I wanted to write this blog for many different reasons and the main reason is to shed light on what has transpired in the last few weeks in Chattanooga regarding the soccer ecosystem. To help myself understand why the USL decided to start a “professional” team in a city that already has an established team with a professional resume, Chattanooga FC. To help understand the larger dysfunctional soccer ecosystem in the US as a whole using Chattanooga as a tangible example. To spread the word about an “amateur” soccer team that is using soccer to reshape local neighborhoods and build communities for the better. To empower others around the country to join the fight, find their voice, and make a stand.
The beautiful thing about living in the age of digital media is the information to tell a story is readily available. On August 1, 2018, the USL announced pro soccer was coming to Chattanooga. I immediately thought, “Hey good for Chattanooga FC.” Uh no. My mistake was in assuming the club I have become familiar with over the last year (in my research to start a soccer league in Omaha) was taking the next step. What is actually happening is just the opposite. This is not the story of a small market amatuer team that was built from the ground up making it into the professional leagues. That would be a good story to cover. In my mind, Disney makes a movie about that story and it is rated G. The movie I am about to describe is not G rated. Neither are the comments on the new team’s twitter feed. It makes me mad and I don't even live in Chattanooga.
I ask myself this question on a daily basis. Why did I eat 4 donuts? Why did my wife buy a dog? Why am I wearing khakis and a red shirt? Why is someone starting a different professional soccer team in Chattanooga? This article by Nipon Chopra from Soctakes offers some backstory and gives a few hints into the motivations behind what is going on. From my perspective (and this may be completely wrong), it appears the USL tried to buy Chattanooga FC or convince them to join the D3 league and failed. This is not surprising. They should have failed. This is a solid business decision by Chattanooga FC based on the current league CFC plays in, the NPSL.
The NPSL has 13 divisions and around 100 teams all over the country. It is a professional league even though it doesn’t technically fall into the strict definition provided by the USSF (aka US Soccer). The divisions are geographically based and the expansion fee is nominal (under 10,000 dollars) in comparison with the USL D3 expansion fee of 500-750,000 thousand. Read that again. Then ask yourself which road you would have taken. One road leads to continued success in an established league centered upon geography and lean startup principles. The other road leads to the “professional” soccer market (i.e. the MLS/USL), an expanded geographic footprint, increased notoriety, potentially better players, and upward mobility for the club. On the surface, it isn’t an easy decision.
The current “professional” soccer landscape is growing. The MLS is expanding and the USL is expanding. This is good for business. Franchise models don’t work without expansion. Most markets can’t afford the MLS franchise fee let alone the USL Division 2 franchise fee. The compromise is to start a USL third division and charge a reduced fee. I guarantee the architects behind USL D3 developed a plan around simply onboarding the teams from the NPSL; target established teams in untapped markets and ask them to pay the fee to join the league. Ninety plus teams at 500k = a lot of money and a huge potential for more with increased market presence (i.e. media dollars). This is a solid strategy for the MLS/USL to reach smaller markets like Chattanooga with just one problem: there isn’t a reason or benefit for Chattanooga to play in the USL D3.
In addition to the cost of joining the league, all of the expenses are likely to increase for the club. For reference purposes, here is a link to the costs associated with running an NPSL team. So, let’s pretend for one moment I am the owner of an NPSL team. I outlay the money to join the USL and my expenses increase across the board (travel, facilities, player salaries, etc.) by about 10x (250,000 to 2.5 million). What return am I getting on this investment? More fans? Increased exposure? More revenue? Fame and Glory? Probably not. I will need to raise ticket prices to cover my expenses. This will limit the types of fans who can attend my games. Am I buying a chance to work my way into the USL D2 and eventually the MLS one day? That sounds good in theory maybe, but not for the foreseeable future and realistically not ever (again see the expansion fees). The MLS will cap out at a certain number of teams (say 30). Promotion and relegation will never exist as long as the MLS is the top tier because the current league owners have no interest in building an inclusive soccer culture in the US. They want to make money, limit access, and have control over the market (i.e. a monopoly like the NFL) and collect franchise fees. I will ask it again, why am I joining a league that will increase costs and not really provide any meaningful return to my club? The answer is I wouldn’t; the same choice Chattanooga FC made.
I encourage you to read about Chattanooga FC and familiarize yourself with this team, this club, and the impact the club has had on the Chattanooga community. Start with the foundation page. As you explore, you will discover the meaning of being mission driven for the greater good of a community. You will see how CFC has used soccer as a common language to bridge culture gaps within the community through programming and redevelop neighborhood spaces. For example, CFC helped build the Highland Park Commons, a community gathering space in Chattanooga. Visit the Chattahooligans website and learn about the culture that has grown up around this team (they have a hymnal). Follow the founders like Sheldon Grizzle (who I had a chance to meet in KC) and learn their stories on why they started this journey in the first place. Once you do, you will start to understand the greater negative impact the new USL D3 team will have upon Chattanooga and how the current expansion model in the US is counterproductive at best.
The most obvious impact is a loss of revenue for CFC which limits capacity to run their organization, play games, and help the community. It impacts their ability to expand the NPSL and strengthen that league. I think about this issue in this manner. What could you build for 500,000? How long of a runway is that for a business especially a semi-pro soccer team? If this seems like nefarious behavior by the MLS/USL, then you would be correct. If it isn’t, then it is simply bad strategy or incompetence and that makes it worse in my mind. Chattanooga FC embodies all that is good with grassroots home grown soccer. They are a model of best practice for small soccer communities. To steal from George Lucas: they are the rebels and the MLS/USL is the empire. This is a direct attempt to assimilate or squash the momentum this club, this community (and league) has developed. It is disheartening and just a sad power play that needs to be called out, fought against, and ultimately defeated. Spread the word. We #StandWithChatta.