by Scotty Smith
In Vol. 1 of this two-part series, we discussed what the good people of Charleston think about new USL Memphis sporting director Andrew Bell. In Vol. 2, we will discuss things that Andrew Bell has said in interviews. For this exercise, we will use Jeff Hartsell’s excellent 2014 interview from The Post and Courier. We will also use three media interviews since Bell took the job: the USLsoccer.com interview, the RoundTable of Hooligans interview, and the Soccer Down Here interview. There was a short interview Monday on twitter.com/USLMemphis, and the Battery website did a Q&A in 2016.
1. Andrew Bell is living the American dream.
Bell grew up near Reading, England, and attended matches of his beloved Reading FC Royals from an early age. He played rugby in college, then sailed across the pond to check out life on this side of the Atlantic. Bell was driving a taxi in Charleston when he saw an ad in the paper for play-by-play announcer of the Charleston Battery soccer team. Bell had the appropriate knowledge and the right accent; he got the job.
At that point, he started working his way up the club’s food chain. Over nineteen seasons with the club, he served as media director, public relations director, sales director, operations director, (maybe human resources?), and marketing director. In 2008, he became the club president. Under his watch, the Charleston Battery won two USL championships (2010 and 2012).
I don’t feel like I need to comment much on his ascension. You are all smart enough to realize the qualities needed to take a man from taxi driver to championship president. Memphis has hired a hard-working dude. He’s also seen every angle of this business.
2. Andrew Bell wanted to be in Memphis.
In multiple interviews, Andrew mentioned knowing Redbirds and USL Memphis owner Peter Freund. When Andrew found out about the team, he contacted Peter and asked about the possibility of working together. This is great on two fronts. First, we got a guy that wanted to move to Memphis from the moment he heard about the project. Second, we indirectly confirm what we already knew — people want to work with Peter Freund. And, as a long-time USMNT fan, Bell said he cannot believe he has the chance to work with Tim Howard (we can relate).
He will report directly to Craig Unger, and has incredibly positive things to say about their short acquaintance. Bell and his new soccer-specific staff will work under the umbrella of the Redbirds organization, but Unger has made it clear that soccer is its own thing. Unger seems content to let his sporting director handle the soccer side of the business, and even said as much on our podcast. This looks like it will be a collaborative effort for the good of all.
Bell said Memphis can be a smaller version of Atlanta, and that Memphis is “one of those opportunities you don’t get very often in life.” He called Memphis “a really cool city” and a “remarkable city,” and added “this is going to be pretty special here.” There is no indication that he has a favorite BBQ dive or a built-in animosity toward Nashville, but we are certain that these things will grow over time. Andrew Bell will soon be a full-fledged Memphian.
3. Andrew Bell thinks Memphis is a soccer town.
I am going to need some convincing on this one, but Bell’s take on this topic made me feel much better. He said that when he first came for a visit in January, he spent an hour and a half at the National Civil Rights Museum. He walked from the museum back to The Peabody, and could not help but note that the people looked like soccer people.
In the second decade of the 21st century, when folks talk about soccer people, they usually mean hipsters and millennials. I know we have some of that demographic, but, as a metro-area, we are traditionally more traditional. When it comes to sports, we prefer traditional American sports (especially basketball). I have long doubted our potential as a soccer town, especially when I look at the sparse crowds at Memphis City matches (sorry, not sorry).
But one comment stood out above all the rest when he was talking about this: he said that many people do not yet know they are soccer fans. I can get behind this. One of the key points to ponder here is a marketing plan designed to get new fans into the stadium. If the marketing team can get people to come to Auto Zone Park, the atmosphere and the play on the field might just sell the product. If you are reading this, the game likely sucked you in at some point. We can only hope that USL Memphis will do the same for thousands upon thousands of new fans, hipster or otherwise.
4. Andrew Bell loves Auto Zone Park.
He mentioned this in some form in pretty much every interview. He said that a natural grass stadium in the heart of downtown is a huge selling point for potential players. He correctly points out that Portland Timbers, a club noted around the country for the environment in its stadium, plays in a converted baseball park. He also believes that a packed-out AZP will have a “cauldron” effect, and will be quite loud.
