Soccer goal: building a strong MLS fan base

Plus: Amelie's hit with ABC fine after macaron Facebook post; Truist makes quick moves; Should we turn I-277 into a greenway?

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With Charlotte poised to land an MLS team, grassroots fan group gains members

- Hoping to build on success of youth soccer, international matches

- Teaching the city to be ‘OK if it’s a 0-0 tie’

A group of hardcore soccer fans isn’t waiting for the expected announcement next week that Charlotte will land a Major League Soccer team. It’s working now to help drum up excitement for soccer, eventually fill seats at the stadium and help educate the area about the game and its traditions.

The group, called Mint City Collective, formed in the summer when it first looked as though Charlotte had a legitimate shot at securing an MLS franchise. It now has more than 500 paying members — most of whom have joined in the last week, since word started trickling out that Charlotte is expected to be selected. The official announcement is expected Tuesday morning.

“There is definitely a soccer community here, and they show up for the big games, but it hasn’t been tapped into very well,” says spokesman Johnny Wakefield, founder of a soccer website called Soccer ‘n’ Sweet Tea. “The biggest challenge will be trying to capture that game-day experience of going to a football game and transferring it to a soccer game.”

Mint City Collective isn’t just a bunch of wide-eyed European soccer hooligans who wake up before dawn on Saturdays to tune into the Premier League — though surely it has members who fit that description. Its organizers actually know something about building communities of people with shared interests. Mint City’s founder is Zack Luttrell, who helped start the Roaring Riot, a Carolina Panthers fan group that holds tailgates and organizes trips to road games.

Marching, chanting, cheering: In soccer, every MLS team has an organized fan group that is independent of team ownership. They walk together in a “march to the match” and stand, cheer and wave flags throughout the game. Mint City members communicate on a Slack channel, and the group plans to hold social events and help evangelize and educate the area about soccer. (“You’ll be OK if it’s a 0-0 tie,” Wakefield says.) Membership packages start at $30. Its name draws on history: Charlotte was one of the first cities to have a branch of the U.S. Mint.

The founding of the group represents the recognition that in order for MLS to succeed in Charlotte, the team and the community are going to need to focus on the fans. Panthers owner David Tepper and his crew have apparently won the bid for a team. They’ve lined up corporate support. And the city seems willing to kick in $110M in tourism taxes to make it happen. But attracting fans is more complex than, to paraphrase the famous 1989 Kevin Costner movie, “If you renovate it, they will come.”

Charlotte, which isn’t traditionally known as a hotbed of soccer fervor, has shown signs that soccer fans here find encouraging, such as strong attendance at international matches. Youth soccer is also growing, which could help draw fans.

“The squeeze will come from the younger generation that says to mom and dad, ‘Let’s go uptown tonight to watch the Major League Soccer team play,’” says Brad Wylde, executive director of Charlotte Soccer Academy, which has 6,500 youth players in the Charlotte area. The Panthers organization worked with CSA this spring on soccer-fan focus groups, and the new team could partner with CSA to build excitement, Wylde said.

Soccer boosters in Charlotte hope to build on the popularity of youth soccer to help build fan enthusiasm. (Photo courtesy of Charlotte Soccer Academy)

So will Charlotte’s team be more like Atlanta’s, which drew an average of nearly 53,000 fans per game this season? Or will it be more like Chicago’s, which drew on average 12,000?

That will depend in part on how much grassroots enthusiasm can be ginned up. But it also depends on decisions the team will make, including:

  • How much will it spend on advertising?

  • Can it sign big-name international stars in the twilight of their careers?

  • How much will tickets cost?

Europe vs. U.S.: Lifelong soccer fan Lee Martin of Huntersville says he’s looking forward to an MLS team. The experience of watching soccer in the U.S. is far different than in Europe, where soccer culture is deep-rooted and tribalistic, and where “when you score, there’s a deep, from-the-gut joy,” he says in his English accent, which lends him instant credibility on the issue. That experience will be tough to replicate in Charlotte. Americans tend to be more fickle, he says.

Still, there is one similarity: “We’re the same in the sense of we’re not paying a lot of money for a ticket. If the product isn’t worth the ticket, we’re not going.”

Latest soccer headlines:

Amelie’s fined $2,500 by ABC after macaron Facebook post

The string of recent Charlotte alcohol-enforcement news continues, with Amelie’s French Bakery reaching a $2,500 settlement this week with alcohol regulators.

In July, Alcohol Law Enforcement agents inspected the Amelie’s at Park Road Shopping Center after viewing a Facebook post by the bakery that contained its strawberry passion fruit sorbet macaron leaning against a strawberry passion fruit tart ale brewed by Birdsong Brewing Co. of Charlotte, according to case files obtained by The Ledger under the state’s open records law.

State law prohibits sellers of alcohol like Amelie’s from advertising in conjunction with alcohol producers like Birdsong Brewing.

Smoking gun: ALE agents inspected the Amelie’s at Park Road Shopping Center in July after spying this Facebook post promoting a Birdsong Brewing ale that “pairs perfectly” with one of the bakery’s passion fruit macarons.

