A-League: Charleston's Blackbaud has raised the bar

The Battery's home stadium, designed to resemble an English ground, has been likened to a cathedral

The inaugural game at Blackbaud Stadium earlier this year wasn't as enjoyable for the man who footed the $4.5 million bill for the facility as it could have been.

Instead of relishing a dream come true, Tony Bakker, who owned Blackbaud, Inc., a software company he has since sold, spent the day running around making sure everything was going smoothly.

"There was still painting being done, there was pandemonium," Bakker said. "But we had a sell-out crowd, and the team won the game. It wasn't until a few days later that I could appreciate it. I sat in the bleachers for a few minutes and thought to myself, 'This is neat.'"

The 5,100-seat stadium, designed to resemble an English ground, where the spectators are almost right on top of the players, has drawn adjectives a bit more extreme than "neat" from others who have seen it.

USL president Francisco Marcos, who was impressed enough to give Bakker the Commissioner's Special Achievement Award, likened the stadium to a soccer church or cathedral.

"If soccer is going to reach the religious fervor that other sports in this country enjoy, than we must simply have our own houses to worship in," Marcos said. "Tony Bakker has simply shown us the way."

Blackbaud Stadium, which also houses the Charleston Battery front office and a 3,800 square-foot English-style pub, the Three Lions Pub, received a 4.9 rating in an A-League peer review poll, scoring highest in all three stadium categories - stadium and facilities, field and playing surfaces and player safety issues.

As wonderful as the accolades have been, Bakker is more thankful for the impact the stadium has had on the team, on and off the field. Last season, the Battery's attendance grew by 87 percent to more than 3,500 per game. With added media exposure, it has become easier to sign corporate sponsorship deals.

Much of the media attention was garnered when the Battery upset D.C. United, 4-3, in overtime, in the third- round of the U.S. Open Cup in August. The game was an exciting see-saw affair that saw Charleston take a 2-0 lead, then go down 3-2 before tying the game and winning in overtime. Despite eventually losing in the semis, 3-0, to the Colorado Rapids, the cup run, and specifically the win over United, was an up note for a Battery team, which went 15-13 before losing in the first round of the A-League playoffs, 3-2, to the Hershey Wildcats.

"The Open Cup made our season to be quite frank with you," Charleston Battery general manager Buckley Andrews said. "In this area, in the low country of South Carolina, [the game against D.C. United] was probably the biggest thing to happen in 20 years. D.C. United is the best club in the country, the New York Cosmos of the modern era. It goes to show that on any given day anything can happen."

Bakker, who has directed the Battery since the team's inception in 1993, and monitored its growth from an amateur team to a pro team, stepped down recently as president, although he will continue on as CEO. Nigel Cooper, who was vice president with Blackbaud, Inc., for 10 years will take over as president, while Andrews will continue to manage player personnel.

by Soccer America associate editor Poul Swain

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