(Note: To those of us who were drawn to the game by the passion of European fans, nothing sounds sweeter that a packed park where people are singing and chanting in unison.)
Bell also mentioned the proximity to The Brass Door, which he calls a great soccer pub. The relationship between pub and club is something Seamus Loftus of The Brass Door mentioned on our podcast, and Bell seems to share Seamus’s vision for what that relationship could be. It is clear that the stadium and its downtown surroundings were key selling points for Bell in his desire to move to Memphis.
5. Andrew Bell has already started meeting with college and youth teams.
This is such welcome news, as youth and pro teams do not always play nice. Bell ate lunch with a local college coach on his first day on the job. That’s a great start. He said that after two days, he had already spoken with several youth coaches. When asked about the potential for an academy in two separate interviews, Bell said there were no plans for that. Instead, the club will seek to tap in to the existing youth structure in the area. He has hopes that there are 12-year-olds in Memphis right now that can be in the national team in six or seven years. He also hopes there are players in the local youth clubs who can grow up to play for their local pro team.
In a sentence that almost made me spit my drink (from the sheer shock of it), he said that if a 14 or 15-year-old could play for the USL team, “Why not?” Now THAT is the way you get the local youth on board — provide a legit chance to local stand-out players. In turn, all the other kids will believe that might happen to them someday. We want kids in and around Memphis to grow up dreaming of playing for USL Memphis. He mentioned 17-year-old former Battery (and current Atlanta United) midfielder Andrew Carleton, who is now playing for an MLS side after two years in USL.
When he was asked about maybe doing a women’s team one day, he said he was certainly not opposed to the idea in the future. He said such opportunities might arise from relationships with local youth clubs. He specifically mentioned Charleston Battery’s relationship with WPSL side Charleston Fleet as an example.
Finally, Bell said that one of the roles of the professional team is to strengthen every level of soccer in Memphis. This is a beautiful sound, and will certainly be well-received by all who play youth, adult, high school and college soccer. We have been begging for unity and a “Memphis vs. Errbody” mentality for a couple of years now, and USL Memphis could be instrumental in acheiving the unity we desire.
6. Andrew Bell believes in stability.
Charleston Battery has had the same coach for the last 14 seasons. Many of the core players on the team have been there for an extended period of time. He credits that stability with being a major contributor to on-field success.
The key, then, is to get the right head coach and players who can form that core. There are already plans a-foot to hire a head coach. Coaches from around the country have already reached out to him, as well as to Peter, Craig, and Tim. They want to take their time and get it right. They hope their first head coach is on the touchline for a long time.
7. Andrew Bell understands that Memphis has an incredible soccer history.
When he was considering the job, Bell reached out to some of his friends who played in the old NASL. He asked specifically about the environment at Rogues games in the late 70s and early 80s. Without fail, people responded that it was an incredible soccer environment. He plans to reach out to several of the Rogues who live in the city and let them know that they matter.
Bell knows that the USL club is not bringing soccer to Memphis. He wants the new club to simply carry on the traditions that have already been established. The Mid-South has seen its kids grow up to play professionally, including a few that have caps with the national teams. He wants to honor that history, and be a part of it.
(Note: We would not be surprised to see a “Memphis Soccer History Night” in 2019.)
8. Andrew Bell believes in American soccer.
Bell is a naturalized citizen, a huge fan of American soccer, and says “we” when referring to the national teams. Although he admits that missing out on the World Cup was a “disaster,” Bell still believes in the power of the local club in helping American soccer reach new heights. He sees all local clubs as massive keys to the growth of the game, including player development at all levels.
If we look at the Charleston Battery over the last two decades, we see a club that practices what Bell preaches. They have held numerous camps and tournaments at their home venue. They have hosted the ACC tournament in the college ranks. They have, for the past 14 years, hosted the Carolina Challenge Cup, a preseason tournament for professional teams. In 2015, they hosted EPL side West Bromwich Albion.
