Chattanooga FC: Q&A With Club Chairman Tim Kelly.

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Chattanooga FC is an American soccer club based in Chattanooga, Tennessee. They were founded in 2009 and they play in the National Premier Soccer League. The club made history this year by becoming the first to offer ownership shares to the public and its fans.

Chattanooga FC are trailblazers in the world of American soccer. They are a club focused on their community and they are challenging the hierarchy of American soccer. Their Chairman Tim Kelly took the time to chat with us about all things Chattanooga FC.

We wanted to thank Tim Kelly for taking the time to have such an insightful conversation with us about Chattanooga FC.


 

Chattanooga F.C is turning 10 years old this year. First off, Congratulations on making it this far! A decade to be proud of I’m sure. 

What has surprised you guys the most throughout this journey up until this point?  

Tim Kelly: Probably just the overall level of community support and the appetite for soccer as a social, educational tool and a tool for public health. There is literally never a shortage of good stuff to work on. 

Chattanooga is in the heart of SEC Football country, how has it been navigating that dynamic? 

TK: Shockingly, you’d never know it. In the very beginning, we had some “haters” but you’d be amazed how many of those folks have come around and now come to our games. A lot of those guys have daughters who play soccer, and I think many of them come to it that way. We sold a T shirt in our first year (now in reprint) that said on the back “This is throwball (picture of an American football) and THIS is football (picture of an (association) football). There are a few people here that are either/or but most folks have come to accept both. 

Do the general public look down on soccer in Chattanooga? 

TK: see above, but generally no. I think it’s mainly a function of age. There are still older people who see it as a globalist conspiracy but they are much fewer in number now. CFC has really become a rallying point for the community in general and I think that also has a lot to do with people of all walks of like accepting us. Once people come to a game they’re generally hooked, so our challenge is just getting people to that first one.

In early 2019, Chattanooga F.C made history by becoming the first club in America to offer ownership shares to the public and its fans under the crowdfunding rules of the Jobs Act. This is very out of the ordinary for us in the United States. There is the Packers’ but they are the only other organization who has done it and they were Grandfathered in. 
Why did you guys choose to open up the ownership in the way you did? 

TK: When we realized that as a grassroots, non-franchised community team we were never going to LEAVE Chattanooga, we thought: why WOULDN’T we do that? I think think the reason it’s not more common in the US is that our sports landscape is dominated by a franchise system that treats team first and foremost as for-profit businesses and so they want to be able to pull up stakes and leave if things aren’t going well. Of course we need to make money as well to be sustainable, but as a Benefit Corporation we have a dual social and profit mandate and what’s first and foremost for US is our commitment to this community. Franchise owners don’t sell supporters shares because if they did (with any voting rights) they’d never be able to leave! And we will never leave Chattanooga, good times or bad.

Do you hope other Clubs will adopt this model? 

TK: Yes, we do. We think it allows for a depth of fan engagement that simply isn’t possible otherwise, and I think it defines the growth potential for soccer in the country. Think about how Raiders fans in Oakland must be feeling right now. That will never happen with this model. And it’s not really revolutionary- it’s the prevalent model in the rest of the world. This is one area where we need to set aside our American Exceptionalism and learn something from the rest of the world. In the Bundesliga, public ownership is actually mandatory- and 51% public at that. The contrast to the current US model is pretty stark.

By the time our chat is posted, the window of time to become an owner of Chattanooga FC will have shut. So now that the crowdfunding campaign has been highly successful, what are the next steps? 
What can people expect to see from this “new” Chattanooga FC that is owned by its supporters? 

TK: Well, the main thing is more soccer. We’ll be playing a much longer season (probably March- October). The equity raised from this effort will be used for those extended operations. 

Building a club from the ground up can’t be easy, What has been the biggest struggle of being a club in the lower levels of U.S Soccer? 

TK: Candidly, the lack of support from US Soccer. I don’t know of another nation (certainly not one in the “developed” world) where the Federation plays favorites like they do here. Of course, we’re also the only major nation without a system of promotion and relegation, and not having the ability to move up through merit (winning), which is a linchpin of FIFA’s regulations, is huge hindrance to attracting even more capital, and permanently relegates smaller markets like ours to lower divisions, which is wrong. It’s arguably what keeps the US from becoming one of the great soccer nations of the world, because MOST of the markets in the US are put at a permanent disadvantage. I like to remind people that Leicester City (which won the EPL a couple of years ago) is smaller than Chattanooga.

Real Betis and Chattanooga FC players walking out.
Chattanooga FC recently hosted Real Betis for a friendly and it took many people by surprise that Chattanooga was going to be one of Real Betis’s opponents here in the U.S. 
How incredible was that experience to have a top quality side come from overseas to play Chattanooga FC? What do you hope the impact of that game will be long term? 
Highlights Directly from Real Betis’s Youtube Channel

It was surreal, frankly, for us, our fans, and probably mostly our players. Many of them were thanking US for hosting the game just to give them the opportunity to play against opponents of that caliber. And I have to say, they did not let us down. What should not have been a competitive game was, with us leading them 1-0 for 45 minutes. It was fantastic and I hope it will help the world to realize that non-franchised, independent lower division soccer teams in the US are legitimate and deserve a chance to thrive and grow

Wild Chattanooga Crowd Cheering
Chattanooga F.C has been incredibly popular since it’s inaugural season. Over 18,000 people attended the 2015 NPSL Championship Final at Finley Stadium, and you guys regularly bring in huge crowds to games. This past year, the USL brought a team to Chattanooga called Chattanooga Red Wolves SC. 
Do you believe Chattanooga F.C.’s success was a factor in the USL expanding into Chattanooga? 

We know it was. The most charitable explanation is that they wanted to capitalize on our success. The more cynical view is that they know our independent model is a threat to their business model and are doing everything can to extinguish it before people figure out that they don’t need to buy a franchise to grow and run a successful soccer team.

How do you view their presence? 

We will never underestimate the threat because of the league’s efforts to undermine us and exert their influence through the Federation, but from what we’ve seen thus far, it’s just a laughable annoyance. 

Chattanooga F.C. will be playing in the NPSL Founders Cup along with some other exciting up and coming clubs such as Detroit City, Oakland Roots and the New York Cosmos. 
Why did you choose to play in the Founders Cup, and why should people be excited for the Founder’s Cup? 

As I said above, it’s time the US had a league of real, community based teams where the club, not the league, is primary. Our teams are authentic, community-born and supported organizations, not canned franchises, and if you attend one of our games, you’ll feel it immediately. We think the future of American soccer is at stake here.

Soccer is clearly growing at a rapid rate here in the U.S. Despite so many people flocking to the sport, our soccer system remains very messy and complex. 
How do you view the American Soccer Landscape today and what do you believe is the biggest thing that needs to change? 

We need the federation to support an open system of promotion and relegation, or at the very least allow a parallel system to develop that will allow independent teams to thrive so that the sport can continue to grow in the US. 

Is there anything else that you would like our readers to know about Chattanooga F.C. that we have not discussed yet? 

Just that if we can do this here, in a mid-sized city in the middle of SEC football country and the Bible Belt, it can be done anywhere in America with the right people and the proper focus. We’ve helped inspire a few other clubs to start in other cities and we’d like to see that continue. 


You can learn more about Chattanooga FC here: ChattanoogaFC.com/

As part of a new ongoing series, we will be highlighting different American Soccer Clubs from the lower divisions who have bright futures ahead of them! So stay tuned for the next spotlight article coming out soon!

What club should we cover next? Let us know in the comments below!

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