It's been three years since the United Soccer League announced it would be bringing a team to Chattanooga, a third-division professional club under the ownership of a Utah businessman named Bob Martino.
Considering the city really hadn't shown it would consistently get behind one program — save for a two-year stretch when the Chattanooga Football Club made national waves as an amateur organization in the mid-2010s — it was a move that left many people wondering, some in private and some out loud, whether the town could somehow support two soccer teams.
It's Chattanooga. The home of tons of ardent supporters of Southeastern Conference football. Chattanooga FC had excelled in drawing fans to Finley Stadium with a schedule that filled Saturday nights in the summer but ended by August, before college football season began and Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama and other teams would steal people's attention from noon until late night from September to early December.
With the arrival of the Chattanooga Red Wolves, who have competed in USL League One since debuting in 2019, and the move of CFC to the professional ranks in 2020 as part of the National Independent Soccer Association, soccer season in the Chattanooga area has become months longer.
Despite plenty of friction between CFC and the Red Wolves over the years, it appears possible the two may be able to coexist — and their differences could be among the reasons why.
Since Hamilton County's mask mandate ended at midnight on April 28, each team had four home matches prior to Saturday, when both teams played at home on the same night for the first time since May 29. CFC averaged 2,637.5 fans per match for those four, while the Red Wolves averaged 1,922.5.
CFC was founded in 2009, meaning it has had more than a decade to develop a fan base, but ticket prices are another factor to consider when comparing attendance for the two teams.
The most expensive ticket for a CFC match is $17, and season passes range from $80 to $135, although that increases to $140 to $190 for a midfield pass, which grants access to the chairback seating around the 50-yard line at Finley Stadium.
Single-game tickets for the Red Wolves' matches at CHI Memorial Stadium in East Ridge cost from $14 to $46, while a season pass behind the benches is $190. That was by design, general manager Sean McDaniel said.
"We knew back in 2019 that we would be where we are today, with a beautiful new stadium with significant developments being built," he told the Times Free Press this past week. "So when we did our strategic planning, we didn't want to just sell tickets to come watch soccer — that was never the motivation. We were the professional soccer team, and professional sports connotates a level of price expectation to watch the best in the business. So for us to have all the components of pro players, professional staff, national soccer stadium, we've priced things higher so that fans begin understanding and getting used to a price point that's conducive to professional soccer.
"We never wanted to just have a low price point to get people in the stands; we're trying to build this incredible experience in and around the Red Wolves, and we see the rewards."
Meanwhile, CFC managing director Jeremy Alumbaugh said once his club moved from amateur to pro status, it wanted to make sure it didn't lose some of what had made the team — and its games — so popular to begin with.
"We're a community club. We've been around, and I think for us to come in and say, 'Hey, we're pro now and we have more bills, we have more expenses, so let's slab it on the consumer,' that's not the right thing to do," he said. "It's forced us to hit the corporate partnership side more to up our merchandise game, find other avenues of revenue in order to not just slap it on the consumer with a higher ticket.
"It doesn't mean those guys are doing it wrong," Alumbaugh continued, referencing the Red Wolves. "Everybody's got their own business model, and for us, it's what we came up with."
On-field success will eventually be far more important than anything else for both soccer teams, especially once college football is added to the equation. People looking for a team to follow regularly — and perhaps buy season passes — want to support a winner. The same is true even for more casual fans, who want to know the team they're going to see is playing for something.
It has raised the importance of developing a quality product during the summer months, because once fall arrives, getting casual fans out to a match will become exponentially harder.
That's not lost on either club, both of which have tailored their schedules to try and avoid conflicts with football as best as they could.
"Fans are invested in success and winning on the field, regardless of the sport," said McDaniel, who along with coach Jimmy Obleda spent a lot of time revamping the Red Wolves' roster for this year. "One of the things I really like this season is Coach Obleda has not just an entertaining brand of soccer, but it's resulting in wins so we're getting the best of both worlds in that it's very entertaining but also very successful."
With 2 1/2 months remaining in the regular season, the Red Wolves have established themselves as title contenders.
On Saturday, they played FC Tucson to a 2-2 draw, with goals from Ricky Ruiz and Juan Galindrez — on assists from José Carrera Garcia and Ruiz — building a 2-0 lead that didn't hold up for the home team. But the Red Wolves are 5-1-4 with 19 points in the USL League One standings, three behind both Union Omaha (6-1-4) and the Greenville Triumph SC (6-2-4), which won the league title last season, when Omaha was the runner-up in the league's second year.
CFC won its NISA Independent Cup summer tournament opener Saturday night, beating Atletico Atlanta 1-0 at Finley Stadium as Markus Naglestad scored in the 10th minute off a free kick from James Kasak.
But CFC is coming off a disappointing spring season that finished with a 2-4-2 record and a loss to the Los Angeles Force in an NISA semifinal. That adds to the need for the club that fancies itself as "Chattanooga's team" to improve prior to the fall season, which begins in August and runs through November.
"Bill (Elliott) and Peter (Fuller) are aware that there are some gaps in the roster, and now the challenge is can we work to fill some of those," Alumbaugh said, referring to the team's technical director and its head coach. "You have to improve because there are a lot of choices, and one of those easy choices is to stay home and watch college football on a Saturday night.
"Chattanooga is a unique place and a challenging area, and I think it's proving that a market this size can sustain two professional soccer clubs, and I think there are a lot of people that doubted that and rightfully so. Now time will tell if everybody makes it or if one makes it or one doesn't, but it's a fun time to be in Chattanooga — not just if you're a soccer person, but just a sports person."