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Asheville's Beautiful Game - Part 4 - Asheville Splash

By ACSC, 05/04/21, 3:00PM HST


Taken from the last gameday program that was produced for the club:

The Asheville Splash and the future Asheville Slide (men’s program) are members of the United Soccer Leagues (USL), the minor leagues of professional soccer in America. The Mission of the Asheville Splash and Slide is to provide a setting for world-class talent and local heroes to be mentors to the future “footballers” of Western North Carolina. 

Managing partner Steve Woody, along with the other owners, brings the same drive and energy from their business success to their other passion – The Asheville Splash. The Splash is much more than a sports franchise and a business deal; to Steve and the other partners, it’s about fostering family values, generating opportunity for women to pursue their dreams, and to help young children develop dreams. The Asheville Splash is more than one team, one season and victory for one individual; it’s about an entire community coming together to create a common good. 

[Editor’s note: the Splash began in 2001 as the Blue Ridge Rapids and renamed a year later. The ownership group in 2002 was comprised of Bernie Arghiere, Gabriele Beckman, Calvin Bennett, Gregg Condon, George Escaravage, Todd Escaravage, John Hepler, Mark Jordan, and Steve Woody]

Where does the original idea of the Asheville Splash begin?

Steve Woody:        Bob, he doesn't want to go there dude. You have no idea.

Bobby Somerville:    There's too much. I mean, since 1988, or 1989, we've been doing soccer things together.

Steve:        Do you want me to start Bobby and then you tell the truth?

Bobby:      Right, I’ll interpret. 

Steve:    Yeah. Well, you'll know the reality. So it actually started out with Desmond Armstrong and Dave Bennet. So, Dave Bennet was the women's coach at Mars Hill and Desmond Armstrong, he played on the US National Team and I think he played for DC United at some point and he had moved to Asheville. Desmond had been involved with the Charlotte Speed, which was a women's team in what might have been the United Soccer League. So anyway, they had the idea that they wanted to do a women's semi-pro team here in Asheville and because of what we'd done at the indoor center, they reached out to myself and Bobby, and we were there just really to help. And on my part, I was willing to get some people together to put some money in to be able to buy the club and that was our original role. Bobby, your role was going to be more on the operation side, right? I don't even know, at that time, they were thinking about you announcing or what was the original thought there?

Bobby:    Well, the original thought for the indoor center was to kind of be a home for all of it. We had an office, we had a place where people could have meetings and people could train in bad weather and so the idea of habitat for soccer was it gives whatever organization and provides a little foundation. So we set up a little office for Desmond across the hall from where I was, and all I did at first was admin support, and then I would just do stuff I was interested in for the team – website, content, and just whatever, I was interested in helping.

Steve:    Yeah, and Bobby's overall vision was always - that's why it was a Habitat for Soccer. We had run soccer league since we got out of college. We were really just trying to establish soccer [in the Asheville area]. Mike was doing HFC. There were the youth programs. And we had the idea about having a pro team on the men's and women's side. We saw that as a great fit, because those players would be able to come in, they could stay in the offseason, some of the older players, they would be coaches, and that would support what we were doing in HFC. So, we saw this fully integrated, indoor center for amateur soccer, the adult leagues, the pro soccer that those would be role models, really important role models for our kids growing up, just good for the community in general. Then ultimately one of those players to stay and be a part and support from a coaching perspective, what we were doing in Asheville, and that was that broader vision, all of which kind of came to a peak with the Splash, but it got there.

Bobby:    At the time it also lended itself to the USL’s vision of community, more of a European style model, where everybody has their own hometown team. And we happened to represent one of the small groups, but the teams that ended up in our little conference or division included cities such as Hampton Roads, Virginia and Charlotte. I think we were definitely smaller than many but again, I think their whole point was going to be to have a team in Asheville and in Greenville, and Charlotte, and so on and so - a league full of regional teams.

Steve:    And at that time in history, people don't realize, it's a little bit different. Because somebody might ask, “why did you start with women's soccer versus men's?” and people may not remember in ‘99, when we won the World Cup, that Women's Soccer WAS big soccer. There was a lot more people going to women's games. The men's teams were really floundering a bit and so we thought we would do women's first and then eventually do a men's team. We had Desmond and he was a big calling card because there were so many good players in the United States, you know, if to reverse, right, we're the Spain of women's soccer; all the good players are here. So, finding good players to put a competitive side on was not a concern of ours and Desmond was a big part of that, as well as Dave Bennett. They were in those circles, they knew who those women players were, and felt like it wasn't difficult to recruit.

