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News & Press: FOCUS

Countdown to Ignition

Friday, February 1, 2019  
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For Tom Dickson, a professional soccer team in downtown Lansing is really an extension a strategy begun 25 years ago to rejuvenate the downtown through construction of a baseball stadium and the launch of a professional baseball franchise in the capital city. Dickson and then-Lansing Mayor David Hollister worked to gain public support for construction of the stadium, which became home to the popular Lansing Lugnuts. The Lugnuts drew an astounding one million fans in its first two years, and remains a highly successful operation. As the Lugnuts grew, downtown Lansing began to gain new life, as neighboring restaurants and nightspots began to crop up. Later came mixed-use office buildings, retail, residential housing and most importantly—people.

When USL League One announced it was forming a new professional soccer league, Dickson recognized an opportunity to leverage Lansing’s growing reputation as a sports city with the downtown stadium to bring a second professional sports team to the region. Dickson secured the rights to a franchise, and USL League One officially welcomed Lansing Ignite FC (LIFC) as a founding member of the new professional league in October 2018. 

LIFC joins teams from Chattanooga, Tucson, Madison, Greenville (South Carolina), North Texas, Orlando, Richmond (Virginia), South Georgia and Toronto. 2019 marks the inaugural season for the new professional league. 

Dickson acknowledges the new venture is a risk, but adds that the Lugnuts were a risk 25 years ago. He also notes the proven track record of League One’s parent company, the United Soccer League, and the tremendous popularity of the sport itself.

“Soccer is not unproven, and it is rapidly becoming a very popular sport in the United States,” said Dickson. “I’ve seen numbers that say that 80 percent of young people played soccer at some point. There is no way that many kids will play and not be a fan of the sport.”

IGNITING A WINNING TEAM

The leadership team that will guide LIFC has an impressive blend of business acumen and strong community ties, as well as soccer expertise both on and off the field.


Dickson has been one of the preeminent entrepreneurs in the business of sports for the last two decades. The Lugnuts were his first professional sports team. A former Entrepreneur of the Year in Michigan, Dickson has additionally been responsible for the development of more than $150 million worth of new minor league ballparks in Dayton and Eastlake, Ohio, Joliet, Illinois, and Gary, Indiana, and serves as the Chair of Minor League Baseball Enterprises and is COUNTDOWN TO IGNITION LANSINGCHAMBER.ORG 13 Appearing at a news conference announcing the Lansing Ignite, l-r: Scott Keith (LEPFA), Jeremy Sampson (Lansing Ignite), Nick Grueser (President, Lansing Ignite), Tom Dickson (Team Owner), Steven Short (USL League One), Lansing Mayor Andy Schor and Mike Price (Greater Lansing Sports Authority). 14 FOCUS / FEBRUARY 2019 LANSINGCHAMBER.ORG 15 on the Board of Directors for Minor League Baseball. Since 2005, Dickson has also served as the Chief Executive Officer of Professional Sports Catering, the fastest growing concessionaire in baseball, operating at over 30 ballparks around the country.

Dickson hired Jeremy Sampson, a former TV sportscaster, as the Ignite’s vice president/general manager. Sampson’s passion for soccer led him to become founder of Lansing United, an amateur team that enjoyed considerable success for five years. Lansing United maintained a stable base of fan support, regularly drawing between 800-1,000 fans to its home games at Archer Field in East Lansing. Moving into the professional ranks was Sampson’s dream; one that he is confident the community will support.

“The fan base is so passionate about the players and the team and their success on the field,” said Sampson. “They really care about the ultimate result, and so do we.”

To lead Ignite FC on the field, Sampson brought his coach at Lansing United on board with the new professional team. Nate Miller has served as the head coach of the Spring Arbor University men’s soccer program since 2013 as well as the head coach and general manager of Lansing United. In 2018, Miller led the Spring Arbor Cougars to one of the most successful seasons in program history and was named the 2018 Crossroads League Coach of the Year. Over six seasons, he has accumulated an overall record of 86-32-15 and won both the Crossroads League regular season title and tournament championship. As head coach and general manager for Lansing United, Miller led the team to an overall record of 20-13-12. Miller holds a U.S. Soccer Federation “A” Coaching License and possesses the NSCAA Premier Coaching Diploma. He also earned his Master’s in Coaching and Athletic Administration from Concordia University Irvine in 2016.

“One of the biggest parts of watching a soccer game is that fans are uniquely tied to the result,” said Miller. “To me, it is not just about winning. It is also how we play. We want to entertain, and I think a club should be worth watching.” 

THE IMPORTANCE OF WINS AND LOSSES

One of the most pronounced differences between minor league baseball and soccer may be in the importance of wins and losses to the success of the franchise. Baseball fans are drawn to the Lugnuts as much for the festivities surrounding the game as they are to the team itself. Soccer fans tend to be much more interested in the outcome of the game, which makes the process of assembling a quality team critically important.

“There are ten teams in our league, and we are not shy about saying we have a goal of finishing in the top four, which gets us into the playoffs,” said Sampson. “We’re going to get there.”

