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New Pro Soccer League Brings Higher Level Soccer to Lansing

Lansing Ignite
Michael Duke

The Popular Amateur Lansing United Club is Turning into Lansing Ignite FC, Thanks to a New League and New Team Ownership.

EAST LANSING, Mich. – Goodbye Lansing United. Hello Lansing Ignite.

The amateur men’s soccer club that entertained fans at East Lansing Soccer Complex has been dissolved to make way for Lansing Ignite FC, of the newly-formed USL League One.

Which means professional soccer is coming to Lansing.

How it happened  

In April 2017, the United Soccer League announced the launch of its new third division - USL League One. Steven Short, the USL’s vice-president, then toured cities in several U.S. regions, including the Midwest, to determine where the league’s 10 teams would be placed.

“Once we started planning our trip, Lansing was high up there. I think they were on our second trip, it was our first trip to the Midwest,” Short said. “We look at a multitude of different things, such as how a city supports professional teams that are already there. You certainly are sitting on a hot sports culture town, but it’s also great to see the vitality of the corporate environment and how they support the teams as well.”

Ignite will play its home games at Cooley Law School Stadium, the baseball stadium home of the Lansing Lugnuts for the last 22 years, starting in late March through September. The soccer field will be put over the baseball layout.

Tickets will range from $15 to $22. The team is expected to average roughly 4,000 fans per game at Cooley Law School Stadium, similar to the Lugnuts.

“Once we got to the town and started meeting with those in the city – and even visiting Cooley Law School Stadium, we just saw a lot of the pieces already in place for the potential for a tremendous professional soccer team. So, that excited us from the first time we were even there.”

From there, it just took some networking from Lugnuts President Nick Grueser.

“It all started through the CVB, the Convention of Visitors Bureau here in town and they have an arm called the sports authority, and USL was – I believe they were targeting certain markets around the country,” said Grueser, who will serve as Ignite president while keeping his role as Lugnuts president. “I guess it’s been about two years now where I met them and got a chance to talk to them and really establish a relationship at that point.”

At the time, Grueser and Lugnuts Owner Tom Dickson – who will also own Ignite – were entertaining the idea of dabbling into the soccer realm.

Lansing Ignite
Credit Michael Duke

“(I) didn’t know anything about the league or the new league they were forming, or really any of the economics behind it. It was more just an exploratory, here’s Lansing and everything we have to offer,” Grueser said.

Jeremy Sampson, Lansing United’s owner and founder, was also flirting with the idea of venturing into professional soccer.

“I was looking at other opportunities that were out there within the U.S. Soccer circles, and through those discussions, I found out Tom Dickson and Nick Grueser were also looking at the same thing,” Sampson said.

Sampson, a television sports anchor and reporter for nearly 20 years, followed his dream of owning a sports team in 2014 when he founded Lansing United. Sampson has no ownership stake in Ignite, but he will join Grueser in the front office and serve as both vice president and general manager.

Lansing Ignite
Credit Michael Duke
Jeremy Sampson, Vice President / GM of Lansing Ignite.

“I’ve known Nick for probably 10 years or so now, and I knew Tom – not as well as I knew Nick – but I interviewed Tom quite a bit when I was back in the media,” Sampson said. “So, I called and set up a meeting with Nick, and we just decided at that time that we both had some common interests. Instead of two people trying to do something separate from one another – why not do it together?”

After months of planning, the final step in the process involved Sampson and Grueser presenting a proposal to the City Council Committee of the Whole on Sept. 24, and getting the go-ahead to bring the team to Cooley Law Stadium.

They got that go-ahead just two weeks later. And on Oct. 25 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2nfdqNQqmyM">Ignite was officially announced to the public.

Potential economic impact

The committee’s unanimous vote was aided by Lansing Mayor Andy Schor, who told the Committee of the Whole the move to bring Ignite to Lansing was “fiscally responsible,” according to the Lansing State Journal.

The city council’s biggest concern with the proposal was if Lansing could financially support the team, and the costs the move could create for the city – Ignite has an annual budget of $1 million over the course of its five-year contract. But the potential big-picture economic benefit of having a professional soccer team out-weighed the negatives.

“There’s a cost now, but there’s also a long-term economic investment that will pay for it and help our local businesses,” said Valerie Marchard, the Mayor’s communications manager. “This will all help drive new restaurants and housing in the area. Lansing Ignite will bring thousands of more people to downtown Lansing on a regular basis. People will likely go to dinner, or to a bar, or maybe to a museum or one of our many other cool places around the city.”

And due to the Lugnuts’ and Ignite’s seasons operating during the same time, Lansing will see an influx of fans from both teams.

“Playing inside of the stadium at downtown Lansing, we draw 4,200 people per game to the Lugnuts – when the ball team goes on the road, we do different events in the stadium but it’s usually smaller, private events,” Grueser said. “This will have the opportunity to bring around 4,000 more people down here on those off-baseball weekends. Pretty much every weekend we’re going to have either a baseball game, or a soccer match or a special event. So, the city will be able to utilize this asset and the public will be able to utilize this asset pretty much every weekend throughout the course of the summer.”

Ignite can potentially bring a younger demographic to the city over the coming years, due to the sport’s rising popularity in the U.S.

“Professional soccer and soccer itself is the wave of the future,” said Josh Holiday, Ignite’s director of marketing Josh Holiday. “Our ability, as a region, to attract talent because of having a professional soccer team is going to be key, and we can use that as leverage to get young people to move to our area because they see that Lansing is doing what other communities maybe are not – we embrace things that are important to quality of life such as professional soccer.”

Grueser said the shorter length of Ignite’s matches compared to Lugnuts games will potentially be another factor in attracting younger fans and visitors to the city.

“The matches are only about two hours long from start to finish, unlike baseball – I think we averaged three hours and 15 minutes last year; people weren’t spilling out of here until 10:15-10:30,” Grueser said. “When the match ends at say 9 p.m., there’s still an opportunity for people to go out and go hit the bars, and restaurants and nightlife downtown.”

“It’s just simply bringing more bodies here to downtown Lansing.” 

Listen to the full interview with Ignite President Nick Grueser here.  

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