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The Owner that Strangled his Own Club, Part 2

Charlotte Independence pic from PSN File Photo

The Owner that Strangled his Own Club, Part 2

This is part two of an article on the problems at the Charlotte Independence over the past year. For part one, click here.

The pivotal questions in the aftermath of Dan DiMicco’s twitter meltdown are: what happened? And what should have happened? As we left off in part one at the end of the June in 2020, what happened was nothing. What perhaps should have happened… would strangely play itself out, but for a different American soccer club entirely, as a very similar controversy unfolded for a US soccer owner after he also made similarly insensitive comments that he would have to account for.

On August 23, Kenosha Wisconsin police shot Jacob Blake seven times while he sat in the front seat of his minivan. He was unarmed. Demonstrations broke out across the country, again, and in Kenosha, the protests turned deadly, as armed counter-protesters shot two people and wounded a third. Across professional sports – in the NBA, WNBA, NWSL, and MLS, players overwhelming voted to cancel all games. In Major League Soccer, one match did kick off, but the rest of the league’s matches were postponed, including a match between Real Salt Lake and LAFC.

The next morning, August 26, RSL owner Dell Loy Hansen took to the radio to express his displeasure, saying “It’s a moment of sadness. It’s like someone stabbed you and then you’re trying to figure out a way to pull the knife out and move forward. That’s what it feels like. The disrespect was profound to me personally.”

That set in motion an avalanche of criticism for Hansen. DLH’s disrespect towards, and misunderstanding of, the pain felt by Black athletes in America at that moment was only one of the many ways in which the billionaire had been thoughtless and uncaring. Hansen had already received criticism for being the first MLS owner to furlough a large portion of his staff during the Coronavirus – not long after paying a record sum of money for a collectable coin – a move that was received poorly by fans. But shortly after Hansen’s comments about the cancelled game, RSL Soapbox, the SB Nation site devoted to RSL and a generally team-friendly outlet, collected and published a series of stories documenting incidents of racism, sexism and misogyny by Hansen and other RSL executives.*  The Salt Lake Tribune came out with even more stories of horrendous behavior by the owner of Real and their sister club, the Utah Royals.

The two outlets documented that Hansen had repeatedly engaged in the following acts: objectifying his female staff; behaving in acts of sexual harassment; refusing to promote female players he regarded as ‘ugly’; creating a toxic work culture filled with fear; and saying racist things.

On August 27, MLS announced it was investigating Dell Loy Hansen. On August 30, Hansen announced that he was selling his NWSL franchise, the Utah Royal, and his MLS team, RSL, as well as the attached USL team, the Real Monarchs. The Royal were moved to Kansas City for 2021. The sale of RSL and the Monarchs is currently being handled by MLS itself.

It is entirely possible that you know this story about Del Loy Hansen – and if not, perhaps you know the similar story from the NBA of Donald Sterling, a racist bigot who, after decades of allegations, was caught on cellphone footage making disgusting remarks about Black people and as a result had his franchise forcibly sold for him by the NBA**. The purpose of considering the stories of Dell Loy Hansen or Donald Sterling is to contrast them against the story of Dan DiMicco. All three of these owners showed disregard for their players.  All three have demonstrated dismissive and insensitive behavior towards groups that often experience marginalization in society: Blacks, Women, Transgendered folks, Jews, and Asians. Both Hansen and DiMicco were insensitive to a moment this summer of real anguish for Black athletes.

Only one of these owners still has possession of a sports franchise.

DiMicco’s staunch support of Donald Trump; his frequent belittling of BLM protests; his invocation of fantastical conspiracy theories around China and George Soros and Antifa were all fairly awful on their own in June of 2020.

But in the light of the Capitol insurrection on January 6 this year – in which mobs of Trump supporters, far-right groups, white supremacists, and conspiracy theorists attempted to invalidate an election, overthrow the government, murder Congresspersons, and hang the Vice-President – DiMicco’s incendiary tweets look a lot worse.

Speech has power. Speech conveys belief and intent. Speech compels and incites. When harmful speech goes unchecked, it sometimes leads to violence. And DiMicco’s speech (in the form of tweets) has been harmful.

It used to be possible to conclude that DiMicco was nothing more than a harmless idiot. However, in the aftermath of the insurrection that nearly killed a number of senators and congresspersons, we must conclude that DiMicco is an idiot, but that the malicious and irresponsible conspiracy theories he was engaged in are anything but harmless. In fact, that same kind rhetoric that the owner of a USL franchise was engaged in led to the deaths of five people, including a police officer, on January 6th.

