Project 50/50: Part II
Welcome back to Project 50/50, my quest to find the best city in every single U.S. state for lower-division professional soccer. The idea is to put together a plan for a market that is theoretically Division 3 compliant, so that the city could join either the NISA or USLD3. In Part II this week, we’re looking at our second group of states, starting with Colorado.
Colorado is an interesting case here. The bulk of the state’s population live either in the Denver metro area, or near Colorado Springs, and both of those markets are represented in professional soccer already. So, we need to make a choice: do we go with another team in the general vicinity of Denver, or look at somewhere smaller?
Actually, why not both? Let’s do both.
-MSA Population: 313,333
-Home of University of Colorado
Boulder is one of two areas I considered that are kinda-sorta-ish part of the Denver area, yet retain their own distinct culture and atmosphere. They’re also home to our favorite #BullshitPubTeam, Harpo’s FC, known for their recent strong runs in the US Open Cup. Based on what I’ve heard from the dudes who run the show on podcasts and interviews, they would likely be happy to pursue the NISA route eventually. For a venue, they could use Prentup Field, the soccer stadium at the University of Colorado. It can fit 3,000 fans, and it looks positively gorgeous.
Also considered within the Denver sphere of influence was the city of Golden, home to the Colorado School of Mines. I’ve actually stayed in Golden, and really enjoyed my time there. It’s a fairly small town, but with a strong local spirit. The town felt like they could be a Detroit or Chattanooga style success story. This team could theoretically use the Colorado School of Mines football stadium, with their 4,000 capacity and convenient location.
-MSA Population: 147,083
-Averaged 2,150 in Rookie MiLB
-Home to Colorado Mesa University
Grand Junction is my choice for a market that’s well and truly outside Denver. The city is located near Colorado’s western border with Utah, and has a long history of supporting semi-pro, minor league, and amateur sports. They’re currently home to the rookie league affiliate of the Colorado Rockies, and manage to draw decently well. This Western Colorado region isn’t currently covered by any national soccer leagues, and this could be a prime untapped region. This team could theoretically play at CMU’s football stadium, Ralph Stocker Stadium, which features real grass and 8,000 seats, perfect for a new soccer team.
Connecticut finds itself in an interesting situation with soccer right now, as Hartford City has started making some serious noise about going fully professional. They’re one of the NPSL teams that signed a letter of intent to play in the 2018 NASL season, should it occur. The state is also home to the Elm City Express, in New Haven, and AC Connecticut, in Newtown. However, that still leaves the largest city in the state for this project.
-MSA Population: 939,904
-Averaged 2,953 in Atlantic League independent baseball
-Averaged 3,902 in AHL hockey
Bridgeport is one of those overlooked cities, with a significant metro population, and sits in the top 50 of metropolitan areas in the United States. The city has played host to a number of minor league teams in several different sports, but has little in the way of soccer history. But maybe we can change that. The city has recently reversed a long population decline, and they’re now doing really, really well. For a venue, I like the look of either John F. Kennedy Stadium, a 12,000 seat football/soccer/lacrosse/track affair, or Campus Field at Sacred Heart University, in neighboring Fairfield. That one seats 10,500.
Or, they could elect to redevelop the former Bluefish ballpark, which is slated to become a concert amphitheatre, into a mixed soccer/concert venue.
I know two things about Delaware: The state was the first to ratify the U.S. Constitution, making it technically the first state, and they only have 3 counties, which is the smallest number out of any state.
There’s also very, very little in terms of pro sports within the state, at any level. The majority of the most popular teams in the state are university and high school teams. That said, Delaware has a single active soccer team within the USSF pyramid. They’re based in Wilmington, and that’s where we’ll look first.
-Metropolitan population: 719,876
-Averaged 3,845 in High-A MiLB
As always with my decisions, I’ve once again based my market choice on an existing semi-pro/amateur team. In this case, it’s the wonderfully named Bearfight FC, based out of Wilmington. This city is the largest in Delaware, and it borders the metro area of Philadelphia/Camden. It’s a growing city with a significant population in both the immediate surrounding area and larger MSA. Bearfight FC have made quite a bit of noise as a supporter owned venture, and are currently working to move into the UPSL for the future. I’m thinking even bigger for them, that NISA could be a perfect fit for this team in a few years’ time.
As for a stadium, I’d love to see them renovate Baynard Stadium. With a capacity of 2,500, and a grass field, it’s perfect for a team working on a full time division 4 campaign with thoughts toward a professional future.
Florida is a state with no shortage of soccer. With professional teams in Orlando, Miami, Jacksonville, and Tampa, along with more than two dozen amateur and semi-pro teams, most of the state is pretty well represented within the pyramid.
That said, there are a few specific regions where there’s a significant void.
-MSA Population: 379,627
-Home to Florida State University and Florida A&M University
Tallahassee is a bit of an oddity. It’s one of the largest cities I’ve seen that has no organized professional, or even semi-pro, sports. Nothing. They had an ECHL team that folded in 2001, an indoor soccer team that folded in 1998, and a few attempts at arena football. But right now, there’s not much going on. The highest level of soccer to be found is the FSU women’s team.
And yet, youth soccer is getting massive in the city. There’s a Tottenham Hotspur youth affiliate, dozens of academy programs, all sorts of stuff going on. This feels like a big opportunity for soccer, and this is exactly the sort of situation that this project is all about.
