A former Charlotte Bobcats executive has a plan for soccer in Charlotte. He wants to spend millions on a minor league team—started this year—with the goal of growing a fan base of thousands and ultimately getting absorbed into the major league. It’s not as crazy as it sounds. Some other cities have done just that in a matter of years.
A sparse, but invested crowd of about 800 fans cheer on the Charlotte Independence on this particular Wednesday night. It’s a non-league match against the semi-professional Upward Stars.
The crowd erupts when Polish striker Tomasz Zahorski heads the ball in for a score.
The longer-term goal for the Independence can be seen 2,500 miles away.
In Sacramento, California, on the same night, 10,000 fans cheer as their own minor league team scores.
Just three years after forming, the Sacramento Republic sells out nearly every game, has garnered investment from nearby NBA and NFL owners, and won the promise of a berth in MLS, U.S. soccer’s major league.
In Florida, Orlando City Soccer Club got there even faster, moving up to MLS this year.
Charlotte Independence founder Jim McPhilliamy says he wants to emulate those teams.
“That’s totally the model,” says McPhilliamy. “I think that’s exactly the model we’re trying to do.”
McPhilliamy is a former Charlotte Bobcats executive and consultant for NASCAR and Major League Baseball, and he’s president of the lacrosse team, the Charlotte Hounds.
To run the Independence, McPhilliamy hired a general manager experienced with young teams and a former MLS coach. But he says on-field production is secondary.
“Even if you listen to our advertising we don’t actually promote our product, we promote Jack’s Militia, which is our supporter’s group,” says McPhilliamy.
A supporter’s group is s a uniquely soccer beast, an organized contingent of fans, technically unaffiliated, but favored by the team. The members of Jack’s Militia wear Independence shirts and scarves, wave flags, and chant throughout the game.
We watch the away games, we watch the home games. We’re passionate,” says Jay Landskroener, who started the group. “We’ve got drums, flags, chants songs, we have a good time, and that’s the whole idea that we have behind it.”
The team supplies them with their own section. In this case, it’s right behind the other team’s bench, the better to taunt opposing players.
They chant, “Bieber, Bieber,”—as in Justin Bieber—at one unfortunately coiffed forward.
Hazing aside, the supporter group has a very specific business function. They’re rabid fans, whose stated goal is to raise the team’s profile. In other words, it’s grassroots, word-of-mouth marketing. And, it’s from and to the key demographic McPhilliamy wants to attract.
“As you look at the growth of the area, the millenials are a very coveted group,” says McPhillamy. “As you saw from just the limited number of people who are out here tonight, soccer delivers on that millennial consumer group.”
For a long time, teams focused on families with kids who played soccer. But that’s never been enough to make a team profitable. In the late 2000s, the part-owner of an English team, living stateside, saw an opportunity to target 18-to-35 year-olds. Phil Rawlins started Orlando City Soccer Club.
“It was palpable, it was there before you,” says Rawlins. “You could see more people playing the game, taking interest in the game, following their favorite team in Europe or South America, FIFA the video game—so it was very clear the marketplace was there.”
Orlando became one of the most attended minor league teams, and then an MLS franchise within four years.
Rawlins pioneered this model, which McPhilliamy hopes to follow in Charlotte, although perhaps not as quickly. McPhilliamy wants to attract 4,000 fans to one game this year.
“Our goal is to get to MLS,” he says. “Nobody in our investment group expects that we’re going to take money out as a USL team. Everything will get reinvested into making MLS.”
The team expects a net loss of at least a million dollars this season. That’s higher than originally projected.
“We’ve been hamstrung this year by where we haven’t been able to play,” says McPhilliamy.
They planned to move into the Ramblewood Soccer Complex, in South Charlotte—a venue with more seats that allows alcohol. But permitting and renovation delays has them playing at Winthrop University through next week.
Long-term, McPhilliamy is in talks with Mecklenburg County to split a $4 million cost of renovating Memorial Stadium in Elizabeth.
“But we need to have backups,” he says. “I don’t want to be in the same position next year, it’s horrible, it gives me ulcers.”
There have also been successes. The team has secured sponsorships from Adidas, OrthoCarolina, and Novant Health. And, on this particular night the Independence beat their opponent 4 to 1. The win led to a match next week where they’ll hope to beat Boston’s MLS team.
That’s a nice parallel to what the team wants to accomplish in Charlotte—a quiet start toward an ambitious goal.