Matthews Soccerplex, Charlotte, NC. Photo c/o Richard Groves, @rgclt.

Clearly, a factor in the clubs lackluster response to the entire fiasco is the incredibly fragile situation the club was in during 2020- with Covid, Charlotte FC/MLS, and the generally small attendance for matches up to that point. In order to be able to force an owner out via sale, one would need to be able to line up a buyer, and Charlotte aren’t exactly in a strong sales position. What I did not know before I began reporting on this story was how precarious things have always been for Charlotte.

A source with knowledge of the business side of the club informed me that the Independence have been on shaky financial ground for virtually their entire existence. According to the source, team founder and president Jim McPhillamy’s primary reason for founding the Independence was not simply to bring soccer to the Queen City, but rather as a motivating factor to get the city of Charlotte to renovate American Legion Memorial Stadium. McPhillamy was managing partner of Major League Lacrosse team the Charlotte Hounds, who desperately wanted a better stadium situation in order to improve their own value and profitability. Mecklenberg County, the owner/operator of Memorial Stadium, however, were not inclined to spend millions of taxpayer dollars to renovate the facilities for lacrosse. But if the stadium were home to two teams – a lacrosse club and a soccer team, perhaps the combination of the two could persuade the county to make the improvements.

So McPhillamy bought the Charlotte Eagles’ USL rights and founded a new team, the Charlotte Independence – at least in part to nudge local officials to seriously consider renovations that would mostly benefit McPhillamy’s main focus, his lacrosse team. McPhillamy’s gambit worked – the Independence’s existence helped compel the county commissioners to move forward with a renovation plan.

But the clubs financial position was still less-than-great. Our source framed it this way “Jim never had the wherewithal to be an MLS owner.” Instead, he was hopeful that Charlotte’s emergence as a possible MLS franchise destination would make the Independence a good investment.  A #MLS2CLT movement would eventually came to pass – but without the USL team’s involvement at all.

By 2018, the finances of the club were in such a state that it was a matter of survival. According to our unnamed source, either a new investor would need to become majority owner, or the Independence would be finished.  Things were so bad that staff throughout the club had been prepared for the possibility that there would be no season at all for Charlotte in 2018. “Our ticket director at the time hand been instructed to put together pricing for refunds on season ticket renewals, so it was very close to ending.” In came DiMicco. Problem solved; but of course, another problem entirely would eventually come to pass a few years later.

Shortly after DiMicco’s June 30 statement, the Charlotte Independence owner met with the President of Jack’s Militia, Ben Goshorn. Ben described that meeting to me like this:

“I met with Dan back on July 1st 2020. It was a necessary conversation. Unfortunately I wouldn’t go as far as to say it was fruitful. He shared where he was coming from and I tried my best to explain how his actions on twitter were harming others.”

The members of Jack’s Militia felt at the time that this was the first step – that there would be a process and some accountability, but that ultimately, healing was possible. But that never happened. “There were talks about having a followup conversation but that never materialized.”

Goshorn did get to speak to then-club president Jim McPhillamy – he has since stepped back from that role. Ben found the discussion unsatisfying, to say the least. “It didn’t feel like a step in the right direction. It was a lot of blame shifting. Whether that was blaming former employees or blaming local media. There was no true admission of guilt or remorse shown in my eyes. My major takeaway was that the club was ready to move on and get back to normal.”

Many of the supporters were still estranged from the team, though. Historically, when soccer clubs and their supporters have a falling out, some sort of in-person protest helps to call attention to the issue. Domestically, I can recall a Whitecaps protest after a youth coach was involved in allegations of sexual harassment; Timbers and Sounders protests against an MLS ban on antifa-related signage; and a ‘KSE Out’ banner being flown over Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Colorado during a game, demanding that their neglectful ownership team relinquish control of the Colorado Rapids. But during Covid, USL teams played without fans. How can you stage a 55th-minute walkout over Zoom? Without in-person football, there was no opportunity for in-person protest. The anger of the fans simmered, and congealed into something like sadness and resignation.

Ben Goshorn, for his part, is pretty much done with it all.

“I feel like I invested a lot of emotional capital, time, and energy to try and repair the rift caused by Dan’s actions. I feel like that hasn’t been reciprocated.”

“I still feel like my concerns (and many others) have been largely ignored or brushed to the side hoping they’ll be forgotten about. I know of numerous diehard fans that have given up on the club and I don’t blame them. As things currently stand I haven’t bought season tickets for the 2021 season.”

