Georgia's Newest Soccer Team Is In The Heart Of Football Country

Jun 7, 2019

When you think of sports in Georgia, your mind might immediately jump to football then maybe basketball or baseball.

But, according to a 2018 Gallup poll, soccer is now a more popular sport to watch among 18 to 54-year olds than baseball, and, because of this, professional soccer is a growing business opportunity.


Investors have forked over $100 million apiece to bring new teams to Nashville and Cincinnati.

That price could go up for new teams coming to Miami and Austin, and lower division professional soccer leagues are also having a growth spurt.

In South Georgia's Statesboro, a town in a region defined by high school and college football, there's a new United Soccer League team called Tormenta FC.

GPB's Rickey Bevington explored Georgia's growing soccer culture in a show broadcast May 29 live from an Atlanta United tailgate in the Gulch in downtown Atlanta.

She talked to Atlanta United superfans, youth players with the Atlanta United Academy and organizers of an Atlanta nonprofit that does youth development through soccer.

She also sat down with team co-owners Darin and Netra Van Tassell as well as goalkeeper, Micah Bledsoe.

Rickey Bevington: Darin, let's start with you explaining what United Soccer League is.

Darin Van Tassell: For soccer fans, they'll equate it to the championship level in League 1 and League 2 that exist in England.

But, for the casual sports fan, it's really the equivalent of AAA, AA and A baseball. It's that professional league that often feeds into the MLS, but many of the other professional leagues throughout the world.

At Tormenta FC, we're so excited to be part of professional soccer. We're the only pro sports team in Georgia outside metro Atlanta, not just soccer. That's a fun story for us to be able to tell that says a lot about our community. And we're so honored to you know to do that with Tormenta.

Tormenta FC's logo features an ibis flying back from a storm.
Credit Tormenta FC

We took the Spanish word for storm and paid homage to some of the roots abroad and in Latin America. At the heart of our crest is the ibis, which is an animal known for its bravery in the animal world. It's unique to rather the Carolina, Georgia, Florida coast. But during the time of the storm, a "tormenta," it's the last animal to retreat, and the first animal to reappear.

So, in keeping with your theme today, if you're going to try to play professional soccer in a football-crazy part of the country, you need to stay out in the rain just a little bit longer.

Bevington: Netra, your executive bio on the website says, "Executive Team Mom." What does that mean?

Netra Van Tassell: Well, I am very honored that each season I get a group of fine young men. Our coaches do an excellent job of recruiting, not only awesome footballers or soccer players, but also very good young men.

For me, that's important because one of the things I really enjoy is watching them grow, be a part of our community, get connect with families and children and do lots of things in schools and in our community through events.

Having those men make those connections and watching them grow, as a woman, into some really fine young men that go off and play higher soccer somewhere else, and knowing that they have such good hearts and are good people, that's important to me and important to us as a franchise. So that's where I find my joy. I, often, say every season, I have twenty-five new sons. 

Bevington: You have 25 adult sons.

Netra Van Tassell: Yes, yes, we do. They're awesome as well.

Bevington: And one of these the 25 adult sons on the team at least is Micah. You are 6-foot-5. Do you have to be very tall to be a goalkeeper?

Micah Bledsoe is playing his first season as goalkeeper with Tormenta FC in Statesboro.
Credit GPB News

Bledsoe: You don't have to be very tall, but it certainly does help. There are a lot of goalkeepers who are not 6-foot-5.

But, you know, I probably would prefer to be the star striker, but the height does kind of attribute to goalkeepers or centerbacks playing farther back on the field.

Bevington: How tall is a is a goal, like can you touch the rim?

Bledsoe:  It's 8 feet so yeah, I can get it.

Bevington: You played in Tennessee and Louisville as well?

Bledsoe: I played a first year with Louisville City in the USL, when we won a championship that year and then last year, I was in Nashville for the expansion team there in the USL as well.

Bevington: And now you're in Statesboro? 

Bledsoe: Yeah, now, I'm in Statesboro.

Bevington: Darin, how have Statesboro residents responded to the new franchise?

Darin Van Tassell: Statesboro is a city that really loves itself. It gets behind and supports the things that are a part of it. We have had great success in lower division soccer. When you're pulling in 3,000-4,000 fans. That's a lot.

We're building a brand-new stadium. It's a $28 million investment on just [a] stadium, the city passed tax allocation district to help create it. You can't do those things without massive and widespread support. In fact, even the current governor and the previous governor have our project in Statesboro on their list as showcasing what can happen when you look at tourism and sports tourism being an important piece of economic development.

Our stadiums [are] at the heart of a much larger development that we are building and putting into place. When you change this brand and change the city, they clearly feel a part of what we're doing.

Bevington: Micah, do you feel like you're a soccer player who's joined a city of football players? 

Bledsoe: Yeah, the city's really gotten behind the team. You know, you wouldn't expect there to be a pro soccer team in a place that generally supports Georgia Southern football, but they've gotten right behind it. You know, we'll take football fans, and you know, it's the same we're playing football.

Bevington: You just teach them soccer.

Bledsoe: Exactly.

Bevington: Each year do people buy season tickets? Or how do you how do you become a season ticket holders? How can a fan come to a Tormenta game?

Netra Van Tassell: Yeah absolutely. We have a nice group of season ticket holders that we've had and that have been fans for us for a while which is really great. We have recruited new fans every season.

You can do an entire season pass, but you can also just come to the game singularly. You can get flex passes, so you can get several tickets and just come to those, especially during the summer, if you go on vacation. So whatever fits you best as a family.

The great thing that we did this season, which we are so excited to do, is that if you're a student at all in college or high school or whatever, it's a dollar to come to the game. Everybody can come. If they have a family of five that's larger, all their children get in for a dollar, and then the two adults that are buying that season ticket.

It's been fabulous and very well welcomed by the community. So, we're very happy to do that. 

Bevington: Are you all seeing diversity among your fan base? In fact, I know Tormenta just launched the first Spanish language Twitter feed.

Darin Van Tassell: Yes, in fact you are being tweeted via Español on all of our social media platforms right now. We're here to market, glad we could be a part of it.

[from left to right] Bernadette O'Donnell, Netra Van Tassell, Micah Bledsoe and Darin Van Tassell joined GPB's Rickey Bevington to speak about Tormenta FC.
Credit GPB News

Listen, it matters. People matter, and that's the heart and soul of anything. The fact that we are in a sports business, it matters even more. I've often said that there are four global languages in the world: food, music, art and sport. They are the ways that we build bridges. We grow communities. I have a Ph.D. and one of things I taught was sports international affairs. I traveled the world doing things with international sports. It's how you grow communities.

At least, you can build bridges for them, and you better believe they're behind us in support. All languages matter and all people matter because you need people in the game. When you're in a small community, you better believe everybody is important.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and conciseness.