Matt Roberts, shown here at the Business Journal’s Newsmaker of the Year event, said geographical rivalries will be one of the benefits of joining the National Premier Soccer League. Photo by Johnny Quirin
Matt Roberts feels Grand Rapids FC is like the ‘cool new restaurant’ in town.
In the soccer team’s first season in Grand Rapids, Roberts, who is the team’s founder, said he and other organizers didn’t expect the attendance growth throughout last season. Games averaged more than 4,500 spectators at Houseman Field in Grand Rapids, a field with a capacity of approximately 8,000. More than 6,600 fans came out for the last game of the season.
Even following the first season, Roberts still talks about the team as if it was an idea he had that just might become a reality.
“It wasn’t until after the season, we were able to step back and say, ‘Wow,’” he said. “Every week we expected it would tail off a bit, and it just kept growing and growing.
“The first year was the cool new restaurant where everybody goes. Now they might fade away.”
Roberts wants to ensure the team doesn’t slip out of relevance for the city’s soccer fans. To do that, the offseason was largely dedicated to improving the product that is on the field every game.
Improving the product also includes stepping up the competition, which GRFC will achieve by making the move up a level to the National Premier Soccer League, the fourth tier in the U.S. Soccer pyramid. Last season the team played in the Great Lakes Premier League, which was started by Roberts and the founder of the Ann Arbor team.
Initially, the NPSL was skeptical of the crowd-funding campaign GRFC used to get started and was worried the team wouldn’t be able to fund extra travel or survive a summer of rainstorms.
“They were all valid points, but once they saw our success, they found we’d be OK, financially,” Roberts said.
Both Ann Arbor and GRFC have made the move to the NPSL — each paying a $12,500 expansion fee — and help make up a division with six Michigan teams. Each year, the teams pay an additional $5,000 in league fees.
With six NPSL teams now in Michigan, each will see its expenses shrink since they no longer have to travel to division opponents in upstate New York, Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Roberts also said rivalries will be easier to form between teams in closer cities, such as divisional opponents Detroit, Ann Arbor, Kalamazoo and Lansing, which in turn will help the team and league brands.
GRFC has an expanded schedule this year of 19 games, including 10 home dates at Houseman Field and scrimmages against Grand Valley State University, Aquinas College and Hope College.
The Great Lakes Premier League will stay afloat and now has 11 teams, including a new one from Grand Rapids — Ole SC, part of the Latican Sports organization. GRFC will play Ole SC twice in the 2016 season.
“It’s nice to see some other markets get teams that didn’t have a chance before,” Roberts said. “That was the goal of it — to have an opportunity for teams to grow and form with because there weren’t options before.”
Teams like the one in Ann Arbor and GRFC can get their feet under them in the GLPL and then move on to higher divisions. Continuing that upward trend will require more attention to detail, however.
Roberts credited a lot of last season’s attendance success to players who were recognizable to the West Michigan soccer community, since people remembered names from high school and college. Now, Roberts said, the team has signed several players from the Division I college level, including Scott Doney, a player from New Zealand who plays on the U-20 international team for the Kiwis.
Players on GRFC aren’t paid, and many hold jobs outside of their playing time.
“A lot of these guys are used to playing in front of 200 people,” Roberts said. “We send them videos of our crowd, and they’re interested. To play in front of a massive crowd is a big draw for them.”
Should the GRFC crowds continue to trend upward, the team’s journey to the higher levels of U.S. Soccer might not be too far off. Last season’s average attendance of more than 4,500 was higher than the average attendance of the nation’s third tier, the United Soccer League, at 3,100. The second tier, the North American Soccer League, averaged more than 6,200 spectators.
Some of the teams in the higher leagues charge much more for tickets than GRFC’s $7, so Roberts understands there’s quite a bit of missing potential revenue. A group of hardcore fans, known as the Grand Army, went from 75 at the first game to nearly 600 at the final game, cheering and singing the team along.
The attendance figures have helped attract several sponsors, including New Holland Brewing Co. and Uccello’s Ristorante. Those sponsors will be prominently displayed on the team’s new jerseys, which are significant upgrades over last year and an added piece to making the on-field product look as polished as possible.
Gazelle Sports also has helped set up a GRFC online store to better supply fans with gear, Roberts said. The site will launch Feb. 20, the same day the new uniforms are unveiled at SpeakEZ Lounge.
Despite Roberts still talking about GRFC as a little idea in the back of his mind, he’s fairly confident the attendance will continue to grow, and hopes someday Grand Rapids can have a professional team — even if it’s not run by him.
Roberts said he expects Houseman to be sold out for several games this year, especially the game at home during U.S. soccer legend Landon Donovan’s camp in July. He knows the current financial setup would make paying players and higher league and travel fees difficult. This year is about trying to make sure the numbers work and are sustainable for the current league and status of the team.
“That’s the ultimate goal, and we need to find out if we can do it financially,” Roberts said. “We’re happy with our product right now, but I’d be lying if we weren’t looking at what it would take to make that move three to four years from now.”