We finally caught up with Jeremy Sharpe and Justin Lee, the founders of Bearfight FC of Wilmington. For those readers not familiar with the club or its history, here is a bit of background. The Bearfight Brigade is a supporters group who style themselves in the Ultra mold. They have a "club first and foremost" mentality, and aren't afraid to speak out against anyone who they think is holding their club back. They were vocal about Peter Nowak before public opinion turned against him, and were the first group to call for an overhaul of the club and a loosening of the Union's purse strings. Couple that relentless drive to see their club progress with the whimsy of turning a cocktail into a sport, and you haven't even made it past the first layer of Bearfight. A Bearfight is essentially a mixture of adult beverages that is supposed to produce an effect that feels like two bears fighting in your stomach.
Using that platform as a launching pad, Justin and Jeremy took a conversation and turned it into an actual club. When Justin and Jeremy are together, not only is it hard to get a word in edgewise, but you can feel the passion that created a culture that created a club.
So tell everyone how Bearfight FC of Wilmington came to be:
Jeremy: Why? Because we can. Honestly, there are a number of factors. First, we think that people should feel more connected to this sport. One of the things lost in American soccer is that real connection between the supporter and the club. We all have clubs we support in MLS, EPL, etc, but lost in American pro soccer at all levels is a real feel of, 'this is my club'. We want to have people really connect with the sport. We want people to wear the crest not just because they are supporters of the club, but because they are part of the club. We see it abroad on a much larger scale, FC United of Manchester, AFC Wimbeldon, the 51% rule in Bundesliga. It becomes more than a team, it becomes a true athletic club, a culture, and a family. Sport is so often lost in corporate money, especially in the USA. We want to help change that. We want to change that our way - grassroots. We are going to start as a real family, community club. We are going to start at the bottom of the American soccer pyramid. We know that if we stay true to this - this family - this culture will grow. This is the real game of soccer. We hear people say that they want a club that they have a say in, that they feel they have ownership in, and we want to build that. We been called narcissistic for believing that we are the people that can do this, and although that is not untrue, it is not just a belief in ourselves but a belief in know that there are a lot of people out there than can stand with us in this journey and make this a success.
Justin: People always say, "If you don't like the way things are run, why don't you start your own team." Well, we did that. Its not the Union, more than it is a league thing. While we still love our club (the Union), we also saw the flaws in a system that had no transparency and treated its supporters as something to extract money from instead of the family that we viewed ourselves as. This can apply to any sport in America and even the world on some levels. But there are exceptions to that rule. You see it a lot in Europe. We respected that way of thinking where it's less about the almighty dollar (we know you have to make money to survive) and more about building a culture and a family. While these other clubs are not mega rich, they have something these rich clubs do not have - a sense of ownership of their city, their culture, and their club. We knew that it may not go over and it may not work, but we wanted to prove that a supporter run sports team COULD work in this country.
So where and how did it all start? Was this a spur of the moment thing or something the two of you always dreamed of doing?
Jeremy: so many stories start with, 'Justin and I were sitting at Stoney's Pub one night, talking...'. This story has it's roots at Stoney's. We had chatted about this, not just Justin and I, but others. A lot of this started with a tweet from the US Open Cup twitter account, talking about USOC USASA regional tournaments. It was said that Delaware did not enter a team. We often talked about starting the USASA club in Delaware, and from there, not just building our adult club, but building an USASA adult league in Delaware, building youth clubs, building something that will make soccer accessible to as many people as possible, not just on the field, but off. So, we sat down at a booth at Stoney's and sketched out a rough idea of what we wanted to create - Bearfight FC, a member run soccer club. Soon after, we took a road trip to Toronto to watch the Union play TFC. After the match, we met up with Danny Califf and, with the aid of a couple of cocktails pitched the idea to him, making sure that he knew that if/when he retired, and when he returned to the Delaware Valley, there will be a home for him - a place to make his next mark on the sport. With Danny on board, we reached out to Mark Dunfee and Eric Shertz.
When was this?
Justin: This was July. We told them we wanted to announce this in August. Eric reached out to the USASA, Dunfee helped us with paperwork to register as a non-profit. We had no players, no league to play in, no start up money, and no time. We were told that there was no way we would play a competitive game by September. We sold memberships, merchandise, and scrapped up every dime we could. We rented field time, held tryouts, and played our first game in the Intercounty Soccer League.
