softball which numbers 150 teams and over 2,000 players.
Tony Rico has built up the largest club organization in fastpitch softball which numbers 150 teams and over 2,000 players.

The numbers seem to back that sentiment up: there are now close to 150 Firecrackers team across the country in nine stats: Arizona, California, Colorado, Georgia, Nevada, New Jersey, North Carolina, Texas and Utah.

And that's roughly 2,000 girls playing under the same organizational umbrella, too.

Tony Rico is the head of the Firecrackers program and is headquartered in Huntington Beach, Calif.   The nationwide expansion of his team's brand has been a two-year process in the making, but Rico has been coaching at the club level for 23 years--since 1991--and has long thought about building a powerful brand that meant more than just wins and loses on the field.

The numbers are definitely growing, but if you think he's out trying to just add teams like a fifth grader collecting Spider-Man comics, well, you'd be surprised in what he says next.

"I've never solicited one team," he says evenly. "I've built the brand around trying to help young ladies live up to the motto 'Play With Honor" and I've met the demand of the product. People have to want to come in and subscribe to that philosophy for this to work, which is extending the template of building self-esteem in girls."

The part that first raised eyebrows when Rico began adding other Firecrackers teams is each squad is required to charge every player a $25 per month fee to wear the Firecracker name on the jersey. Though his critics suggest it's more "Pay with Honor," it's a licensing arrangement that Rico doesn't apologize for although he denies the assertion that teams must pay for the right to use the name as well.

The long-time coach, whose organization has produced recent All-American players like Lauren Chamberlain (Oklahoma), Missy Taukeiaho (Cal State Fullerton) and Hallie Wilson (Arizona), smiles and says he knows he has his doubters but suggests they don't keep him up at nights.

"My vision is the exception to what's traditionally been done and people who don't know me think I'm a capitalist just trying to make money. If that was the case, I could have been charging for mandatory equipment or other hidden fees but that's not what this is about."

At the recent Big League Dreams event, Tony teaches the right way to shake hands...
At the recent Big League Dreams event, Tony teaches the right way to shake hands…

He then begins to cover his history and why this concept, though scoffed at initially, is starting to get copycats in other top programs.

"What happened is for 20-plus years I did softball like everyone wanted me to," he explains. "I did it for the kids and was paying bills living month-to-month sometimes. Much of it was pro bono, but I did it because I loved it."

"Ten years ago, softball became much more of a business and families started spending a lot more money on personal instruction, college trips, recruiting packages, sports psychologists, videos and more. It was hard work for many, including me, to work my way up the food chain. I look at the guys at the top today and they did it for the right reasons, for the players."

"Then the business evolved and the number of instructors and those family financial needs went up dramatically. It can be between $300 to $600 a month in expenses, everything from training to lessons to equipment."

... and the not so powerful way to make an impression.  The athletes got a big kick out of the demonstration!
… and the not so powerful way to make an impression. The athletes got a big kick out of the demonstration!

"I felt there had to be a better way and by building a brand where everyone connects and are excited to work with each other, it would be successful."

First, he suggests about his model, the revenues help pay for staffing several full-time employees who handle responsibilities including scheduling, recruiting, apparel and equipment.

More importantly, though, he says that the structure is working because it protects the family and the long-time coach who has frequently been on the short stick of being compensated fairly.

"The first key," Coach Rico begins, "is that it protects the family with limited incomes. They know what the fee is and can budget it accordingly and know we won't be extracting any other money. The single parent has a hard time trying to do this all on his or her own," he continues, "but being part of the brand gives them advantages and guidance. It's like doing taxes, you can do it yourself but you'll probably get a lot better deal if you use someone who has expertise."

"Our membership includes being part of the name, tapping into the expertise of great coaches and former players and access to everything we offer. For example, we know that if a player is on a Firecracker team, her profile and play will get wider looks by college coaches who see the value in her adhering to what we teach as an organization."

One strong advantage, Rico believes, is that unlike many teams where a coach may work with his daughter and bow out when she's done in five or six years, the Firecrackers brand promotes stability and continuity.

"The second key," the Southern California native states, "is it takes care of the long-time coach who may have a limited income. There are great guys out there, 70-year-old coaches who are giving private lessons to get by, probably until they pass away, and no one has cared or helped these coaches."

"In my own way, I'm trying to help them," says Rico, who claims he has turned down college assistant jobs to stay at the club level. "We're setting up a pay structure and by allowing them to be part of it, we're protecting the brand and stopping these great coaches from having to take $5,000 out of their own pockets, which many do annually."

"We can tap into the guidance of these coaches who know the waters and my goal is for my peers to help take care of these guys and not just have players jumping to a team because it's $5 cheaper a month."

The OC United team is an example of a program that Rico helps to build its own brand.
The OC United team is an example of a program that Rico helps to build its own brand.

The buy-in to this was show recently at a 44-team tournament held at the Big League Dreams Complex in West Covina, Calif.  Of the nearly four dozen teams who participated, 36 of them wore the Firecrackers' colors. One of those who didn't was the OC United team, which, though not sharing the name, still connects with the Firecrackers' philosophy and brand.

Led by Kaitlin Cochran, a three-time Pac-12 Player of the Year at Arizona State, Rico says he's just as satisfied to work with a team like hers because "it helps her develop the strength of her brand."

You'll hear the word "brand" a lot when you talk to Rico who understands that winning championships brings attention to the organization, but the success of the athlete beyond softball is what strengths the ties to the Firecrackers' brand.

"We're into values everyone can obtain," he emphasizes. "Only five percent can reach a championship, but we care about 100 percent of our players. People are excited about having their own personal brand and we understand that it's important to have individualism too. I feel we helped prepare a player like Laura Chamberlain to respond to her fans, which are 20,000 on Twitter for her."

"On the field, we believe the Firecrackers brand is professionalism, having the persona to carry yourself in a confident way, in how you walk and present yourself. This is something every team and every player can obtain regardless of talent."

Rico feels that he has the train headed the right way down the tracks and says there's no going back now.

"Whether people want to believe it or not," he concludes, "we're trying to look out for the players and coaches. I believe people will say, either now or later, 'Tony and the Firecrackers, they did it the right way."

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