The Upstate has scored a professional soccer franchise.
Alec Papadakis, CEO of the United Soccer League (USL), announced Tuesday, March 13, Greenville has been awarded the third team in its new Division III league that will begin play in 2019.
Greenville advertising guru Joe Erwin will lead the team’s ownership group through his company Erwin Creates.
The group includes Shannon Wilbanks, managing partner of Erwin Creates, and Doug Erwin, Erwin’s son and operating partner of Erwin Creates.
The company said it has hired veteran sports manager Chris Lewis, who previously served as team president of the Greenville Swamp Rabbits hockey team, to serve as president of the new soccer team.
“We are honored to have Greenville … as a founding member of USL Division III, as the team provides more than 1.4 million people in the Upstate region with a professional team to call their own,” Papadakis said in a statement.
Papadakis called Greenville an “incredible addition” to the league, which was announced in April 2017 and has already landed two teams that include South Georgia Tormenta FC out of Statesboro, Ga.; and FC Tucson in Tucson, Ariz.
USL said the league anticipates it will launch eight to 12 teams for the inaugural season. League officials have visited cities across the Southeast, Midwest, and Northeast, and more team announcements are expected in the coming weeks, USL said.
“We have no doubt the ownership group led by Joe Erwin will develop a successful and passionate team for our growing Southeast contingent as we aim to develop regional rivalries across the United States,” Papadakis said.
Joe Erwin, a Clemson University graduate and founder of Erwin Penland, said he played for the first soccer team at Eastside High School and has loved the sport ever since.
As the game has continued to grow across the region and the country, Erwin said he decided about eight months ago it was time to bring a professional franchise to the Upstate.
“It feels more like a mission than a business,” Erwin said. “Thousands of kids in our region are playing soccer. … The Upstate is an international community. Soccer is the world’s game. It enhances the quality of life for so many young people. If we can create an environment and show them what quality soccer is, maybe they will aspire to play at that level someday.”
Erwin said a site for the team’s permanent home, as well as its name, colors, and logo, will be announced later this year.
He said he expects the team will play its first season at a temporary venue that should be secured sometime in the months ahead.
Erwin said the ownership is committed to building a “first-class facility” from scratch, if need be, for its permanent home.
He said seven sites are being considered for the stadium. The sites include downtown Greenville, Greenville County, and multiple municipalities.
“What matters to us is that we have a site that allows us to offer our fans a great experience, and we are also looking at some ideas for complementary things near the stadium that would make it a true destination experience,” Erwin said.
“I’m willing to bet on Greenville,” he added. “This is a multimillion-dollar commitment. We wouldn’t do it if we didn’t believe we could create, not just a successful team, but a movement.”
Erwin said the success and economic impact of the Greenville Drive’s baseball operation is something he believes can be replicated by a professional soccer team in the community.
“I heard a statistic that the average age of a baseball fan is 53, while the average age of a soccer fan is 36,” he said. “That tells me there are opportunities out there. … We’re just at the beginnings of soccer becoming great in America.”
With the country’s top soccer officials mulling the possibility of adopting a promotion/relegation model, Erwin said it’s conceivable that the Upstate might someday field a team in Major League Soccer (MLS), the nation’s highest league.
The promotion/relegation approach stipulates that the last-place teams, typically three, in a league are demoted, or relegated, to a lower league for the next season, while the best-ranked teams are promoted to a higher division for next season.
“I would love for the U.S. to adopt that model,” Erwin said. “If this country wants to develop teams that can go seriously compete and win World Cups, then it’s something I think we need to do.”
Erwin said he is well aware of the fact that several past attempts to bring professional soccer to the region have failed.
The most notable efforts to launch and then fizzle after a few years include the South Carolina Shamrocks and the Greenville Lions.
The Shamrocks, owned by Spartanburg businessman Sean McMahon, competed from 1996 through 1999 in the USL’s D3 Pro League, or U.S. Independent Soccer League. The team’s franchise rights were revoked by USL before the 2000 season due to financial performance issues.
In 2001 and 2002, the Greenville Lions played in the USL D3 Pro League. The Lions competed in the USL’s amateur Premier Development League in 2003 and then folded due to financial issues.
“I don’t think the growth was organic enough; the market just wasn’t there yet,” Erwin said. “A decade and a half later, thousands more kids are playing, and the quality of play has improved at every level. We have several colleges that boast programs that compete at the national level. This is the piece that has been missing.”
Erwin said he doesn’t expect instant success the likes of an Atlanta United FC, an MLS expansion franchise that averaged 48,200 fans per game during its inaugural season in 2017.
“USL has been great about letting us talk to successful teams in other markets,” he said. “We know we have to build a fan base. We know it’s going to take time. We feel lucky and blessed to be the ones who get to do this.”
Scott “Cutter” Halkett, a native of South Africa who serves as head coach of the men’s soccer team at the University of South Carolina Upstate, said he is optimistic the venture led by Erwin will be supported by the community.
“I think the Upstate is ready [for a pro soccer team] and has been for some time,” said Halkett, who played for the University of South Carolina Upstate from 1992 to 1995 and earned first-team All-American honors his senior year.
After graduating from USC Upstate, Halkett played for the Atlanta Ruckus in the A-League before returning to Spartanburg to play for the Shamrocks.
His coaching career includes stints as team president and head coach of the Greenville Lions, and head coach of the varsity soccer team at Eastside High School, where he led the Eagles to a 3A state championship title in 2011.
Halkett was named the 3A Coach of the Year in 2011.
“When I heard that the effort was being led by Joe, I was very happy because of his expertise in marketing, which is something that is sorely needed for any professional sports team,” Halkett said. “It’s all about building a fan base, and the [Greenville team] already has a huge advantage in that regard.”
Given his experiences with past efforts to make professional soccer regional mainstay, Halkett urged the new team’s leadership to remain grounded.
“The quality of soccer coming out of the Upstate is phenomenal,” he said. “My concerns are that you see franchises open and close shortly thereafter. A lot of good people with good intentions come along, but they overlook the business side of things. This is a business. You have to run it like you would any other business. … The owners have to look at it and say, ‘How can we make it last more than 10 years?’ If you make it last more than 10 years, you’re going to succeed.”
Halkett referenced other pro soccer teams recently announced in the Upstate, such as Upstate Strikers, an indoor team in Anderson that will compete in the Major Arena Soccer League.
Greenville FC will kick off its inaugural season in May, competing in the developmental National Premier Soccer League’s Southeast Conference. The team will play its home games at Furman University.
In August 2017, the amateur United Premier Soccer League announced the addition of Spartanburg-based Sparta 20/20 to its Southeast conference. Co-owned by Kendall Reyes and Raymond Curry, the team is currently playing its home games at Spartanburg Day School.
Halkett said the addition of higher level teams to the Upstate’s soccer programming should have a positive impact on player development in the region.
“When you look at this area, there are huge numbers of kids playing soccer, a number of clubs with a huge amount of talent,” Halkett said. “Especially for the college players, a quality professional soccer team gives them something to shoot for. It could be a carrot for them to go and try to play at the next level.”