This hypothetical team could play at the FSU soccer stadium, creatively named Seminole Soccer Complex, which features a natural grass field and a seated capacity of 2,000. That’s just about enough for the low end of D3, but assuming that the regulations gradually increase over time, they could find that this venue is too small. In that case, I really like Gene Cox stadium, located not too far south of downtown. This stadium, while nominally for high school football, also has a grass field, and does not have a running track. It’s a lovely little thing, with 5,500 seats, and with a little work, would be a fantastic spot for soccer.
Now, Florida has a surprisingly high number of metro areas with more than 250,000 people, and that made picking just one market difficult. Because I struggle to make tough choices, I’ve elected to write up not just one, not even two, but three entries for Florida. That’s mainly because I talked myself into reasons for two cities, and someone else on Twitter (#Project5050, y’all!) made their case for a third. So, we’ll keep going.
-MSA Population: 277,165
-Home to University of Florida
Gainesville is a neat city. It’s got one of the biggest music scenes in the country, it’s a mega-sized college town, and it’s got a growing tech and startup culture. All of these things have been big correlating factors with soccer success, and that’s the bulk of why I picked this city. Additionally, this city, like Tallahassee, has no professional sports to speak of, and really revolves around college sports. In this case, we’re in a major SEC market, and few things amuse me quite like sticking soccer teams in that stronghold of the gridiron.
This team could share the Gators track and field/women’s soccer stadium, James G. Pressly Stadium, which is all grass and seats 4,500. It’s a nice stadium with a location convenient to both the campus area and to downtown, and is just the right size for D3. I could easily see Gainesville and Tallahassee adopting the university rivalries, and this could be a fun little Florida Derby.
-MSA Population: 584,383
-Averaging 7,322 in MASL arena soccer
Lakeland was pitched to me on Twitter. They’re currently home to a very well supported arena soccer team, the Florida Tropics, who also run a PDL team, the Lakeland Tropics. Lakeland is also home to the NBA G-League affiliate of the Orlando Magic, as well as two minor league baseball teams.
Lakeland is kinda-sorta part of the Tampa metro area, but also tracked separately as its own MSA in conjunction with nearby Winter Haven. The fact that it gets its own MSA designation is enough for me to consider it technically not Tampa, so here we are.
I really like the Florida Tropics branding. Very bright and tropical. The team is also co-owned by Chris Economides, former commissioner of the USL and former owner of the Rochester Rhinos. Lots of soccer pedigree in play here.
The PDL team already use Bryant Stadium, an 8,000 seat high school football/soccer stadium with a turf field. It’s not exactly ideal, but it will do for at least a few years for a D3 team. The only alternatives are a minor league ballpark, and a college football stadium that’s actually smaller. There’s ample land nearby where a soccer stadium could be built in the future, and that’s what I think would be the best long-term plan.
As for the organization, though, I’m pretty certain that the Tropics could add a D3 professional team without much issue. They could easily share players with the MASL team, and they already have an academy program in place with the PDL team. This could work pretty easily.
When I first created the document for this chapter, I added some notes on my thoughts for each state. For Delaware, it mentioned Bearfight. For Florida, I had bullet points for all three cities.
For Georgia, I started with “somewhere that isn’t Atlanta.” Fair enough, John from three weeks ago. Let’s do that.
Georgia currently hosts five active soccer teams: Atlanta United FC in MLS, the Atlanta Silverbacks in the NPSL, Georgia Revolution in the NPSL (near Atlanta), Peachtree City MOBA in the PDL (near Atlanta) and Tormenta FC in the PDL, based in Statesboro.
There we go, one hit that’s not Atlanta.
-MSA Population: 71,214
-Home to Georgia Southern University
Tormenta FC have actually come across my radar before. I remember reading the articles when they were founded, and I know that they’re quite popular and well run. They currently play on the campus of Georgia Southern University, but are working on a campaign to build their own stadium. This is another organization that has a lot of the right pieces to go professional. Hell, I’d just add a USLD3 team to their current setup, assuming this new stadium plan comes to fruition. They have the PDL team and an academy already, so they could run a nice, locally built professional team without many issues.
The one thing is, this is a tiny, tiny market. The Dallas suburb where I went to high school is almost as big as their entire micropolitan area. But, I don’t think it should be too much of an issue. There’s potential for college support, and the city is growing at a decent pace. This could be a fantastic spot for a team.
-MSA Population: 192,541
-Home to University of Georgia
Athens is included for many of the same reasons as Gainesville. College town, no professional sports, strong local music scene, and of course, encroaching upon SEC territory. University of Georgia actually hosted the finals for soccer in the 1996 Summer Olympics, although with some controversy over modifications to Sanford Stadium. The university’s soccer stadium, Turner Soccer Complex, has 1,700 seats, which is technically enough, but on the smaller end of acceptable. It could theoretically be expanded to something like 2,500, but that would need university approval. Still, though, it is technically D3 compliant, and could possibly work. It would also be the only thing in town during the summer months, and if marketed well, could attract a lot of the students who live off campus during the summer break.
That’s all for Part II of Project 50/50.
I know I talked about having this up way, way sooner than it actually is, but between my day job, finals and all sorts of other things, there’s only so many hours in the day I can spend researching and writing.
I hope you’ll accept the four bonus concepts as a peace offering.
Next time, we’ll be looking at Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana and Iowa. Stay tuned, and remember to tweet at me @JohnMLTX or use #Project5050 if you’d like to suggest a city, call me out for something or give some feedback about this series.
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