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Independence struggles to connect on social justice, economics
Owner's posts concern players and supporters
 
Published Wednesday, July 1, 2020 10:49 am
by Ashley Mahoney | The Charlotte Post

FILE PHOTO
The Charlotte Independence are struggling to overcome backlash to majority owner Dan DiMicco's anti-Black Lives Matter postings on social media, including season ticket holders demanding refunds. The USL franchise is near the bottom of the league in game attendance at 1,700 per match the last two seasons.

Fans are closing their wallets to the Charlotte Independence.

A lack of action to address racism, as well as failing to distance itself from of majority owner Dan DiMicco’s anti-Black Lives Matter Twitter activity has resulted in supporters canceling season tickets. With approximately 300 season ticket holders, and 1,700 average attendance per game over the last two seasons, Charlotte is among the worst-supported franchises in the USL Championship. DiMicco bought controlling interest in the team from founder Jim McPhilliamy in 2018 but the club continues to struggle financially, compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic. The 2020 season, which was suspended on March 12, resumes on July 11.

As social unrest spread in response to George Floyd’s murder by police in Minneapolis, Minnesota on May 25, clubs and players across the world issued statements condemning racism and supporting their Black players. Fellow USL Championship side New Mexico United launched an initiative to combat racism and sexism within the sport through a fellowship designed to create access for women and people of color to pursue leadership roles at the highest levels of the game. Meanwhile, DiMicco, the retired CEO of Charlotte-based Nucor and former trade advisor on President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, is outspoken about his conservative political and social views. He was the CEO of Nucor while alleged abusive treatment of employees took place. However, he was not named in a lawsuit over racial discrimination, which was settled for $22 million in 2018. His comments last month describing protests as riots representing Antifa instead of Black Lives Matter advocates were condemned in a statement by Jack’s Militia, the Independence supporters’ group. The club released a statement calling for people to “stand against the systemic racial injustice that exists in our society today.” The statement also read, “Society needs to change and if we, the Charlotte Independence, can be a catalyst for even a small movement in that regard, we embrace it wholeheartedly.”

Jack’s Militia President Ben Goshorn has called DiMicco out on Twitter for what he described as “perpetuating rhetoric that isn’t conducive for something [he] wants to support.” DiMicco blocked Goshorn on Twitter, and as of June 29 had unblocked him. He direct messaged Goshorn to have a conversation. They will meet on July 1.

“We’ll see where that goes,” Goshorn said. “I don’t have much hope that anything good will come from that.”

Goshorn began supporting the club while he was living in Greenville, South Carolina and travelled to games at multiple Charlotte-area locations since their inaugural match in 2015. The team, which plays at the Sportsplex in Matthews, will move to the renovated Memorial Stadium in Charlotte’s Elizabeth neighborhood in 2021, where the Independence’s business model was built around catering to a younger demographic.

“That was how they were going to ride the wave to the MLS, and you have to do more,” season ticket holder Richard Marion said. “Being at Ramblewood, there is a neighborhood all around there. Reach out. Let them know that you’re there. Down in Matthews, the same thing. Engage with the people around you. That frustrated me.”

Said Goshorn: “It has been a long journey that I’ve been a supporter of the club. This has been a moment that has taken me back to say ‘what is the right thing to do?’ That’s what I’ve been trying to come back to time and time again. That’s why I felt after seeing [DiMicco’s] tweets initially that Jack’s Militia needed to put out a statement, because the day before I had chatted with the people in leadership in Jack’s Militia and said, ‘it doesn’t look like the club is going to put out any type of anti-racist statement or a Black Lives Matter statement, not that it’s going to mean much, but I think we should try to do something.’ Then I was made aware of his tweets, and it was evident that something needed to be said.”

Independence defender Hugh Roberts and goalkeeper Brandon Miller, who are both Black, have expressed disappointment in the lack of support from the organization but continue to speak up for people of color. They will play in 2020, honoring the commitment they made to their teammates.

“It’s tough,” Roberts said. “We wish we didn’t have to go around [the team] to advocate for a lot of these social justice issues. We’re doing things behind the scenes, but the fact that we don’t have the support from our club speaks volumes.”

Said Miller: “My issue is not with Dan DiMicco. I don’t follow Dan on Twitter, and I don’t pay attention to a lot of the stuff that he says. My disappointment is with the Charlotte Independence and lack of response to the concerns of the fans.”

Head coach Mike Jeffries said his focus remains on the players and how they are navigating the current climate. Next is taking action, perhaps not identical to what his former Independence assistant coach Troy Lesesne has produced with New Mexico United, but the sentiment of doing more than releasing a statement.