Bell believes we can do all of these things in Memphis. The club will not just be something to do for 17 home matches a year. The club will be actively involved at all levels throughout the year. Bell preaches the importance of players living in Memphis and being involved in the community. His indirect thesis is that if all clubs do all they can, America grows as a soccer nation. Andrew Bell gets it.
9. Andrew Bell really likes winning.
The Charleston Battery, despite being a small market club, has consistently made the playoffs throughout Bell’s time as president. They have won the USL Cup twice. Bell likes winning, and his competitive nature comes across in interviews. Our friend Jughead Jed (pretty sure ’twas Jed) asked him how long it would be before Memphis was competing for trophies. Bell responded by saying we are competing for trophies TODAY. Every decision that is made from this point on will be made with winning in mind.
Fan bases love ambitious goals, and they don’t mind it when those goals are stated out loud. It does not sound like fluff talk. The competitive edge is there. This is great news, in part because a certain club in a certain former Metro Conference rival city just won USL (hint: Denny Crum). If we can’t compete with those guys, old wounds may need mending once again.
10. Andrew Bell is incredibly well-spoken.
When Bell gets on a roll about the beautiful game, it is easy to get excited for the future. He is a polished speaker, and his broadcasting background is easy to detect. He will represent Memphis well in interviews and press conferences, and, much to Alan Davis’s dismay, he will get instant soccer street cred because of his accent.
(Note: I’m not saying I have a man crush on the guy; I’m just saying I could understand it if someone did have a man crush on the guy.)
Here are a few more things we learned:
- He reached out to fellow Brit Darren Eales, who is doing great things in Atlanta.
- He can’t wait to get to the office every morning. He is making lots of calls.
- He is a builder, and wants to build this club from the ground up.
- He wants to meet the stakeholders (a really fancy word for fans).
- The front office has as much to do with the team’s success as the players.
- Memphis will have a team in PDL this summer. It will be mostly college kids.
- He’ll be watching a lot of soccer this summer, looking for players.
- Creating content and great broadcasts is one of the goals of the USL.
- All games will be streamed live online, and he wants them to be shown in pubs.
- The location of Memphis lends itself to regional rivalries in USL.
- He wants to focus on and do well in the US Open Cup.
- His current priority is to get to know the city and its soccer community.
- The colors and crest will hopefully be announced this summer (lots to do first).
- He considers himself a traditionalist, wants to keep soccer culture authentic.
- He is looking for a “pioneer spirit,” and “fresh ideas” when hiring his staff.
- He says the fans have become very sophisticated in the last twenty years.
- He likes a modified 4-4-2 with overlapping fullbacks.
- He knows that this is an entertainment business, and he wants to score GOALS.
- He’s a dog guy.
(photo credit: Charleston Battery)
As we conclude our two volume series, let us reflect on what has happened since the USL announcement. Craig Unger and Peter Freund spent a long time in Charleston during the Charleston Challenge Cup. Matt the Minotaur said at the time that there had to be more to that story than just wanting to take in some soccer. Craig and Peter were likely in talks with Andrew Bell because they were serious about wanting him to be the first employee of USL Memphis. That is now a reality.
We won’t know for sure about this hire until 2019 (or maybe 2020), but, for now, it seems like the best hire possible. There is a great deal to be excited about, and it is time to jump in with both feet. Secure your season tickets (don’t think – just do it), put some money aside for a new shirt and scarf, and look for information on a new supporters group (because that is the most fun way to experience soccer).
Above all, pledge your undying loyalty to growing the game in the Memphis area. To paraphrase what Andrew Bell told Soccer Down Here, the smallest thing you can think of to do might help your team win a game. Let’s all do our part by supporting our local team and their new sporting director.
This concludes our two part series on new USL Memphis sporting director Andrew Bell. Go to 901soccer.com for other articles and podcasts about USL Memphis and soccer in the Metro-Memphis area.