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Brett Johnson about building a professional football club for Rhode Island

Brett Johnson, Chairman and Co-Founder of Rhode Island FC, talked with us about the newly formed club and his experience with this exciting project that encompasses the construction of a new stadium.

By Bruno Ivich

What is the main motivation behind launching a new football club?

The ratings speak for themselves. Rhode Island is the strongest soccer market in the U.S. – maybe in the world – that didn’t already have a professional team. Providence was a top five market throughout the World Cup, and that wasn’t an anomaly. It’s been like that for multiple World Cups. With that in mind, we started crafting the idea to launch a soccer club in the state four years ago. The state had just lost its baseball team and there was an appetite for professional sports and a strong soccer community. This is a state with so much diversity and all those diverse, rich cultures bring their soccer and football traditions together. We’re now seeing clear proof that this effort is going to be successful. We officially launched the team in November and we’ve broken every known USL season ticket deposit record for an inaugural season. We’ve sold nearly 4,000 ticket deposits already, more than 30 percent of the stadium. We can’t keep merchandise on the shelf.      

What are the main challenges of forming a new team and the overall benefits that you see that will make it a sound decision?

One of the biggest tangible benefits is that we’re going to build a fantastic soccer specific venue that will be a true community asset. The stadium is in an incredible location. It’s visible from I-95, which is one of the busiest corridors in the U.S. Our new stadium will have 10,500 seats, with the infrastructure to expand to 15,000 seats within three years. Once we open the doors, we’re going to create the best fan experience imaginable – it’s going to be something truly unique in North America. Every major project has challenges. Like every other development in the U.S. and probably across the globe, we’ve run into supply chain issues and rising costs because of inflation. That has led to reasonable questions from the public, especially because our project is a public-private partnership. But all that said, we’re in a great place. We have a great ownership group with a track record of success. We’ve had incredible support from fans since launching the club in November. And we have great partners both in the City of Pawtucket and the State of Rhode Island.

What has been the most exciting element until now about forming the Rhode Island club?

We are bullish on the United Soccer League (USL). For me, one of the most exciting parts is contributing to what we believe will be the best development league in the world. USL has such amazing young talent here. We recognize the quality of the players, and we will contribute for aspiring stars to play in full stadiums rather than empty ones.

What are the short-, medium- and long-term objectives of the club?

Our short-term objectives are to put up a competitive team on the field from Day One and complete our stadium by the 2024 season. We are looking now to hire a head coach sometime in the next several months, and most importantly putting up a competitive product on the field. When I look at the medium- and long-term goals, I want Rhode Island FC to be at the center of a transformation in the community. We’re building more than just a stadium. Our development is going to be a comprehensive entertainment complex in Rhode Island that includes multifamily housing and retail stores. It is more than a soccer team; we want to have community impact in Rhode Island. We have visible assets to be the pride of the state.

What factors did you assess before establishing the Rhode Island football club?

We investigated the USL league, economics, and the reasonable investment for quality that could be done in this league. The depth and breadth of the league were really important factors including its growth and great performance. We also looked at the data and saw that Rhode Island had a fanbase that could support a club.

Have you received support from the league?

The league has been incredible and supportive. Without a doubt, it has been a great partner making this dream a reality. It is fantastic that we are expanding the USL with a new team into a new market. In fact, they were so supportive that we found our club president – Brett Luy – in their executive office.

What is your take between establishing a new club or buying an existing club?

It is exciting in the US that you can build something new with good ownership and location. This is not easy in other countries of the world. We love to get involved within the sports industry. I had a stake in a Danish team and I’m deeply involved with Ipswich but creating a team from scratch is a completely different feeling. Rhode Island FC will debut next season, and our team Phoenix Rising FC is going towards its 7th season. One of the things that’s exciting about building a team from scratch is that we have the opportunity to see the club culture develop and take root. I love the history and culture of the historic European clubs and I hope that the clubs we start in the States can replicate those same connections with the community.

How and why did you choose the corporate identity chosen for Rhode Island football club?

We said from the start that this was going to be a team for all Rhode Island. Rhode Island FC is the only professional sports team in the state with independent ties of Rhode Island. The baseball team that was here and the hockey team that plays in Providence are both farm clubs for Boston teams. So, with that, we wanted to make sure the visual identity reflected that connection to Rhode Island. We are proud of the crest and the incorporations of the letters R and I on our logo. It is a great design based on all the feedback from our supporters. It represents the community and until how it seems that we made the right decision. At this time, we are selling about $10,000 worth of merchandise every week and we have season ticket deposits from all 39 cities and towns in the state, including New Shoreham which is a small island nine miles off the mainland that you can only access by ferry.     

What are your growth objectives at Year 1? How will you reach these objectives?

We plan on selling out our stadium throughout the season and never look back. Just a month since our launch in November, we have seen great progress with season tickets. Now we are looking to sign up the right players and establish the appropriate partnerships. We are confident that with the great team we will reach our objectives.

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