Doug Miller, owner and operator of the Doug Miller Soccer Academy, was hitting golf balls 11 years ago on the driving range at the former Rochester Sports Dome LLC when he made a business decision.
Getting his kicks running his own business
"I had this vision of my program in here, and I said one day I’m going to own it," Miller recalls. "Eight years later, I went to the bank to show them that I could afford to do this."
Miller bought the 31-acre facility in Parma three years ago Sunday, on Aug. 19, 2009. The purchase price was $1.9 million, Monroe County property records show.
The Doug Miller Family Sports Park plays host to about 3,000 people weekly, primarily through the soccer program, which includes 22 teams and 300 players up to 19 years old.
In addition to its indoor soccer fields, the facility has a driving range and the Glacier Ridge snow tubing hill, which opened last year during a virtually snowless winter.
"Doug Miller Soccer is what makes this place survive," Miller says. "The golf business is ancillary to that. We’re open for golf from 9 to 5. At 5 o’clock, we clean up all the golf balls and it turns into soccer.
"We have about four other tenants that come in, clubs that rent time. Then we run our indoor leagues, we run tournaments, we run camps, we run clinics."
Miller also has taken ownership of a Salvatore’s Old Fashioned Pizzeria inside the dome.
"The last three years are the hardest I’ve ever worked," he says.
Miller, 43, is not complaining. He has spent most of his life trying to prove himself, first on soccer fields and now as a businessman.
"I’m not afraid of work," he says. "I always said that if I were going to be a garbageman, I’d be the best garbageman out there."
K&K Property Ventures LLC is the owner of the property on West Ridge Road.
"I signed the papers, and as I got in the elevator with my attorney, I said, ‘What did I do?’" Miller recalls. "It was just my wife and me. We risked everything to do this. And think about where the economy was three years ago. It wasn’t in a good spot, but I had faith in God that this was what I was called to do.
"We’re still here three years later. Our soccer program is bigger than ever. It’s expanding. …We’re the only place for snow tubing in Rochester. We have a million people within 18 miles of us. We think that is going to take us over the top next year, as long as we have a normal winter."
Miller would not disclose the financial details of his business but says his sports park generates adequate revenue.
"We do OK," he says. "We’re paying our bills. We’re expanding. I put money into the hill."
The facility has snowmaking capability, including eight snow guns, a pond and a pump system at the bottom of the pond.
"To develop all that is huge dollars," he says.
The sports park opened in September 2009, one month after Miller closed on the deal.
"We renovated the entire place, the inside first," he says.
He replaced the turf on the indoor fields and removed three golf simulators from an adjoining room.
"We wanted to have a place where families could do homework, watch TV and watch what’s going on in the dome if you’re having a party or an event," Miller says.
Salvatore’s opened in December 2009, but the owner left and Miller became the new owner.
Glacier Ridge, 65 feet high and 1,000 feet long, was opened last November. The hill was built with fill from a Unity Health System construction project.
"We brought in about 5,000 trucks," Miller says. "This was an ideal operation. If I’d had to pay for it, it probably would’ve been over $1 million. I had 10 pieces of equipment here, none that I had to pay for. They needed the shortest route to get rid of the fill."
He will not say how much he has invested in the facility, which he hopes will have as many as six fields someday.
"No one gave me a dime," he says. "It’s all loans. I have to pay them back. Everything I’ve done has been a risk, calculated sometimes. In the end, those who take the biggest risk deserve the biggest reward."
Miller spent seven seasons with the Rochester Raging Rhinos. He was there during the team’s glory days in 1996-99 and 2003-05. He retired after the 2005 season.
He came out of retirement last year to play for the Rochester Lancers in the fledgling United Soccer Leagues’ Professional Indoor Soccer league, scoring 25 goals and finishing the season with 66 points. He was named the team’s Most Valuable Player.
"I was very blessed," he says. "I was injury-free. I prepared myself so I wouldn’t get hurt, to make my body as fit and strong as it could be.
"There are a lot of tricks to playing indoors that a lot of guys don’t really understand, and they have a hard time grasping it. I knew, with the mental part of it, I’d have a big advantage. It was a question of whether I could compete for five months. Yeah, I did pretty well."
Miller plans to play at least one more season with the Lancers, co-owned by former Monroe County Legislator Christopher Wil-mot and Salvatore’s Pizza founder Salvatore Fantauzzo, known locally as Soccer Sam.
"Soccer Sam is a good friend of mine," Miller says. "He was in my wedding. We always said indoor soccer would be really good here. He said he was going to do it, and I wanted it to be successful.
"People at first thought it was a gimmick to bring Doug Miller back. They said: ‘He’ll put people in the stands, but he can’t play. He’s too old.’ That motivates me. And I missed the competition. I love playing the game of soccer. I love working out. I’m fitter than I’ve ever been because I’m gearing up to play again."
Miller hopes the resumption of his playing career will inspire others to reach for new heights.
"I miss going out and entertaining the fans, and showing that you’re never too old to accomplish your dreams," he says. "Hopefully, that washes off in some facet of their life. They’ll know they can go and do this. ‘If he can do it, why can’t I?’ That’s ultimately what we’re called to do as human beings."