After agents arrived, they discovered other violations:

  • Amelie’s was “filing their alcohol invoices with other non-alcohol related items.” The law requires the invoices be filed separately.

  • On a metal rack in the corner of the kitchen, there were two open alcohol bottles: a 1.75 liter bottle of Jim Beam and a 750ml bottle of Smirnoff vodka. The Jim Beam was used to make a seasonal bourbon pineapple danish, and the vodka was used to adhere gold and silver colored powder to macarons and other pastries. Amelie’s lacked the proper permits.

Amelie’s agreed to settle the charges for $2,500. In a meeting this week, the ABC Commission signed off on the settlement.

An Amelie’s spokeswoman told The Ledger: “We are not trying to abuse the law or break the law. We want to abide by the law. But the way they are written, it can be confusing as a small business owner to be in compliance with everything.” She said Amelie’s has hired a consultant to help it navigate North Carolina’s alcohol regulations.

Flashback: Last week, The Ledger disclosed a June 2018 incident in which ALE agents threatened to take the Whitewater Center’s CEO to jail unless he turned over a sponsorship agreement with NoDa Brewing. The following day, Charlotte Agenda reported that Sycamore Brewing was visited after agents received a tip that the brewery was selling cans of Christmas Cookie Winter Ale with labels that featured “humping reindeer.” (The news that the randy reindeer label existed was broken earlier in the week by Queen City Nerve.)

Truist off to quick start

Charlotte’s newest bank, Truist Financial Corp., is wasting no time moving forward after closing on its merger last week. It’s a combination of BB&T and SunTrust. This week, Truist:

  • started trading on the New York Stock Exchange under the ticker “TFC.” It’s actually a continuation of BB&T stock, with a name change. SunTrust shareholders received 1.295 Truist shares per share of SunTrust they held.

  • confirmed that it will, indeed, buy the Hearst Tower from Cousins Properties. The building will be renamed “Truist Center.” That’s where it will base 2,000 employees, including top executives. Cousins had previously said it expected Truist to buy the building for $455.5M, which will be the most expensive sale of an office tower in N.C. history when the deal closes in the 1Q.

In brief

  • Should I-277 be turned into a giant greenway? Sounds far-fetched, right? A discussion on Twitter yesterday sparked by a comment from former county commissioner Matthew Ridenhour made the case for it. Check it out here.

  • EatWorkPlay investigated: The N.C. attorney general’s office is investigating fraud complaints against EatWorkPlay, the Charlotte online lifestyle guide accused of charging money for an event that didn’t happen and failing to contribute money to charities as promised. (Charlotte magazine)

  • Asbestos redevelopment: Lat Purser & Associates won approval from state environmental officials to start redeveloping an old asbestos mill in Davidson, prompting concerns from nearby residents. “It’s going to be retail, commercial, restaurants, a brewery,” said an official with the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality. (WFAE)

  • Strong housing market: Charlotte is one of 10 metro areas with a housing market expected to “outperform over the next three to five years,” according to a new report by the National Association of Realtors. (Biz Journal)

  • CMS leader: Elyse Dashew was elected chairwoman of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board this week, its first new leader in seven years. (WFAE)

  • Rae Carruth reaches out to son: Carruth “recently mailed what Saundra Adams called ‘a very significant and generous gift’ to his son, Chancellor Lee Adams.” (WBTV/Observer)

Food and booze news

A weekly wrap-up of the week’s eating and drinking developments

  • Beefy deal: Buy a $100 gift card at Beef ‘n Bottle this month and receive an additional $50 gift card for no extra charge. “It’s insanity. I love it,” Charlotte Agenda enthuses.

  • Another Five Guys closes: Five Guys has closed its location on South Boulevard in South End, and a sign on the door says it will open at the corner of South Boulevard and New Bern Street in the spring. Five Guys closed at the Epicentre in February. In the last few years, it has also closed locations on Monroe Road, at the Arboretum and in Matthews. It still has five restaurants in Charlotte, according to its website. (Reddit)

  • New brewery: Protagonist will add a 15,000 s.f. taproom and brewery on Southside Drive, close to Olde Mecklenburg Brewery. Its original location is in NoDa. Construction is expected to start in March, and the space will “include a mezzanine and customer-facing barrel-aging room as well as three bars. There will be a 5,000-square-foot patio for games and live music. A full kitchen will serve pizzas, including options by the slice.” (Biz Journal)

  • Optimist Hall tacos: “Velvet Taco, a funky fast-casual restaurant chain based out of Dallas, is now open in a 500-square-foot stall next to Village Juice Co. inside Optimist Hall.” (Agenda)

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The Charlotte Ledger is an e-newsletter and web site publishing timely, informative, and interesting local business news and analysis Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, except holidays and as noted. We strive for fairness and accuracy and will correct all known errors. The content reflects the independent editorial judgment of The Charlotte Ledger. Any advertising, paid marketing, or sponsored content will be clearly labeled.

The Charlotte Ledger is published by Tony Mecia, an award-winning former Charlotte Observer business reporter and editor. He lives in Charlotte with his wife and three children.