Justin: It was lots of sleepless nights when it all happened, but for years we have talked about it. Not just Jeremy and I, but countless others. We just decided one day to do it. We knew there was a lot involved, but we truly had no idea. When we called in Eric Shertz and Mark Dunfee, they brought ideas and things that needed to get done that Jeremy and I had not even thought about. We were lucky to have those two and others that wanted to and still want to help. We knew what we wanted and now, thanks to the help of others, we know how to get there. In six weeks, we had a club.
Whats happening with the club now?
Jeremy: We have been on a mid season break from Intercounty. Results have not been on our side, but we have built the groundwork, the start of the BFFC culture. We are, in many ways, where we thought we would be at this point. We have almost 100 paid members, and a core of players that call those members 'the heart and soul of this club'. We used four words from the start of this club, 'Loyalty, Inclusion, Family, Pride', and the foundation of that mission statement has been poured by our players and members.
Justin: We are exactly where we should be. We have not had the (on-field) results, but BFFC as an organization had to get off the ground. I'll admit that we HAD to focus on the club as a whole, which took away from the product on the field. We are lucky to have members that understand that. We have never hidden what we are. We are a start up. But things are definitely on the up swing. We are almost done this season and with the addition of a Head Coach, things can only get better from here. We now have someone with loads of coaching experience that will allow us to truly focus on the business without having to worry about the other things, which is what we wanted to begin with.
Where do you see Bearfight FC going in the immediate future?
Jeremy: Up, up, up. We have a great core of players, and a great core of members supporting those players. We have former Danish National Team player and US college coach, Brian Kammersgaard coming in to take over the job of manger/ coach, Eugene working youth/ community outreach project for the summer, and a constant search for young, hard working players that fit the culture we are building at BFFC. We have a great veteran leader in Danny Califf and a great captain in Kieran Todd. We feel like this idea is about to really blow up, not just in the Tri-State area, but we have talked to soccer supporters in many corners of the country, supporting many different MLS clubs, and we can see in some of those folks that little fire in their eyes. They know we are giving the establishment the finger, they know we are going to build a REAL soccer culture, and we feel that we are on the verge of something really special. We want this to become a movement, and we know that we are heading in that direction. We may look like the smallest fish in a small pond, but we have just begun. We are going in the direction we predicted we would go. We are going to keep trying to rock the boat of corporate soccer, at the smallest levels right now, but with our sights set on the top of the top of US Soccers club pyramid.
Justin: As far as we want to go. We want to start at the bottom and work our way up. We don't have the money to just jump into something. We are going to have to fight all the way, and we know that. Some people are not going to like that we do not want to be corporately run club where we care about taking money from our supporters. We want to build a family. We have a 10 year plan and thus far, we are right on schedule. We want a youth program, we want to own our own ground, and we would love to work our way up into a USL PDL or USL PRO side. We feel we have the foundation laid in order to achieve our goal.
You spoke about the lack of US Open Cup representation for Delaware being one of the catalysts for this. Do you have any plans to enter the USOC?
Jeremy: We have had discussions with USOC, via email and via twitter. The 2014 USOC Region 1 entry into the tournament is already set. That said, the 2015 USASA Region 1 qualifiers are not that far away. We are USASA registered and play in a USASA competitive league, fulfilling all of the requirements to be part of Region 1. They know we exist, so there is no reason I know that Delaware won't have a team representing the state in the next Region 1 qualifiers. It may not be this year or next, but we do have a plan to make a lot of noise in the USOC. We want to take what Cal FC and Eric Wynalda did and take it even further. We want to make MLS sweat a bit. We envision the day we work our way through to playing our first MLS side, and have a strong club on the pitch and a strong BFFC family in the stands. We want to show MLS that you can build without corporate money, without trying to install an artificial culture, and have a strong family that truly loves the club because they are as much a part of it - top to bottom - as the board members and players.
Obviously being such a small club with big aspirations, is money an issue?
Jeremy: Well so far the total cost for 2013 (August-December) was a little under $6,500, and we still need training equipment. So yes, and every membership gets us just that much further to taking the club to the next level. We are currently having a member drive and anyone who would like to support real grassroots soccer in what we think is its purest form can become a member by contacting us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Want to add anything in closing?
Justin: Our mission is to build a real club, take the models set up clubs like FC United of Manchester, and build as similar a model as possible here in the US. We know that this is so contradictory of how so much sport works in the US. We have been told that our idea, and our long terms goals are impossible, but that just makes us - not just Justin and I, but the every player and every member - to pursue our short and long term goals even more. This is obviously not the path of least resistance, but it is the path of greatest reward.