Small Business & Startups and Sports Business

Soccer club ready to get down to business

Eyeing growth, GRFC plans to strengthen community connections and sponsorships.

August 19, 2016
| By Pat Evans |
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GRFC
With crowds averaging about 4,600, Grand Rapids Football Club is ready to take the next step in its business plan. Courtesy GRFC

Fresh off a disappointing end to an excellent first season in a new league, Grand Rapids Football Club President Matt Roberts said the team is taking a little bit of down time before gearing up for a fall exhibition match at Fifth Third Ballpark.

GRFC won the Great Lakes West Conference of the National Premier Soccer League in its first season and hosted the regional playoffs, winning the first game before losing by a shootout goal against eventual league champion AFC Cleveland in an effort to advance to the league semifinals.

The playoff win qualifies the team for the 2017 U.S. Open Cup, a single-elimination tournament featuring 80 teams from professional, semiprofessional and amateur leagues in America, including Major League Soccer.

“We’re still a little disappointed we lost in penalties, but looking back you couldn’t ask for much more,” Roberts said. “If someone would have told us before the season we’d win the conference and be one kick away from the semifinals, we wouldn’t have believed them. It was a truly special year.”

Attendance for the team’s second season of competition stayed similar to GRFC’s first season, with an average crowd of approximately 4,600. The team added several games to the schedule and broke attendance records twice during the season, including 6,854 for a game against AFC Ann Arbor and nearly 7,000 people for the playoff game against Indy Eleven.

“We added games and wanted to try it to see how it works,” Roberts said. “Attendance was pretty steady, but had more (people) for league games, so we might scale back a little to make sure we’re fresh for the regular season games.”

GRFC donated more than $35,000 to Grand Rapids Public Schools through concession sales. GRPS owns Houseman Field, where the team plays.

“Our deal is we make sure the concession money goes back to their budget, athletics and building funds,” Roberts said. “We want to make sure our partnership is great and to give back to the community and take care of as many people as we can.”

The organization’s main focus now is on the Oct. 8 exhibition against Canadian team Aurora United at Fifth Third Ballpark. Beyond the exhibition game, Roberts said the organization is looking at how to further its status as a community asset and business.

This offseason, the organization will look to add more infrastructure and focus on sponsorships and sponsor relationships. Before the past season, GRFC hired directors of fan development and game day operations, and Roberts said he expects to expand those areas, as well.

“The goal from Day One was just to be a team, and now two years in, we want to make it a business and have more people in the community doing more,” he said. “We want to make sure the fans are getting better experiences and the sponsors get what they need. We’re trying to make sure we’re doing the right things and make this a well-run organization.”

The team has now played two seasons in two different leagues, but Roberts doesn’t expect the team to jump to another level any time soon. The next jump would be to a fully professional league, either the United Soccer League or North American Soccer League, both considered the second-tier of American soccer, beneath Major League Soccer.

The move to either of the two leagues would require investors and additional business infrastructure, Roberts said.

“The next jump is a massive one,” he said. “We set the goal of winning the NPSL, so we’ll be in the NPSL in 2017.”

With the commitment to the current league, Roberts said the organization is willing to do anything to help the league grow, which includes assisting expansion cities and participating in discussions about league growth.

Roberts said he’s happy with where GRFC is just two summers after being a pipe dream, and that Michigan soccer has a bright future.

Among the possibilities for Michigan soccer is the proposal by Detroit Pistons owner Tom Gores and Cleveland Cavaliers owner and Detroit-focused billionaire Dan Gilbert to bring a Major League Soccer franchise to the state.

“It’s an interesting proposal, but I’d love a Michigan team support, especially with us being a minor-league town for Detroit,” Roberts said. “I know there are people in Detroit who don’t like the idea, but I’d love to see it.

“It’s a couple years out still, and just an idea really, but when you get two billionaires together, they tend to figure things out.”

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