Five years ago, as the Chattanooga Lookouts and the Chattanooga Football Club were entrenched as the city's most recognized spring and summer athletic entities, Bob Martino developed a strong belief.
The Utah-based real estate developer was convinced there was room for more, so he established the Chattanooga Red Wolves professional soccer team.
"Before we went into the market with the development, we studied it and anticipated a lot of growth," Martino said. "I think there is still much more growth to come. This is a very attractive area for a lot of different reasons, and with the population growing, there are plenty of activities that people can enjoy — hiking and biking and all that stuff.
"Having another offering as markets grow is what's needed in them."
Chattanooga now boasts three professional sports options seeking the entertainment dollar, with the Lookouts and CFC staging baseball and soccer contests at the downtown venues of AT&T Field and Finley Stadium, respectively, and with Martino having erected CHI Memorial Stadium off Interstate 75 in East Ridge to house the Red Wolves. All three teams were shelved for multiple months in 2020 following the outbreak of the coronavirus, and all three endured capacity restrictions as the pandemic continued before this year's return to much more normal times.
In fact, it's been better than normal.
The Southern League's Lookouts drew 76,602 spectators to AT&T Field through their first 18 games of the season — a robust average of 4,256 fans per contest — while the Red Wolves have played before at least 2,000 fans in all nine home matches this year, which includes three sellouts at their 2,500-seat facility. The only night in 2022 in which the Lookouts, CFC and Red Wolves all were at home was May 28, and crowds of 4,004 at AT&T Field, 2,864 at Finley and 2,576 at CHI Memorial resulted in a total audience of 9,444 at those competitions.
So much for two's company, three's a crowd.
"I think competition is always a challenge for everybody, but I also think it can bring out the best," CFC managing director Jeremy Alumbaugh said. "What the changes in the landscape of the last couple of years have allowed us to do is really take a look at ourselves and make sure that we're true to being the community club that we are. It's allowed us to grow and expand our game production and to put more focus around certain parts of our game-day experience, but we're also staying true to the culture and the DNA of CFC.
"We're just as cognizant of music festivals and art shows and events in the (First Horizon) Pavilion and events the Lookouts have done in their stadium. We're always trying to learn and make sure that we have both eyes open. It's not just sports in Chattanooga, because you've got the outdoors and a great walkable downtown."
Former Finley Stadium executive director Chris Thomas said CFC matches have on occasion been challenged by a special Lookouts evening, such as July 4th and "Used Car Night," adding with a laugh, "Nobody wanted to mess with 'Used Car Night' and the Lookouts."
Used car giveaways at AT&T Field are now spread throughout the season, so there is no longer one monstrous evening in August. Lookouts president Rich Mozingo said the only competition-related decrease he can remember transpired in 2015, when CFC made a run at the National Premier Soccer League title that concluded with 18,227 fans at Finley for the championship match.
That total set an amateur match record in the United States — CFC announced in August 2019 that it would be moving from the NPSL to the professional National Independent Soccer Association — that remains today.
"That became the place to be," Mozingo said. "They had 18,000 in there, but that's really been the only time I've seen it. We haven't seen anything from the team in East Ridge at all, so that's been a nonfactor for us, and for CFC it was that one time."
Martino placing the Red Wolves in East Ridge may be the biggest reason for the lack of competing crowds. While the Lookouts and CFC are downtown entertainment options along with a movie at The Majestic or a walk across the Walnut Street Bridge, the USL League One team provides an alternative that is closer for those living from Ooltewah to Dalton.
"We've not seen a decrease when other events are going on at the same time," Red Wolves general manager Sean McDaniel said. "For us, it started out as curiosity. People wondered, 'What is that going up around I-75? What is this brand new shiny stadium?' Now we've moved into the stage where people are telling us they are entertained when they come to a Red Wolves game.
"Then you add the fact that every couple of weeks there is an announcement about something new coming to this gateway development. People want to see what's going on out there, and I think the Red Wolves have been beneficiaries of that on Saturday nights."
There will be four Saturday nights this year when both soccer teams are at home, three Saturdays in which the two downtown teams are vying and six Saturdays in which both the Lookouts and Red Wolves are at home.
The consensus of the parties involved? So what?
"I think we have a good core of fans and supporters around that 3,000 mark, and the one thing we know is that a lot of new people are moving to Chattanooga and that we're working hard to get in front of those people as well," Alumbaugh said. "We're seeing a number of people at matches this year who haven't been since 2019. We're seeing a lot of them return, and for me, that's a real positive for CFC and our community. People are back out doing things."
Said Mozingo: "I think it's great when people are seeing live sports in Chattanooga. I think that's always good for us."
This story appears in the July issue of Edge magazine, which may be read at timesfreepress.com/news/edge.