Bobby:    Yeah, and I think one of the things that gave us some instant credibility was the Trinidad crew, and that wasn't a Dave or Desmond thing. That was Joe Bartlinski from the University of West Florida. 

Steve:    Yeah, West Florida, which was a top 10 program every year in Division Two. And in Division Two, you had more international players, and I think we were restricted. We could only put five on the roster on a given night. So, there could be internationals but at the time United Soccer Leagues was all about growing US players. And then I think we could have eight total internationals on the roster overall.

Bobby:    Players were coming from everywhere, honestly. Look at the old Memphis roster and not even talking about Meghann Burke, but Ashley Lawson ended up coming to Asheville. The women were looking for a place to play and we kind of made it easy for them. And we always had the idea to have our local players be able to be a part of this, then they were complimented by the International crowd, and then the best collegiate players we could find. And Dave had great contacts with Joe and Joe knew all the players in the southeast, and then Desmond had his connections, and it really just exploded. If we'd have kept that up, we were attracting some really good talent. 

Steve:    Think about the national team players that we had; the national team players from all over the world wanted to play here and we had really good local players. It really good high level soccer. 

Why was the name of the Blue Ridge Rapids changed to the Asheville Splash in year two?

Steve:    That first season we played a provisional season with other regional teams and that allowed us to kind of get our business together. Then when it came time to be sanctioned, there was concerns about trademarking. We thought first it would be fine because we were women's team versus the other Rapids which was a men's team. But there was enough concern that we chose to come up with a different name and that's how we moved to the Asheville Splash. We wanted to play off the rivers and creeks. Our mascot was an otter, for example, and so that was kind of the theme that we ended up going with The Splash. 

Once the team hit the pitch, what was the reaction from the community?

Steve:    We had created different ways to get the community involved. All of the players did a week or two of camps when we first started. We thought it was a great way to get the girls some money, but also have them start to build a relationship with the kids. That was a great way to get people in the stadium. And it worked!  I think we had really good attendance compared to anybody else in the league. 

Bobby:    We were top five in the league in attendance for - I mean, it was kind of remarkable and we were counting everybody. Yeah, we'd go to Northern Virginia to play a game and they'd count 300 people and I was like, I don't know, who's counting the guy across the street? I mean, we were playing to empty places in a lot of circumstances. Charlotte has a good crowd too.

Steve:    That's a good point, by the way. So, one of our good friends, Gram West was the coach for the Charlotte Eagles and he took us under his wing. We were able to go down there and ask, “how are you doing this, how are you doing that?” Everything from how you did season tickets to concessions - there was a lot of things that we learned from Charlotte, that we applied because this is a hard business. Let me tell you, I've run a lot of businesses, and there is no business harder than running a pro team. You cannot underestimate how difficult it is because you're running four businesses. You are running a camp business, you are running a team that had to be successful in the field, you are running advertising and operations. And because of our model, we had to reach out and gather up twenty-five volunteers that worked harder than we did. It took the whole community just to get through the summer. 

Why did you choose Memorial Stadium as your homefield?

Steve:    When we were first looking for a home, we felt like Memorial Stadium just made sense. It was a grass field at the time but it wasn't a good grass field. We could have gone to UNCA but chose not to. 

Bobby:    UNCA still playing on the field with the track around it and it wasn't a great venue for spectators. Memorial had a nice little place for people to watch and basically looks just like it does now other than the turf.

Steve:    That's right, they were making some changes at Memorial too. They'd move the stands from the speedway down on Amboy Road and we felt like we wanted to make it more intimate space where it could be pretty good event if you had 750 people there. We had a lot of days where we had 750, maybe we bumped over 1000 a few times. And there was an opportunity to grow together. The city was looking to make more updates and were planning to put in turf to replace the grass. The way we saw it, it was in our best interest to help with that process. So we offered to be a marketing arm to raise money for the project and we spent some money helping the first phase of that fundraising - trying to sell bricks. 

