• David Andrews

Can Soccer Be Clarksville's Next Step Forward?

Updated: Sep 15

Considering previous budget data, it's reasonable to assume the Govs will have a hockey team as a future co-tenant at F&M Bank Arena.

That’s more great news for "America's Best Place to Live" as community leadership continues to create excitement for locals while also developing ties with new residents. Describing anticipation for the arena's opening as local buzz is simply an understatement. With two sports operating, the annual basketball and hockey seasons would run parallel through the late fall and winter months – helping to shake off the winter blues for fans while driving business revenue in the downtown area.

So what about local sports entertainment options for spring and summer seasons?

The belief of sports entertainment bringing a community together and complimenting the local food and beverage industry is not unique to this area. If you are skeptical, it's important to remember the current absence of spring and summer sporting options are not due to a lack of historical efforts. Clarksville's list of attempts at minor league baseball franchises is a long list: Grays, Vols, Colts, Villagers, Billies, Rebels, Boosters, Owls and more recently the Coyotes. Why pout about those past teams not sticking for the long term? We’re extremely fortunate to have an excellent baseball program at APSU. A team that not only entertains at a high level, but also gives close-up access to some of the most talented players in the country. Count your blessings and check-out a game during 2022. That opening of the calendar creates an interesting alternative option to traditional sports – especially when considering our area’s growing fascination with “the beautiful game”.

During the past several years a noticeable shift has occurred within youth league enrollments of baseball, football, basketball and soccer. And during that shift, Montgomery County has gradually developed a solid reputation among our regional neighbors as a welcoming community for a blossoming soccer culture. This new love of soccer opens the door to a discussion about spring and summer entertainment options beyond minor league baseball. Let's start with the tiers of American soccer leagues.

Overview of the US Professional Soccer Levels:

Major League Soccer: Elite professional talent, large metros like Nashville TN, Los Angeles CA, NYC, Chicago IL and Dallas TX. This is the top league for American soccer.

USL Championship: Advanced and rising elite professional talent, major to mid-major cities like Las Vegas NV, Pittsburgh PA, Charlotte NC and Memphis TN

MLS NEXT: A newly announced league set to begin in 2022 and play at the development league between USL League One and USL League Two.

USL League One: Rising advanced and elite professional talent, smaller cities like Chattanooga TN, Tucson AZ, Richmond VA and Fort Lauderdale FL

USL League Two: Stepping-stone for rising advanced and elite talent. Mostly in smaller cities like Columbia SC, Green Bay WI, Savannah GA or a secondary club in larger cities like New York, Atlanta, Houston or Chicago. There is even a team at The Villages FL– Yes, you read that right.

NPSL: One of the largest established men’s soccer leagues in the United States with over 90 teams competing across the country. The teams consist of both paid and amateur athletes with teams in metros such as Dallas TX, St Louis MO and Huntsville AL.

A best practice, in any situation, is an awareness of baseline prerequisites or benchmarks. Recently the USL spokesperson, Ryan Madden, was quoted as saying USL League Two looks for three factors in expansion clubs:

  1. professional venue

  2. strong local appetite for soccer

  3. committed local ownership group

Fittingly enough, Clarksville checks 2 of the 3 boxes regarding USL2 preferences. As an overview, United Soccer League’s League Two is an advanced-skills developmental league focusing on elite high school and college-aged players who are on a professional track. Since 2010, approximately 70% of all MLS SuperDraft picks have League Two experience. In a nutshell, it’s a high-quality developmental game currently supported by both the USL and MLS.

How do USL League Two's 3 factors apply locally?

A professional venue is found at the heart of APSU's campus. Fortera Stadium is a recently renovated stadium with a comfortable capacity of 10,000 complimented by 13 skyboxes and stylish locker room areas that surpass many USL League Two facilities.

Pros: newly renovated stadium, attractive campus setting, promotional opportunities for APSU, additional tenant to help finance maintenance of the stadium

Cons: Size. The stadium is large when compared to the potential crowds of 2-3k. Limited walkability for tailgating or restaurants

Is there an appetite for soccer?

The shift in local participation of soccer is visibly noticeable throughout Montgomery County. Whether its Heritage Park Soccer Complex having activity at all hours of the day (and some past sundown) or the new push to build and manage a marquee statewide soccer park and training facility, the interest is unmistakably clear. The sports community has developed a structure of resources with groups such as The Montgomery County Soccer Association to guide and manage the game's growth locally. Those established and strong foundational partners are focused on building the sport's youth engagement. There's no reason to expect a change in the results of the past decade.

Pros: youth league enrollments, middle and high school level interest, successful traveling teams, greater opportunities for adult leagues and local promotions by Nashville SC

Cons: highest level of interest is with the 18 and under crowd - disposal income questions, unknown reaction to high level soccer in the community, Clarksville's sprawl may be a deterrent towards traveling to Fortera Stadium on a regular basis.

Is ownership an obstacle?

In minor league sports there are countless opportunities to purchase teams for as little as $500k. If that expense seems too high, multiple other options for partnerships exist. There are even minor-league baseball teams with more than 100 owners. That is seriously pulling your money together! Another route may be found with franchise partnerships including fund management groups such as Manhattan Capital Sports Acquisition. MCSA's fund currently owns teams in Reno and Bowling Green while openly expressing interest in further ownership opportunities.

We're talking soccer, right? The initial franchise fee for USL League Two teams is rumored to be in the $75k - $100k range with financing options available. By all accounts, USL has restructured their multi-league finances and keeps investment numbers close to the vest. As of 2019, an average USL League Two franchise annual operating budget was expected to be $100k - $200k. League administrative and affiliation fees vary from league to league.

Soccer is particularly hot as investors seek to benefit from the sport’s increased popularity in the states. One major difference for USL League Two? The payroll is dramatically reduced due to the player pay status. USL’s League Two is an unpaid developmental league. The teams consist of elite high school players or college players on summer break. Like any developmental league, this is the first step for several of the athletes who make it to the highest professional levels with the benefit of their players not losing college eligibility.

A second option would be the National Premier Soccer League. A league of 100 teams but holding a much lower profile. The NPSL expansion fee of $20k is a big difference when considering the USL League Two's financial structure.

Beyond financing, it is important for a potential ownership group to cultivate a strong relationship with city government, business leaders and residents. City governments can assist teams with securing good deals on stadium leases and can provide support for team events. Ties with business leaders are vital to garnering much-needed sponsorships for a franchise. And those community residents with good feelings about a team are important for selling tickets, souvenirs and winning sponsorships.

Ongoing expansion will continue for the soccer leagues of MLS, USL and NPSL. Each will continue to expand and manage the process carefully with or without cities like Clarksville. A second glance at professional sports leagues shows several cities, including a few of the larger ones, that may not hold a league’s preferred mix of population and geographic location to support a team. This example demonstrates an ability to generate attendance will not be the only factor taken into consideration for expansion, but it will certainly be one of the primary factors.

The quickly growing world of American soccer appears to be a perfect match for the demographics and growth pattern of a city such as Clarksville. That partnership potential for a “win” extends to the city, APSU and residents. The only question remaining is a big one. Do those community “wins” extend to an ownership group's investment?