EDGE Chattanooga FC scores! Selling soccer in the land of SEC football

EDGE Chattanooga FC scores! Selling soccer in the land of SEC football

April 1st, 2018 by Jay Greeson in EDGE

Chattanooga Football Club coach Bill Elliott, left, and general manager Sean McDaniel.

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

Galen Riley leads the Chattahooligans during Chattanooga FC's friendly match against Nashville SC at Finley Stadium March 10.

Galen Riley leads the Chattahooligans during Chattanooga FC's...

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

About Chattanooga FC

› Founded: 2009

› Owners: Tim Kelly, Krue Brock, Sheldon Grizzle, Paul Rustand, Thomas Clark, Daryl Heald, Marshall Brock and Sean McDaniel.

› League: National Premier Soccer League

› Stadium: Finley Stadium in Chattanooga with a seating capacity of 20,668

› Coach: Bill Elliott

› General manager: Sean McDaniel

› Website: chattanoogafc.com

Somewhere on that August evening almost three year ago, amid the almost 20,000 folks cheering and celebrating and chanting, there were eight guys smiling.

Among the more than 18,000 fans at Finley Stadium to watch a soccer match — yes, those numbers and the event are right — there were the original eight guys, wherever they were, who had every right to enjoy a landmark sporting event right here in the Scenic City.

"Amazing," was one attendee's account.

"Unbelievable" was another's.

Both of those descriptions were fair and accurate.

The South has traditionally been all about football. High school games under the lights on Friday nights. Tailgating all day Saturday with boys throwing footballs and girls dressed as cheerleaders. Sundays are reserved for a double dose of religion — church in the morning and more football in the afternoon.

But soccer? In the South?

Those smiling eight guys who had the dream roughly a decade before a soccer match almost packed out the biggest venue in town rolled the dice and hit the jackpot.

"Really, it's now about charting the course for the next chapter with CFC but always maintaining the genuine aspects that got us here," says Chattanooga Football Club General Manager Sean McDaniel, who was part of that great eight. "Playing professional soccer over an extended period of time is the natural path forward. We continue pursuing this but always remain sensitive to keeping the fan experience the most important component to every decision we make. We always want them leaving wanting more."

Getting their kicks

There is a collection of familiar names among the eight owners of the Chattanooga FC.

Tim Kelly, Krue Brock, Sheldon Grizzle, Paul Rustand, Thomas Clark, Daryl Heald, Marshall Brock as well as McDaniel.

That connection with the city helped from the very beginning, both in terms of knowing the market and having connections in it.

"We were lucky to gain the support of a lot of fantastic local sponsors — partially by focusing on local companies first — from our first year," Kelly says. "We raise a lot more in sponsorship than any other team our size in the country, which helps us keep ticket prices low, and that creates a virtuous cycle that keeps lifting attendance."

There was a lot of heavy lifting, especially early on. Kelly said one of the main reasons he was involved from the beginning was because of his relationship with former-Lookouts owner and then-Finley Stadium executive director Frank Burke.

Burke was very accommodating to the idea, and this side of the local soccer community, nothing in Chattanooga has benefited more by the CFC success than Finley. The stadium has produced record revenues in recent years, in large part, because of the extra crowds the CFC delivers.

That early partnership planted the seeds of the CFC success, especially in regard to selling a sport and a soccer atmosphere.

"(CFC's success) is probably a combination of many things but definitely driven by the game-day experience," says McDaniel, who frequently references an analogy that he credits to Krue Brock as the best way to describe the CFC experience. "It's the difference between going to a movie and going to a great concert. A movie is very regimented. Buy a ticket, buy the popcorn and sit still for 2 hours in a dark theater. A CFC game is like a great concert. Free-flowing, fans standing, singing and full of energy for 2 hours.

CFC’s annual scorecard

The Chattanooga Football Club has had a winning season every year. The number of wins, losses and tie matches each year were:

› 2009: 4-3-1

› 2010: 8-2-2

› 2011: 8-2-2

› 2012: 8-3-3

› 2013: 7-2-4

› 2014: 15-3-2

› 2015: 15-3-3

› 2016: 15-4-2

› 2017: 9-5-4

"Fans are exhausted when they leave, but they keep the atmosphere alive by going to the local restaurants and entertainment venues after the CFC match. Its simply a great night any way you look at it and the enthusiasm has spread over the last decade."

Entering its 10th season, the crowds have become a self-sustaining feature of the CFC experience that in some ways has become part of the attraction.

Fans of the fans

For the initiated, the word Chattahooligan is readily recognizable.

