"Seems like there is a lot of energy going around right now after the statement came out."
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Hello again and welcome back to AP! Sorry for the lateness of today's story. I'm teaching kids how to play soccer on Thursday mornings for a bit and that has pushed back the release schedule a bit.
Anyway, I was fortunate to connect with Tim Kelly before the American Soccer Summit in March. I was invited, but unable to attend, said Summit, but was able to arrange an interview afterwards with Tim to discuss what happened. Don't want to take up anymore of your time, so check it out.
Well it's been a few years since we did our first interview. Big picture overview, what's been going on with Chattanooga FC and Tim Kelly over the last two years?
The short answer is plenty. On the Club front, we've transitioned from a completely board-run club to having a full-time general manager, Sean McDaniel, who was always our "soccer operations" guy, but has now got his arms around all aspects of the enterprise. I run 4 other businesses, so this was important for me (and our other board members) to be able to continue to grow and function. Getting the operational balance right has been interesting, as nobody is good at everything, and we're still very much board- and community-driven, but we've made good progress in almost all our areas of operation.
Merchandise in particular has been a huge turnaround with our own Brand Director, Paul Rustand, designing and approving items, and a retail partner, David Smotherman (who, very much in the tradition of the club, was selected because he "gets it" and it is a huge fan) handling inventory, procurement, and sales. We also now have a broad and evolving relationship with VfL Wolfsburg (which originated due to our VW sponsorship), and of course we were involved in the initial NISA discussions last year and have been neck-deep in exploring ways to play a longer season, whether that is in D3 or some other way...
On a personal front, I've started another business (a digital ad agency in the automotive vertical, SocialBot), and become the lead investor in Chattanooga Brewing Co, which was struggling but a critical piece of our Chattanooga FC gameday ecosystem and worth the effort to revive. Craft beer is an increasingly difficult business, but at least it's fun and interesting.
Earlier this month, you hosted the Summit for American Soccer. How did the idea for the Summit come about? When did you even start thinking about doing something like this?
Honestly, it came about from the frustration resulting from all the work that our GM Sean McDaniel and I were putting into the NISA project, because it was failing to gain traction. One of my colleagues and friends from Scotland who was working on it as well was just flabbergasted that America was on the one hand a paragon of business efficiency and capitalism, but a "shambles" (his words) on the other hand as regards soccer. He's right of course, and it just got under my skin.
I of course hoped that NISA would materialize, but as I lost hope that it was going to fly I said to my executive committee that I thought we really needed to do this if no one else was going to step up and do it, and we thought we might as well fold it in with an upcoming exhibition game.. I'd actually thought about doing a lower-leagues version of "Blazercon" which I enjoyed immensely a couple of years ago, and having Supporters Groups and any other interested parties come, and I STILL think that would be a great idea. But when it came right down to it we had limited space, a short timeframe to work with, and just had to get something off the ground. So I pretty much cleared my calendar for a couple of weeks, and got a plan and an agenda and format together, collected the names we thought should be there, and got the word out, with the help of Paul Rustand, Sean McDaniel, and Sheldon Grizzle. We are used to doing a lot by just rolling up our sleeves at CFC and getting it done, and it was a pretty classic example of that. We were surprised and gratified by the response and we hope the momentum will keep us moving forward.
Going into the Summit, was there anything you were really hoping to accomplish with the clubs and people involved, beyond just sitting down and hashing things out?
Honestly, not really. The idea was just to get everybody in the same room and try to get on the same page and see if we could at least agree on some common principles to move forward despite our league differences, and to give some of the lower level teams hope that they need not abandon their principles. In retrospect, it was really three things: a sort of "best practices" seminar, a show of solidarity, and a planning meeting for future strategy.
One thing I did notice about the signed statement when it first came out was a lack of teams from the west coast. I have heard mentioned the possibility of another summit being hosted somewhere in the mid west to allow for more attendees from across the country. Is that something we should be expecting to hear about to gives teams and people west of the Mississippi a chance to speak into this?
Good question. I think that that was purely a function of geography. Chattanooga is not an easy city to get in and out of quickly, so it's a minor miracle we had as many teams as we did. We've had some discussion about subsequent meetings, and it's looking like it may be two different meetings, based on the distinctions in your first question: one for the teams who have ambitions to play a longer season and one as a sort of rally/meet/best practices seminar for smaller clubs and supporters' groups. I pushed for this meeting because I felt strongly that it needed to happen, but frankly don't have the time or energy to keep pushing the agenda. My idea behind the statement of common principles that came out of the meeting was that teams could rally around THAT (I guess it needs a name) and hopefully keep moving. I suppose it remains to be seen whether the momentum will continue...
I like the sound of those two other meetings. Kansas City is a great place to do something like that, right in the middle of the country. What were the two or three 'best' suggestions or best practices that you felt were shared at the Summit?
We looked at budgets and revenue for CFC, Detroit City, and Kingston Stockade, which everyone found helpful. The discussion on streaming and broadcast potential was also very interesting. My working thesis for this whole meeting was that the major malfunction of American soccer is the leagues have been put above teams, but this is the ONE area where leagues can provide the "network effect" to really benefit teams, but none but MLS has actually done so. We think this is a big opportunity. Finally, I think we all realized that the USASA is really a sanctioning body within a sanctioning body, and we can do a lot of things through USASA that we didn't realize were possible or practical. That was a big "aha" moment for a lot of us.
Do you think this could represent an actual turning point for non league soccer in the US?
Seems like there is a lot of energy going around right now after the statement came out. I sure hope so. Back to my Scottish colleague's disgust with our situation: it's embarrassing, ridiculous, and needless that in America, of all places, we are in this situation. All that's needed is some leadership, some coordination, and the will to get it done, and I think we have all those things. Even the capital isn't really that important at THIS stage. It will follow the passion.
What do you, personally, hope to see come out of this Summit?
Two things: 1) instilling some hope in lower-division soccer teams that what they're doing is important and viable, and that they can "win" against other models by engaging deeply with their local communities, and 2) a viable alternative to current D2/D3 offerings so that successful teams can play longer seasons without dealing with what are often arbitrary and obstructive league standards.
What can we expect from Chattanooga FC this year? Maybe a should patch sponsorship with Moon Pie?
This is our 10th year, so we are definitely celebrating that. We're hopeful (as always) that we will field a great team and win a national championship. And we'll be playing some exciting and different exhibition games, including our upcoming home/away series against Detroit City. We're also hoping to deepen our relationship with VfL Wolfsburg and that could take various forms. As for MoonPie, they're pretty tough to crack. Maybe someday!
Tim, thanks again for taking the time to do this interview, I really appreciate it. Remember, if you are enjoying the content I'm putting out, please consider supporting us on Patreon by Clicking Here. Or you can click here to Follow me on Twitter, or here to Like the page on Facebook. Make sure to spread the word by sharing these interviews, telling friends about the blog, those kind of things. I can't accomplish my goal of maximum exposure for all levels of the American Soccer Pyramid without YOU. Until next time, Stay Loyal, Support Local.
Read last weeks interview: Growing Soccer: Matt Kahla and Brentt Miller of Keene FC