Miller employs five people full time at the sports park, including the soccer program’s director of coaching, Steve Christenson, and 15 coaches parttime.
Christenson, a Rochester native and graduate of Roberts Wesleyan College, was men’s soccer coach at Utica College for three seasons before joining Doug Miller Soccer in 2009.
"There’s not a better place to work," Christenson says. "Doug is high energy. He has the best interests of the kids first and foremost.
"I don’t think there’s another organization, to be quite honest, that has that. I believe in the product he has. If you don’t believe in the product, you shouldn’t be here."
Christenson has worked with Miller in various capacities for 14 years, including at camps while attending Roberts Wesleyan.
"When this program started to get big, we started talking about the possibility of me leaving Utica to come back up here," says Christenson, whose career record at the college was 23-28-3.
"For me, one of the biggest downfalls of (NCAA) Division III college soccer is that a lot of athletes aren’t prepared because they’ve never been taught properly," Christenson says.
"I thought if I could have a direct impact on the youth, it would improve the quality of players coming out. Doug was gracious enough to offer me his director of coaching job and made it worth my while to come up."
Miller was a trainer at camps and clinics from 1996 to 2004 before starting his own year-round soccer academy in 2005. Doug Miller Soccer followed that in 2007.
"I would train these kids, they would go back to their club teams and come back to me with the same bad habits," he says. "So I said, well, I’ll just keep ’em."
On this day, Miller was out the door at 5 a.m. to a soccer camp in Canisteo, Steuben County. After that, he returned to the sports park for a CrossFit Inc. strength and conditioning workout. Later that afternoon, he was off to Canandaigua for a high school camp.
"This is what I do," he says. "Is it long hours? Yes, but sometimes it’s called sacrifice. For the greater good of my family, for the greater good of this community, I’m invested here, to see soccer succeed and give it a place in the community."
Miller was born and raised in northern New Jersey, the youngest of four children and the only boy. At 5-foot-8 now, he knew early on that he would not overpower anyone athletically.
"I wasn’t the biggest," he says. "I wasn’t the strongest. I wasn’t the most sought-after athlete. But I had the mentality that I’d work harder than anybody else."
Miller played soccer and baseball growing up.
"I was a very good baseball player," he says. "At 14, I decided that I wasn’t going to play baseball anymore. I was a catcher, which is the hardest position to play because you have to know the batters, your pitcher, and you have to understand where people are on the bases.
"But after three outs, I was bored. I went and sat on the bench, and waited for my turn. So I wasn’t engaged all the time. In soccer, I was always engaged. You’re always moving for the ball, creating space for yourself and your teammates. At that time, I decided to try to be great at one thing."
Soccer allowed Miller to take advantage of his athleticism as he progressed from youth leagues to indoor and outdoor professional leagues.
"I could score a lot of goals," he says, "and I was much quicker than everybody else. I played at a very high level and was successful at all of them. It wasn’t because I was better than anybody else. It was because I was more committed."
Miller earned an athletic scholarship to Loyola (Md.) University in 1987. His college athletic career ended in 1990. He graduated two years later with a bachelor of arts degree in communications and public relations.
"I went to school to play soccer," he says. "I wasn’t there, really, for the education, because I wasn’t mature enough at that time."
Miller was the No. 1 draft pick of the Major Indoor Soccer League’s Kansas City Comets, but the franchise folded after going bankrupt. In October 1991, he signed with the MISL’s Baltimore Blast.
After one season with the Blast, the league folded. Miller latched on with the Harrisburg Heat of the indoor National Professional Soccer League, where he spent 11/2 years before being traded to the Cleveland Crunch in March 1994.
That summer, Miller gained his first professional taste of the outdoor game as a member of the NY Fever of the United Soccer Leagues Second Division. In 1996, he was signed by the Rhinos as they prepared for their first season in the USL A-League.
"Those that started playing outdoor and try to come indoors usually can’t because of the speed of play and the speed of thought," Miller says. "Indoor is much more technical. You have to be able to think. You’re never 1 versus 1. You’re always 2 versus 1 because you have the wall.
"It’s a different mindset. In outdoor soccer, you have much more time, much more space to do things. The people who were very good indoor could translate to outdoor very easily."
Miller led the USL A-League with 18 goals in 1996. In 1997, he scored 23 goals and had 51 points, earning team and league MVP honors. He missed much of the 1998 season-the Rhinos’ first A-League championship-because of a knee injury.
He was second in scoring in 1999 with 16 points, the highlight a goal against the Colorado Rapids to win the U.S. Open Cup championship.
"The U.S. Open Cup in 1999 was a very tough year for me because I didn’t see eye to eye with the coach," Miller says. "The coach didn’t see eye to eye with me. I didn’t play much throughout the regular season, but when it came to the U.S. Open Cup finals, I was waiting for my time. I’ve always prepared myself for success."
Miller parted ways with the Rochester Rhinos in 1999 after four years with the team, including three playoff championships and the U.S. Open Cup title.
