When Blackbaud Stadium opened on Daniel Island in the spring of 1999 it was the first soccer-specific stadium in the United States. Over the next two decades the Charleston Battery would build a national brand despite being a second-tier club in American soccer.
During a four-year stretch from 2008-2012, the Battery would win two United Soccer League championships, face and defeat a half-dozen teams from Major League Soccer, advance to the finals of the U.S. Open Cup, host clubs from the English Premier League and feature a roster dotted with future MLS stars, including midfielder Osvaldo Alonso.
Over the past 20 years, teams from Europe, Central America and the Caribbean would travel thousands of miles to the Lowcountry to play at Blackbaud Stadium. Daniel Island would host the U.S. women’s national soccer team twice, featuring the game’s most popular player in Mia Hamm and such international soccer superstars as Kaká and David Villa.
All that seems like a distant memory now.
By the end of the year, Blackbaud Stadium – renamed MUSC Health Stadium in 2015 – will be demolished with townhomes, condominiums and commercial buildings put in its place.
When Tony Bakker sold the team and its facilities to Eric Bowman and B Sports Entertainment for more than $8.5 million in 2016, the new owner made no secret of his desire to eventually move the franchise downtown to take advantage of Charleston’s ever growing millennial demographic. In May, Bowman sold the stadium, the office and the surrounding land for $6.4 million.
While some have embraced the move to the Charleston peninsula, there are others that are sadden by the legacy left behind.
“It’s heartbreaking to see the stadium go away,” said Michael Ross, who has been a Charleston Battery season ticket holder since 2000. “My kids grew up in that stadium. I grew up as a fan of the Charleston Battery in that stadium and I developed relationships with players and other fans over the years. It’s tough to think that this is going to be the last year the Battery plays on Daniel Island.”
The decision to move the club from the suburbs to the Charleston peninsula is just the natural evolution of the sport, said Charleston Battery president Mike Kelleher.
“When soccer first started in this country, most of the stadiums that were getting built ended up in suburban America because the perception was that was where the fans were,” Kelleher said. “It was marketed toward the soccer moms and soccer families. As the game has grown, I think you’re starting to see soccer move toward the cities because that’s where the fans are.”
It’s a trend that has already started in Major League Soccer.
MLS’ Columbus Crew will move into their new $230 million, 20,000-seat facility in downtown Columbus, Ohio, for the kickoff of the 2021 season. The Crew had been playing in MAPFRE Stadium about 10 miles from the city center. The Chicago Fire are looking to move from SeatGreek Stadium in Bridgeview, Ill., about 20 miles from downtown Chicago, to Soldier Field, home of the NFL’s Chicago Bears.
Kelleher said marketing the game toward a younger crowd will help the club grow.
“We are seeing an unprecedented growth of the game as a spectator sport and that success is coming in predominantly in downtown areas,” Kelleher said. “The millennial fan gets mentioned most often. Look at Atlanta United, which gets 70,000 fans (actually averaging 51,657 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium) a match. Who would have thought that 10 years ago? In our own league, Cincinnati had 27,000 fans at a game last year and they have a downtown location. We’ve looked at who is coming to our games and sadly there are not many Daniel Island residents We have less than 100 season ticket holders from Daniel Island.”
Like many Battery fans, Mike Buytas, who is president of The Regiment, the team’s supporters’ club, was shocked to hear about the sale of MUSC Stadium in May.
“I was definitely concerned, mainly because of the lack of information,” said Buytas, 49, who has been a season-ticket holder since 2003. “I don’t think anyone knew what was going on. There were lots of rumors and being the president of The Regiment, I’d get a lot of emails and phone calls. I have a lot of great personal memories at Blackbaud Stadium. There is a lot history and memories that are tied to that place, but when it comes down to it, I understand the position they are in. If they can’t get people to come out to the stadium then there is no team to support.”
Kelleher, who has been the team’s president since 2017, understands the fans attachment to MUSC Health Stadium. Growing up in east London, Kelleher was as a fan of West Ham United. For 112 years, West Ham played their matches at Boleyn Ground, which had a seating capacity of around 35,000.
“We had season tickets and my dad and I would go to just about every match,” Kelleher said.
In 2016, West Ham moved into London Stadium and now draw about 60,000 fans a game.