“We do need to find a way to do more, and to be better,” Jeffries said.

Former Charlotte defender and Winthrop alumnus Henry Kalungi shared a statement in support of DiMicco. He shared a photo of himself and his wife Jacqueline with DiMicco, describing him as a “welcoming friend, genuine in spirit and generous in love and care towards myself, my family, and my causes, and continues to be.”

Kalungi recently launched a youth soccer academy in addition to his work as CEO of the Henry Kalungi Foundation, which helps those in his native Uganda gain access to education, nutrition and healthcare. Independence striker and captain Enzo Martinez also shared a statement on his Twitter. Martinez said that he began meeting with DiMicco about four months ago.

“We sit at his office and just talk,” Martinez said. “I gain a lot of knowledge and I really enjoy our time. These are just a couple of things I know about him and you can decide. He meets with me. A Spanish kid who came here not speaking a word of English.”  

Aside from a statement on June 1, a black box on #BlackoutTuesday and a statement from DiMicco published by the club, in which he said, “I’ve spent the majority of my career in manufacturing and dealing with global trade issues. It is unfortunate that some of my recent political positions on that matter have been perceived as discriminatory. That was never my intent,” the club has been silent. That does not sit well with their players, or their fans.

Marion was a Charlotte Eagles season ticket holder, the predecessor of the Independence. McPhilliamy acquired the rights from the Eagles for a USL franchise in 2014. The Eagles are polarizing to many soccer fans as a faith-based organization. Marion supported the Eagles, but they were not quite what he was looking for. He has been with the Independence since the club’s debut.

“It was a chance to build something new in the community, and I was all about it,” Marion said.

Katey Dietz is a member of Jack’s Militia and has been an Independence season ticket holder since their inaugural season in 2015. She invested in two seats, using the additional space to introduce people to the sport or local soccer culture. Her seats at the Sportsplex are four rows behind those of the ownership group.

“As our country has confronted all these issues over the past four months now, whether it’s the pandemic, social justice and equality, I was disappointed by the team’s official statement around these issues,” Dietz said. “I work in professional sports. I get that it’s nuanced and you are leading an organization and you have a lot of audiences you are trying to be inclusive of and …trying to rally and support in the right way. It does become tricky sometimes to know how to make a stand without alienating or limiting your fan base.”

Dietz’s concern increased when the Independence added a youth club in 2019. If the professional umbrella could not take a strong stance against racism, she reasoned, what did it say about the values instilled in children?

“My frustration, concern and challenge with the team’s statement was knowing they had added this other extension of the Charlotte Independence brand that is youth players that are across the greater Charlotte area,” she said. “That they did not feel that they had a voice in an equality conversation when they are growing the next generation of players — I still am having trouble in wrapping my brain around that. How do you not see that you have a voice in a conversation about equality when you are forming the next generation? You’re helping form young players’ minds.”

Dietz will not ask for a refund, as she wants to continue to financially support the players, but those who have haven’t been able to contact the front office by phone or gotten a response via email.

For Jack’s Militia member and season ticket holder Chris Davis, the issue lies in the club’s inability to distance itself from DiMicco’s rhetoric. Davis was one of the first 100 people to sign up for season tickets when the club launched, intrigued by the club’s pitch of following the Orlando City model of making a successful run in the USL and working their way up to Major League Soccer. To Marion, who lived in Florida during Orlando City’s evolution, he saw the possibilities.

“I saw the whole progression, and moving here, I didn’t see why that wouldn’t be the same for this community,” Marion said. “I believed it, but when you’re on the ground, you get to see the reality of things. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done here, but [Charlotte] did get their club.”

Six years and two MLS bids later, Charlotte’s MLS franchise begins play in 2021, but it has nothing to do with the Independence. Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper brought the highest level of American soccer to the market two years after Speedway Motorsports Inc. President Marcus Smith’s bid failed.

 “I thought cool, something local that’s trying to build up—that would be fun to follow,” Davis said. “Frankly after the first game with Jack’s Militia, just having fun with my buddies I brought along, I didn’t care what league they were in. It was just so much fun and I loved the personal contact you could make with players, even for someone who is introverted like me. I feel like I could talk to any of them at any time and they don’t seem to be bothered that they’re talking to you. You feel like you can have a relationship with the people who are representing your city on the field.”

Said Dietz: “The community that the players have fostered year over year is something I’ve found really unique about the Charlotte Independence. The players have always seemed to have a focus on a life of service as well, and that makes it easy to be a fan. It makes you feel connected. It makes you feel like it is more than 90 minutes once a week.”

 

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