When Dean Simmer totaled his car in April this year, someone suggested he start a GoFundMe campaign to help finance a replacement. Lots of people contributed, but most of them were affiliated with Detroit City Football Club (DCFC), the city’s amateur soccer team—players both current and former, owners, and fans, of which Simmer is a an engaged member. The campaign more than doubled its $2,000 goal.
“When the club is advertising that someone in the community needs help, that’s significant,” said Simmer. “There’s an investment in that relationship between ownership and fans that doesn’t exist in other sports. It doesn’t even exist in many places in America.”
DCFC has accomplished much since its founding six years ago, from renovating a stadium to exploring a potential jump to professional status. But none of that would have been possible without the support of its rabid (and generous) fan base. DCFC has worked diligently to foster that support, by listening to its fans and using its voice and platform to advocate for causes.
The team’s very origin is in community—co-founder Sean Mann first started a Detroit neighborhood soccer league in 2010 that’s still going strong today. Encouraged by that success, he assembled four other partners and applied for status as an amateur club in 2012.
Fan support for the team spilled over from the neighborhood league. Mann said he expected around 300 fans for the first game. Over 1,000 showed up. Attendance numbers have increased every year since, with an average of over 5,000 per game for 2016.
One reason for that growth is that the club gives their fans a stake in the team. “Professional ownership is often like being a celebrity—maybe they’ll have a press conference once a year,” said Mann. “But for us it’s about creating a connection with our supporters, which results in actual changes in our club and operations. So when they’re at games and see the club growing, they can know they were part of those efforts.”
That feedback has resulted in a lively atmosphere for home games. Simmer is a member of the Northern Guard, a group of especially passionate supporters who ignite smoke bombs, perform sometimes profane chants, wear skulls, wave bandanas, beat bass drums, and generally make life miserable for the opposing team.
The Northern Guard is so invested in the club, a regular contingent of them travels up to 12 hours by car to away games. Sometimes they outnumber the opposing home team.
“We’re trying to honor soccer culture,” said co-founder Alex Wright, who likens the gameday experience to something you might find in a smaller-market European club. “We’re making it about the game, about the fans, letting them express themselves, and selling it as an adult experience.”
It’s like a European club in another way. DCFC’s new home field, Keyworth Stadium, is embedded in a residential neighborhood in Hamtramck. There’s very little parking nearby, so fans make their way to the 80-year-old stadium by winding through residential streets, passing locals waving from balconies, chanting along the way.
When the team moved to Keyworth after outgrowing its first home field at Cass Tech High School, the stadium was in bad shape. To fund necessary renovations, DCFC conducted a massive crowdfunding campaign. Investors were given 35 percent interest on their investment, with returns tied to ticket sales. Nearly 500 people invested $750,000 to the successful campaign.
The club demonstrates their support for community in other ways as well. DCFC and its players host youth soccer camps and showcase games for local high schools. Every year a portion of ticket sales from one game goes to a local charity. For a game in 2014, the team wore LGBT-awareness jerseys, which they sold and then gave the proceeds to the Ruth Ellis Center.
These actions and others are part of the club’s efforts to promote inclusion. Everyone affiliated with DCFC speaks about being welcoming to fans of all races, ages, religions, classes, and sexual orientation.
“We try to be very upfront about owning our values because we think that’s one of reasons we’ve been successful,” said Wright. Him and other owners were nervous about the response to the rainbow jerseys in the lead up to the 2014 game, but said that a vast majority of the fans came in pink or rainbows themselves.
The buy-in for this team pervades the entire organization. DCFC head coach Ben Pirmann essentially has two jobs—he’s also an assistant coach for Michigan State University’s soccer team. Though busier than most coaches, he’s won a lot of games for DCFC. 2016 was the team’s first non-winning season in the four years he’s been head coach. His first year, they set a record for most points in the league.
“Every year I think he’s going to get hired away,” said Wright. “He’s destined for greatness.”
But Pirmann hasn’t gotten hired away. Despite the challenges of the job, such as significant roster turnover from year-to-year, he’s stuck around. Why? “There’s a very simple answer: I’m at home,” said the native-Metro Detroiter and former MSU midfielder.
“Anyone who follows this club knows it’s special,” he added. “I’ve played and worked at relatively high level soccer. But I’ve never had an experience like Detroit City FC, where the appreciation for the club and players and coaches and staff is so high. … I’ve never had any desire to leave.”
This community approach has clearly paid dividends for the club, making it one of the great success stories in amateur sports in America. Fans like Simmer are certainly appreciative.
“All I know is that when I look back at the last five years, and I mean this completely seriously, City has been an integral part of our (him and his wife’s) lives,” he said. “We announced that we’d be having a kid at a game. We asked ourselves: ‘Who do we want to announce this to before putting it on Facebook?’ Our family, and then our second family. The level of community, and meaningful connections that this club is at the center of, is beyond any fandom that exists anywhere else.”