He played five seasons with the Buffalo Blizzard indoor team before it folded in 2001, and he joined the USL A-League’s Hershey Wildcats outdoor team near the end of their season in 2001. Miller’s Hershey team lost to the Rhinos 2-0 in the league championship, then folded a week later.
Miller returned to the Rhinos in 2003. He was the league’s second-leading scorer and the team’s MVP. He retired at the end of the 2005 season, scoring on a penalty kick against the Richmond Kickers in his last game.
"I scored the first three goals at Frontier Field, and then I scored the last goal at Frontier Field," Miller says. "There are a lot of special things that I can look back on."
Miller is the all-time leading scorer for the Rhinos with 75 goals and 166 points in league play. His 90 goals altogether and seven goals in U.S. Open Cup play also are club records. He has scored 392 goals in 339 indoor games, including 208 in 165 games with Buffalo.
In 2006, the Rhinos retired Miller’s No. 19. "It was awesome," Miller says. "When I go to the games and my jersey sits in the stadium because they retired it, sometimes it’s painful to see that they don’t have 15,000 people at a game.
"I bleed for the Rhinos. … I want to see them successful, because for these kids that are training in my facility, they need to see the highest level of soccer-not to idolize these players but to emulate them."
The early years of the Rhinos remain their best. Attendance has dropped dramatically since their move to a soccer-specific stadium six years ago. The team has not been as successful on the field or, in Miller’s eyes, connecting with its fan base.
"The community needs to step up and support the Rhinos," Miller says. "And I don’t mean just give them money. I mean having their kids watch high-level soccer. It is the highest level of soccer in this area.
"I don’t think the clubs and organizations in Rochester support them enough in making sure they get their teams out there. If you asked the casual fan to name four players from the Rhinos, I don’t think one of the four would be from the current team. I think the four they would name would be from teams in the 1990s, when it was successful and people were passionate about it."
Critics of Sahlen’s Stadium say its location makes it less attractive than Frontier Field, home to the Rochester Red Wings baseball team.
"I think the stadium, where it is, is fine," Miller says. "It’s a great stadium. But people want to be engaged with players. The Rhinos are in the entertainment business, and you have to entertain.
"Winning is important, but the players have to have relationships with the community. When the community feels that, they embrace it. I don’t think that’s happened. I did a gazillion appearances, and I talked to people to get them excited, to get a smile on their face and to want to go watch that guy play."
Miller’s biggest supporter is his wife, Kari, who joined the Rhinos’ dance team in 1996, the same year Miller joined as a player. The two married 18 months later.
"She’s from Greece, and this is a great place to raise a family," Miller says of his decision to settle here. "I had offers to play MLS in 1997 when I was MVP of the league, but being a small fish in a big pond is not so much fun when you can be a big fish in a small pond and actually do what you’re called to do.
"I get to wake up and teach soccer, every day. When you’re passionate about what you do, it’s a lot of fun."
Kari was a Rhinos dancer for three years and now is director of the Rochester Lancers’ junior dance team. The Millers’ daughters-Kayla, 12, and Kalista, 10-are dance team members.
"When I score, I can run to the boards and see my wife and two daughters. It’s not me going out and doing something while they’re sitting somewhere else," Miller says.
"It’s a family thing for me, which is the perfect scenario, because they’re involved. If they weren’t involved, I wouldn’t be playing."
Miller’s 25 goals and 66 points were second-best on the team.
"Doug brought a vast amount of experience, something an expansion team lacks," Lancers coach Billy Andracki says. "I think he exceeded every expectation I had for him.
"Doug led more by example than anything else. He was a role model for the younger guys. He taught them how to prepare, to work and train, and to translate that into games. He was at training every day, worked hard and gave 110 percent in games as well as in practice."
Soccer and family occupy almost all of Miller’s time. Golf is his only hobby, he says.
"I’m a pretty good golfer," he says. "I like it competitively. People ask me why I don’t become a motivational speaker. I don’t have a problem going before thousands of people to share my story, because I’m very passionate about it."
Miller thinks about the day his father, who worked in the furniture business, came to the sports park in 2009 for the first time.
"I’ve been MVP in three different decades," Miller says. "I’ve won four championships. I’ve been the scoring champion, both indoor and outdoor. And my dad said, ‘I don’t know if you’re a better soccer player or a better businessman.’
"We’re a blue-collar family. He said he couldn’t even fathom doing what I have done. That resonates-for about a minute. Then it’s back to work."
The most difficult aspect of being an entrepreneur is the stress that comes with trying to meet customer demands, Miller says.
"I’ve made more mistakes than I’ve done things right," he says. "I’ve tried to learn from them. But I know God is going to take care of me. I know, in the end, this was supposed to happen.
"When I leave this earth, I want people to say, ‘Doug was a good soccer player, but he was a great mentor.’"
Title: President, Doug Miller Family Sports Park
Education: B.A. in communication and public relations, Loyola University in Baltimore, 1992
Family: Wife Kari; daughters Kayla, 12, and Kalista, 10
Quote: "Sometimes I’m too competitive. But to be successful in business, I’ve transferred what I’ve learned in competition on the soccer field into life and into business."