Chattanooga FC's Tim Kelly: 'The future of soccer in this country is in cities like Chattanooga'

Columbia graduate and car-dealership owner Tim Kelly helped found Chattanooga FC in 2009. The NPSL team has averaged several thousand fans per game since it started operations and reached, and lost, four championship games. It runs operations on a very lean budget and does not employ professional players. One of the team’s founders, general manager Sean McDaniel, oversees a remarkable success story.

Chattanooga FC plays in Finley Stadium, which is home to the UT-Chattanooga football team and has hosted U.S. men and women’s national-team games. A record crowd of 18,227 watched the 2015 NPSL Championship Game CFC lost to New York Cosmos B, 3-2. Since shortly after its launch, it has partnered with Volkswagen, which operates its only U.S. factory in the city (population of 177,571 in 2016).

In March, the club staged and hosted a soccer summit for meetings and discussions regarding the issues faced by lower-division teams. Kelly is a firm advocate of a promotion-relegation system for the divisions below MLS, and is researching options as a full-time team in 2019. It had applied for membership in the National Independent Soccer Association (NISA) but will only follow up if the proposed operation can confirm at least eight teams for next year.

SOCCER AMERICA: With so much success on and off the field registered in the team’s history, what can the fans expect in 2018?
TIM KELLY: More of the same, I think. It’s been an odd journey for us. We’re still kind of in a no-man’s land in terms of out-punching our weight but they’re expecting a national championship, as always. We’ve gotten so close so many times. It’s going to be much, much tougher this year than it ever has been, but we’re doing our best to put a team together to do that.
SA: The landscape will be a lot different, with a few USASA teams moving into the NPSL along with ex-NASL operations. Is that why you say it’ll be more competitive?
TIM KELLY: There’s going to be lot of teams playing NPSL that used to be in various professional ranks. The better talent tends to go on to better leagues and higher-paying gigs. The competition’s gotten tougher and tougher every year and there’s no reason to think this season’s going to be any different. If anything it will be more competitive.

But I’m from sort of the Chicago Cubs school of sports management. If we put on a great show at a great stadium and the people are entertained, we'll have a successful season no matter what.
SA: On a per-capita basis, it’s an amazing accomplishment.
TIM KELLY: That’s exactly how we look at it: on a per-capita basis. It’s odd. It is Chattanooga, right? When we started the club nobody would have guessed that it would have taken off like it did. Chattanooga is kind of the buckle of the Bible Belt, typical kind of SEC, gridiron-football country. But, hey, we’ll take it.

It’s proof that if soccer can make it in Chattanooga, it can make it anywhere in the United States. We just kind of stick to our knitting and put a great product on the field and in the stands. I come from the car business and am very much focused on the customer experience. If you can give people a great experience – at a reasonable price, which is an important part of our equation – they will show up.
SA: It sounds like the genesis of the success was not rabid soccer fandom, per se, but rather an opportunity to provide the community something it could enjoy and rally behind, and it’s just taken off.
TIM KELLY: Yeah, I do think that’s it, Ridge. A couple of our most fervent Chattahooligans weren’t even soccer fans. They were Chattanooga fans and soccer was just a conduit by which they could feel proud about the place that they live. And there aren’t that many of those things. It’s not that soccer’s not important -- they fell in love with it -- but as a secondary function.

The primary function was something that engaged them, grabbed them by the neck. They felt the twitch and that’s the addictive thing. That’s what gets people into the stadium and keeps them coming back.

SA: Is that what happened to you?
TIM KELLY: No, not really. I grew up playing and always loved it. I was never good enough to play at a higher level. I went to Columbia as an undergrad [Class of 1988] but didn’t play there. I still play adult league, 51, and a goalkeeper, knowing every game could be my last. I just love it. It’s an exercise in existential awareness, right? You just go out there knowing every moment could be your last. There’s something kind of liberating about that.
SA: And knowing that at any moment you could make the mistake that loses the game.
TIM KELLY: Exactly. Exactly. I enjoy the pressure.

The Columbia aspect is obviously pretty weird, too. Oddly enough, I was an intern at The Nation magazine and wrote for the Spectator and the Federalist Paper at Columbia. I don’t think I actually interviewed Sunil Gulati but before the [1990] World Cup he was a professor working on that campaign and I vividly remember working on a piece about him. [Ed Note: The editor of the Federalist Paper at that time was Neil Gorsuch, named to the U.S. Supreme Court last year].

