HUNTSVILLE, Ala. - A professional soccer league is interested in the Rocket City, officials confirmed Tuesday.
As Nashville is poised to welcome a Major League Soccer franchise and Birmingham earned a United Soccer League franchise to arrive in time for a 2019 season, Huntsville officials are ready to get in on the game too.
USL is starting a division three league, and that is where officials are seeing interest.
USL has come to Huntsville "several times" for meetings, Chad Emerson of Downtown Huntsville Inc. confirms. The league says in a website post that those meetings were "positive."
The league's post reads:
"'Huntsville is poised for tremendous success,' USL’s DIII Vice President Steven Short told USLD3.com. 'The league had the opportunity to meet with city officials, as well as local business leaders, and visit several stadium options for a professional soccer club. We were thrilled with what we learned about the city’s growth plan, community and sport facility options. The city is bolstering its sports infrastructure, and the downtown core is undergoing a revitalization.'"
Emerson said in an interview with WHNT News 19, "They're exploring the possibilities. They've been here several times and found this market to be one of the most encouraging."
USL says it has visited 18 different cities in the Southeast and Midwest with its expansion team since announcing the new D3 league. Emerson is confident talks will continue about Huntsville landing a franchise, and that Huntsville could be a primary target.
"Still a lot of details to be completed before it happens, but they're optimistic and we're optimistic," he stated.
There are many reasons city leaders believe Huntsville would be a good place for soccer to grow and maintain a base of loyal fans.
"Huntsville is a fast-growing city. It has a dynamic population. It has a lot of people with the discretionary income to enjoy entertainment like professional soccer is," Emerson explained. He went on, "Soccer is an international sport, and our city is uniquely international for its size when you consider all of the Redstone, NASA, and other assets in the Rocket City."
But many remember the departure of the Huntsville Stars, the minor-league baseball team that left for Biloxi. Joe Davis stadium, where they played, still sits empty (although there are prospects for its future being considered.)
Mayor Tommy Battle has previously told WHNT News 19 that the city is not actively seeking a new baseball team, or a new baseball stadium.
We asked Emerson why soccer would do well.
"I think baseball and soccer are apples and oranges," said Emerson. "You look at soccer. You look at its growth. It is one of the fastest-growing sports in the country. And therefore, we think it is a good option."
With the latest news from Nashville, city leaders say the door is open for soccer to come to town.
"There's great opportunity for partnership there, and creating a regional partnership between a major league team and minor league teams. So we would be open for a conversation," said John Hamilton, Huntsville City Administrator. "And soccer is a growing sport. It is one that is already very large in Huntsville and continues to grow. We have multiple clubs that are very successful."
"You could quickly see an I-65 professional soccer corridor between Nashville, Huntsville, and Birmingham," noted Emerson.
Several things would need to happen for Huntsville to get a professional soccer franchise into town. An owner would have to buy in.
"We're always willing to talk to an owner who would want to locate a team here," said Hamilton. "We don't have negotiations going on right now."
If an owner were to enter negotiations with the city, the city would begin the process of building a stadium. Much like the process Madison is going through to potentially land a minor-league baseball team, Emerson said that stadium could be used for a variety of uses besides games.
"It could be used for a wide variety of other activities, both sports, and entertainment," he said.
The city has identified some sites that could work, although Emerson and Hamilton did not reveal those places to WHNT News 19. Emerson hinted that he hopes the league and any team owners would look to locate downtown.
While soccer is far from a done deal in Huntsville, both the league and the city seem excited about a future partnership.
In the post, the league wrote, "The league looks forward to continue working with the City of Huntsville,” Short said, “and its local leadership to bring professional soccer to the Rocket City."