By Jeff Keeling
The Tri-Cities’ first-ever semi-pro soccer team may have had its struggles on the pitch this summer, but things were quite successful off the field. And putting a well-oiled machine into action on the business end of the equation, Tri-Cities Otters FC co-founder Michael Balluff said, was just as important – perhaps moreso – than dominating the division in the Premier Development League.
The Otters led the PDL’s eight-team South Atlantic Division in home attendance, Balluff said, averaging about 1,000 fans and even had a core of loyal fans who traveled well. The team put its players up in the Monarch apartments near East Tennessee State University, let kids into games free and provided inflatables at the games.
It was all part of a strategy designed to create fan loyalty and cement a reputation among prospective players that the Otters do things right. Balluff said that’s because he, his wife Elizabeth, and the rest of the organization are building for what they hope is a long-term future for high-level soccer in the metro area.
Saturday, the building of the Otters brand gets its final 2016 on-field test when the team takes on the under-21 developmental squad of Middlesbrough, a British Premier League team. The Otters, who finished at the bottom of the division standings with one win, three draws and 10 losses, “will put their best foot forward” when things kick off at 6 p.m. at Science Hill High School’s Kermit Tipton Stadium, Balluff said.
At this point, Balluff said he’s hoping for a roughly revenue-neutral outcome business-wise, but added that a raucous, full stadium – just like good regular-season attendance – is a building block for the future.
“When we put a lot of fans in the stands to see this game, it sends word out to all the other teams that travel during the summer, whether they be from South America, Central America, Mexico, the European teams, that ‘hey, Johnson City is a place that we can bring our team while we’re touring and have a good event, have a good match.’”
The big game comes at the end of a season which has had some ups and downs, Balluff said. The team surpassed its goal for attracting “Founders Club” members, who paid $1,000 each for that privilege. Its title sponsor, NN Inc., “was obviously fantastic,” Balluff said.
Conversely, mid-level sponsorships didn’t reach the hoped-for level, he said. “We can improve there, and we will.”
In terms of PDL expectations, the Otters – who played seven home games – met them all. Most of those requirements revolve around facilities, staff, and the caliber of players in terms of their off-field reputations and behavior.
But with teams in some pretty large markets, not all franchises are created equal. The league’s eastern conference has 23 teams in three divisions, including squads from Boston, Long Island, Baltimore, New York City and Charlotte. Some are affiliated with clubs at higher levels, including North America’s top league, the MLS, while others have wealthy owners.
“Then you’ve got teams like ours,” Balluff said. “We’re sort of a working class team. There’s nobody with deep pockets involved with us, so we really rely on the fans and the sponsors to make this happen.
“I think the league has seen what we’ve done in this small market, and I think they’re pretty happy with what we’ve produced. Next year when we have better results on the scoreboard, I think the attendance will grow and the league will be even happier.”
Balluff didn’t get a franchise until late fall, so he and the coaches, led by Science Hill head coach David Strickland, missed a lot of recruiting opportunities. He said that’s one reason he chose to spend some money to provide good experiences for both fans and players.
“You’ve got two levels of competition going on here. You’ve got the competition on the field, but you also have a competition of resources in order to attract the players that will get you the results on the field.”
Unlike the Otters’ decision to put players up at a nice apartment complex, some teams focus on home stays, and others put players – many of whom are in the middle of college careers – in dormitories.
“Word definitely gets around, and the players that are looked after, that’s definitely going to help you attract better players in the future. We invested heavily in that.”
Balluff, an entrepreneur who runs a telecoms company, said even with the help of sponsors and founders, “we’ve had to come out of pocket personally quite a bit more than we expected. Most of that is startup costs.”
He said he plans to focus more next season on group sales and parties at the events, as well as trying to attract more mid-level sponsors. A new media sponsor is coming on board, with the expected result being more exposure to potential fans with less knowledge about the beautiful game.
Despite the on-field struggles, which manifested themselves most obviously in difficulty scoring, Balluff said he’s very pleased with the coaching staff and the players’ performance, including their character.
“Throughout the entire season they kept their heads up; after the games they greeted the kids and signed the autographs, and I’m very proud of our players and our coaches.”
With what he hopes is a good off-field reputation and an entire fall to hit the road and talk to NCAA Division I impact players, Balluff is bullish on the 2017 version (the team has an initial three-year commitment with the PDL).
“This is truly a chance where you may see a team go from worst to first, because we did so many things right, but we selected our players just from two tryouts, and that’s not good enough.”
Meanwhile, experienced fans and novices alike will have a chance to witness history Saturday against a franchise on the rise. Middlesbrough has broken into the English Premier League after a 26 win, 9 loss and 11 draw campaign and was good for second in the English League Championship (England’s second-highest league).
The top three teams each year from the Championship swap with the bottom three Premier League teams, who are “relegated” to the Championship. Middlesbrough was relegated from the Premier League following the 2008-2009 season and spent the last seven seasons in the Championship.
“This is the future of their team,” Balluff said. “These are the guys that they’re spending lots of time and energy and money to develop, and one or two of these guys may go on to be superstars.”
Tickets for Saturday’s game are still available. To learn more visit ottersoccer.com.