This story was updated at 10:46 a.m. on Friday, August 2, 2019, to remove a paragraph that included quotes from public tweets that criticized Bob Martino.
Growing up in a small town in northern Ohio, Bob Martino played baseball as a youth and through high school.
Martino recalls hearing about soccer only when a student from France came to his hometown of Novelty, Ohio "and started kicking around this round ball you couldn't even touch and none of the kids really understood anything about soccer."
But Martino, who stayed active snow skiing and playing other sports as an adult after he moved to Utah in the 1980s, acquired a love for soccer later in life through his three sons. As a coach for his children when they were younger and sharing time with his family watching soccer, Martino became convinced of the appeal and value of the world's most popular sport.
"It was a great thing for me as a young father to be able to coach my kids and the other kids in the neighborhood, and we all developed a great love for the sport," Martino says.
So, five years ago, Martino began looking around for a sports team opportunity and last year brought his new professional soccer team, the Chattanooga Red Wolves SC of the new USL One league, to Chattanooga.
Martino, who has made his fortune developing and building more than $500 million of homes in Utah, California, Florida and Ohio, is convinced Chattanooga is ideally suited along one of America's busiest interstate highways and just north the rapidly growing soccer haven in Dalton, Georgia, where a developmental team has been started. Martino said he looked at a variety of markets to create a USL team before picking Chattanooga. In addition to his soccer team in Chattanooga, Martino said he is considering other sporting teams, including other soccer teams elsewhere or possibly a professional hockey team in the ESHL league.
As the owner of the United Soccer League Division III team, which fans helped name the Chattanooga Red Wolves last year, Martino said he chose Chattanooga because it was a growing mid-size city with a rising interest in soccer only a couple of hours north of where Atlanta United FC plays. Last year, Atlanta had one of the largest fanbases in the Major League Soccer and the team won the MLS Cup.
Martino also started the Park City (Utah) Red Wolves SC, a USL League Two amateur soccer team affiliated with the Chattanooga Red Wolves.
"Soccer is a huge draw that is going to continue to grow," Martino says. "You go by most schools today and what were once baseball fields have been converted to to soccer fields. So we're very bullish on soccer, although it is more of a long-term investment."
As a real estate developer in resort areas of Utah, Martino also sees the real estate spinoff benefits from sports. In the ski resorts in Utah, Martino has built hundreds of vacation homes near popular ski slopes.
In East Ridge, where he acquired more than 100 acres along Interstate 75 this summer, Martino is planning a $125 million development around the Red Wolves stadium he plans to build on a vacant site across I-75 from Camp Jordan, where his team also is developing a training facility. Martino is planning to build apartments, hotels, restaurants and other commercial development around a new 5,500-seat stadium in East Ridge.
The new $6 million Red Wolves stadium, which he hopes the team can begin using sometime next year, would be privately financed by Martino. Since it is located in East Ridge's border zone tax district, the cost of the stadium could be repaid over time with increased sales tax revenues generated by the project. But Martino said he has no plans to ask for city or county direct investments in the stadium.
"I've been through enough public meetings with my real estate projects that I know I don't want to go in asking for things and financing stadiums through public funding is not something philosophically that I wanted to do," he says. "When we get this all built, it will not only be a soccer stadium; it will be a place where people can go enjoy themselves with music concerts, festivals and other events."
About Bob Martino
* Age: 55
* Job: Owner of Star Community Builder in Park City, Utah, and the Red Wolves USL One soccer team in Chattanooga.
* Education: A native of Novelty, Ohio, he earned an accounting and business degree from The Ohio State University.
* Career: He initially worked in real estate investments in Ohio and moved to Utah to work as comptroller for a Stouffer's food plant. He began developing resort homes two decades ago.
* Personal: He and his wife Lana have three children and live in Park City, Utah.
Martino's development in East Ridge was welcomed by city commissioners there who unanimously endorsed his plans. The project was heralded by East Ridge Mayor Brian Williams as "turning over a new leaf in East Ridge" with the city's biggest investment in history. During a groundbreaking ceremony in July, East Ridge Vice Mayor and state Rep. Esther Helton praised Martino and said his development "is a rallying point for our future." Even Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee came to East Ridge in July to thank Martino for bringing the Red Wolves to Tennessee and investing in an undeveloped site along the interstate highway.
"The groundbreaking of this innovative facility is an exciting step forward for sports fans across the state," Lee said, claiming it should boost both tourism and local investment in the region.
But Martino's entry into Chattanooga's soccer world has not been welcomed by all. Supporters and investors in the Chattanooga Football Club, especially its rabid supporter group known as "Chattahooligans," have denounced Martino as an outsider threatening to upend a local team and steal its fan base.
Tim Kelly, a Chattanooga automotive dealer who helped found Southern Honda Motorsports, Zipflip and SocialBot, worked with other local investors a decade ago to establish the Chattanooga Football Club. As its chairman, Kelly has worked to attract local fans and investors in the Chattanooga team and casts the battle for soccer fans between Chattanooga FC and the Red Wolves as "localism versus corporatism."
"For Chattanoogans by Chattanoogans versus a top-down canned franchise owned and run by out-of-town people who don't give a damn about this place other than a community to extract money from," Kelly said earlier this year.
Martino, who hired former Chattanooga FC General manager Sean McDaniels to manage the Red Wolves, has declined to respond to the social media attacks against his team from fans of Chattanooga FC, which is also moving to become a professional team. He insists Chattanooga is ripe for more soccer and more real estate development.
"From my first day in Chattanooga, I have been looking for an opportunity to unite my passion for sports and real estate," Martino told community leaders during the July groundbreaking for his new stadium. "People want to live in an area offering a great quality of life, and by providing live, work and play opportunities, we are creating an unparalleled experience for people in East Ridge, Chattanooga and beyond."
Martino says his ownership of Red Wolves "is a long-term investment" and he said any quick sale of the team "is not even remotely on the table." Since he began developing properties in Utah two decades ago after working in real estate investments and plant management earlier in his career, Martino said he has been a long-term investor. Most of the developments he has created take years to buy, develop and resell before profits are turned on the project.
"That's the environment I'm used to in the real estate world," he says. "I'm a long-term investor."
In Park City, Martino said is now developing a 1,500-acre project with 2,000 residential units.
Martino says early in his career, when he was first working in real estate investments, he was told when starting your own business it's always better not to have a partner. So when he started developing properties in his transplanted home in Utah where he worked briefly for Stouffer's Foods, Martino formed his own business and has done most of his building and development through his ventures, Star Homes.
Martino has emerged as one of the biggest residential builders in Park City, a ski resort town filled with second vacation homes, most of them priced above $500,000.
By owning the business himself and having the equipment and staff for building everything from roads to houses, Martino was able to weather the storms of the Great Recession better than most of his rivals.
"It was very tough and I certainly never want to go through that again, but we were able to sell some product and use our assets to get through that time," Martino recalls. "Holding all of the cards, you don't have to go to a board meeting or to partners and try to work out a plan. You can respond quicker when the market changes."
Martino was one of the few major developers in Park City that avoided bankruptcy or foreclosure a decade ago.
"We realize with our real estate experience that you often have to make major, upfront investments and you get your returns in the long run," he says.
It's the same strategy he sees for the success of the Red Wolves and his new East Ridge development.
"Chattanooga is the perfect spot to have a team for a long, long time," Martino says. "This is a passion and venture for me."