“There were people that said they’d never go to a game at London Stadium and have never been to a match,” Kelleher said. “I understand that feeling. They lost some fans, but they gained more than they lost and that’s what we’re hoping to do. In the end it was the right thing for the club to do.”
Kelleher said the club is hoping to tap into the natural entertainment draw to the downtown area.
“We want to be a part of people’s entertainment downtown,” Kelleher said. “You look at the explosion of apartment buildings and condominiums going up and all the people that go downtown for their entertainment and, of course, we want to be a part of that.”
One of the biggest issues for attracting more young fans to games was the cost of getting to Daniel Island. Hannah Miner, 21, grew up going to Battery games with her parents. She and her mother have been season ticket holders for the past four years. A rising senior at College of Charleston this fall, Miner said getting to Daniel Island was always a hassle.
“It’s a $35 Uber ride,” Miner said. “During the school year, I live downtown, so it would like a $5 Uber ride if they played at Stoney Field or at The Citadel. I could literally walk over there. I think if they move downtown, they’ll get younger fans. There are a lot of College of Charleston students I know that would go to games if they were downtown.”
Stoney Field or Johnson Hagood
The move from Daniel Island to a downtown location would be a return to its roots for the Charleston Battery. The Battery spent its first six seasons playing its home matches at Stoney Field, home of the Burke High School football team.
“Bringing the Battery back downtown has been a longtime goal of ours,” said Melissa Britton, a member of the team’s ownership group. “We’ve been working on that for the last couple of years. We have a couple of different options, but Stoney Field is our preferred plan. We’ve been working with the city and Burke High School and the neighborhood associations.”
The stadium, which was built in the 1960s, however is under a $4 million renovation by the city and school district and won’t be available until the fall of 2020. Even then, the stadium might not meet USL or U.S. Soccer Federation standards. A club’s stadium in the USL must have a minimum of 5,000 seats and the playing field must be a certain length and width. The home and visiting locker rooms also have to be a certain size and the team must have an enclosed press box with internet.
Stoney Field falls short in most of these requirements. Britton said the team is willing to make a financial contribution so that the stadium with meet the required standards.
“We would plan to contribute significantly to the upgrade of the facility,” Britton said. “As a long-term partner we’d also help with the maintenance and upkeep. We’ve got architects and engineers working with the league making sure we have all the site requirements.”
Britton said the team plans to transfer the million-dollar video board from Daniel Island to the club’s future facility.
“Yes, the video board can be broken down and moved,” she said.
Even then it’s not a done deal that the Battery would be able to move into Stoney Field. The Battery will have to get permission from the Charleston City Council.
“There are still a lot of hurdles before something like that could happen,” said Harry Griffin, a councilman from the 10th district. “The plan would have to come before city council and there’d have to be a public hearing, so the citizens would have a chance to voice their opinion and then city council would have to approve some sort of agreement for that to happen.
"This is so preliminary and no decisions have been made. It’s so early in the process and I want those residents near the stadium to understand that nothing has been decided.”
Stoney Field is currently under six-feet of dirt as the city tries to solve the drainage issue that has plagued the facility for the last two decades.
Jason Kronsberg, Charleston’s director of Parks, said the facility is already used by several different entities. Burke High School uses the field, along the city’s recreation department. Add a professional soccer team to the mix and the calendar will get full in a hurry.
“It’s a very popular facility,” Kronsberg said. “We’re hoping that the field will be ready by the third quarter of 2020.”
So, where will the Charleston Battery play in 2020? The Citadel’s Johnson Hagood Stadium, which is across the street from Stoney Field, is a longshot option. The club has met with Citadel officials, but a deal doesn’t seem likely.
“I think the sale of the stadium was a little premature,” Ross said. “I was a little shocked because if I was an owner of a USL franchise, I probably wouldn’t have sold my stadium until I had another facility ready to go.”
The team could opt not to play in 2020 and relaunch in 2021 when they are able to secure a permanent facility, but Kelleher said the team’s plan is play next season.
“We’re always looking at plan B, plan C and plan D,” Kelleher said. “We have players under multi-year contracts, so we have every intention of playing next season. I’m sure it’s a little scary right now for our supporters, but this is an ideal time to be involved in American soccer. Everyone is doing everything they can to make sure this club is around and that includes the owners, who have more invested in this club and more to lose than I think most people realize. This is a huge asset for them. I think if you look ahead to five years from now the Charleston Battery is in a great position.”