Another significant difference between baseball and soccer will be in the relationship between the players and the community. In baseball, players are effectively ‘on loan’ from the major league team with which they are under contract. A player could be gone in a couple of months if not sooner. Professional soccer players will be under contract with Ignite FC and, therefore, more engaged in the community.

“They are going to be part of the community,” said Dickson. “They are going to live here. That is a big difference that people will come to appreciate as they get to know this team.”

Sampson and Coach Miller have been busy evaluating, trying out and signing players. Sampson said every team in League One has a bit of a different philosophy as to what type of players they are signing. Some teams are looking for older players (28-32), others are going quite young, including one team that has signed a 14-year-old player. Ignite FC will be “in the middle” according to Sampson. Most Ignite players will be a couple of years out of college, with a few older players to help build a strong locker room.

Former Major League Soccer midfielder, Xavier Gomez, was announced as the first player to sign with LIFC. Gomez has been joined by former USL and Sweden midfielder Christian Silva, former Lansing United and Valparaiso University midfielder, Rafa Mentzingen, former Lansing United and Liberty University midfielder, Kyle Carr, former Indy Eleven midfielder Nathan Lewis, Haitian international winger Steeve Saint-Duc, former Reno 1868 FC goalkeeper Kyle Ihn and defenders Rhys Williams and Kevin Coiffic.

Miller hopes soccer fans in the region will be drawn to a team that he says needs to be a reflection of the community.

“We will be an extremely ‘roll-up-your-sleeves’ hard-working team,” said Miller. “It will be a team with a lot of energy, desire and a team that intentionally connects with each other.”

IGNITING SUPPORT IN THE COMMUNITY

Professional soccer is drawing widespread support in the region. Lansing City Council voted unanimously to back the project by providing an estimated one million dollars to support the new venture in its first five years.

“We were thrilled and very thankful that Mayor Schor and the city council were committed to providing equipment and resources to help in the transition,” said Dickson.

The City of Lansing’s involvement will include supporting the costs of converting the playing field from baseball to soccer, something that will have to occur 10-11 times each season. It will take on average about 3-4 days to do the turnaround between soccer and baseball. About two thirds of the dirt part of the baseball field will have to be covered with grass to create a quality soccer field.

“We’ve partnered with a local sod farm that will provide us with the grass that will go in each and every time,” said Sampson. “We have a groundskeeper that was recognized as the best in the Midwest League the past year. He has seen how this transition has been handled in other baseball stadiums.”

LIFC will also have a ready-made fan base of rabid supporters, many of which were loyal fans of the Lansing United. The group has branded itself “The Assembly Line.”

“What they bring to the game makes it a different event than any other sporting event you will ever attend,” said Sampson. “What they do captures the passion of the sport of soccer.”

IGNITING THE ECONOMIC IMPACT

One of the central components of the region’s economic strategy centers around attracting and retaining great talent. Ignite FC will become another entertainment option that will not only draw more people downtown but help create a quality of life atmosphere that makes Lansing more attractive as a place to live, work and play. 

“Soccer is very exciting to millennials,” said Dickson. “That is our future. In Lansing, we need those folks to want to be here. Lansing Ignite is another reason why a young person would want to stick around.”

“We are the only market in the state with professional outdoor soccer, which not only helps us locally, but across the state,” said Mike Price, executive director of the Greater Lansing Sports Authority. “It is nice to have Lansing at the forefront of professional soccer. Playing in a league with teams from communities like Orlando and Tucson really enhances our community brand.”

The economic impact of Lansing Ignite is already being felt by local business including Lansing-based Moneyball Sportswear which will become the club’s exclusive uniform provider and will be outfitting all LIFC players and coaches, with additional items available for fans. Moneyball Sportswear was founded in 2002 by owner Desmond Ferguson, graduate of Lansing Everett High School and former NBA professional basketball player.

“We are excited about this inaugural partnership with Lansing Ignite,” said Ferguson. “With Lansing Ignite being the only professional soccer team in the state of Michigan, representing my hometown, this partnership is mutually advantageous. We are eager to showcase the finished product and to work with the supporters and fans of Lansing Ignite… to grow with us!”

APRIL 13: HOME OPENER VERSUS RICHMOND

The inaugural season of Lansing Ignite is rapidly approaching. Players report for training in mid-February. The playing season begins on March 30th, with two matches on the road, followed by the home opener against Richmond on April 13. Ignite FC plans to make the event a major community celebration.

“We want to make it a very festive atmosphere from a couple of hours before the match starts until after the match ends,” said Sampson. “It is going to be one big party to celebrate soccer and the city of Lansing.”

Owner Tom Dickson is confident that once the community experiences professional soccer in Lansing, they will become fans of Lansing Ignite.

“I think the community is in for a real treat,” said Dickson. “People are in for a pleasant surprise when they come to our matches and experience the world of professional soccer.”

The latest news about Lansing Ignite and ticket information can be found online at lansingignite.com.

Click here to download the February edition of FOCUS.


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