It's the chanting, cheering, coordinated section of fans that are as entertaining as the collection of highly skilled soccer players from around the globe. The other thing they have in common is they all wear jerseys.

Gobs of them. Everywhere.

While the continually expanding collection of Hooligans grows on its own, the genesis of a connection between CFC and fans was certainly not an accident.

"We had a commitment to great branding from the very beginning and left that to Paul Rustand, our brand director who has done a great job of making us look great and like a professional organization long before we actually were," Kelly admits. "And yes, we also got a great organic lift because our eight co-founders were all well-connected to the community and got the word out. We were also incredibly fortunate to have the Chattahooligans sort of just spring up out of the ground just a few games after we first started. They latched on with a vengeance and have just grown larger and more vocal since."

For those who have not been to see the CFC — and the Hooligans — it's kind of a Chattanooga version of the Duke students at Cameron Indoor and the face-painted, costumed members of the Black Hole during Oakland Raiders home games.

In other words, it's an attraction at the attraction, and their energy is felt from fans to the field.

"Oh yes we definitely feel it on the field," CFC coach Bill Elliott said before the season-opening friendly last month on Press Row on ESPN 105.1 the Zone. "How could you not?"

It's still a sport

CFC was well-backed from the start, especially considering the connections the founding eight already had in town.

It was supported, both in terms of sponsors and fans.

Biggest CFC crowds at Finley

The most well-attended Chattanooga FC games at Finley Stadium, their dates, opponents and crowd size were:

1. August 8, 2015 - New York Cosmos B, 18,227

2. February 11, 2017 - Atlanta United FC, 12,484

3. July 30, 2016 - Sonoma County Sol, 12,251

4. July 23, 2016 - Miami United FC, 10,104

5. August 1, 2015 - Indiana Fire, 9,236 6. July 26, 2014 - Sacramento Gold, 8,878

7. July 16, 2016 - Houston Dutch Lions, 6,480

8. May 29, 2010 - FC Atlas, 6,317

9. July 17, 2015 - Miami Fusion FC, 6,143

10. June 20, 2017 - Birmingham Hammers, 5,700

Source: Chattanooga FC

Chattanooga FC's Juan Hernandez, right, tries to get around NSC's London Woodberry during Chattanooga FC's friendly match against Nashville, South Carolina at Finley Stadium March 10.

Chattanooga FC's Juan Hernandez, right, tries to get...

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

Smith and Finley Stadium were glad to have them. Add in the fact that Chattanooga as a town loves an event, especially when it has buzz.

So all of those things were in place and maximized by the CFC ownership group.

Still, this is sports, and to borrow and morph a phrase from "Field of Dreams" in the sporting world, "If you win it, they will come."

Yes, soccer as a sport is skyrocketing in popularity among kids. But the TV numbers and the interest in professional soccer in the states are growing at much-slower rate, if they are growing at all.

But the simple sports axiom of everyone loves a winner has been another part of the CFC's overnight success story a decade later.

"We've had great support and been able to have success," Elliott says, "and that allows us to get better players who are interested in coming here and playing."

Yes, the CFC has not climbed to the top of its league, but in its nine previous seasons, it has made seven playoff trips, won six regular-season division crowns and finished as the NPSL runner-up four times.

What's next?

By almost every measure, the CFC has poured a foundation of rock-solid success.

In the attendance numbers, the win-loss columns, the community involvement and even the program's community outreach, which includes a women's team, multiple youth teams and clinic as well as the CFC Foundation.

In some of those ways, the success locally has been surpassed by the CFC's notoriety and success in the opinion of the program and its fans on the game's biggest platforms.

"I think the most significant factor to all of this is that we are careful to always make sure that Chattanooga is presented in such a positive way," McDaniel says. "And that's everything from the game day experience to the behavior of the fans to the 'cool factor' the club showcases throughout the year. The world is literally watching us and the entire city is aware that the Scenic City has a bright light shining on our stage."

Considering that the U.S. men's and women's national teams have played exhibitions here as well as numerous international teams and even some MLS franchises, McDaniel's point is well supported.

And to that end, the simplicity of the business model — be it sports or sporting goods, soccer or socks — makes a ton of sense.

"It is a very welcoming environment and it's 'open seating,' meaning families can come with their kids and spread out without worrying about seat numbers, etc.," Kelly says. "I fought very hard for that early on not simply because it was the simplest way to do things, but it had that unintended benefit, which we hear about every year in our postseason survey we ask our customers and, of course, we listen to their feedback."

And that likely means Chattanooga Football Club will continue to get its kicks well into its next decade and beyond.