Professional soccer is on its way to the Scenic City - whether its primary fan base likes it or not.
The United Soccer League Division III announced Wednesday it has awarded a founding member franchise to an organization in Chattanooga and will begin play in 2019. The new Chattanooga team will be led by business executive Robert "Bob" Martino, a real estate agent in Utah.
Multiple sources indicated both Martino and former Chattanooga Football Club general manager Sean McDaniel - who is expected to be a part of the new organization - were in Atlanta for the announcement.
"This is a fantastic opportunity and watershed moment for soccer fans in Chattanooga," Martino said in a USL release. "This market has proven that it has the right ingredients to launch and sustain a professional franchise, and we are excited to take this next step into USL Division III for fans and the community. I applaud the existing grassroots support and passionate fan base already in place in the city, and I welcome the opportunity for us to work together to realize the great vision for professional soccer in Chattanooga. Our goal is to build upon the remarkable soccer history that has been created here and establish a professional club of which both fans and our community can be proud - one that will make a lasting contribution to what makes this city great."
According to the release, the new league "will deliver a longer season of top-tier professional soccer to Chattanooga soccer fans, along with generating heightened national media awareness for the community as part of a pro league." The club is expected to generate up to 40 full-time jobs, plus event-related staff during home matches, according to the release, which said Martino will lead "a group of prominent and successful Chattanooga-based executives with extensive experience in growing the game."
"The professional USL Division III provides a great platform for Chattanooga to enter the highest ranks of soccer and further strengthens the Southeast region for the new league as we put the final touches on our exciting inaugural season," USL Division III senior vice president Steven Short said in the release. "Bob Martino and his team are seasoned executives with a strong vision for the future of soccer in Chattanooga. We share their vision for the city and look forward to working with Bob and his team as they bring the thrill and excitement of professional soccer to Chattanooga."
Chattanooga is the sixth organization to be announced as a founding member, with the others FC Tucson (Arizona), Greenville (South Carolina) Pro Soccer, Madison (Wisconsin) Pro Soccer, South Georgia Tormenta FC and Toronto FC II. More teams will be announced in the coming weeks and months, along with more details on the league's competition structure.
The release said the league "remains focused on positioning teams for long-term success by creating regional rivalries that deliver on-field excitement and leveraging a national media platform to drive awareness for each market."
The new team's biggest challenge likely will come from within the city. CFC, which plays in the National Premier Soccer League, just completed its 10th season of amateur soccer. In that time, the organization has won seven conference championships and has been a national runner-up on four occasions, and it has also expanded to include a women's team. While being built from the ground level, CFC has been aided by a spirited fan base known as the Chattahooligans that, along with the team itself, has helped grow the brand over the years.
Some CFC supporters didn't take well to early reports of the new team, and the vitriol spilled over to Wednesday's official announcement.
"This reminds me of that New Coke announcement," one Twitter user said, referring to the mid-80s campaign to replace the original formula of Coca-Cola. Less than three full months later, Coca-Cola announced it was bringing the old formula back.
A parody account on Twitter with the handle @CarpetbaggerSC has already been created and is joining in on the backlash against a new soccer team.
CFC had flirted with the opportunity to move up to the professional ranks, with the National Independent Soccer Association looked at as a viable option last year, but that league was never able to get off the ground. That left the USL as the only other market available at the Division III level, and CFC co-founder Tim Kelly has been outspoken in his distrust of the league, repeatedly saying it's "not a sustainable model."
Late Wednesday evening, CFC released a statement, stating it remained committed to "keeping Chattanooga FC as Chattanooga's homegrown team."
"Our club was founded for Chattanoogans by Chattanoogans and, after 10 years, we are dedicated to growing Chattanooga FC in a fiscally responsible manner from the grassroots up."
It's clear challenges lie ahead for the new organization.
Will it work? Where will the team play? Who will watch?
Time will tell.
Contact Gene Henley at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @genehenley3.