Bobby:    And just like many city projects, it was fraught with how many people had their fingers in the pie and how many different interests in the property. It's like the Civic Center - you've got a municipal facility and everybody has their vision for it. We did too but we didn't need big sweeping changes. Our attitude was, “we just needed lines and we'll take care of the rest.” We'll put up the infrastructure for having a game up there, we would just bring it in every week with us. But the city always seemed to have an idea that it was only really good for one thing - as a football venue - for years. And we thought there's always been this opportunity in the back of our minds to make this something attractive. And I think that still continues; it's just they don't know how to manage its potential versus the community's interest.

What were away days like for the Splash?

Bobby:    You want to talk about technology and the difference in technology right now. One of my jobs was to go to the away games and I would call the away games as if I were on radio, but I do it through my cell phone connected to the Asheville-Citizen Times website, and it would semi-stream. Oh, man, it was just bizarre. I had to call in a certain number, a guy at the guy at the newspaper had to connect me, and then I streamed in a sort of conversational way. A lot of people told me they listened to this stuff, but I just annoyed every other club because I needed a place to plug in my phone because that thing would get hot, and it was one of those old kinds of phones, no flip phone or anything, but I would just talk in my phone and stream the games back home. And there were people, like Shell and Pete Alexander, who told me all the time, “we were listening!” I was always excited about the matches themselves and the camaraderie with the other clubs in our division. We mentioned the Charlotte Eagles and to this day, I'll see Lee Horton and he's as gracious now as he ever was then, but that was true about everyone. The other clubs wanted us to be successful because they knew that part of their success was predicated on being able to recruit and retain quality clubs are in their region. 

What impact did the club have on the game in the Asheville area?

Bobby:    Young girls in the community looked up to them and had something that they could envision themselves doing more than even the women's National Team. I remember we watched the Trinidad and Tobago National Team play in a qualifying match on the big screen TV at the Indoor Center – we took a TV and we stacked it on top of the Pepsi machine, and the picture was dark, it was horrible. I don't know how we were watching it, but the video quality was terrible, but at the same time we were thrilled! When the players came out, everyone said, “that's Izler! That's Jinelle! We knew those girls!” They were a part of our community and now they’re on TV playing with the National Team. It was kind of remarkable, the whole thing.

Steve:    People may not realize this, but there wasn't EPL on, we didn't have any soccer on TV. So, for most people, they were seeing soccer at the highest level they could see it, other than when they got to see some World Cup stuff on the women's side, because there wasn't a lot of women's soccer on in those days. It wasn't like it is today. I don't think people realize that. So, I that was the neatest thing is when you played it was some of the best soccer that you got to see and I think most people would agree with that.

Bobby:    You’re right. It was high level soccer. And it was the start of something special. I might be overstating it, but that’s where we all get to see someone like Lydia Vandenbergh, Stacey Enos and Megan Burke for the first time. Stacey, played on the National Team, she played at Carolina, she had real gravitas in the soccer community, and she helped recruit players. Lydia was an outstanding collegiate player at Clemson after she left here. Clearly, they continue to be a driving force in the women's side of the Asheville City, and they saw that we could do it, it's possible. It didn't last when we started, for whatever reason, but it's possible. And if you can envision whoever it was, when Asheville City decided that they could do this, it had already happened for a little while. It had already been proven that there was potential in this particular soccer community. We were just too early with some of our ideas. 

Steve:    I think you're right, Bobby. I think we were a bit early, because we didn't realize there had to be breadth to the overall soccer community, in terms of number of participants and everything, whether it be youth or adult and that made it difficult for us to get over, and I think it's much easier today just because there's a lot more breadth.

Bobby:    And it’s fantastic that a lot of the women involved with the Splash ended up staying around in a number of ways. The young women of Asheville were able to see what it meant to be successful in soccer and how soccer could be used to be successful in life.

Steve:    A word that comes to mind for me is everything that happened with the Indoor Center, and then the Splash, it was all a bridge. Because after that, that's when JBL happened, all the adult league started happening, and it was the bridge over to that next phase. And yes, the Indoor Center doesn't exist in the same way it did, the Splash went away, but the bridge never left. And then what it did – it rebuilt itself on the other side. It's on the other side of the river but now it's growing back with Asheville City.

Join us on June 19th as we #splashback to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Asheville’s first amateur soccer club, the Asheville Splash, against their old and our current rivals the Charlotte Lady Eagles.