This profile is part of Destination Ann Arbor’s Great Minds Think a Lot series, highlighting influential leaders in Washtenaw County who make a positive impact within our community.

Bilal Saeed – co-founder and managing owner of Pakmode Media and Marketing, and chairman of AFC (Association Football Club) Ann Arbor – is a person who harbors equal love for Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti.

 

“I grew up in Port Huron,” said Saeed, 34. “Both of my older sisters went to U of M, … and my dad loved the (Ann Arbor) Art Fair, in particular. But really, we’d jump at any excuse for getting all of us in the car and heading to Ann Arbor. So I developed a real affinity for the area. When I went to Eastern (Michigan University), I hadn’t been familiar with Ypsilanti at all, and I fell in love with Ypsi, too. With both places right next to each other, I found it really hard to ever leave.”

 

Saeed launched Pakmode – a company that focuses on sports and entertainment marketing (the name alludes to Saeed’s Pakistani heritage) – in Ypsilanti in 2008, when he was still a student at EMU. And although the company now works out of an office in Ann Arbor, Saeed makes his home in Ypsilanti, near a border between the two towns.

 

“I’m one of those people – a lot of people feel really strongly one way or the other,” Saeed said of town allegiances. “I’m a connector. I love both communities. They each have different things to offer, so I feel like I get the best of both worlds.”

 

But how did Saeed become AFC Ann Arbor chairman in 2014?

 

Well, he’d already spent a good chunk of his childhood playing soccer in Port Huron, “and also pretty much every other summer in England with my family, which taught me a lot about the game, playing pick-up with kids in the back alley or the parks,” said Saeed.

 

So he’d always had a passion for the game. And when local soccer fanatic Jamey Amrine started laying the foundation for building a semi-pro team (now called The Mighty Oak), Saeed didn’t hesitate about getting involved.

 

“I thought, what a cool opportunity to use my skills for a good cause,” said Saeed. “From the beginning, I knew it wasn’t a ‘get rich’ type of business. It was clearly marked from the beginning as something we could just do for our community, and I thought about what a powerful tool this could be to get kids involved in the game, get them more active, and encourage them to adopt a healthy lifestyle. When I was a kid, the game gave me confidence, it gave me friends, I learned how to work with teammates – I learned so much from this game. So to be able to use this platform to give this same opportunity to young people, and get them involved from the get-go – I just love it so much. I feel lucky to lead the club. It’s a real labor of love.”

 

Among AFC Ann Arbor’s highlights are: among the nearly one hundred National Premier Soccer League teams, the Mighty Oak have finished in the top 16 (2016) and the top 8 (2017 and 2018); in 2017, former Mighty Oak player Lars Eckenrode was drafted by Toronto FC, and in 2018, another player, Joseph Stanley Okumu, was named TopDrawerSoccer.com National Player of the Year, and soon thereafter signed with the Real Monarchs of the USL.

 

Last October, AFC Ann Arbor announced the addition of a women’s semi-pro side; and more recently, a State St. team store, called The Treehouse, had its grand opening.

 

These have been exciting developments over the course of just a few years, but for Saeed, the team’s youth outreach programs are among the most meaningful. Kicks and Tricks clinics, for example, involve Mighty Oak players taking over a local young team’s practice.

 

“It’s a learning day, but it’s also a fun day,” said Saeed. “We take some time for autographs and pictures and giveaways, but we also talk about education, wellness, what the game can do for you if you play it lifelong. And this program has evolved into something even greater.”

 

Which is to say, a venture that reaches out to kids who may have never kicked a soccer ball even once. Community Kicks – a program Saeed launched in collaboration with the United Dairy Industry of Michigan and two-time Olympic gold medalist Lindsay Tarpley – has thus far offered soccer clinics to underserved youth in Portage, Muskegon, Ypsilanti, and Detroit.

 

“We listen and spend time with the kids, teaching them fundamentals – the basics of soccer,” said Saeed. “ … We also talk about nutrition, about thinking more about what we put into our bodies. (Community Kicks), to me, has been one of my favorite things I’ve done, ever.”

 

Community Kicks often partners with local food organizations, because low-income area kids tend to have less consistent access to food in summer; and after witnessing how many participants lacked basic items (like shoes), Saeed began gathering, this past year, gently used and new soccer apparel and equipment for kids in the program.

 

“I’m excited to visit these areas again,” said Saeed. “ … A lot of time, kids just need some attention from a non-relative. And it goes a long way to be able to leave something behind that will help them continue playing the game, and know that there’s someone out there thinking about them.”

 

 

Though Saeed’s calendar is regularly filled-to-bursting, he nonetheless loves to take in what Ann Arbor and Ypsi have to offer.

 

“I’ve always been drawn to areas where I can surround myself with creatives and artists,” said Saeed. “I’m not one myself – I’m more a wannabe – but I love to see what others are doing, whether it’s music or art or whatever. I’m always blown away. … I also love spending time outdoors in the summer. … I love going down to Riverside Park, and the Arb is another favorite spot. The natural beauty here is one of my favorite things.”

 

What are some of Saeed’s main local haunts?

 

“I’m a big kid,” said Saeed. “I’ve celebrated my last three birthdays at Revel and Roll. I love the big arcade there, and I always take the team there for a team-building event. In terms of restaurants, … I love Aventura. I just can’t get over that place. I could eat the Patatas Bravas for every meal – and the paella’s so good, too.”

 

Other favorite places include Mikette; brunch at Beezy’s Cafe; hearing bands at the Blind Pig; eating at Kosmo’s; and in the summertime, Palio’s rooftop patio. “I always do a team meal for the players there,” said Saeed.

 

Plus, local tourism plays a part in all the different kinds of work Saeed does.

 

“I think there’s something special about this town, from the standpoint of, whatever you’re looking for, you’ll find quality in that area,” said Saeed. “Whether it’s art, athletics, the music scene, food, the library system, the schools – as a person who throws events for people from out of town, I can tell you that people want to spend the night here and make it a trip because of the combination of all those things, which are just part of the DNA of Ann Arbor and Ypsi. … When we bring players from overseas, or from out of town, I’m their tour guide, so I introduce them to the town. And almost every single one of those guys ends up thinking of Ann Arbor as their second home. Some have even moved here.”

 

But it’s perhaps what might be called the area’s “human amenities” that Saeed treasures most.

 

“My coworkers are some of the brightest individuals I’ve ever met,” said Saeed. “ … The area just attracts people who think critically and love to learn – not just to earn a degree, but throughout their lives. And that’s something I’ve always appreciated about this town.”

 

Finally, Saeed loves the community’s openminded-ness in regard to cultural differences.

 

“There were very few minorities in Port Huron,” said Saeed. “I was the token a lot, so I had to help teach people about my background and culture. But here, you’ll find just about anything you can think of – and if it’s not here already, someone will create it. There are so many things like that, like Festifools, which is such a fun community event. … This area has this mentality of, we always want to try new things, so bring your ideas here, we want that. That’s part of who we are.”

 

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