Jared Montz stood in black underwear on Hollywood Boulevard, ready to begin juggling a soccer ball for the camera.
It was April 19, the last stop in the former professional soccer player’s two-month, 43-city tour across the country. The idea: to juggle and get others to do the same, all in the interest of raising awareness and funds for combating malaria in Africa.
Montz was wearing the underwear line of Ellen Degeneres that day, hoping the popular talk-show host would catch wind of it through social media and drum up support for the cause. (She didn’t.)
But just then a man came walking toward him with his pants around his ankles, a torn shirt falling off his torso. If Montz was semi-naked, this guy was letting it all hang out. Stop the camera!
Although the bizarre tableau says something about Hollywood Boulevard, it also says plenty about Montz, who isn’t afraid to try something different in pursuit of his passions. Like coming to Las Vegas for a month last August to work with a guy he had only met through Twitter and a blog, but with whom he was united by a common interest in soccer. And like deciding, within days of his arrival, to move here permanently, feeling that Las Vegas’ young tech scene was ready to support his dreams.
Montz, 30, has rebellious hair and a contagious smile. He played for Major League Soccer’s Chicago Fire and other teams until his career was cut short by injury in 2009. He quickly embarked on a plan to combine soccer with an entrepreneurial spirit and an interest in high technology: He would create an online soccer academy for kids.
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When Montz was growing up in Mandeville, Louisiana, the nearest high-level soccer club was a 2½-hour drive away; his father made the trip at least twice a week for years. Now he wanted to find a better solution for today’s young players. “I had a vision in my head,” he says.
“I went with my gut and started doing what I would’ve wanted to have growing up. This way, I could reach millions.”
Over the next few years, Montz hired companies to help him design the site but was consistently frustrated with the results. He attempted to develop a subscription model, only to find that children and teenagers won’t pay for videos on YouTube.
Meanwhile, soccer blogger Dave Stevens, who had interviewed Montz about his efforts, moved to Las Vegas in 2010 to work on the Zappos website. His wife had gone to college at UNLV, and her fond memories convinced Stevens—a native of Reading, England—to give the desert a try.
Last summer, Montz came to visit Stevens for help with the site. Stevens agreed to do it for free, telling the former pro that they could discuss money when the site became more successful.
Montz quickly found himself drawn to Downtown. “I was surrounded by digital media people, investors and tech people I had been reading about for years,” he says. “I thought, ‘I’m not the only one thinking about moving cross country for this!’”
He decided to stay. Working after hours and often through the night, he and Stevens relaunched the site in October. At OnlineSoccerAcademy.com, you’ll see instructional videos divided into 15 subject categories, ranging from what happens on the field—attacking, defending, shooting—to nutrition and “Things You Should Know” (including, helpfully, “How to Handle a Bad Coach”). The videos are aimed squarely at players, not coaches. There are other websites for coaches, and some have videos for players, but few are as user-friendly and comprehensive as the one Montz has created.
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In January, Montz convinced an old acquaintance, Stephen Beatty, to leave Louisiana and join the academy team in Las Vegas. Beatty had met Montz while he was still a high school soccer player seeking training, eight years earlier. “Everybody had heard about him,” Beatty recalls. “He was like a local hero.” The two started playing together whenever Montz would come home in the offseason. To this day, Beatty remembers Montz’s early guidance: “‘Don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t do something. Nobody can tell you that you don’t belong where you want to be—especially if you work hard.”
Beatty went on to play college soccer at Montevallo University in Alabama while studying business management. After graduation, he was offered a well-paying job at Frito-Lay. Then Montz’s call came. “I realized … the possibility of reaching kids, together with the entrepreneurial lifestyle, meant more to me than selling snack food,” Beatty says.
Beatty has since taught himself about search-engine optimization, editing videos, Kickstarter campaigns and other aspects of the company. He and Montz live together Downtown and are putting Montz’s old advice to the teenage Beatty in action: The soccer academy’s slogan is “Believe In It”—simple words that the company is now putting on a line of sports clothing. They used Kickstarter to raise money for the launch; As of mid-May, the campaign had exceeded its goal by 20 percent. Meanwhile, Montz, Stevens and Beatty broadcast the juggling campaign far and wide this spring, raising $4,500 for anti-malaria nets while building awareness for the U.N.-sponsored project.
And Montz, who plays with his two partners on a soccer team made up mostly of Zappos employees, is now thriving in Las Vegas. He marvels at the opportunities the Downtown renaissance has offered: free weekly talks by people such as Whole Foods CEO John Mackey or former Google developer Hunter Walk, not to mention the hour’s worth of free advice he got from a top Amazon executive. He and Beatty both note how freely ideas and information are exchanged among members of the Downtown tech scene, even among those—such as the two of them—who are not funded by the Downtown Project. “It’s just amazing when the vibe of a city can attract so many like-minded people,” Beatty says.
Montz’s next steps include launching the clothing line and speaking with investors, several of whom are coming to Las Vegas for meetings after seeing the Kickstarter campaign. As for the online soccer academy, Montz says that more than 1 million minutes of instructional videos were seen on his site in April, drawing viewers from across the U.S., the U.K, India, Australia and other countries. On his anti-malaria juggling tour, he found himself at CenturyLink Field, home of Major League Soccer’s Seattle Sounders, before 40,000 fans. He was surprised to hear his name screamed out from the stands.
And so Montz continues pursuing his dream from Las Vegas, intent on reaching millions of players like the one he was as a boy, “dribbling through pinecones in my backyard, kicking a ball against a fence, imagining myself playing in a stadium.”