At Davidson College, there’s still regular cause for celebration for one of the school’s unlikeliest athletic achievements 25 years on, and the Richmond Kickers have become the beneficiaries of a decades-old bond.
Coming together to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Davidson men’s soccer team’s run to the Final Four of the 1992 NCAA tournament in the fall of 2017, six members of that team banded together to start their next venture as teammates — founding 22 Holdings, LLC and purchasing the majority share of the Richmond Kickers.
The ownership group, consisting of Kickers mainstay Rob Ukrop, Matt Spear, Alex Deegan, Andy Schwab, Bryce Smith and Ben Hayes, owes its genesis to the reunions put on by Davidson that have become regular occasions for the team to celebrate its lifelong bond.
“When we were at the reunion, we’re all sitting around talking, and you’d have ‘Wow. That guy’s a lawyer, that guy’s a doctor, we’ve got guys that are running companies, we’ve got guys that venture capital, we have bankers, we just have success, success, success,’” Hayes said.
“I looked at my wife and I said, ‘There’s some successful guys here. If we all put our heads together, we could really do something special.’ I think we picked the perfect thing because we all have a common love for soccer and we all have a common goal to make whatever we do successful in life, and the Richmond Kickers fit our bill perfectly.”
Of the six founders of 22 Holdings, LLC, only Ukrop is from Richmond. Deegan, a former Kickers goalkeeper, is a venture capitalist in the D.C. area, while Schwab does the same in San Francisco. Hayes is a dermatologist in Tennessee, and Smith is the founder and CEO of LevelTen Energy in Seattle.
Spear, a captain of the ’92 team, served as Davidson’s men’s soccer coach for 18 years. He’ll leave that position behind to serve as the Kickers’ team president, with the ownership group agreeing that leadership is one of Spear’s best qualities. Slagle, the Davidson coach from 1980 to 2000 and the man Spear replaced as Davidson coach, joined the Kickers’ front office as a vice president.
Spear, as well as the rest of the new ownership group, will need to correct the course of a club in decline, a trend owed mostly to the Kickers’ lack of success on the field during the 2017 and 2018 seasons.
With sore spots in the club’s on-field product and its aging facilities, the move to buy the nation’s oldest soccer franchise comes with risks. In explaining the group’s justification for its purchase, Schwab pointed to the group’s professional experiences, as well as its experience at Davidson, where the teammates came together in the face of adversity to create something stronger.
“If you look at the folks that are involved in this, we’re really entrepreneurial,” Schwab said.
“We’re not afraid of risk, and so this idea of getting caught up into what’s sort of happened with the Kickers and the history, we’re able to look at that and say ‘OK, here’s an opportunity.’ We’re used to being successful as a team together and making things work.”
The group will get some competitive relief, as the Kickers are dropping to the third tier of American soccer and joining USL League One in its inaugural season. However, the drop in competition won’t shield Richmond from the arms race that persists — and ultimately set the Kickers back — in the lower leagues of American soccer.
Two of USL League One’s founding clubs — Chattanooga Red Wolves SC and South Georgia Tormenta FC — have plans to open soccer-specific stadiums by the 2020 season, and a third club, Greenville Triumph SC, has unveiled stadium plans without a concrete completion date.
By comparison, the Richmond Kickers have a 40-year lease on a 90-year-old stadium. Where newer stadiums may boast updated facilities, City Stadium makes up for what it lacks with the type of walk-up service that has resonated in other successful soccer markets.
With success stories in Schwab’s native Cincinnati and Smith’s current home of Seattle, the hope of the ownership group is that similarities will turn to success in Richmond.
“Communities really want these events to be part of the heart of the community, and they want to walk to things — bars and restaurants, and fortunately, [City Stadium] has a ton of potential,” Smith said.
As the new season dawns and the new ownership group ushers in a new era for the Kickers, expectations have been cooled by the group’s members. Most admit that the club’s problems won’t be solved overnight.
“I think any time you’re getting involved with a professional sports franchise, you’re going to have to be patient. You have to have a commitment to building, and building the way you think the right thing collectively as a team should be built,” Deegan said.