Pro soccer impressed by Grand Rapids market
USL officials term on-site visit an ‘awesome’ experience.
(As seen on WZZM TV 13) Grand Rapids “checked all the boxes” as a possible market for a team in the United Soccer League’s new Division III league, according to an official who recently visited the city.
USL Division III vice president Steven Short said the culture, populace and support for established professional sports teams in Grand Rapids make the city a prime target for one of the 12 or so teams that would launch the USL’s new foray into Division III soccer in 2019.
“The Grand Rapids you hear and read about, with the 60-plus breweries and the downtown culture was awesome to experience,” Short said. “You can tell it’s thriving, it’s a mix of young and old and it’s definitely a sports city.”
Short and USL DIII Business Development Director Josh Keller toured Grand Rapids last month as part of an exploratory tour of cities that could support a possible USL franchise. In addition to Grand Rapids, Midwest cities visited included Lansing, Dayton, Toledo and Fort Wayne.
During their Grand Rapids visit, Short and Keller met with city officials and local sports figures, including West Michigan Sports Commission President Mike Guswiler, Grand Rapids Griffins President Tim Gortsema, Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce Chief Strategy Officer Paul Rumler, The Right Place Vice President of Strategy Rick Chapla and Grand Rapids Football Club President Matt Roberts. The pair also met with West Michigan Whitecaps executives, including CEO Lew Chamberlin and president Scott Lane.
Guswiler said he had a “great conversation” with the league about the city’s potential for a USL franchise, and the addition of any professional sports team to the area enhances the region’s standing as a premier destination for sports.
“The conversations we’re having still are kind of in a courting or investigatory phase,” Guswiler said. “From the USL standpoint, they’re talking about a new division that fits well for this market. For us, they thought DIII was a good entry point for the Grand Rapids market.”
The USL’s criteria for a possible franchise target includes cities with a population between 150,000 and 1 million people, existing or plans to add a stadium with seating capacity of 3,500 and ownership with a net worth of at least $10 million who would have at least a 35 percent stake in the team.
A recommendation for a $40-million soccer stadium that could support a USL franchise was included in Grand Action’s Grand Rapids Destination Asset Study, released in December. Short said a stadium build isn’t mandated for Division III, but facilities need to be in place for a team.
Guswiler said if a stadium for Division III does end up being built, it likely would be designed to accommodate further seating capacity expansion should a hypothetical Grand Rapids team eventually make the move up to Division II. Short said a Division II stadium would need at least 5,000 seats, but the league will be targeting stadiums with seating capacities around 10,000 at the end of the decade.
Short said a phased approach to stadium builds is something several USL franchises have used in the past.
One major draw for Grand Rapids is the existing support for the 3-year-old Grand Rapids Football Club, currently playing in the National Premier Soccer League, which has no official designation as a USSF league but is commonly recognized as a fourth-tier league. Last year, the club had an average attendance of 4,315 for its 12 home games played at Houseman Field.
“When we look at expansion cities, we have to understand the soccer culture from the youth leagues all the way up to high performing amateur leagues to measure the desire for professional soccer,” Short said. “And hats off to GRFC; they’ve built a team from the ground up and what they’ve done has been unbelievable. For a USL team in this market, I would want it to be done the exact same way. They built support organically and have become a fabric of the community there.”
What a USL team would look like in Grand Rapids remains to be seen, but Guswiler said GRFC would certainly be involved in the process and possibly even become a Division III team itself.
“As you move up leagues, I think the talent level changes and so do the field requirements, so I think there’d need to be some adjustments,” he said. “There’s no question that the current group would want to take that on and be a part of it, and I think that makes the most sense when it comes to taking the model of what GRFC has done and bringing it to the next level.”