New Chattanooga Football Club CEO Alton Byrd lauds ‘engaged’ fans, staff

Photography by Matt Hamilton / Chattanooga Football Club CEO Alton Byrd
Photography by Matt Hamilton / Chattanooga Football Club CEO Alton Byrd

Alton Byrd may be working in soccer for the first time, but that doesn't mean he doesn't know his way around a pitch.

Chattanooga Football Club's new CEO lived for two decades in Great Britian, where he became a legendary pro basketball player and a hardcore Liverpool FC fan. In fact, he says the Liverpool vs. Manchester United soccer rivalry would be a lot like Alabama vs. Auburn -- if the latter were "bigger by a multiple of 10."

"Man U's not even the best team in Manchester," he says. "Man City's better.

"You kind of have to live it. They're at opposite ends of the freeway -- if you're Liverpool and you go to Manchester, the police escort you in and out."

Byrd brought an impressive background when he arrived in Chattanooga this past summer. Just 5-foot 9-inches tall, he was a three-time All-Ivy League basketball player at Columbia University, which inducted him into its Hall of Fame in 2008. He played professionally in Europe, where he was voted the British League's most valuable player four times, and was on five Scottish League championship teams.

After his playing career, Byrd went into coaching, had his own radio and television shows, and later served as general manager of the NFL Europe's London Monarchs. When he returned to the U.S., he worked in top management in the NBA and WNBA and launched his own consulting company, as well.

Byrd says he pursued the CFC job because he'd accomplished what he had set out to do in his previous job, senior vice president for the ownership group whose holdings include the NBA's Brooklyn Nets; its developmental team, the Long Island Nets; and the WNBA's New York Liberty.

"This is a really interesting club," Byrd says of CFC. "It's not a startup. It has an engaged mayor (Tim Kelly, another Columbia alum), an engaged fan base, engaged staff."

"This club has been here for 15 years and is unequivocally Chattanooga," he adds. "We're talking to our 3,200 owners on a regular basis, and we have a very solid foundation."

CFC was undefeated when Byrd arrived, and he says he had more than enough managerial experience to know how to handle that.

"Try to support Rod (Underwood, CFC's head coach) and stay out of the way," he says, adding that reservations he'd had about moving south quickly disappeared.

"It's a natural fear," he says. "I'm a Black man from California, never been in soccer, walking into this job -- but all I was doing was worrying about nothing.

"The people here couldn't be nicer," he says, before adding with a laugh that "I'm not saying that if we lose two straight, people won't start throwing stuff at me."

While Byrd says he's not interested in trying to fix what's not broken, "we've got a lot of stuff on our minds that we believe will enhance the growth of the club." He says CFC is looking to expand its staff, but not by hiring just anyone.

"The reality is that great teams are made up of really good people -- good, authentic people who like to be together," he says. "It's like I say to our staff - 'If you hire good people who'll develop good processes, the product will be great.' (Those people) will then take us where we want to go."

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