Exclusive – With the influx of expansion teams, one of the biggest challenges facing Major League Soccer right now is authenticity. Entering MLS in 2022, Charlotte FC are the latest to tackle this obstacle.
Unlike their century-old counterparts in Europe, or even MLS originals like the LA Galaxy and DC United, expansion sides have to juggle generating an atmosphere in the stands with building real-life culture and tradition from scratch.
The first battle in that war for Charlotte is uniting the giant catchment area that is the Carolinas, states with a combined population of over 15 million people.
“We really want to be the unifying force of the Carolinas,” CFC president Nick Kelly told 90min exclusively while at the Leaders Week sport business conference at Twickenham Stadium, London. “When I say unifying force, there is a lot of, let’s call it conflict. And it’s mostly positive conflict in the sports landscape between being from North or South Carolina, or even in the university system with North Carolina-Duke.
“A lot of people also show up to Charlotte and they already have a team, they’re from New York, or Miami, or Columbus, and they like another NFL team. But nobody’s really showing up with an MLS team. Nobody has a huge affiliation with an existing club. We want to be the one club, no matter where you’re from in the Carolinas, that we all can unite on, the fact that we all love Charlotte FC, because there is no pre-existing type of fandom.”
Of course, trying to appeal to two states’ worth of people is no easy task. A one-size-fits-all policy just won’t work on a huge population of people from different backgrounds and with different tastes.
That’s why Kelly believes it’s so important that Charlotte put in the miles to touch every corner of both North and South Carolina, turning up and proving to each person they meet that their club is different. They care deeply about their fanbase.
“Everything we do has to be representative of the total Carolinas, it can’t just be what’s going on in Charlotte,” Kelly added. “So that means we have to be active five hours down the road in the Outer Banks, or three hours down the road in Charleston.
“It’s important because we need to come to 15 million people, we can’t just focus on the 1.5 in Charlotte. That’s only hitting 10% of our total fan base. The first five to 10 years, it’s important we show up and we are there for them.
“Everybody says all the time ‘oh, this is our brand’. Your brand is who people think you are. So if we’re not actually showing up the way we think we want to be represented, then we are what they think we are. And I think that continuing to do the actions to be a unifying force is the most important piece.”
Admittedly, that doesn’t sound like a task for the faint-hearted. But Charlotte think they have a unique solution.
The club recently became the first in MLS to appoint a chief fan officer. Shawn McIntosh will be the direct bridge between Charlotte supporters on the ground and Kelly in the front office, ensuring the club are meeting the needs of their fans and fostering an honest, symbiotic relationship. According to Kelly, “clear communication” between a club and its fans is the key to this vital bond.
“The big thing for us is that we created this chief fan officer role to clearly communicate with the fans heading into the season as to what do they want to see from the team, what they want to see from the club?” said Kelly.
“I think that the biggest thing we’ve seen successful teams in MLS and even globally do is have very consistent two-way communication. Does that mean we’re going to do everything they say? No, but it puts a single representative high enough up in our organization at a seat-level executive position, that they can talk to me, they can talk to our owner, they can talk to the head coach and say ‘this is what the fans are thinking, or hearing, or saying’.
“It may not even be that they have a recommendation, it will just be good to have somebody who’s in the community that knows what’s bubbling up. It could be as simple as they hate our uniforms, or they want to do this tifo, or they would prefer that we open up sooner.”
Kelly admits McIntosh has a “tough job” ahead of him. But one that could reap serious benefits. Clubs from across the US sporting landscape are already watching with keen curiosity.
He adds: “It is a very, very tough job, because it’s almost like being a politician. They have to manage our expectations as a club, the fans’ expectations and the die-hard supporters, but they also have to worry about the fans who may be watching on TV. So it is an in-the-market type of job.
“We’ve got calls from a bunch of clubs across different sports saying ‘if this works, tell us how’. Because if anything, it’s a signal to our fans that we care, we’re investing in an individual who’s there for them. He’s not necessarily just for us.”
Though building a fan culture from nothing is a difficult task that walks a thin line between being authentic or contrived, there are plenty of success stories in MLS over recent years to draw inspirition from.
Despite being geographical rivals, Kelly admits Atlanta United’s ability to form MLS’ largest fanbase from the jump in 2017 serves as a great example to follow, while there are parallels between the club’s owners willing to put as much into their MLS teams as their other projects.
