Just in time for the 2014 World Cup, the new Grand Rapids Football Club takes off with a bang, reaching its membership goal even sooner than expected. Anya Zentmeyer talks with the people behind the project and finds out there are some passionate fans looking to bring semi-pro soccer to West Michigan.
Matt Roberts remembers the exact moment he realized how much potential Grand Rapids has for its own semi-professional soccer league.
“February 14, I can tell you exactly when it was,” Roberts says. “I was reading a Major League Soccer article about Nashville FC and I jumped on a soccer Facebook page for Grand Rapids soccer and kind of reached out to everybody else and said, 'Hey, would everybody be interested in doing this’ and from there it just kind of grew and grew and to be honest with you, I'm a little bit shocked at how quickly it has grown.”
It is the brand new Grand Rapids Football Club
and Roberts is its founder. Roberts, a soccer coach by trade, works as the Director of Youth Programs at Grand Rapids Juniors Crew and is part of what turns out to be a surprisingly big fan base for semi-pro soccer in West Michigan.
“I’m part of the soccer community and I know there’s a lot of passion out there, but we set an original goal of wanting 200 members by Aug. 1 and that was a big goal,” he says. “We ended up getting our original goal in 40 days.”
The crowd funding campaign initially kicked off March 17, but more than 250 people have already bought in to GRFC for at least $100, so Roberts has a new game plan: get 500 members by Aug. 1 and go into the clubs first year with a sound $50,000 operating budget in place.
GRFC will buy into the National Premier Soccer League for $12,500, and as an official league of its own in the Great Lakes West Conference, will join existing teams in Detroit, Cincinnati and Lansing. Nationally speaking, there are 78 teams in the NPSL for the 2015 summer season.
“The goal is to just break even financially and make it sustainable,” he says. “We’re doing everything on a volunteer basis this first year just to make it work financially, but the goal of the club is to make it sustainable so it will be around in 10 years and kids will have a chance to grow up with it.”
He wants GRFC to be a true grassroots effort – by the people, for the people – and has garnered support of some local businesses and business owners including Gazelle Sports, 616 Dental Studios, Wordhouse Wealth Coaching and the SpeakEZ Lounge.
“In terms of Grand Rapids Football Club, yes it’s soccer so yes, I am a big proponent of it because I do happen to love the sport, but frankly there’s a deeper underlying issue,” says SpeakEZ Lounge
Owner Eric Albertson. “I know a lot of people that don’t particularly care for baseball but go to West Michigan Whitecaps games. I like GRFC for that reason, for the fact of community.”
Just before the first game of the 2014 FIFA World Cup on June 12, Albertson hosted a World Cup kickoff event last weekend that doubled as the launch/fundraising party for GRFC. They had to move the GRFC part of the event up about a month earlier than originally planned, he says, because of the overwhelming support GRFC has gotten from soccer fans in Grand Rapids.
Albertson opened the SpeakEZ Lounge at 600 Monroe Avenue NW opened its doors two years ago with soccer on his mind. Since then, the crowd of soccer fan regulars has only grown.
“The interesting thing is there are a lot of fans out there, but we had no real communal way for us to interact with each other,” he says, adding that increased exposure on ESPN and other TV networks have made following the sport more accessible for casual fans. “I do think you’re going to see more of a growth in interest and in watching because the great thing about sports, to use an analogy that would sit very well with local fans, sure you can it and watch Michigan and Michigan State play college football alone on your couch, but normally if you can’t go to the game you like to watch it with your friends or in an atmosphere like a bar.”
When the World Cup officially begins with Brazil and Croatia on June 12 all of the way through the final game, Albertson says the SpeakEZ Lounge will be “soccer central.” The bar reached capacity for the kickoff event and fundraising party Saturday night, drawing in jerseys not only of the U.S. fans there to watch the final Nigeria vs. U.S. friendly, but also from Australia, Germany, Brazil, Ghana and more.
Albertson said every match will be on their TVs with surround sound for patrons for the duration of the World Cup, but if you want a good view, he suggests getting their early.
“Every bar in Grand Rapids is going to be, in some form, busy for the World Cup U.S. matches, but I just had 40 Dutch fans call me to come in on Friday at 3 p.m. when Spain plays the Netherlands,” he says. “In soccer terms, that’s huge. That’s the Red Sox and Yankees, to use a baseball analogy.”
So as the World Cup generates more national buzz and local business for bar owners like Albertson, GRFC and Roberts will spend the next eight months creating the local buzz for their own team, heading into a busy planning phase that entails scouting players, hiring staff and locking down a location.
Right now, Roberts has a hopeful eye on Houseman Field in downtown Grand Rapids to host the team. He is currently in some pretty optimistic talks with GRPS, who own the recently renovated stadium.
The 10,000-seat stadium underwent a $6 million facelift with leftover funds from a 2004 facilities improvement bond allocated by GRPS’ Board of Education in October
2008. With new turf, technology upgrades, a new press box, concession and restroom facilities, the new Houseman Field reopened in August 2009.
“The downtown location has got bars and restaurants within three blocks on either side,” he says. “It’s a massive complex, they just put a bunch of money into it a few years ago, so it looks great.”
He hopes than as the organization continues to grow, so will their status as a legitimate minor league option. In 10 years' time, he wants GRFC to have its own stadium and a regional following that is on par with the Griffins or Whitecaps.
If the excitement already generated around GRFC is any indicator, that dream doesn’t seem so far away.
“I think everybody loves the idea of being involved in this and I think crowd funded projects work in Grand Rapids,” Roberts says. “It’s a cool place in that respect, people like to discover things. They don’t want to just be told, ‘hey, go check this place out,’ they want to discover things themselves and I think this is the kind of thing the entire community can get behind.”
Anya Zentmeyer is freelance reporter in Grand Rapids and West Michigan. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit her website at anyazentmeyer.squarespace.com.
Photography by Adam Bird