60 Seconds With Ryan Kelley
By Fred Mills
When people say “sports in Asheville,” chances are the Asheville Tourists baseball team or the UNC-Asheville Bulldogs men’s basketball team come to mind first. In the past year, however, the Asheville City Soccer Club (ACSC) has rapidly captured the area sports-loving public’s mind.
Debuting in May as part of the National Premier Soccer League’s 10-team Southeast Conference, the ACSC wrapped up their inaugural season with a 3-3-6 record, making it to the playoffs’ first round. In the process they packed the stands at Memorial Stadium with hordes of passionate, blue-clad fans thrilled to be able to cheer for their own amateur soccer team, ultimately landing in the top 10 in attendance for the League.
Much credit is due to club President Ryan Kelley, who was inspired to start the team—a mixture of college students and players from the local adult league, plus a handful of top-performing high school students— after reading about how founder of Foursquare Dennis Crowley decided to start a soccer team in upstate New York. “My partners and I grew up [in Asheville],” says Kelley, “and we couldn’t believe this didn’t already exist here. We thought it would be a perfect fit. And the more we looked into it and the more we saw successful teams, like in nearby Chattanooga, which have so much in common with Asheville culturally, demographically, we kind of thought it was a responsibility of ours that we stumbled across this thing—we have to give it a shot. So here we are, about a year later.”
First on the agenda was to secure a venue for the team to play in, and Memorial Stadium seemed a natural fit (it had been home to a minor league women’s soccer team in the early 2000s), so Kelley and his business partners met with city government officials early on in the planning process to develop a good working relationship. Kelley also cites the support of existing local soccer organizations, from the youth level all the way up to the Asheville Buncombe Adult Soccer Association, as key to the ACSC’s early success.
Next came the business structure, doing all the necessary groundwork to establish their operating agreement and their LLC, not to mention seeking out a title sponsor. Enter Asheville-based Hi-Wire Brewing. Recalls Kelley, “It needed to be a company that we would feel comfortable linking to our brand. Those title sponsors become synonymous with your brand, so it really wasn’t about seeking the most money. We wanted a good fit, and I think in Hi-Wire, we found the perfect fit. They’re a very forward thinking group, a very young company but very ambitious, and I think they identified an opportunity to connect with this vibrant soccer community in Asheville through us. People involved in the company are also involved in the game, so they have an emotional connection as well. That’s an important piece for us.”
There was an additional “emotional connection” too: digital streaming company IamAVL, who heard about the fledgling soccer club and already had players in the adult league. They reached out to ACSC in order to get involved and wound up live streaming all of the team’s home games. “It was a good fit,” notes Kelley, “and we gave them creative license to do their thing and do what they do well.”
Ultimately, ACSC did their homework and made some informed business decisions that paid off.
And needless to say, Kelley and his team are extremely proud of their first season results. “The Southeast Conference is one of the strongest conferences in the country,” he says. “As the newcomers in that conference, I think clutching a playoff berth—with a few weeks to spare—in Year One is a major accomplishment.”
And of the overwhelming embrace of the team—affectionately known as “The Blues”—by Asheville in that first year, Kelley is proud to have found such a dedicated fan base almost from the get-go. “I don’t want to say we were surprised by the reaction we got, because we knew the potential that existed here. It’s no secret that towns and cities that have connections to beer thrive in soccer—look at Portland, one of the best soccer cities in the country. You have craft beer flowing at your games, and people flock. That’s been a big piece.
“Also, Asheville has been a big soccer city for a long time—I referenced the vibrant youth and adult leagues [here]. So it was really just a matter of putting something in place and people coming to us.”
Learn more about Asheville City Soccer Club at their website: here.