The Expansion Ramble continues and takes us to one of the cultural hearts of the South.
With expansion news coming hot and heavy recently, we, Brian Cook and Richard Rainwater, are taking a look at each of the new teams gearing up to begin play in the USL Championship. We will be covering the teams already announced to join the league and will be looking at how the teams can be successful, what struggles they face, and what we think the outcomes will be.
It’s the Expansion Ramble! And we’re glad you’re here to join us on our journey, which today takes us to the land of barbecue and blues guitars, guided by bright neon lights.
Situated in the heart of the deep south, the city of Memphis, Tennessee has been home to many big names. B.B. King, Elvis, Three 6 Mafia, and Justin Timberlake all have had roots in the community that gave the world Blues music and barbecue. Despite some hard times of late, the area is filled with residents that take pride in their city’s past, present, and future. That pride looks to be a driving force behind their new soccer club, named after the area code that blankets the Memphis region. Because no matter how many times people may leave the area, the 9-0-1 will forever retain a special place in their hearts.
What will make this team successful?
As has been the case with other teams on this list, truly local ownership is a huge boost to 901. Memphis has a history of successful sports teams, with an NBA franchise anchoring a solid minor-league setup. Having a group that knows how to navigate this landscape is incredibly important, and they’ll have it from day one.
I’m not a fan of most baseball stadium setups. The play tends to be negatively impacted by a narrow field that was never designed to stand up to the rigors of a full, concurrent baseball and soccer schedule. But despite the playing concerns, it will make good business sense for the team. The owners have control of the stadium and will benefit from having more flexibility than renting space at a local university. The location of the field is in downtown Memphis, which has historically been a successful spot for most soccer teams to locate. They should draw well from their intended demographic and benefit from the downtown tourists as well.
Unique and hyper-local branding is a precursor for attracting fans and Memphis 901 has that in spades. Their crest is one of the best in the league and the 901 moniker screams Memphis, especially when combined with the neon sign. It’s well done all-around and will give fans something more unique to attach to than a “United” or “City” name would.
Finally, they have Tim Howard as the face of the club. Arguably one of the greatest American goalkeepers to ever play, Howard has notoriety outside of soccer circles. His involvement will increase more in Year 2, right when the new team smell starts to wear off. His addition will no doubt bring eyeballs to the team and should result in coverage on national highlight shows. This attention will be welcome and can help the team navigate hurdles that may come later.
901 has been interesting to watch grow. Previous, I wrote about the bizarre relationship Tim Howard has with the club where his identity has switched from the goalkeeper for the Colorado Rapids to “The Guy” representing 901 FC. For Memphis. That exposure that Howard has given, as strange as it might be, has boosted their notoriety. As it stands now, with Howard retiring at the end of the season, it’s unclear what he will do beyond 2019 but even then his mark has been left with this team in a positive nature.
901 FC might be an underrated market for soccer. You don’t tend to look to that kind of place for the growth of the game. You have your New Yorks, your Seattles, places where the game has begun to grow, but for 901 FC, they have quietly built a stable youth guided system. Out of all the expansion sides in 2019 in ten years, we might be looking at 901 FC as an expansion example for future teams.
What will make this team struggle?
Memphis has had struggles in recent years with poverty and crime. The city consistently ranks as one of the poorest in the nation, when adjusted for size. While this won’t impact the team directly at first, it could be an obstacle in building a soccer stadium later on. We’ve seen established teams like Indy struggle to get public financing for a stadium, while other expansion sides have ran into issues as well. The climate is not friendly for owners looking to build for their lower division teams, unless they can privately finance the entire project.
Memphis will also enter into a surprisingly crowded soccer landscape. Nashville will have an MLS team starting next year, while fellow expansion side Birmingham is a short distance away. Chattanooga, on the other side of the state, will boast two professional teams by the end of the year, as well, leaving Memphis limited space to draw crowds from. Nashville and both Chattanooga sides are favorites to win their respective leagues, while Birmingham looks to be competing for a playoff spot in year one. If 901 get off to a slow start, especially over the next couple of years, it could be very easy for the team to get lost amongst their highly successful neighbors.
Finally, the team could struggle if they build too much of their marketing and attention around Tim Howard. The branding, kit design, and even club announcement all had one singular focus: Memphis. It has the feeling of a team that was build specifically for the city, which is new for the area. The Memphis Grizzlies relocated to the area from Vancouver, while the AAA baseball team is specifically to develop players for a team in St. Louis. 901 has the opportunity to connect to the city in a special way, and that, not the celebrity or status of Howard, needs to remain their primary focus.
It’s difficult to foresee what could cause a team to struggle. Throughout this entire process of reviewing all the expansion sides, there are only a few “easy” things you can imagine going wrong for a team.
For 901 FC, they fall under a simple answer to this question. Progression. Moving forward and continuing to challenge themselves and the league to be better and do better. One of the first steps, while the league champions play in one is eventually moving out of their baseball stadium and into something more soccer friendly. The 901 FC podcast (heard from this very website) recently spoke about how the field set up at Auto Zone Park is better equipped to handle soccer compared to previous baseball field soccer set up.
Like most teams though, Memphis needs to push for a soccer-friendly stadium within the first 3-5 years to adequately secure themselves stability, however, depending on ticket sales they may be better off staying at Auto Zone Park.
What do you think is more likely with this team: MLS Expansion, Successful USL Championship Side, Future League 1 Superstars, Soon-to-be ghost of American soccer past?
Despite the worries over a permanent stadium, which seem to plague almost every USL Championship side, 901 doesn’t really seem to have many challenges to face. Their owners are connected to the city, they have a patient, well-thought out plan for success, and the level of off-season enthusiasm for the club bodes well for their future. With Nashville’s ascension to MLS in 2020, I don’t think Memphis will join the top division. But, they have the foundation to be a solid Championship team, as long as they avoid what few pitfalls lay ahead.
I think Memphis has every reason and every chance to be a successful Championship team. If they eventually want to push to joining Major League Soccer, I wouldn’t be shocked. The market seems relatively open for another soccer team besides Nashville and with Nashville moving to MLS in 2020 Memphis should have a strong grip on the state for those desiring Championship-level soccer. For their benefit, they need to not only keep pushing to grow but generally grip onto the message of the United Soccer League which is a path to pro. If they continue as strong as they started, they will end up being a strong and successful USL Championship team.
If you liked this article, you’ll love the rest of the series. Check out our takes on Austin, Birmingham, Chicago, El Paso, Hartford, and Loudoun, and drop us a line with your comments on how you think these teams will fare.
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