Battery soccer team sold to B Sports Entertainment

Charleston Battery owner Tony Bakker at Blackbaud Stadium. (File/Staff)

Tony Bakker, the principle owner of the Charleston Battery for more than two decades, sold the team to B Sports Entertainment, a locally owned and privately held company, the club announced Monday.

Terms of the deal, which include the MUSC Health Stadium property, the team and its associated USL franchise, were not disclosed.

B Sports Entertainment is a sports and entertainment management group led by Eric Bowman, who founded SPARC, a local software solutions company.

“This is a fantastic day for soccer in Charleston,” said Charleston Battery president Andrew Bell. “We have an amazing, innovative new ownership group that is 100 percent committed to continuing the Battery’s incredible legacy while continuing to grow its ties to the community. They are going to be immediately investing heavily in the infrastructure here at the stadium, which will allow us to accelerate our recent growth.”

Since its inception in 1992, the Battery had been owned by a group of Charleston business people led by Bakker, a founding member of Blackbaud, a supplier of computer software for non-profit groups.

“This was a very difficult decision, but in the end it is the right one, not just for myself and my family but for the soccer fans we have here in the Lowcountry,” Bakker said. “The new ownership group are committed to continuing to grow the franchise and also to maintaining the special ties we have developed with the community.”

Bakker’s group introduced professional soccer to the Lowcountry, built the first privately funded soccer-specific stadium in the United States in 1999 and pioneered the concept of hosting preseason tournaments with Major League Soccer.

The Battery have also won four league championships along the way. The Battery and USL rival Richmond Kickers stand as the oldest continuously operating professional soccer teams in America, with a shared history of league competition that dates to May 1, 1993.

That original league has since developed into the USL, one of the fastest-growing professional soccer leagues in North America. Last year, the USL petitioned the U.S. Soccer Federation for Division 2 status beginning in 2017. In 2016, the USL will feature 29 teams stretching from Florida to British Columbia, each competing in a 30-game season.

Local interest in the sport has expanded in step with its growing national profile. The Battery shattered its all-time attendance record in 2015, averaging 4,080 fans per match while securing a five-year stadium naming-rights agreement with MUSC Health.

“The time was right to hand off the franchise to another ownership group,” Bakker said. “Soccer has never been more popular, and quite honestly, the Charleston Battery has never been more popular. The investment that the new ownership group is making in the team and the infrastructure is going to help grow the Battery, and this is something that I absolutely support and want to see happen.”

The new ownership group started to improve the facilities at the stadium even before the deal was finalized. Renovation of the offices at MUSC Health Stadium started in January. A major overhaul of the stadium’s audio system is on schedule to be in place before the start of the regular season in March, and an upgrade to digital infrastructure will provide free, high-speed wireless internet to users throughout the complex by this summer.

But the most notable improvement at the stadium will be the installation of the second-largest video board in South Carolina on the South Concourse. With a viewable area of almost 3,000 square feet and state-of-the-art control and resolution, the 90-by-32-foot screen will be a game-changer, Bell said.

The Battery enter the 2016 season riding USL’s longest active home unbeaten streak: 25 games without a loss since May 10, 2014.

The club also announced an affiliation with 2017 MLS expansion team Atlanta United FC last month, and will return the core of a 2015 squad that reached the USL Eastern Conference semifinal.

“We’re at a very significant and I would say well-timed moment in club history today,” Bell said. “For the last few weeks, we’ve been telling people, ‘Stay tuned.’ Now we can finally tell them, ‘Get on board.’ We are excited and very optimistic about the coming months and years.”