Team Prepares for NPSL Final Four after Unbeaten Season
By John Archibald, Resolution Sports
Chattanooga, Tenn. (Thursday, July 29, 2010) – Anybody who knows me personally knows it’s no hidden secret that I was raised in Tennessee and am very proud of the fact. So when I hear of success stories like that of Chattanooga FC, a second-year team in the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL), I can’t help but feel a bit of pride for the success of a franchise that I have nothing to do with.
“Before we started, we said that we really want to be all about the community,” Chattanooga FC Director of Communications Sheldon Grizzle told me. “Soccer is a universal language, and we see that every four years with the World Cup. Chattanooga has a very diverse population, and we thought that the time was right to use soccer to unify the community.”
Chattanooga has been one of the fastest growing cities in the country over the past decade and a place I called home for nearly seven years. When I arrived in the Scenic City to attend the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in 1997, it was a city under development with a rapidly growing downtown. Since I moved away to chase a career in the sports industry in 2004, first to Florida and eventually to where I am now in the Northeast, my trips back to Chattanooga have become way too few and far between. When I am lucky enough to get back to a place that I spent such an important period of my life, I am amazed by the massive growth and developments that the city has made. The university and city alike are virtually brand new, with a booming downtown district that offers everything from restaurants and bars to the Tennessee Aquarium, the largest freshwater aquarium in the world, and AT&T Park right off the Tennessee River, home to the Los Angeles Dodgers Double-A affiliate and nearly 70-year-old Chattanooga Lookouts.
It can be argued that the growth started with the construction of Finley Stadium Davenport Field, which is home to the UT-Chattanooga football program. The team played on campus at the beginning of my freshman year of college before moving to Finley-Davenport Stadium, and the facility has hosted the past 13 Division I Football National Championship Games. Needless to say, it is a place that gives instant credibility to the city and anyone who plays there. When I saw that Chattanooga FC played its home matches at Finley-Davenport Stadium, it instantly elevated the team to an even greater height for me.
“When we were preparing for our first year, one thing we were focused on was creating credibility,” Grizzle stated. “At the time, (Lookouts owner/operator) Frank Burke was managing Finley Stadium, so we approached him about playing there since it was not really being used during the summer. It was definitely give-and-take on both sides, but we were able to come up with a deal that was beneficial for both our club and the stadium. During the first season, we made sure no money was lost by Finley Stadium. This past year, they were able to make money off us, and we have been able to play in a state-of-the-art facility. It has definitely been a mutually beneficial relationship, a true win-win relationship.”
Chattanooga FC does not just play at Finley-Davenport Stadium, they also have a rapidly growing fan base there. This past year, the team destroyed league attendance records by averaging approximately 4,440 fans a game, including an NPSL record 5,117 patrons for a 4-0 victory over Rocket City United. The team also drew 6,317 spectators for a non-league match against the FC Atlas U-20 Team.
“From the beginning, we wanted to be a catalyst for the community through the game of soccer,” Grizzle continued. “When we started promoting the club, it helped that we already had a brand. We went through an extensive marketing process to design our colors, logo and website. We immediately began to promote heavily through social media, and our numbers on Facebook and Twitter started to grow every day. We made it a focus to be very reactive with our fans, to communicate with them and answer any questions they had very quickly rather than leave them sitting unanswered. Our success has been a combination of a lot of things, with Finley Stadium also being a big part of it.”
One of the most impressive accomplishments for Grizzle and Chattanooga FC came through a feat that is often the highest revenue generator for any soccer club, which is title sponsorship. A city which has long been the hub of many industrial giants, German auto-maker Volkswagen announced in 2009 that it would be building its lone U.S. plant in Chattanooga, a nearly $1 billion project that will provide over 2,000 jobs when it opens in 2011. Seeing the opportunity that development presented, Chattanooga FC ownership approached Volkswagen about becoming the title sponsor of the team. Volkswagen liked what the franchise pitched to them, and the two went into an immediate partnership.
With Volkswagen on board and Finley-Davenport Stadium in agreement to be its home facility, Chattanooga FC had basically written the book on ‘how to be a successful soccer franchise’ before the team had ever played a game.
“With strong brand awareness, Volkswagen on our chests and playing at Finley Stadium, we were quickly elevated in the minds of people that we were something legitimate and ready to make a run at this,” Grizzle reflected.
The relationship with Volkswagen has also extended out of the Scenic City and all the way to the nation’s capital, where the company is also the title sponsor of Major League Soccer’s DC United. This past weekend, Chattanooga FC headed northward to play the DC United Reserves at RFK Stadium in Washington, DC. While the result may have been a 3-0 loss, the game proved that Chattanooga FC was an ambitious franchise with a bright future ahead of it, both on and off the field of play. Grizzle also said that the two sides plan to meet on a consistent basis in the future as well.
With all of the hard work and success that Chattanooga FC has seen as an organization, the culmination of that effort could reach an exhilarating celebration this weekend. After head coach Brian Crossman led the team to an unbeaten 6-0-2 record and NPSL Southeast Division Championship this season, the team will play tonight in the NPSL Final Four against Midwest Division Champions, the Madison 56ers. The action goes down at City Stadium in Madison, Alabama, with the winner set to play on Saturday for the league crown against the victor of a match between FC Sonic (Pennsylvania, Northeast Division Champions) and Sacramento Gold (California, West Division Champions).
Unfortunately for Chattanooga FC, if it is to secure a league title in just its second season of operation, the team will have to do so without captain Russell Courtney, who was recently lost to a torn ACL.
“Thankfully, we had 150 players tryout for the team before the season, so we were able to select a solid team with solid reserves,” Grizzle remarked. “Stepping into Russell’s starting defender position on the field will be Thomas Clark, who was one of the initial founders of our team. He started every game in 2009, but with all of the depth and talent on our team this year, we have been able to use him as a utility player. While you hate to lose a great player like Russell, we are very confident about our team heading into this weekend.”
Chattanooga FC and the 56ers have the nightcap match tonight, kicking off at 8:00 p.m. To keep up with all of the action, fans can follow the official Chattanooga FC Twitter page @ChattanoogaFC, and an audiocast will also be available.
(Click here for all the details concerning the NPSL Championship Weekend)
For all of the latest information on Chattanooga FC, visit www.chattanoogafc.com.