A year ago, the Lansing City Council rushed through a tax package in support of a hot new soccer team that would share space with the Lansing Lugnuts baseball team.
After just one season, the Lansing Ignite appears to be folding, and Mayor Andy Schor, along with the team itself, won't comment on the bust now.
In a note on Instagram posted last night, Ignite midfielder Marshall Hollingsworth posted this lament: "Hell of a last season. Wasn't enough to save the club so hit the boys up for contracts because they're all free agents and deserve it. Thanks to each of you."
The Ignite's media representatives aren't saying anything, preferring to remain moot until the league's postseason wraps up in a few days. Schor is taking a cue from them.
"We are directing the media inquiries to the team regarding the Ignite, and it is my understanding that the team is not making any announcements until the League One season is done this weekend. When we see their official announcement, we will provide comment," Schor said in a text.
Lansing approved funding of $200,000 a year to rework the sod between baseball games to accommodate soccer. The deal also included up to $625,000 in marketing costs, stretched out over 16 years. The sod costs would've risen above $3 million in subsidies if the Ignite completed its contract.
Councilman Peter Spadafore said Hollingsworth's comments of the team's demise remained a rumor, but he said much of the cost the city outlayed for the team has not been spent since it played only one season. Some of the $200,000 sod investment would have been recouped in a ticket tax surcharged on premium tickets.
Spadafore said the Lansing Entertainment and Public Facilities Authority also fixes up the stadium as needed for the Lugnuts, including new netting to protect fans from foul balls.
"It was worth the risk because it shows we are a community that's not afraid to try new things," Spadafore said. "We are not a stagnant community always doing the same old things. Lansing's time is now, right?"
Lansing punched above its weight to land the Ignite franchise, gaining a professional soccer team even as Michigan's largest metro areas — Detroit and Grand Rapids — went without.
The USL League One, a third-tier professional farm league for Major League Soccer, has an odd grouping of cities from across North America, including small cities like Lansing and Greenville, South Carolina slightly larger cities like Madison, Wisconsin, and Tucson, Arizona, and then straight-up reserve squads for major-league teams in Dallas, Orlando and Toronto.
The Lansing Ignite sprouted in no small part from the roots of the popular Lansing United amateur team, which played matches at Archer Park in East Lansing. The United folded last year to make way for the Ignite.
Schor boosted the team last fall with lofty expectations that look unrealistic in hindsight.
"We expect 70,000 people a year to come through and spend at least $100 per person," Schor told City Pulse last October. "That equates to a $7 million annual economic impact for our city. That's people going to dinner or going to a bar afterwards. They might visit a museum or check out some other places around the city. That's a lot of money."
Seventy-thousand people equates to 5,000 fans a game, when the Ignite failed to average 3,000. Expecting each fan to spend $100 also seems like a stretch, and many complained about the price of the ticket itself, let alone whether they'd have money left over for other spending at the R.E. Olds Museum and eating and drinking establishments.
Bigotry makes bad press
If the Ignite had hoped to appeal to a progressive millennial fan base that MLS has fostered in places like Portland and Seattle, the team quickly became dogged with bigotry from its players and biggest fans.
In April, Ignite forward Ricky Lopez-Espin called a heckler a "faggot" and was suspended for three games and ordered to pay a $1,000 fine — a penalty some in the community called a slap on the wrist and asked for him to be expelled. The Ignite terminated Lopez-Espin's contract in June after playing just eight games.
A week after Lopez-Espin's outburst, the president of the Ignite fan club, The Assembly Line, Eric Gibbs was pushed out after racist messages he posted online became public. Gibbs repeatedly posted the confederate flag and the Pepe the Frog cartoon associated with the alt-right. On a background photo of riots in Baltimore following the death of a black man, Freddie Gray, at the hands of police, he posted "Want to stop the riots? Play the National Anthem. They'll all set down."
Gibbs also spread racist and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about the Clinton family.
Fans unsurprised at failure
Lansing area soccer fans saw the Ignite's demise coming.
"Honestly I'm not surprised," said Holt father Josh Rountree. "The team was great to watch, but the stadium was not conducive for watching soccer. The seats were too far away unless you stood along the outfield areas, and tickets were too much. I went to four or five games and shelled out 40 bucks for three tickets each game. I hope they work something out because it's a great time and the team was fun to watch."
The Ignite charged $15 to $22 for tickets — higher than the more successful and established Lugnuts franchise, which at $12 to $14 are already high for a single-A baseball team featuring young men straight out of high school and college, and far from the skill level of the Lugnuts' major-league affiliate, the Toronto Blue Jays. The Ignite affiliated with the Chicago Fire MLS team and played at a similar entry level as the Lugnuts.
In 14 games, the Ignite managed fewer than 2,800 fans a game — significantly fewer than the Lugnuts, which averaged 4,400 fans for 71 games this spring and summer. Ignite President Nick Grueser told the Lansing City Council last October that the team would need to pull in 4,000 fans a game to be viable — and said that level of support was "conservative." Only one team in the league hit 4,000 — the Madison franchise. The Ignite finished with a 12-6-10 record and even made the playoffs, losing in the first round.
Ingham County Commissioner Thomas Morgan, speaking as a soccer fan, also dinged the former Oldsmobile Park, now Cooley Law School Stadium, as a poor place to watch soccer.
"I think the team would've been much more successful had they played at a soccer-specific park. You couldn't see a thing from the stands at the baseball park," said Morgan, who follows the English Premier League. "I went to the inaugural match. The view was so bad that I didn't want to go back. And I'm a massive soccer fan."
Morgan said a better location would've been embedded at the new Eastern High School athletic fields, although he realizes the USL has stadium standards, and a minor-league baseball stadium, however unwieldy for soccer, met those while other locations may not have.
Spadafore was still optimistic the club would return. "I've got their scarves and jersey, so I hope I can wear them again."