That’s coming from the literal president of the team’s fan club.

As for DiMicco, he seems to have learned… virtually nothing.

Although he has locked his twitter account, some folks that still are able to see what he tweets have reposted some recent quotes. On February 24, just seven months after the entire tweet-gate brouhaha and six weeks after the capitol riots, DiMicco tweeted this:

As I mentioned at the start, at the outset of 2020, the Independence already had one of the smallest regular followings of any club in USL. Add to that Covid and DiMicco, things are even worse to start 2021.

It gets weirder and more complicated when you consider two additional factors. First, the Independence this season are finally moving to a decent professional-grade soccer facility, as the renovations to American Legion Memorial Stadium have been completed. The team is set to play their first match there this spring (the 2021 USL schedule has yet to be released).

The timing of opening your newly-renovated downtown soccer park right after a feud between the supporters and the owner AND during a global pandemic is only made stranger by yet-another curveball that’s come at the Independence – the introduction of an MLS team to the Charlotte market.

Charlotte tech-billionaire and owner of the NFL’s Carolina Panthers, David Tepper, paid $300 million to buy a slot in Major League Soccer. The new team, coined ‘Charlotte FC’, won’t begin playing in MLS until 2022. Although the team has already made some major missteps regarding pricing, the energy for pro soccer in Charlotte is moving in their direction. The team has an academy, a few early player signings, a fulling function front office team, and at least three supporters groups.

Nobody really knows what all of this means for the Independence. Some think DiMicco is holding his franchise rights until another city expresses interest in a USL franchise, at which point he can sell, make back his investment, and walk away from it all.

Others think the scenario looks more like the Titanic in the moments after it struck the iceberg – the thing is going down to the bottom of the sea with a fierce and certain inevitably. With Charlotte FC in town, nobody will be interested in a second-rate club in a city that has yet to demonstrate a big appetite for domestic men’s club soccer, and thus the Independence will almost certainly turn out the lights and shutter the organization at the end of the 2021 season. That’s exactly what Saint Louis FC did last year as the StL MLS club began its ramp up. Saint Louis FC’s owners still hold the rights to their club, though, and conceivably could transfer them to another owner.

The third possibility is that Charlotte Independence lives on, at a lower level of soccer, perhaps with a different owner altogether. Dropping down to USL League One or League Two would be less expensive, but also give the team some separation with the MLS variant – a lower-league team could be a cool low-key soccer experience to contrast with the fancy corporate vibe that Tepper’s team is attempting to capture, and in League One or even NISA or the UPSL***, you want to put a good team on the field, but you don’t necessarily have grandiose aspirations. And you don’t have to pay much for players.

All of that being said, the outlook for Charlotte Independence, which wasn’t great to begin 2020, got appreciably worse due to the actions of their owner. He took a promising club that, although small and struggling, still had real potential, and snuffed it out with a series of hurtful comments and lunkheaded social media posts. The damage was done, and for whatever reason, there was no real attempt to undo it.

The ultimate message of this story is not really, to my mind, about the Charlotte Independence, but about what wealthy owners of all sports teams can afford, and what they cannot. It is also a cautionary tale of how a man got caught up in conspiracy theories and lies – the lie of a stolen election; the lie that George Soros is some sort of mythical puppet-master; the lie that China created a bio-weapon and unleashed it on the world as part of a global domination effort; the lie that Antifa is the thing destroying America when the FBI has consistently said it is not– and those lies and the hatred they stoked made his business partisan, and extreme, toxic and untouchable – the Independence as the ‘MyPillow’ of domestic football.

DiMicco and I are alike in one respect – we believe in free speech. I fully recognize that he has the right to say everything he has said. And, in turn, the fans of the Charlotte Independence have every right to walk away from the club as a result. If you don’t like a product, as long as there are alternatives, nobody can compel you to buy that product. That’s capitalism.

How we got here, and what exactly motivates DiMicco, is of interest to me, if only in hopes that we come to understand why it is that people who ought to know better – don’t seem to know better.

Perhaps DiMicco made a critical and boneheaded error – a pivotal political miscalculation. DiMicco, the Trump fanboy, tethered himself to an ideology, and the ideology turned out to be a lie. Maybe he’s starting to see that what he did and what he said wasn’t true, and that it ultimately did him no good.

