In lower division soccer, there is no “one size fits all” model for franchises. Some are fronted by billionaires trying to buy their way up the pyramid, and some are just a couple of former punk rockers who name their club after a horrendous alcoholic concoction (see Bearfight FC – who have the best name in all of American soccer). You can cry foul at the single entity stifling competition and creating a MLB style farm system, or you can go completely wild-west with the NASL, and spend until the ship sinks and everyone rushes to the lifeboats. But what you don’t see very often are teams that are created with both complete transparency and fan support.
Let’s just admit right now: Detroit City FC is an absolute success story. What started out as a few friends wanting to create a cosmopolitan club representing a wide variety of ethnicities and backgrounds has blossomed into possibly one of the best amateur supporters cultures in American soccer history. Much of that is, in part, due to the efforts of the Northern Guard, but some of it has to do with how the club handles their success – they listen to their fans. Other teams like Chattanooga FC also have figured out the same populist approach towards both on-field and off -field success, but you don’t have to travel farther than the trail of successful teams that are often left in the wake of Peter Wilt’s tremendous vision and grassroots level of fan involvement. From indoor to semi-pro, to professional, the Wilt philosophy towards ownership has a proven record of success that brings the community closer to the team, and reaps dividends for owners too. If there’s a future in lower division soccer, it has to be based upon this ethos.
However, Peter Wilt is not the only brilliant person working on soccer projects. Although he won’t admit to it, Dan Hoedeman of Minneapolis City FC may have just brought to life the future of lower division soccer in the US, and it’s in the form of a non-profit team.
There are various distinctions of what a non-profit can be. In the NASL, the former San Antonio Scorpions operated on a bit of a shoestring budget with the proceeds and profits of the club going towards the owner’s passion project, Morgan’s Wonderland – a theme park specifically designed for children with physical disabilities, and their families. A few organizations, especially supporters groups, formed social clubs under the 501(c)7 banner – allowing them to operate as a tax-exempt charity reliant upon membership dues for income. Examples include The Crocketeers in San Antonio, The Triangle Soccer Fanatics in North Carolina, and the tremendously popular and absolute pinnacle of MLS supporters groups, the Timbers Army via the 107IST Trust. What you rarely see, though, is a team run as an outright non-profit organization under the 501(c)3 banner – or a fully charitable company.
What does that mean? Well, first off – transparency. In this fantastic break down of their finances on FiveFiftyOne.com, Hoedeman goes down line by line and explains exactly what the projected and actual costs were. It shows net gains and losses, and the actual price of doing business as an amateur soccer team. This kind of open-book policy is completely unheard of in the world of FIFA, USSF, MLS / SUM, NASL, and USL professional soccer, so why is it that an amateur team is the first to do it? The reason is simple – they’re owned by the fans.
Minneapolis City is not the only team to take this approach in the NPSL. In fact, Dennis Crowley’s passion project – Kingston Stockade Football Club (or Stockade FC for short) is also operating under the 501(c)3 banner. Their budget is slightly greater than what Hoedemann and company have put together, but conceptually, they’re very similar – grassroots soccer, fun for everyone, fan involvement and local, committed ownership.
In 2017, there will be 23 different MLS teams, and at the time of printing this article, no one knows how many NASL (if any) or USL teams there will be taking the pitch. NPSL, the 4th division in US Soccer governed by the USASA, is growing exponentially having just announced expansions in Milwaukee, WI, Nashville, TN, New Jersey, Boca Raton, Hartford, Midland-Odessa, Tyler TX , and now Minneapolis City – with more to come. This was once a landscape where supporting soccer meant having to find a local European style pub that followed the big teams. Mpls City has found a way to not only bring that level of connection to their fans, but brought the purity too. $50 buys you a seat for the season, a scarf, rights to vote, and an ability to stand for the board. $350 does all that, but for a lifetime.
So what’s the allure? For players, especially collegiate ones, there’s an opportunity to compete without losing their amateur status. They play on real grass, practice with both semi-pro and professional players, and hone their skills in a fun, communal setting. For the fans, it’s like the Thunder of old – intimate settings with friends and food, generous heckling and a connection to both the players and the team – everyone knows everyone. It’s local soccer at its purest. There’s no massive marketing campaign (not that they wouldn’t mind having the budget for one), but above all, it’s completely open and transparent. There are no questions about where the money is being spent. The fans, the owners, the general public all know what’s going on with the team, and how it stands going into the next season. For a game that is constantly embroiled with scandals and questions of back door dealings and bribery, it’s the antiseptic model. Above all, it means that should the team take off in popularity akin to Detroit City or Chattanooga, there are less risks for larger leagues to come in and take over.
Their stated goal is to be the Athletic Bilbao of North American soccer, and they’re truly on the right path.
Supporting local soccer is more than just showing up at games. It’s more than just buying a jersey that sits in your closet next to the $140 MLS kits emblazoned with an MLM sponsor on the front. It’s more than just financial investment. It is being emotionally invested, and not just as a fan, but as part owner of the community in which the team plays. Bigger leagues operate under the premise that all fans are customers, and the product is the game being produced on the field.
Minneapolis City, Stockade FC and many of the non-profit soccer clubs springing up in lower divisions are presenting a model that asks you to take part not just in viewing the game, but by taking part in the model that gives it the reason for existing.
You can find Dan Hoedeman by emailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org, find the team on Twitter at https://twitter.com/MPLSCity, or visit their website at http://www.mplscitysc.com/. They even have a podcast – The People’s Pitch Podcast (hosted by Jon Bisswurm and Nate Morales) – available at http://www.mplscitysc.com/podcast/.
You can find The Citizens Supporter Group on Twitter at https://twitter.com/MPLScitizens, or at their website http://thecitizenssg.com