Kelly's Heroes - An Interview With Chattanooga Football Club Chairman Tim Kelly

We kept ourselves going by reminding ourselves that it COULD change the landscape of American Soccer forever.

by Will Rivard

What happens when Atlas Shrugs? The earthquakes begin, the landscape changes forever & we get huge paradigm shifts in what is possible.

Tim Kelly and Chattanooga Football Club are Atlas shrugging. What they are currently in the middle of doing could cause a huge seismic shift in American Soccer - and beyond.

CFC garnered national headlines when the club began selling equity shares in January. For the first time in American Soccer history, supporters could own a small piece of a club. They raised over $400,000 dollars in less than a week through this unique way of crowd-funding.

Tim, along with Sheldon Grizzle, Krue Brock, Marshall Brock, Thomas Clark, Daryl Heald, Paul Rustand & Sean McDaniel founded the club back in 2009 with modest expectations. McDaniel contentiously left for cross city rivals, Chattanooga Red Wolves, in 2018. By making the move, he’s missing out on an incredible era for the club.

CFC had originally set a goal for 500 supporters per match only to shatter that goal when 1,500 showed up for the first match. Fast forward a few years & 18,000 supporters came out to see them play for the National Championship.

The success of their share-launch scheme should come as no surprise in this context. They have a fervent fan-base lovingly dubbed the “Chattahooligans.”

In a letter addressed to potential investors, the founders summed up what Chattanooga FC means:

“Chattanooga Football Club was founded by a group of local people who care for the welfare of the city and are actively pursuing it through philanthropic efforts, growing small business opportunities, building our entrepreneurial ecosystem, and more. As a founding group, we asked ourselves from day one, “How can we use soccer as a tool to improve Chattanooga and our quality of life?”

They are an exceptional & unique club whp could well prove to be showing us a new model in football in the U.S.

Football and the City sat down with Tim in an effort to truly understand the impact CFC has had not only on the city of Chattanooga, but the potential impact it could have on American soccer going forward.

FATC: Why did you decide to start a football club? And how was Chattanooga born?

TK: A group of friends here in Chattanooga who all love the game came together in late 2008 around the opportunity to start a team in the NPSL (National Premier Soccer League). I was just one of eight! We all brought a different talent to the table and in just a few months we had a team playing on the field.

FATC: What do you love about your club that you would like to share with the rest of the world?

TK: I really love the deep sense of community that permeates the club. In some respects, it’s a much about community, and a sense of belonging, than a sport played on the field. We have a foundation and an academy that do a lot of great work in the area, and we have an incredible supporters group (the Chattahooligans) who have amazing programs of their own. The club has spawned marriages, children, tattoos, etc, and has become a rallying point for Chattanoogans generally.

Chattanooga FC Football And The City

CFC Founders

Chattanooga FC Founders on stage at the launch of their revolutionary equity, share-buying, scheme.

FATC: Chattanooga FC has really done a very innovative thing by allowing supporters to purchase shares of the club, do you think what’s going on at CFC could potentially have an impact on other clubs - in the US and abroad?

TK: Absolutely. It was difficult and complicated to be the first team to do this, but when it really got bad, we kept ourselves going by reminding ourselves that it COULD change the landscape of American soccer forever. If there are other communities who really love their clubs and clubs who are willing to permanently declare their allegiance to their communities (which is the norm everywhere else in the world), then community capital could permit those clubs to raise the working capital needed to expand operations and really fill out the lower levels of soccer in the United States, which we fervently believe is needed to 1) reach a viable state for the institution of promotion and relegation in the US and then 2) to allow the US to be finally be competitive on the global stage.

FATC: What are the major milestones/goals you want to see the club achieve over the next five years?

TK: The first is to finish this public raise successfully and structure the club in a harmonious, functional way. Second would be to formalize our partnership with VfL Wolfsburg and develop that relationship more fully. Third would be to have a successful 2019 season and Founders’ Cup. Fourth would be to launch our new league in 2020 with a solid core of teams and have that be a sustainable, successful enterprise. Fifth, the continued expansion of that league and the development of an innovative and scalable broadcast platform. That really only gets us through the next three years but that’s plenty to keep us occupied.

FATC: What are your expectations for the club in the upcoming season, as you move into a new league?

TK: We are going to want to be competitive, as always. We are going to be working with a smaller budget that some teams in our league, but we’ve always relished the role of the underdog, of David (vs Goliath) so that’s nothing new!

Chattanooga FC Football And The City

Chattanooga FC

Players celebrating a goal in 2014.

FATC: How did you get involved with Wolfsburg?

TK : Through our affiliation with VW (Volkswagen.) They built a plant here in Chattanooga the same year we got started and because of their long and consistent support for soccer around the world, we thought they’d be the perfect fit as a sponsor. We have expanded our relationship over the years in many ways, from foundation work with the VW Worker’s Foundation to the relationship with Wolfsburg. VW has recently announced a plant expansion here in Chattanooga, so we look forward to deepening our ties to them.

FATC: If you could change one thing about US Soccer what would it be?

TK: That’s tough, did you say three things? ;)  1) board reform to more broadly drive the growth of the sport in the US 2) revision of the  Professional League Standards to conform to empirical evidence of what it takes to operate and succeed at a given level (which now exists)  3) the phase-in of an open system of promotion and relegation (in a way that is fair to all affected parties). But really, if it had to be just one, it would be first one, since a board less driven by narrow business interests would be likely to institute the other reforms.

FATC: What is your favorite moment since you’ve been with the club?

TK: Man, that is the toughest one; it is really hard to pick just one, but when the crowd starts doing the CHATTA- NOOGA chant (one side yells CHATTA, the other responds NOOGA) I generally fall to pieces. It kills me.

Words & Interview by Will Rivard. Additional words & Editing by J.S. Leatherbarrow.

Artwork by FATC, original photographs by Jay Kaley & Ray Soldano - all rights reserved.

Will Rivard