Now, I’m really excited to be able to share this interview with you. I’ve been following soccer for years, often times probably far too closely for my own good, but hey, it’s how I am where I am now. Chattanooga is a team I’ve been watching since it’s beginning, and it’s been a truly fascinating journey to watch. These guys have averaged several thousand fans a game, and when they hosted the NPSL Championship game, packed the house with 18,000+ This interview with Tim Kelly was fun to do and incredibly insightful. He was even gracious enough to 7 points worth of advice for people looking to start their own teams. Check it all out after the break.
Tim Kelly: I was born and raised here in Chattanooga. I left to attend college at Columbia in New York City, but moved back here shortly after graduation. I’m a co-founder and a director and shareholder of Chattanooga FC. We’re really not into titles- we run the club with our managing board, and I’m just one member.
AWhen did you first get interested in soccer in general and helping run a soccer team in particular? Was there a certain event that got you into the sport, or have you always been into soccer?
I’ve always been into soccer. I wasn’t a great player growing up, and wasn’t even close to good enough to play for Columbia, but when I was approached by Sheldon Grizzle (one of the other founding members) about getting the team started, I jumped at the chance.
Can you recap the history of Chattanooga FC? Basically, what’s the teams ‘origin story?’
One of our co-founders, Thomas Clark, had played briefly in Birmingham, AL, and told another co-founder, Krue Brock, about the league and the opportunity when he moved to Chattanooga. Our founding group came together within a few weeks of the first conversation and we had a team on the field within a couple of months.
A few weeks? That seems pretty quick, but certainly not prohibitive. Was there anything that led you guys away from doing a more traditional American style name, like Chattanooga Lookouts or something?
We really wanted to do a more traditionally European-style club, a club based strongly around our city and its sense of place. Chattanooga is our mascot.
Ha, the owner of that place is one of my best friends! Yes, Chattanooga has definitely gotten hipper over the past 10 years, and those folks definitely comprise a key group of our supporters, but by no means a majority. It has really snowballed since year one, just continuing to build on itself. As far as why the city has gotten behind the team so much, I can’t say exactly, but we try really hard to reflect the spirit of the city and we listen very closely to our fans and try to make the stadium environment and experience as fun and affordable as possible. We sort of think of each game as throwing a big party rather than a business event to extract money from fans.
Well you have an awesome in for some great pancakes! Tennessee has really been, I guess you could say, blooming when it comes to soccer, with other teams in Nashville and Knoxville, and now Memphis. Where has all this support and interest come from?
I can’t speak for those other cities, other than to say TN has a long history of quality secondary school soccer, and a long history of support for the sport. When I was growing up in the South, you got a lot of grief for being an unabashed soccer fan, so a lot of people (myself included) were really kind of “underground” fans. When that began to change, I think a lot of Southern soccer fans just came out of the woodwork. I know I did.
Absolutely surreal. Our ticket presales were actually over 10,000, so based on prior games’ proportions of pre-sales to actual gate, we actually thought we might sell out the stadium, and yet we had no contingency plan for that. It was insane.
Tell me a little bit about the league you’re in, the National Premier Soccer League. What kind of advantages does it have over other leagues that you may have looked at when forming the team?
The advantages are very compelling: the team is ours, and we can do whatever we want with it. There are very few restrictions and belonging to the league is very affordable. We’ve looked at others- all of of them- and we may “move up” at some point in the future, but most of our support comes from Chattanoogans because we represent Chattanooga, and as long as we can play regional rivals (like Atlanta, Knoxville, Nashville, New Orleans, etc), they’re happy and we’re happy.
Does the NPSL have a long term vision for their league and your teams role in that future?
The NPSL is going through a very rapid growth phase and is staffing up to deal with it productively. They’ve just hired a new Managing Director (Jef Thiffault) with a lot of relevant experience and we’re looking forward to both more growth and more structure. Soccer is exploding in popularity across the country and the NPSL is really the logical beneficiary of this trend. People who truly just love soccer and are willing to make a reasonable investment can start a team. You don’t need to be a billionaire.