Lisa Carnoy [U.S. Soccer Board of Directors member] was in my class and of course you know about Rocco [Commisso] and all that. It’s a weird little fraternity. I’m just the distant, redneck cousin of all those famous people.

SA: A redneck who studied German literature, among other things. Does that German background have anything to do with your love for the game?
Probably. I spent a fair amount of time in Germany as an exchange student in high school and I lived near Dortmund, so Borussia was my host family’s favorite team. I got a good dose of German soccer back in the '80s and used to watch “Soccer Made in Germany” on PBS and fell in love with it that way.

Certainly the international element of soccer was always cool and appealing to me and then later I became a big Tottenham Hotspur fan because of Kasey Keller. He was an American goalkeeper playing in the EPL, so that got to me, and I’d also become a fan of Jurgen Klinsmann, so I just gravitated towards Tottenham. I have a sister in London so I get over there for a game every chance I get. A big Spurs fan, too.
SA: You seem to have a great thing going, albeit at a very modest level. What makes you want to play at a higher level and spend more money and take more risk?
TIM KELLY: What’s interesting about us is that we’re a living animal of what it actually takes to run something, at least at this level. A lot of our functions are out-sourced, but if you’re going to have a full-time general manager, an administrative support staff, and an organization to really bring the brand justice and the fans justice, we need to be playing 10, 12, 15 [home] games a year. We need that that many events -- the games themselves -- to fund the operation.

So that’s it. If we’re going to be a viable entity and not just get by on the volunteer efforts, we need to those events. To do that, we need to stretch beyond a typical summer season like the classic NPSL model. That would be the perfect recipe for Division 3.
SA: What kind of costs and budgets do you project to climb out of NPSL?
TIM KELLY: We’ve thrashed out pro formas. We out-source merchandising, branding, and marketing. On core admin staff, we’re going to spend about $125,000. We think we would need to spend probably twice that or maybe as much as $400,000 on a full administrative staff.

Detroit City is another team at our level that is an interesting one to look at, but most of their stuff is internal and most of ours is out-sourced so it’s not really an apples-to-apples figure. We figure player payroll plus our own admin costs probably run around $750,000 to a million bucks.
SA: How many clubs are in situations similar to yours?
TIM KELLY: That was one of the reasons for doing that Soccer Summit, to really figure out where people were. How close were they, were they ready. We had some interesting conversations with the NASL teams as things became unwound there, and determined much to our surprise, their front office staff were in excess of a million dollars many times.

It depends on the scope of your ambition and how hard you’re going to whip the horses. The fact is it can be done a lot more cheaply and efficiently than it has been done. And we know now there are a number of teams in the country that can do it. The problem, of course, is that we’re not a Germany-sized country. The teams that can do it are geographically isolated. Lashing them together in one [national] league is tough.

The other reason for doing the summit was to try to share some best practices and some hope for these smaller clubs that are in markets that could certainly duplicate or surpass what we’ve done in Chattanooga. If they can find a path to economic viability, then in a fairly short time we’ll have enough teams to be able to do it.
SA: You have to deal with the PLS as well as the USL, which is hoping to run Division 2 and Division 3 operations next year. First, is it time for the PLS to be revised?
TIM KELLY: The Professional League Standards are pretty arbitrary, in my opinion. Well, they are arbitrary, right? They’re not based on anything. They’re just based on ideas of what it takes to run teams on any given level.

As far as the league standards are concerned, yeah, they had to make a best-guess at something, so I don’t fault anybody for that. But I think now that there are teams that are economically viable, like ours, at a given level, I think it’s a good opportunity for USSF to go back and do some actual, evidence-based work, to find out what the standards should be or how should they be amended to correspond with reality.

I’m a pretty hard-nosed business guy, and I just think there’s been a general lack of sharp pencils and acuity and clever use of technology and productivity in American soccer. I think our leagues could be run better and I think they can be run more cheaply and more effectively. There’s just not a great example on the table right now, with the possible exception of MLS.
SA: And as a hard-nosed business guy you can appreciate why MLS owners, even the richest ones, aren’t interested in promotion and relegation.
TIM KELLY: I get completely why we don’t have pro-rel. I totally get it. And being a lower-division team, nobody should be confused about why I totally want it. We would want the economic mobility of moving up, and I get why guys like Robert Kraft have no interest in seeing their investment put at risk to go down.

