American Legion Memorial Stadium makes Charlotte’s application appealing to the National Independent Soccer Association.
The NISA announced Wednesday eight markets that have submitted applications to participate in the inaugural season: Charlotte; Chattanooga, Tennessee; Connecticut; Miami; Milwaukee; Omaha, Nebraska; Phoenix and St. Louis. Applicants must meet the following criteria: venue, ownership, administration and financial model. Pending U.S. Soccer Federation approval, the league would play in the third tier of the American soccer pyramid, and would introduce a system of promotion and relegation with independent Division II and IV leagues—similar to European models.
“These applications are in different stages of the process,” NISA co-founder Peter Wilt said. “In Charlotte’s case, there’s still a little work to do on the venue. Memorial Stadium is the desired venue, but there’s still work to be done to secure it.”
A bid for Charlotte FC came from Michael Filipidis, whose intended ownership structure would place power in the hands of fans rather than solely with a small group of investors.
“My vision for Charlotte FC is to give our community the opportunity to feel included within our city and team,” Filipidis said via email. “A fan base that is diverse, proudly encourages, and supports Charlotte FC. The vision is to provide an atmosphere full of energy, passion, and excitement for all ages to enjoy. I am also dedicated to giving back to the community. Through the involvement of Charlotte FC players, coaches, staff, and I, along with the support of our fans, we can certainly make a positive impact in the community on and off of the field.”
Wilt finds Filipidis’s structure promising.
“From a financial model and administration, they’re in good shape there,” Wilt said. “The investor area needs further work. It needs to be rounded out. Michael would be one of the investors, and he has a very good plan to include fan ownership on a minority basis. That’s very exciting, because it’s only recently that’s been allowable. If successful, this would be the first sports team in North Carolina to take advantage of that.”
Giving fans not just a metaphorical sense of ownership of a team, but a physical sense would strengthen the connection between club and audience.
“It’s really important from the community connection standpoint.” Wilt said. “All sports are tribal. It’s getting the community to feel that the team on the field is representing them. That often is about brand development, creating emotional connections, but there’s no better way to do that than actually giving the fans ownership. What Michael is trying to do is really special. Certainly the financial support that the fan investors would provide would be helpful, but really it’s not about that as much as it is creating the those emotional connections that would create a good foundation for support.”
Several leagues have eyed Memorial Stadium since the days of the Carolina Lightnin’ in the old American Soccer League. However, a lack of width has kept clubs, such as the Charlotte Independence in the United Soccer League, from calling it home. It also failed to pass muster for proposed total demolition to make way for MLS4CLT—a bid submitted by Marcus Smith for a Major League Soccer expansion franchise in January. Charlotte City Council and Mecklenburg County commissioners could not agree on stadium funding, which the MLS4CLT plan had at $43.75 million each. However, a lower-tier team would not require such financial measures; merely a sufficient size pitch.
“Widening is important,” Wilt said. “To provide the best possible production of a professional soccer team we want the proper width. What we would do is seek a waiver from U.S. Soccer for the initial year or two while the widening is addressed. Long term we believe we can work with the landholders [Mecklenburg County] to widen the field, and in the short term work with what’s there presently.”
NISA presents its plan Friday to the U.S. Soccer Board of Directors in Jersey City, New Jersey. Ideally, the league would commence play in April 2018, with the regular season running through October. Postseason play would conclude in November.
“It’s essentially to provide them with an update of where we are in the process—keep them informed as we seek sanctioning,” Wilt said. “You could say the next step is to get sanctioning for the league, but before we get that sanctioning, there are a number of other steps along the way.”