Club ownership model a rarity among US sports teams

icon usaball25 February ~ One of the guest speakers at the 2013 Supporters Summit, staged by Supporters Direct and the Football Supporters’ Federation, was Tim Connolly, then a senior executive at NFL club the Green Bay Packers. Community owned and non-profit, the Packers have won a record 13 league championships, and Connolly’s knowledge and experience found plenty of appreciation among summit attendees.

However, in the US they remain a pretty much standalone model. One team who have followed their example are Nashville FC, a wholly supporter-owned club who made their debut in the Southeast Conference of the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL), the US game’s fourth tier, last year.

As club president Chris Jones explains, motivation came more from fan-run teams in the UK: “For me it was FC United of Manchester. For all those fans to walk away from a club like Manchester United is a powerful statement.”

With the motto “This Is Our Town, Our Club”, Nashville have worked hard to generate regional media interest and attract crowds of around 2,000 to the local Vanderbilt University sports ground. Membership currently stands at 850.

The club are clearly ambitious. Promotion to the North American Soccer League, just below MLS, is the aim within five years. “We truly believe that our soccer community can build one of the greatest clubs in US history and if we can continue to build our membership base then the sky is the limit,” Jones insists.

Now, however, there’s a real danger that the club could end up being a victim of its own success. Nashville FC’s growing popularity has flagged up the existence of an emerging football market in the region. So much so that the owner of a club based in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania (some 720 miles away) recently announced interest in a potential move south.

The Harrisburg City Islanders currently play in the United Soccer League, the game’s third tier. Upset at their local council’s reluctance to sanction the building of a new stadium, the Islanders are looking to relocate to Nashville, where a former Minor League Baseball ground will soon be up for grabs. They have money and a certain amount of clout, which Nashville FC, despite all that increasing goodwill, remain relatively short of.

“American sports leagues tend to be franchise driven, meaning the leagues themselves have ultimate rule of who owns teams and where those teams are placed,” says Jones. “It's very similar to how food franchises like McDonald's operate.”

With the new NPSL season now just weeks away, Nashville face an uncertain future. But if they can see off this particular threat, it will only make them stronger. And yes, that does indeed sound like it should be the title of a country and western song. Matthew Barker

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