AFC Mobile are one of the new clubs to join the Gulf Coast Premier League for their 2017 summer season. Their story is part of a new grassroots movement in American soccer, clubs driven and even funded by their supporters.
Thanks to Abram Chamberlain, one of the club’s founders, for speaking with us and giving us some insight into the growth of the club.
Jon Nelson: How did the idea come about for the AFC Mobile franchise and to have the community involvement, as you are like some sides in England (Swansea, Wycombe, Exeter, Scunthorpe, and Portsmouth come to mind)?
Abram Chamberlain: The idea literally came from me and Jeff Moody, one of the other board members, sitting around in a Burger King parking lot. Both of us are coaches of school teams and having followed NPSL for a few years and having watched the situation unfold in Pensacola, we just sort of said, “I bet we could do it better.”
Almost simultaneously with us deciding to start looking into making AFC Mobile a thing, someone on twitter began posting as a team in Pensacola. From there, we made a Twitter account and began talking back to it.
So I guess you could say it originally started as a running gag on Twitter, then after awhile we started to pick up followers from other people in the Mobile Bay Area and decided that maybe we should see if we could make something bigger happen. We got a few more people on board with us and suddenly it sprang to life.
With the crowdfunding, we were looking for a way to get the community to be involved as well as raise the last of the money. Obviously running a soccer team – even one that is below NPSL – costs money. We knew that we had a lot of relationships between Jeff and myself in the soccer community. Some of the other members were also deeply entrenched within soccer in Mobile Bay. (Michael Lynch was very involved with Mobile’s American Outlaws chapter, Mitchell Kahalley had a lot of soccer friends with the University of South Alabama. Zack Taylor plays in the local adult league. Stephanie Ward is married to one of the best referees in Mobile County just to name a few). So we always had a good amount of support in the soccer community. Jeff Garl, one of the other board members, almost on a whim, gave the idea of trying to crowd-source. With the support we already had, we figured it wouldn’t hurt to try. Let’s just say that so far the support has been beyond what we ever would have expected.
JN: What has been the response?
AC: In the first 20 or so days, we have raised nearly half of what we had expected to raise. We’ve caught the attention of some relatively big names in the American soccer community, but more so we have been taken aback by how many people from Mobile have not only donated, but contacted us through our GoFundMe effort in order to see what else they can do to help us succeed.
JN: Why choose the Gulf Coast Premier League (GCPL) over other possible leagues?
AC: We were approached by NPSL early on in our endeavor. The idea of NPSL is interesting; however, the Gulf Coast Premier League fits what we are doing much better right now. If we were to join NPSL or PDL, the cost of travel alone would be prohibitively expensive not just for the club, but for supporters. Driving the long haul to Tennessee and Georgia to play is cost prohibitive.
The Gulf Coast Premier League allows us games in Pensacola, which is less than an hour from Mobile; Biloxi, which is around two hours; and New Orleans, which is around two and a half. All of these trips are manageable.
Furthermore, we want to help grow soccer in our region. Being able to have players make easy trips and, more importantly, fans make these easy trips is what makes for a healthy team and league.
JN: What has the league response been so far, from the front office and fellow owners?
AC: The league has been very pro-AFC Mobile. I really couldn’t ask for more. Most of the clubs in GCPL are relatively established and we are the new kids on the block. It is fun being able to shoot ideas off each other. We have been fortunate in our marketing, while many of their teams have been successful on the soccer front. We want to be able to lend our support base to them, while also being able to fit in with them soccer-wise.
JN: What’s it been like to birth this franchise and carry it to the point it’s at now- just before hitting the pitch in a little while?
AC: This has been one of the most exciting and stressful things I’ve ever done. The excitement comes from the fact that we built a supporter-base and following with no team. No we are not to the level of the Birmingham Hammers, Nashville FC, or Indy Eleven who did the same thing, but being able to drive interest for an idea has been incredible.
It’s nerve wracking because now that we have that base of supporters, we have to succeed. Most first year franchises just need to exist. We need to compete immediately in order to satisfy our support.
JN: What are your goals for the first season?
AC: We would like to finish in the top three of the league and qualify for the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. We would like to set GCPL attendance records – at home as well as on the road. We would like to represent the City of Mobile and the Mobile Bay Area with pride and make them proud of us.
JN: Those who follow El Presidente know you’re a big proponent of the pro/rel model here in the States. Say you’re “King for a Day”- how would you do it?
AC: I would start with the regional leagues like GCPL, Evergreen Premier League- Washington (EPLWA), Premier League of America (PLA). I would promote from other USASA leagues until each of the leagues built to 20. From there, I would have those teams promote to NPSL and have teams relegate back to the USASA leagues. NPSL to USL/NASL, since everyone is D2 now, and from there to MLS. Two up, two down in every league. Ideally we’re looking at an MLS East and MLS West, but this is something that I have literally put no thought into, so what do I know?
JN: So, then look at the soccer landscape over the next little while- how do you see it growing and what’s AFC Mobile’s place in it?
AC: I believe with the growing USASA elite leagues and NPSL’s growth, we will see a plethora of clubs pop up in the next 10 or so years. It will not just be the big markets either, at least along the Gulf Coast. I can see markets like Destin, FL; Tallahassee, FL; Dothan, AL; Huntsville, AL all getting or pushing for clubs.
I see a bigger “club” over “franchise” feel, and that is what I want AFC Mobile to be. We have pushed to be a club that is By The People – as pompously arrogant as that sounds. Soccer clubs in America are on the precipice of really becoming important within communities and that is what I hope AFC Mobile can continue to help grow and evolve.