Economic Development, Small Business & Startups, and Sports Business

Many pitch in for hometown soccer franchise

Ten-year plan: $25M buy-in and new stadium as part of NASL deal.

May 16, 2014
| By Pat Evans |
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GRFC
The division in which Grand Rapids FC would be placed already has teams from Detroit, Lansing, Indianapolis and Cincinnati. Courtesy Thinkstock

With the World Cup taking place this summer, Matt Roberts didn’t think there could be a better time to try to get a semiprofessional soccer team up and running.

Roberts knew that rallying support for the game would be easier this summer, and his plan was to use crowdfunding as a means of gathering the necessary funds to locate a team in Grand Rapids. For that to happen, he set a goal of having 200 members by Aug. 1 and launched the campaign March 17. He figured that should be enough time to raise money for the Grand Rapids Football Club.

The goal was to buy into the North Premier Soccer League for $12,500. The NPSL is the fourth tier of the American soccer pyramid.

Roberts said he has been blown away by the support: Already more than 240 members have bought in for at least $100. Now the membership goals have been reassessed, and Roberts has set a new goal of more than 500 by Aug. 1. He said 500 members should give the team about $50,000, enough for a first-year operating budget. The team already has business sponsors who have come forward.

“This is something we need in the community,” said Roberts, who coaches soccer at GR Crew Juniors. “There’s almost 10,000 kids playing soccer in West Michigan, and I want them to see the next level and have aspirations to play at that next level.”

The division in which Grand Rapids FC would be placed, the Great Lakes West Conference, already has two teams in the Detroit area, one each in Indianapolis and Cincinnati, and a new team in Lansing that started play this month. Roberts said the close proximity of teams allows soccer fans, who are notoriously avid supporters, to travel to watch their teams play.

The NPSL is a pro-am league, where teams pay players or use college players with eligibility who are looking for a summer league. Roberts said the focus, at least for the first year, will be to utilize college players from the area.

Within the next decade, however, Roberts said he hopes the team will move up to the professional North American Soccer League, the second-tier of American soccer. For that to happen, the team would need $25 million for a buy-in and its own stadium.

Right now, he is looking at Houseman Field and Memorial Stadium in East Grand Rapids for a home field. The hope is to have a “home bar” close enough that fans can walk, singing and chanting much like European soccer fans, to the games.

“Down the road, who knows?” he said. “We’re just building the brand loyalty. We have members from across the country who just want to be a part of a team. I’m blown away by how quickly it’s growing.”

The U.S. soccer pyramid is a child in the eyes of European soccer leagues. Major League Soccer started in the mid-’90s with 10 teams and then expanded to 12, but struggled financially. Now the MLS is expanding to more than 20 teams.

Roberts likened the soccer culture of Grand Rapids to that in the Pacific Northwest, where MLS teams in Portland, Seattle and Vancouver average about 35,000 fans at each game.

“We want to support Grand Rapids with this,” he said. “It is such a cool city.”

Right now, Roberts said the current marketing effort is focused on male fans in their 20s and early 30s to get a buzz started, he said. Once fall rolls around, the marketing effort will expand to families. Although a schedule hasn’t been released, the team already has sold more season tickets than the new team in Lansing.

Roberts said volunteers and businesses have come out of the woodwork to help make Grand Rapids FC a reality.

“Anything anyone is willing to put on the table, we’re willing to work with,” he said. “It needs to start somewhere. There’s massive growth potential — we just need to get it going.”

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