Why should the average soccer fan, both in Tennessee and across the US, care about a team in Chattanooga?
Because I think we really do represent a watershed moment in the history of soccer in America: if we can accomplish this here, in the heart of SEC Football country and a very traditional American city, then soccer really is here to stay in the US. And also because we’re a good example of the fighting spirit of a smaller city that is rabidly dedicated to its sense of place.
Cast a vision for me: Where do you see Chattanooga FC in 5 years?
Bigger, better. I can’t say more than that for sure, but we have so much opportunity, not only on the field, but also in the community. We’re just going to continue to grow within our means, prioritizing our opportunities, and taking them on as we can.
This is actually a lot more cut and dried than you’d think. Here’s my “primer”:
1) Keep it simple. This is an exercise in process engineering. Things as simple as having one ticket price and ending in a “5” cuts way down on complexity. Anything you can do to reduce operational complexity, you should do. There is no way to stay lean and provide good service otherwise. This applies to literally everything, which is why I put it first.
2) Keep it affordable.
3) Create a great logo and brand. This is hugely important- don’t skimp on it. We are lucky enough to have a great designer as one of our Co-Founders (Paul Rustand) and we jokingly refer to him as the “brand czar”- he gets the final say over ALL expressions of our brand in the market, and designers our jerseys, gear, etc. This will make you seem like you know what you’re doing a long time before you actually do!
4) Find local sponsors, and underpromise and overdeliver to them. Keep the ask reasonable, and make sure they feel they get more than what they’re paying for. This is easy to say, but often requires a creative approach. For example, we stream our away games exclusively at our local brewery sponsor as an additional benefit to them.
5) Take care of your players and get them involved in the community. Keep your promises to them in terms of housing and employment and use the “extended family” of the team’s management and fans to get them knit into the community.
6) When and if you’re lucky enough for one to emerge, nurture your supporters group. They can often be difficult, but they are (by definition) your biggest supporters and best advocates. Figure out how to channel all that energy in a positive way.
7) Serve beer at the stadium if possible!
Very cool, those are all very helpful pointers. Alright, now it’s time for some Bonus Questions: Who’s your pick to win the MLS Cup this year?
Portland. Love that team, that city. Chattanooga writ large. (Good guess, this interview was done before Portland’s MLS Cup win)
What’s your favorite book, regardless of genre?
Books, plural: the Aubrey/Maturin series by Patrick O’Brien
Who’s your favorite current soccer player?
Being a old Goalkeeper and a Spurs fan, Hugo Lloris.
Do you have a favorite soccer book, movie or podcast?
Loved Soccernomics, and love Men in Blazers.
Soccernomics is mindblowing, totally changed how I look at the game. What’s your favorite league and/or team to watch?
EPL, Tottenham Hotspur
Where can people find out more about yourself and the team?
Team website is www.chattanoogafc.com
What would you like to say to the people reading this article about why they should get out and support the lower levels of American soccer?
Because in many ways it’s the purest form of local support. Many of our most ardent fans- our Chattahooligans- were not even soccer fans before we came along. They are Chattanooga fans first, soccer fans second. I really think this is a smaller market phenomenon: American popular culture and the American economy are increasingly revolving around the top 20 or so “major markets” in the US, to the exclusion of the rest of us. Smaller markets need genuine, home-grown, grass roots teams that they can root for and get behind as authentic expressions of local spirit, not some contrived franchise opportunity that an outsider investor has wheeled into town.
Tim, thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview, it was a pleasure. Alright folks, go give Chattanooga a ‘like‘ on Facebook, or a ‘follow‘ on Twitter. Actually, do both, that’s best for everyone. And don’t forget to do the same for the Pyramid. ‘Follow‘ and ‘Like‘ us, we now have handy links in the upper right hand corner, and help spread the word! Also, leave your comments at the end of the article with any questions you’d like to see asked in the future. Until next time, Stay Loyal, Support Local.