Fans who are familiar with non-league football in the United Kingdom will tell you their interest has less to do with the quality of play on the pitch, and instead, lies in the ethos of the club
From the person live streaming a match from the backseat of their car, to the players themselves, who get to the pitch early to set up merchandise tables, goals and PA systems, it is the people around the club who truly make the experience of watching a non-league side worthwhile.
Closer to home, there is a group of fans who are challenging the status quo when it comes to running a club. BearFight Football Club just might be the coolest little team you have never heard of.
I had the pleasure of speaking with one of the Club’s founders and current president, Jeremy Sharpe, who brought me back to the beginning: the birth of an idea, and the dawn of a fledgling, yet openly ambitious football club.
A native of Western New York, Sharpe’s initial involvement in the sport began at age 6, when he started playing youth soccer as a way to keep in shape during the off-season for ice hockey.
Sharpe’s newfound love for the game stuck with him after moving to the Philadelphia area. There was no local club to support at the time, but there was a cause to rally behind, which was spearheaded by the Sons of Ben. Sharpe joined ranks with the group in late 2007.
Fast forward to April 2013.
Major League Soccer has established itself in the area, and Philadelphia Union, a budding club still in its infancy, have just embarked on its fourth season in the League after enduring an abysmal campaign, the team’s worst to date.
Oh, and Jeremy Sharpe is at a local pub.
It was at Stoney’s British Pub in Wilmington, Delaware that Sharpe met with friends and fellow BearFight Brigade members at the time, Justin Lee and Eric Shertz.
The Brigade, which was founded at the onset of the 2011 season, comprises Union supporters who, as Sharpe put it, “do not feel they completely fit in with the other groups.”
As with any group of supporters, their topic of discussion was mostly confined to their club. Mostly.
Yet, somewhere midst all the rants, raves, and admittedly a few drinks (it was the end of the Piotr Nowak reign after all) Sharpe and his cohorts’ conversation took another course.
They began discussing the possibility of founding a club of their own, one that would follow in the footsteps of the Brigade and would challenge the way that a soccer club is traditionally run.
This was all discussed jokingly, of course.
But the joking was short-lived, and grins eventually gave way to bona fide looks of resoluteness when they came across a Tweet from the US Open Cup Twitter account, which informed that no amateur team from Delaware had ever entered the historic club competition.
Sharpe fondly remembers the irony of the moment, as well as the moment they thought, ‘Ok, maybe we can do this.’
Yes, the inklings of BearFight Football Club were conceived by a group of supporters over a few beers. For those involved in the Philadelphia supporter scene, this story is one that might begin to sound familiar.
Fast forward again. By September of that year, BearFight FC fielded their first ever team in the Inter-County League, an amateur men’s soccer league in suburban Philadelphia.
And although no Designated Players donned the Club’s colors that day, or even over the three and a half years of its existence, the faces on the field were and remain very much recognizable.
Captaining the side and anchoring the defense on the day and during the inaugural season was a familiar face to Union fans, and none other than the Deliverer of Elbows himself, Danny Califf.
Among the players who have and continue to sport the navy-and-black are friends and supporters who rally behind the values that constitute BearFight FC’s motto: Loyalty, Inclusion, Family, Pride.
Admittedly, the first match on Sept. 8 against Upper Moreland was a rough first outing for the Club, who fell 5-1 on the day. The same can be said for the rest of the inaugural season.
Nevertheless, everyone at forward-thinking BearFight FC relished finally having a club that they could call their own.
For Sharpe, there are no bad ideas. Each new season offers the opportunity to grow the member base and expand on the concept of a supporter-owned club that is uniquely grassroots.
As a member, which anyone can become for a measly $20, you own a stake in BearFight Football Club and have a say in how the Club operates day-to-day, which is something that Sharpe believes can one day be a reality in the United States.
In fact, several member-owned clubs already have started to appear in the states in more recent years. Detroit City Football Club and San Francisco City Football Club are perhaps the most notable of the bunch.
And there are others, with BearFight FC of course being among them.
Though the Club might be considered unique to the Tri-state area, as well as the majority of North America, Sharpe says part of the Club’s framework is actually inspired by other supporter-run clubs across the Atlantic.
“We will admit openly that we borrowed a lot of our own framework from FC United of Manchester, AFC Wimbledon and similar grassroots, fan-owned clubs,” said Sharpe. “It is a movement that has really taken off in Europe.”
Take Germany and the Bundesliga, for example. Under the current model, there is a rule better known as the “50+1 Rule” whereby a minimum of 51% of the club must be owned by the club’s members.
While it still allows for considerable investment opportunities for private businesses, it prevents them from having total control of the direction of the club. That way the supporters have a direct say on the management of the club.
The apparent advantage to this is that any surplus generated by a club stays within the club itself. It is not used to pay off someone else’s debt or to swell the coffers of a non-soccer business.
As Sharpe pointed out, there is no majority owner of BearFight FC. And there never will be.
Thus, BearFight FC board members, whom are voted upon by the rest of the Club’s members, are the ones who ultimately decide where funds will be applied. Whether it be new equipment for the team, fresh merchandise, or efforts to give back to the Wilmington community.
The latter is something especially important to Sharpe and everyone associated with BearFight FC.
In fact, the Club has already held fundraisers for the duPont Hospital for Children. Sharpe says the Club also has aspirations to set up programs and events for the City’s underprivileged youth.
With BearFight FC set to embark on its fourth season, Sharpe hopes that the Club can continue to form a strong partnership with the City of Wilmington.
BearFight FC recently took a big step in cementing its place in the community, after playing its first match in the City at Eden Park. Previously, the Club played only away matches throughout the suburbs of Philadelphia.
Looking back, Sharpe’s decision to trade blades for boots and begin kicking a soccer ball around was almost commensurable to the whimsical notion of starting a club from the ground up.
Nevertheless, Sharpe and everyone at BearFight FC fought on.
Now the Club is looking to take their next great leap of faith. After three and a half years playing in the Senior Division of the Inter-County Soccer League, BearFight FC wants to bring the United Premier Soccer League to Wilmington.
If they are successful in bringing UPSL to the City of Wilmington, Sharpe believes they will prove what everyone at BearFight FC already knows: that supporter ownership and ascension of the US Soccer “pyramid” can be a reality in the United States.
Fight on, BearFight. Fight on.
(To learn more about BearFight Football Club, as well as the Club’s efforts to bring UPSL to Wilmington, visit: https://www.gofundme.com/bring-bearfight-fc-to-the-upsl)