Charlotte FC’s confidence is admirable considering the club makes its debut in MLS on Feb. 26 in Washington, D.C.
The club represents the newest in a line of expansion teams in the league. Dating back to 2004, MLS had just 10 teams. Charlotte FC and St. Louis SC, debuting in 2023, are the 28th and 29th teams joining the league.
In more recent years, MLS expansion teams produced a mixed bag of results. For some, success came plentifully and quickly. For example, Atlanta United won MLS Cup in its second season after expansion. Nashville SC, debuting in 2020, reached MLS Cup playoffs in both years since starting.
Contrarily, FC Cincinnati finished last in its three seasons of MLS play.
For a new club, success extends off the field as well. Development of youth, brand exposure, stadium attendance at home games and overall gelling are important factors for new teams.
At least, that is the case for Nick Kelly. Kelly, the President of Charlotte FC, understands the struggles a new club goes through in its first couple of seasons. Even then, he embodies Charlotte FC’s confidence entering its first season.
Sure, he has some realistic expectations. For example, is a playoffs appearance a possibility? Certainly. Four out of the last seven expansion teams reached the MLS Playoffs in their first seasons. That is, of course, if you count Inter Miami reaching the play-in round in 2020, where it lost to Nashville, another expansion side.
However, certain things have to go right for the club on and off the pitch for playoffs in year one to be a reality.
Charlotte FC’s confidence in growing the club
Priority No. 1 for Charlotte FC must be to grow the club. There are a number of ways to do this, including inside the club and around the community.
Building a fan base
There is a wide open market for an MLS franchise in the Carolinas. Therefore, it should be straightforward to get a decent number of fans at each game.
Nick Kelly does not want to get a ‘decent’ number of fans. Rather, he wants to exceed the average stadium attendance.
Charlotte FC uses Bank of America Stadium. Traditionally, the stadium in the middle of downtown Charlotte houses the NFL’s Carolina Panthers. MLS clubs sees mixed results in terms of NFL stadium success.
READ MORE: Atlanta’s expected attendance entering the 2017 season.
Atlanta plays in the lavish Mercedes Benz Stadium, pulling in crowds over 50,000 throughout the club’s brief history. The capacity of Atlanta’s stadium reaches 71,000, with limited numbers in recent seasons due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Of course, Atlanta and Charlotte FC are not the only clubs to use NFL stadiums. Nashville, Chicago Fire, Seattle Sounders, New England Revolution and NYCFC share a stadium with another sports team in that city. Mixed results persist. Chicago and NYCFC rank towards the bottom in attendance. Meanwhile, Atlanta, Seattle and Nashville pulled in the largest, second-largest and seventh-largest crowds on average in 2021. Historically, New England Revolution averaged smaller crowds. Yet, the club’s massive success in 2021 perhaps boosted those numbers.
People in the Carolinas did not have a soccer team to support earlier. Now, they have one they can call their own. Nick Kelly maintains that Charlotte FC will also permeate at the top of those attendance rankings. Additionally, that starts with a home opener against Los Angeles Galaxy on Mar. 5.
“This is now your soccer club, the one that represents you and the Carolinas. That makes us feel more and more confident that we will easily sell out and be above 74,000 people for that first game,” Kelly told World Soccer Talk.
Bank of America Stadium
NFL stadiums, despite their size allowing more fans, lack intimacy. Austin FC showed how a club can be part of the community with a smaller stadium to make things more enjoyable from an experience point of view.
Of course, the same atmosphere exists at Atlanta United. Essentially, the club from Georgia nailed everything to build the franchise. Nick Kelly envisions the same style at Bank of America Stadium, aided by the stadium’s location in the heart of Charlotte.
“We’re not outside of the city, we’re literally in the middle of downtown Charlotte. The ability for fans to come after work or to be able to engage with the team for 17 matches a year is a little bit unique.”
Kelly added that Charlotte FC’s confidence in the NFL stadium prevents the club from seeking a soccer-specific stadium. He expects an average attendance around 35,000. This would be second to only Atlanta United. A soccer-specific stadium around there or 40,000 would rival some NFL stadiums.
That being said, the club plans to make Bank of America Stadium more soccer-friendly, if not soccer-specific. Kelly told The Athletic that there is about $50 million in investments to help the soccer-side of Bank of America stadiums. New locker rooms, physio facilities and an English-style tunnel leading up to the pitch make it seem different than an average NFL stadium.
He also added that Charlotte FC continues to invest in the club’s academy to consistently produce first-team players.
The academy of clubs is the foundation for success down the road. Expansion teams face a dilemma of focusing on the academy and winning in the future. In an ideal world, a team would win now and win in the future. That is near impossible, of course. Even then, Charlotte FC can spread out its efforts to build both.
Charlotte FC Academy
Charlotte FC’s confidence in the present and future stems from its academy. A massive investment into building a training facility allows the club to build its pedigree among current MLS clubs.
“It’s out responsibility to train and provide infrastructure to allow players to train and reach the next level.”
However, the modern facility also helps with recruiting young foreign professionals. Kelly admits that Charlotte is not the same style of hub as New York, Los Angeles, Chicago or Dallas.
“We have to explain where Charlotte is to a lot of these guys in South America and Europe.”
Therefore, if players see the commitment to the academy and facilities, they understand the belief in success goes both ways.
In terms of developing some of these talents, Nick Kelly has the bold goal of producing first-team talent yearly. He aims to have one to two players yearly coming out of the academy, something even the best in Europe work to perfect.
One way to aid that is to show potential fans the ins and outs of training. “Welcome to the Team” is a reality TV show to air featuring an opportunity for potential players to break into the team. In a Survivor-style competition, one player will receive a contract with the club.
The benefits of this are two-fold. First off, it reels in potential fans by showing the scouting process. It builds a more intimate feel for the club that can grow organically. Secondly, it allows Charlotte FC to get a gauge on talent that may go unrealized. Particularly, Kelly targets the college student-athlete market.
“Most of these guys are moving on, but every now and then a few of these guys are overlooked and they become members of the U.S. men’s national team.”
Fan bases expect results, it makes audiences come to games or watch on television. Nick Kelly plans on delivering on that front. He has high expectations, even for year one.
“We definitely want to win right now. We want to make sure we are not coming out and giving ourselves a bunch of flexibility by saying we are an expansion team and there are growing pains.”
Even if Kelly wants to avoid the growing pains, they still may exist. At that point, much of it is about mitigation.
One way that Charlotte FC can actually use those growing pains is by taking advantage of the fact that no other club knows its tactics.
“There are teams that have been successful in year one because no one has seen you play together. We have to take advantage of that. And, we believe we will have a competitive advantage at Bank of America Stadium.”
Another way to build up early morale is by developing rivalries. Kelly sees Atlanta as the easiest way to develop a rivalry. The two cities are only 4.5 hours away from one another, and they share an NFL rivalry. St. Louis, coming into the league in 2023, could also be a rival based solely off timing.
Charlotte FC will play its first year under the current MLS TV rights deal. However, the deal expires at the conclusion of 2022.
The rights are a major point of discussion with monetary values hitting record highs across the world.
One of the newest Presidents in MLS, Kelly understands the nature of how important the deal is for MLS. This is especially true with the expectation of 30 teams in the near future.
For more information on Kelly’s comments regarding the next MLS TV deal, check out another recent story from World Soccer Talk.
For now, Charlotte FC will watch MLS playoffs unfold as it readies for its season debut against D.C. United in just three months.