Welcome back to the Pyramid faithful readers! This interview is getting released a full week and a half in advance, thanks not only to the amount of positive feedback we are getting from teams when it comes to interview requests, but also due to the interest among some of my readers in this particular interview. Now, Matt Roberts is the President and CEO of Grand Rapids FC, a team out of Michigan that took the American soccer scene by storm this year when they surprised everyone, including themselves, when they averaged 4,000+ fans a game over the course of the season. Without further ado, I present an interview with Matt Roberts, after the break.
American Pyramid: Tell me a little bit about yourself. Who you are, where you're from, what your role is with Grand Rapids FC.
Matt Roberts: I am from Indianapolis originally and moved to Grand Rapids in 1998 to attend Aquinas College. Over those four years I witnessed the transformation of GR and fell in love with the city and the people here. I am the President and CEO of GRFC as well as the Youth Development Director for Midwest United FC.
AP: Nice, I was born in Carmel myself. When did you first get interested in soccer in general and owning a soccer team in particular? Was there a certain event that got you into the sport, or have you always been into soccer?
MR: I started playing when I was 4 and it's been a lifetime of love for the game. I had an English coach when I was 6 and ever since then I have eaten, breathed, and lived for soccer. As far as owning a team, that really never crossed my mind until the winter of 13/14 when Chris Deiss and I had the idea to start a Men's team here in GR. I have coached at the Youth, High School, and College levels so I have seen the development of the sport in West Michigan first hand.
AP: Can you recap the history of Grand Rapids FC for us? Basically, what's the teams 'origin story?'
MR: GRFC started as a crowd-funding project in March of 2014. We borrowed the idea from Nashville FC, spoke with some other die-hard soccer fans in town, and decided to go for it. We enlisted 20 people originally to put in $100 for the scarves we wanted to order, then opened it up to the public. We had 200 members after 40 days, it was a whirlwind ride.
AP: To preface this question, Grand Rapids FC was a one of the founding members of the Great Lakes Premier League, correct?
MR: Yes, we originally applied to the NPSL but was denied. We got together with a few other teams that didn't get in either (AFC Ann Arbor and Oakland United) and came up with the idea for the GLPL.
AP: How did the idea of starting your own league come about and why?
MR: We wanted to have another option out there that could help grow the game in cities that maybe couldn't support a USL or NASL team. The idea originally was to start the league so the game could grow in markets that had never experienced live matches before.
AP: Just so all of you reading this interview know, Grand Rapids FC will be playing in the National Premier Soccer League in 2016. Now what kind of advantages does the NPSL have over remaining in the GLPL, or is it more about being in the same league as Detroit City and Lansing United?
MR: There are a number of reasons we made the move. Playing DCFC and Lansing United in competitive matches was among them. We felt to really build our brand we needed to be in a league with owners that shared our view of growing together on and off the field. Several teams we play next year (and several we don't i.e. Chattanooga FC and Nashville FC) have had massive success in terms of results, attendance, and corporate sponsorships. Another reason is we want to be considered one of the top lower level teams in the country, and to do so you have to compete in a national league. It also doesn't hurt that we have 5 teams in Michigan and our travel costs will be kept down as well.
AP: There are 5 NPSL teams in Michigan now? That's a pretty solid number, almost enough for a straight up Michigan conference. Why is soccer catching on like it is in Michigan? Now just in terms of teams sprouting up, but in terms of support for those teams as well.
MR: It's hard to say, but I think that fact that we have some great youth clubs developing kids from U7-U18 is a big reason. We also have people of all different cultures who settle in the state of Michigan and a big portion of them are huge soccer fans. Our head coach George Moni is from Albania and emigrated here to settle in Detroit first and eventually GR.
AP: Does the NPSL have a long term vision for their league and your teams role in that future?
MR: Yes, we have had conversations with several owners both here in the Midwest and across the country about how to best maximize the exposure you get from playing in a league with very successful franchises like New York Cosmos, DCFC, and Chattanooga. The goal for all of us is to build our brands so that we can help each other away from the field. That being said, when we play these teams for 90 minutes we are not friends haha.
AP: What can you tell me about the growing interest in soccer throughout the Great Lakes, and the Rust Belt in particular?
