In 2015, a supporter-funded team by the name of Grand Rapids FC was denied entry into the NPSL. Alongside fellow rejectee Ann Arbor FC, the club decided to form their own regional league… and subsequently outdraw a number of established professional teams across the country.
Over the course of seven home fixtures in their debut season (Great Lakes Premier League and friendlies) Grand Rapids FC averaged a remarkable 4,509 fans per game. A friendly at the end of the season pulled in a season-high crowd of 6,651.
To put that in perspective, GRFC outdrew 20 professional teams (3 NASL clubs and 17 in USL), nevermind the 13 clubs in the NPSL Midwest Region from which the club was rejected.
The following season both GRFC and Ann Arbor were, unsurprisingly, admitted into the NPSL. GRFC topped the NPSL Great Lakes West Conference Standings with a 7-4-1- (W-T-L) record, averaging 4,784 fans per game.
This year, the club introduced a women’s team into the fold. A report by MLive has GRFC in the conversation for moving up to a professional league.
GRFC was put on my radar early on, and I was curious to find out more about their success. Matt Post, President of the Grand Army supporters group, answered the following questions.
Steven Bernasconi: What was the initial response like within the soccer community when the idea of Grand Rapids FC was conceived? How difficult was it to get soccer supporters in the community to “buy in”?
Matt Post: The initial response was huge. At first it started with a facebook group gauging interest. That grew quicker than anyone could imagine and before we knew it Matt Roberts was asking around Speak EZ lounge to see if anyone would be willing to buy in at $100. The word started spreading, people started getting active on social media, and the money started rolling in. For most people in the soccer community it was a no-brainer. The chance to see our own team in GR was worth it.
SB: GRFC was initially conceived and sold to members as a supporter-owned club, but was later denied entry into the NPSL. How was that news met by supporters?
MP: The original idea was to be a supporter-owned club. Everyone would throw in money and get a piece of ownership. As the money came in and more and more memberships were sold, Matt Roberts was getting to work setting the organization up. A big part of the change in business structure was the NPSL stating they weren’t in favor of the supporter-owned model. Coupled with that was the fact that setting up an LLC compared to a supporters-trust type business was much, much cheaper, and Roberts didn’t want to blow the first year budget on legal fees. He felt getting a team in GR was priority number one. He held a meeting for those who had bought in and offered the chance to refund money if people didn’t like the change in business model. To my knowledge few, if any, took the refund. Personally the idea was posed to me as “would you pay $100 to have a team in GR.” For me that was the ultimate goal, and the business structure of it all mattered less. I feel like that was a sentiment shared by many in the community.
SB: GRFC pulled some incredible attendance numbers that first year — what do you chalk that up to? What impact have you noticed from the club’s adoption by the community?
MP: Honestly I think it was just a pent up desire for a soccer team in the community. Grand Rapids has massive youth soccer involvement in the area, and the people involved in the soccer community starting using word of mouth and spreading the word through social media. Grand Rapids also has a history of turning out for minor league sports, with both our hockey and baseball teams pulling huge crowds. We were ready for a new team in town. Despite the huge crowds the first year, coverage from the media was initially lacking. That started to build steam and we started to get more press coverage. Now in year 3 we have a local radio personality doing the announcing at our games, and we are getting coverage through many different outlets. It feels like each year we are becoming more and more a part of the larger GR community and not just the soccer community.
SB: Now in the NPSL, the club shows no signs of slowing down. What does the future look like for GRFC — could professional soccer work in Grand Rapids?
MP: When this whole thing started up, the long term goal was always to move up a level or two and become a pro soccer team. Although this was more like a 10 year goal. We figured with the rapid expansion of the minor pro soccer leagues in America, Grand Rapids had to fit into the pyramid, be it tier 3 or tier 2. Then the soccer pyramid went crazy, new leagues started forming, and USL started growing faster than anyone could predict. The 10 year may have shortened a bit. It’s been publicly stated that GRFC is looking into the possibility of going pro, although I think it is still a few years out. The stadium situation needs to be addressed, our current field doesn’t meet DII or DIII standards. GRFC will eventually need big time financial backing as well. More than ever though, the community leaders are taking notice and people want to see it happen.