I went to this “Men in Blazers” thing a few years back and I sat next to a fellow Spurs fan at lunch. He was a Morgan Stanley banker and he said, ‘Look, it’s just math. The borrowing base and the asset value of these guys -- if you introduce pro/rel -- is gonna go in the toilet just by the threat, the possibility, they could go down. Don’t be surprised if they fight it tooth and nail.’
SA: The NASL math was usually out of whack. The Cosmos, Miami and Jacksonville spent a lot more than anybody else.
TIM KELLY: Well, that’s their problem, right? Talking with [Jacksonville owner] Robert Palmer -- I’m very impressed with him and have talked with him quite a bit within the last few months -- and he understands that. He understands it now, because he was totally new to the game and he’s learned some hard lessons.
SA: And expensive ones, too.
TIM KELLY: Yeah. What owners do is up to the owners. But the fact of the matter is we run a super-tight ship on a very lean budget, and I’d think you’d find what’s odd is we’ve always lived in this parallel universe with Detroit City, and [CEO] Sean Mann will tell you he got the idea for a team on a visit to Chattanooga, by the way.
SA: You can stick out your chest a little on that one if you want.
TIM KELLY: And we do, like Kingston Stockade. It’s a great saying.

But as it turns out, it’s just parallel evolution. If you put the big-picture financials up there -- and we did this at the Soccer Summit -- they’re very, very similar. So we know what it costs to run a team and run a team well, but that’s defined as we draw a good number of fans, we represent the sport well, we put on a good show. We’ve done it for 10 years now. We know what it takes, especially now that there’s some evidence that the PLS should be looked at again.
SA: Run the rule over the USL, from your perspective, good and bad.
TIM KELLY: What they’ve got going for them is stability and name recognition. But it’s like we say all the time: if I’ve got a really successful, independent hamburger joint, I don’t need to buy a McDonald’s franchise. For the person that’s starting out and just wants the instruction manual and to pay the money in and just wants to flip the switch and go to work, the USL is a great proposition. But it’s not a cheap proposition.

I have a background being a car dealer and know franchises and franchise law, to me it’s not a purely attractive franchise, for the money, the actual structure of the franchise. I don’t want to get myself in trouble or cross any lines, so I’ll just leave it at that.

I have nothing against franchises, but there are attractive franchises and well-managed franchises and those that are not so attractive and well-managed. As a value proposition for us, they just don’t bring a ton to the table.

An interesting thing we discussed at the Soccer Summit was leagues as networks, platforms. One thing a league does bring is the other teams in the league. That’s important, that’s something, and the USL has done a very good job in signing up some good outfits in cities and locked those down.

It remains to be seen how that goes in D3, because we probably belong there just by din of market size. And unless we ever get to a promotion-relegation system we’re going to be organized in a league by dint of market size. For me, the value proposition needs to be tweaked a little bit for it to make sense for guys like us.

SA: You mentioned before the size of the country is a major impediment to running a viable national league. A regional system to start out would seem a reasonable first step.
TIM KELLY: I do think that makes a tremendous amount of sense. It goes back to geography. Very frankly I don’t think NISA is happening. If it was, we’d be there. That’s a totally different conversation. It looked like there was going to be a big turf war between USL D3 and NISA. I thought at the time it would make sense for USSF to divide up the country into regional divisions and kind of auction off the rights to various leagues, because that does make a lot more sense.

If we’re going to play at another level and have a longer season, it’s going to have to be within maybe a 500-mile radius. And there are ways to do that and have a playoff between those regional leagues for a national championship.
SA: And you and Detroit City and Kingston Stockade and a few others can lead the way.
TIM KELLY: We’re not flattering ourselves to that. We just want to see the lower leagues better organized and more healthy.

The thing about it is, I fervently believe the future of soccer in this country is in cities like Chattanooga, because they typically don’t have teams to root for other than some farm team, a single A baseball team or something of that nature, but doesn’t have the level of engagement or local grassroots support that soccer teams often have. I really think the future is in cities like ours.

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