DiMicco is interesting in this respect – because perhaps what he taught us that the uber-wealthy class of hundred-millionaires and billionaires can be manipulated by mass media and conspiracy theories, just like anybody else. Being the former CEO of one the largest steel manufacturers in the US doesn’t make you immune from being suckered into a confidence scam.

But maybe DiMicco’s tweets aren’t about falling for some far-right lies. Maybe the owner was always a racist and this was simply the unmasking. Maybe, like Dell Loy Hansen, DiMicco has expressed only 1/10 of things he really thinks – that if you got secret Donald-Sterling-style cellphone footage or a Nixon-Watergate audio tape of him behind the scenes saying all of the things that he thinks, you’d realize that he’s actually been holding back.****

Or maybe the whole scandal is merely the result of a man who is deeply out of touch – to quote F. Scott Fitzgerald, “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.”  All millionaires and billionaires are inherently out of touch with the rest of us. Nobody that has that much money can understand or remember the daily struggles of the rest of us, trying to grind out a living with our 9 to 5 jobs or our endless string of side hustles that collectively make up fourth-fifths of a hustle that gets us enough to pay the rent and buy the groceries and stave off the bill collectors. Being rich means you don’t really understand any of the last sentence I just wrote, and that means you think and act and behave in ways that the rest of us grinders really just don’t get. DiMicco said a bunch of dumb unhinged crap because, like Michael Jackson living at Neverland Ranch with a chimpanzee for a best friend and a plastic surgeon on retainer, when you’re that rich, you live in whatever gold-plated ‘yes-sir-you’re-the-boss’ reality you fashion for yourself.

To be honest, it is probably a little of all of these things.

It worries me, for all of us football fans. Sports franchise owners have ungodly sums of money, and to earn that money almost invariably means being out of touch with the rest of us – and perhaps, with reality. All of us fall in love with our club – that’s what makes us supporters. And if the owner of Charlotte Independence can torch that love with a series of far-right rants at an inopportune moment, then any owner can do it.

The best of all worlds for soccer and for supporters is to hope that owners become a little more impermanent than they might otherwise be. To paraphrase Jerry Seinfeld, rooting for a sports team in which the players leave, the managers leave, the teams move, and the owners change, you’re ultimately just rooting for the colors and the logo. You’re rooting for laundry. When your owner damages the reputation of your team with his racism and transphobia, it becomes dirty laundry. You hope that, someday, it can become clean again.

 


 

*: I report on (and support) RSL’s rivals, the Colorado Rapids, and so it is supposed to be difficult for me to say something nice about RSL. In this instance, though, I got no problem saying that RSL Soapbox did a great thing.

RSL’s journalism here was far and above what an SBNation site is generally capable of or geared for – this is citizen soccer journalism at its finest, and also somewhat directly going against the best interest of an SBNation site, which is generally a fan-centric and team-friendly environment. To do the work of journalism when you aren’t a full time pro-journalist and to do it in a way that is might have detrimental results regarding access and relationship with the club took huge guts – so big kudos to RSL Soapbox. I have nothing but respect.

Additional note: it was pointed out to me that Charlotte Post journalist Ashley Mahoney has been covering the Independence for years, and certainly some of my reporting is indebted to her hard work. Local journalism matters. You can catch her at @m_a_h_o_n_e_y.

**: Before all of this, there was Marge Schott, the racist owner of the Cincinnati Reds, and I’m sure there are other stories of awful owners. [An earlier version of this story said it was the St. Louis Cardinals. My bad, yo.]

***: NISA is a small pro league on the third tier of the US Soccer pyramid. UPSL is on the fourth tier.

****: In 2018, Nucor Steel settled a lawsuit with plaintiffs that had endured severe racial and discriminatory behavior at a Nucor plant in South Carolina during the time DiMicco was CEO. When reached at the time by McClatchy, DiMicco replied “This is a matter for Nucor, not me.” I think it reasonable to make some inferences, however, when a CEO overseas a company during a period of rampant racism regarding the degree to which the CEO considers racism an important issue.

Mark Asher Goodman is a writer for Pittsburgh Soccer Now, covering the Riverhounds, the Pitt Men's and Women's teams, and youth soccer. He also co-hosts a podcast on the Colorado Rapids called 'Holding the High Line with Rabbi and Red.' He has written in the past for the Washington Post, Denver Post, The Athletic, and American Soccer Analysis. When he's not reading, writing, watching, or coaching soccer, he is an actual rabbi. No, really. You can find him on twitter at @soccer_rabbi

Pittsburgh Division I College Soccer Schedule (Spring 2021)

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