“I mean, it would be naive for us to just like sit there and say, ‘well, they’re our rival in Atlanta, because geographically and through other sports’. They’re the best example,” he said.
“We have similar ownership structures, even facility structures. David (Tepper) and Arthur (Blank) are close, but David wants to beat Arthur, we want to beat Atlanta. So this isn’t a passive investment for David because he doesn’t like losing.
“But the piece for Atlanta is that they were able to build a gigantic fanbase at year one. And if we can be even close to where they’re at, it would be a huge success.”
What impresses Kelly most about Atlanta is their ability to retain supporter enthusiasm even in the face of their poor start to 2021 after a dismal 2020 campaign – something not all MLS teams have been able to do.
“They did an amazing job in year one, two and three, both on and off the pitch,” Kelly added: “And then you can see, even in a season where they didn’t start off great, their ability to retain fans and keep them excited, it’s because they built up that goodwill.”
Of course, if Charlotte want true, sustained success over a period of years, they need look no further in MLS than the Seattle Sounders.
“They’re probably one of the top examples in all sports,” said Kelly. “They’ve been doing this for years, they’ve never missed the playoffs, they play in a football stadium that has 35 to 40,000 per match. And that fan base has been unwavering.
“They’ve never really had a bad season. But their standards are so high now that, if they sneak in the playoffs, it’s a bad season. I want those standards. So they’re the two best models for us. If we can model ourselves off of them, we’ll be doing alright.”
Kelly’s professional background is in business and during his six years with Anheuser-Busch InBev, he played a key role in developing league, team and player partnerships within MLS, as well as major American sports brands like the NFL, MLB, NHL and NBA.
But he also grew up around the sport, watching the likes of Alexi Lalas and Tony Meola with the USMNT while he was also in Germany at the time they won the World Cup in 1990 thanks to his father’s military background.
Having watched and played the game all his life, Kelly knows that ultimately, no matter how hard you work at marketing or trying to forge bonds with supporters, success on the pitch is the ultimate way to turn heads and catch the imagination.
Though right now, Charlotte only have seven players, their roster will grow exponentially in the coming months. But Kelly admits head coach Miguel Angel Ramirez already has a style of play and identity in mind, once again with the entertainment of the fans the key consideration.
“We’re going to have a very pressing style of play,” said Kelly. “Our manager truly believes in the fact that if we have a pressing style, that will be exciting for our fans and help us score a ton of goals.”
Kelly even sees the blank slate as an advantage, allowing Ramirez to build a team purely in his image rather than having to take over a group of players that needs serious surgery to fit his style.
One eye-catching hire brought into help with that recruitment process has been Steve Walsh, the man who helped uncover the likes of N’Golo Kante and Riyad Mahrez ahead of Leicester City’s shock 2015/16 Premier League title-winning season.
“I think to bring somebody who was able to build a club like Leicester over time, identifying the right talent to punch far above their weight, that was invaluable to us,” Kelly said of Walsh, who was brought on board thanks to his pre-existing relationship with CFC sporting director, Zoran Krneta.
Kelly added: “Even his ability to consult with us on certain international players. His sage advice on what type of player you need in the locker room, this is the type of personality need.”
It should come as no surprise that Walsh played a key role in bringing Austrian full-back Christian Fuchs over from Leicester. It’s hoped the 35-year-old’s leadership and title-winning experience will both help galvinize Charlotte’s developing roster and show others in Europe that this is an attractive place to come and play.
“I don’t know that we get to where we’re at with Christian were it not for Steve,” Kelly revealed. “Having Christian on the roster and Steve helping get in there for us, we have international players who are now looking at us and saying ‘oh, you guys have Christian on the roster, he’s willing to come there?’
“It almost legitimizes the fact that this is a real project in North America and MLS. If you can go from two years ago and go four years ago leading a Premier League team to its first-ever championship to now being one of the stars of our team, we need that.”
On Fuchs’ status within the squad, Kelly added: “We need him leading the locker room because we need a bunch of 27-year-old players, American or international, to come in and be like, ‘this is how you build a winning culture’. He can legitimately walk in and say that, which was important.
“We did a bunch of studies on some of the last five expansion teams. The teams that have been successful, it may not be a Christian Fuchs, but they’re bringing guys who’ve won in the MLS or somewhere else. So having him be one of our first five players was very important.”
The clock is ticking on Charlotte’s introduction to the harsh world of MLS. But supporters can at least be assured that they have people in charge who care deeply about the responsibility they hold.