*Featured image courtesy of chattanoogasoccer.com.

Imagine a 3-legged stool. (This is for you Andrew Bresee)

It rests firmly on the ground. It’s level. And when you sit on it, you can feel comfortable that it won’t fall over. The three legs of the stool work together to support anything that sits upon it.

A well-built soccer club is like a well-built stool. It takes three legs to maintain a thriving soccer club.  And the three legs are as follows:

  1. A business-savvy organization (Front Office of the Club)
  2. A fortified supporters culture
  3. A centralized stadium for playing games

Put those three legs together, and you will have a wildly successful soccer franchise.

Birmingham is in the process of building a top-notch soccer club in the Hammers. And as the community and the hard-working Hammers front office continue to work towards that goal, perhaps a little wisdom from another city is in order.

Why try to build the stool without a blueprint from another organization that has already done it?

I recently had the opportunity to converse with two ardent Chattanooga FC supporters. Andrew Bresee and Bill Bolen are both members of the loud and proud CFC supporters group, the Chattahooligans.

In our conversation, both Andrew and Bill brought an interesting perspective on how the game of soccer’s popularity emerged in Chattanooga. If you read their responses closely, you can pick-up the blueprint for building a strong soccer culture in a southern city that historically has been preoccupied with fandom for one of the other Big 5 sports.

I think it’s important for the people in Birmimgham that want to see a professional soccer team in the Magic City to understand exactly what worked in Chattanooga. The Chattanooga experience is real. It’s authentic. And it’s one that can be copied by savvy decision-makers in Birmingham.

On Becoming a Chattanooga FC Fan

Birmingham Backline (BBL): How long have you been a CFC Supporter?

Andrew Bresee (AB): In 2009 I was away at school in Italy and it was in Italy that my love of soccer blossomed. I followed (CFC) via Twitter and Facebook but the first game I attended was in May 2014. I fell in love about five minutes into my first game at Finley. CFC has been my sports drug of choice since. My wife and I plan our summers around the CFC schedule.

Bill Bolen (BB):  Since Day Zero. When I saw a one-paragraph story in the local newspaper that a team was starting.

BBL: Why did you become a CFC Supporter?

AB: I love my city and the sport of soccer. For whatever reason, I think Chattanooga inspires tremendous pride in many Chattanoogans and CFC manages to truly embody the spirit of the city.

CFC Support: The Early Years

BBL: Building support for a club like CFC takes time. What was the support like in the first few years?

BB: Obviously, it takes time to build something like what CFC has. It started smaller than it is now. But the Club has done so many things right from the beginning. The first game had 1,500 fans. At the first game, there were 5 Chattahooligans. But the numbers grew steadily, and sometimes rapidly. From the first season, we developed a reputation for  bringing crowds to away games.

BBL: When did the Chattahooligans become a prominent supporters group for CFC?

AB: Pretty much from day one. The very first game in 2009 had over 1,500 fans. There were people in the soccer community who showed up and brought friends and a group almost immediately formed of fans who were like-minded in the desire to sing and cause a ruckus. There was someone with a drum, and several others inventing songs on the fly, and they pretty quickly noticed the shared passion and joined together. There has been a following who have called themselves the Chattahooligans ever since.

BBL: What were the factors that led to the growth in support? Was there a tipping point?

BB: There were so many factors:

  • The owners were a multi-person board with connections throughout the community.
  • The games were in the city stadium downtown.
  • The owners understood soccer culture with their “this is football” scarves and shirts from the beginning.
  • They had local beer at reasonable prices at the games.
  • The team has been good from the beginning. Winning teams are fun to watch.
  • The Chattahooligans created an atmosphere with drums and cheers that showcased how “minor league” soccer was different and fun compared to other sporting events in town.

AB: Support has grown pretty steadily over the years with CFC holding and then breaking its own NPSL attendance records. In 2014 when almost 8,878 showed up in the playoffs versus the Sacramento Gold you could see the potential for a big crowd in Chattanooga.

The following year average attendance was up, as it has been most years. But the big one was the NPSL final vs the NY Cosmos B with 18,227 fans.

Those attendance spikes for big games really showed the potential. It’s one of the reasons the US Men and Women National Teams have since come to Chattanooga. Atlanta United just came for a February friendly (against CFC) with a 3 PM kickoff and we had 12,484 fans show up.

Game day at Finley Stadium

BBL: What’s it like to attend a CFC match at Finley Stadium in downtown Chattanooga? What’s the best part of the game day atmosphere?

AB: CFC game days are some of the best days of the year. Home gamedays start around 11 AM, when the first tailgaters roll in.

Over the last two years, CFC, the Chattahooligans, and Finley Stadium have worked together to find an arrangement that moved the tailgates from the parking lot into the shaded First Tennessee pavilion. The pavilion provides both protection from the elements and bathroom access. This has allowed tailgates to become more of an event and swell from a few hundred participants to at times a few thousand.

The “best part” of the day is when the whistle blows to start the game. There, in section 109, is my happy place. Where thousands of people put aside any and all differences and come together to support our team. It’s a magical experience that must be lived to truly understand.

BBL: Are there are restaurants or bars that popped up around Finley Stadium at least in part due to resurgence of the stadium brought on by CFC?

AB: One interesting part of Finley Stadium and the Chattanooga Football Club is the revitalization of the “southside” that has gone on over the last decade or so. CFC’s rise in popularity sure hasn’t hurt the southside.

Currently many of the most popular bars in town are located on the southside, including the Southside Social which is probably the “hottest” bar in Chattanooga. Southside Social and Chattanooga’s most successful brewery, Chattanooga Brewing Company, both overlook Finley Stadium. The Chattahooligans and CFC both call Chattanooga Brewing Company home. Just down the street, walking distance from Finley, you will find Main St with bars and restaurants lining it. This wasn’t always the case.

In 2015, Chattanooga Brewing Company formed a partnership with the Chattahooligans, and later an expanded (but separate) relationship with CFC. Chattanooga Brewing hosts pre-and post match festivities, and acts as the official bar of the Chattahooligans. In 2015 they even started brewing a beer, Chattahooligan Lager, in honor of CFC and the Chattahooligans. This is their number one selling seasonal beer every year and is sold inside the stadium, and all over town.

It’s time we build our own stool

There are three items that I take away from the CFC success story:

  1. There is an awful lot of civic pride in Chattanooga amongst the soccer supporters.
  2. Cooperation by all invested parties in the Scenic City has created a wildly successful soccer culture. It didn’t happen because of chance.
  3. A downtown stadium in the heart of an urban re-development was critical to the success of the club.

Meanwhile, the soccer culture in Birmingham is raw. The materials for something special are all around us.

  • A (semi) professional team (Hello Hammers): Check
  • Fans of the game (I see you MCB, Green Army, AO): Check
  • Youth Pariticpation in soccer (Trussville, BUSA, VHSC, Homewood, etc…): Check
  • Top level collegiate soccer (The Blazers, Samford, Montevallo, West Alabama) : Check
  • Downtown Soccer Facility (The Blazers have a nice facility, no?): Check
  • An emerging downtown city-scene (2nd AVE, Parkside, Lakeview, etc…) : Check
  • Good local beer (Mmmm, beer): Check

All of these materials are waiting to be used to construct a solid stool. We are close, but we have more work to do.

The sky is the limit for soccer in the Magic City. Let’s follow Chattanooga’s lead and make it happen.

If you are interested in becoming a Guest Blogger on the Birmingham Backline, click this link and learn about the opportunity to share your thoughts on local soccer with a growing readership in the Magic City.