MR: The region is producing some top players finally and now that we have all this talent here the sport is growing by leaps and bounds every 5-10 years. From the Division 1 schools having success to NAIA schools getting national recognition there is a pipeline of talent for all of the teams in the Midwest to tap in to.
AP: Is there anything in particular that you feel makes soccer not just popular, but so community oriented?
MR: I have always believed that soccer is great because it doesn't drag on for 4-5 hours. You know that each match is going to be 2 hours and you don't have to interrupt it with 75 commercials. I also think that youth soccer is getting huge because it is inexpensive and the kids that are growing up with the game become passionate fans as well. Soccer has always been an "outsider" sport in the mainstream but that is changing rapidly as can be seen with the massive TV contracts that are being signed to show the beautiful game here in the States.
AP: Grand Rapids FC averaged 4,509 fans a game last season. That's an insanely high number for an amateur team, regardless of league. Were you expecting anywhere near that, or were you very pleasantly surprised? I remember a lot of people were giving Grand Rapids flak online once you started the GLPL because the NPSL had turned you down at first. Those kind of attendance numbers shut them up quick.
MR: We had no idea what to expect to be honest. We said from the first game that if we could get 1,500-2,000 people during the season we would have had a very successful first summer. Then at the first match we had 2,400. I about cried tears of joy when I announced the number to the people in the press box. We knew GR was a great market for soccer, but honestly if you would have told me we would average 4,500 in 2015 I would have called you a liar and laughed at you. We also have to give a huge tip of the cap to our supporters group "The Grand Army" as they created an atmosphere inside the stadium that was second to none. When average fans came to one game to check it out, they had such a good time because of that group they wanted to come back to another match.
AP: Do you expect to build on that support in year 2, especially with some of the new rivalries you'll be entering into?
MR: We certainly hope so, but you never know. We are working very hard to make 2016 even better but we kind of feel like the new restaurant in town that everyone is talking about for a year because it is the new thing in town. Some of those places go out of business because people get sick of it and don't go back in Year 2. Hopefully we can continue to push forward and make our second season even bigger than our inaugural season. We obviously believe that the move to the NPSL and creating rivalries with other teams around Michigan and the Midwest will help with that.
AP: Why should the average soccer fan care about a team in Grand Rapids, Michigan?
MR: I think the only answer I can give to this question is that if you like soccer you should like soccer at all levels and not just the EPL or La Liga. I try to contribute to start up clubs all over the country because I truly believe that if our country is going to be a powerhouse on the world stage it starts with getting kids to watch live soccer matches, whether it be on TV or their local team. They will learn from those older players and aspire to be better when they train with their club teams or play in the backyard.
AP: Cast a vision for me: Where do you see Grand Rapids FC in 5 years?
MR: Haha, hopefully still in existence! But seriously, I hope in 5 years we will have attracted enough interest to start a USL or NASL team. It's a massive goal, but one that we think could be attainable if we continue to work to make GRFC better every year.
AP: Bonus Questions: Who's your pick to win the MLS Cup this year?
MR: Portland Timbers
AP: What's your favorite book, regardless of genre?
MR: They Call Me Coach by John Wooden
AP: Who's your favorite current soccer player?
MR: Wayne Rooney
AP: Do you have a favorite soccer book, movie or podcast?
MR: Green Street Hooligans, and I love the Men in Blazers podcast. I also just read Sir Alex Fergusons "Leadership" which was fantastic.
AP: What's your favorite league and/or team to watch?
MR: EPL, Manchester United
AP: Where can people find out more about yourself and the team? (I can put links in later if you'd like)
MR: Check us out on our website, www.grandrapidsfc.com, and you can find us pretty easily on Facebook too.
AP: What would you like to say to the people reading this article about why they should get behind the lower levels of American soccer in general, and Grand Rapids FC in particular?
MR: Like I said before, I think if we are going to be a country that fully accepts soccer then people need to support it at all levels. GRFC is a model that others have used to get started as well and it makes me proud to be a part of something that is helping shape the soccer landscape for the next decade.
AP: Thanks very much for all of your time Matt, it's been great. As always, don't forget to like American Pyramid on Facebook, www.facebook.com/americanpyramid, comment on the articles either on Facebook or in the comment section below, we'd love to know what kind of questions you'd like to ask these teams and leagues so we can them into the interviews for you. Hope you enjoyed this latest interview, and have a Happy Thanksgiving!