By Jeff Keeling
Like a skilled soccer team patiently probing the opposition for opportunities, Michael Balluff and his soccer-loving cohorts have been deploying a winning strategy for the sport’s growth in the Tri-Cities.
When the Tri-Cities FC Otters first take to the pitch at Science Hill High School’s Kermit Tipton Stadium May 13, soccer will have taken another significant step in a journey Balluff hopes will be ongoing.
“The Otters are going to be the impetus for a lot of new things happening soccer-wise,” Balluff says. The team will feature some of the best college, post-college and soon-to-be-college players from around the region. They’ll square off against seven other clubs in a division of the Premier Development League, a 70-plus team organization that Balluff is quick to point out has been a stop on the way for around two-thirds of current Major League Soccer players.
A former New Orleanian who owned a couple of minor league teams there, Balluff arrived in Johnson City less than five years ago. He’s the owner of a telecommunications business and chose the Tri-Cities because of the area’s natural beauty. He saw a thriving soccer culture at the youth and college level, but really not much else. The area’s many soccer-mad adults were mostly playing in pickup games.
“We were surprised, considering the number of players that are here, the number of talented players that are being developed and going through the different universities, that there wasn’t more soccer here,” says Balluff, who with his wife Elizabeth is co-owner of the Otters.
So Balluff set to work. After meeting David Strickland, who will be the Otters’ head coach, and Rick Kind during a pickup game, Balluff began putting out feelers about an adult league. He was unable to secure fields in any of the Tri-Cities’ main venues, but managed to get access to a couple of fields in Blountville through Greg Hopkins. That led to the birth of the State of Franklin Adult Soccer League, which ended up with more than 150 players in its first season, 2012.
That league continues to thrive, as does another Balluff brainchild, the indoor soccer facility at Buffalo Valley in south Johnson City. Balluff began leasing that facility a couple of years ago from the city, and just negotiated a deal with the city to purchase it outright.
Buffalo Valley, like the outdoor league, is the scene of a lot of organized adult soccer during the colder months. It has also added a component to the youth soccer scene, with more than 1,500 kids and adults using the one field.
Baluff credits Johnson City’s management and commissioners for offering what he called “a generous lease to get us off the ground” back in 2013. “They were able to look ahead at what this could mean for the community,” Balluff says.
When a couple hundred adults were playing on the fields in Blountville in 2012, he adds, he made a prediction to Greg Hopkins. “I told him we would have indoor soccer, and that we would have minor league soccer.”
The outdoor league, indoor facility and now the Otters provide what Balluff believes is an asset to the Tri-Cities for, of all things, job and talent recruitment. “You’d be surprised how many Eastman interns contact us because they want to play soccer while they’re here,” Balluff says. “If you’re a business or company that’s trying to attract young talent to your community, it’s just part of the package.”
That fact – along with his personal interest as a soccer player – probably helped drive NN Inc. CEO Rich Holder to put the Johnson City-headquartered multinational company’s name front and center on the Otters’ jerseys as signature sponsor. The team has a three-year commitment in the league, with a cost per year in the low six figures, and Balluff says he was close to throwing in the towel for the 2016 season when, “pretty much out of the blue, Rich called, and they’ve gotten behind us.”
Now, the Balluffs are bringing on more sponsors as Strickland and his assistants conduct tryouts. Former East Tennessee State University standout Itode Fubara is already signed, and more recognizable local names should be announced soon. Thursday, Holston Distributing and TruPoint Bank confirmed that they would be platinum sponsors.
“It’s a stepping process,” Balluff says. “It started with the small league, then the indoor, now the Otters, and it’s connections that are forming. We put together a group for the Otters called Founders Club, and those are exactly the people we want in the same room talking about the state of soccer. Not in a stuffy, logistical way, but just watching the game, enjoying it, talking about what could be.
“Those are the guys that are going to help us make the next step. There is a big future for soccer in our area.”