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Professional sports in Arkansas are getting a boost. Two professional soccer teams will call Northwest Arkansas home by 2026, bringing the chance for many in Arkansas to see soccer played at a high level in a new stadium.
Arkansas fans are loyal and enthusiastic. The University of Arkansas Razorback sports teams have long enjoyed their support, but professional teams in the state also enjoy a loyal following. With Arkansas’s growing interest in sports and Northwest Arkansas’s growth, former professional soccer player Chris Martinovic thought the area was the perfect home for a pair of pro teams. Martinovic grew up playing sports in New Jersey, but he gravitated to soccer, where he found his passion in sports. He attended Seton Hall University and played on the Men’s Division I soccer team, where he became the leading scorer and co-captain in his senior year.
After graduation, Martinovic pursued playing professionally while also delving into a business career. He played in the USL (United Soccer League), known at the time as the USISL. After his professional career, Martinovic then focused on business, working in New Jersey before arriving in Northwest Arkansas in 2007. As Martinovic got to know the area and state, he found a community ready for a pro sports team and an appreciation for soccer. He felt the time was right to begin advocating for a professional soccer team in Northwest Arkansas.
“As a former player at this level, I am delighted to bring professional soccer to Northwest Arkansas, a region that so richly deserves it. I have seen firsthand the power of soccer in bringing communities together, and I am excited about the positive impact this club will have on our region,” Martinovic says.
Martinovic has partnered with Warren Smith, a veteran sports franchise developer who has successfully launched several pro sports teams, including Sacramento Republic FC, a USL soccer team that won the league in their inaugural season in 2014. Smith specializes in building community-centered sports franchises. He also has a family connection to Northwest Arkansas. “I have been visiting my family here for 33 years and have watched how this community punches above its weight class, creating a dynamic place to live, work and to play. We look forward to the beautiful game, adding to that while working with local authorities, community leaders and most importantly, the fans, to create a soccer club that reflects the unique spirit of this community and that makes us all proud,” Smith says.
With this dynamic vision, Martinovic and Smith co-founded USL Arkansas to create both men’s and women’s teams to compete professionally in the USL. The USL is a well-established soccer league. It was founded in 1986 as the Southwest Indoor Soccer League and has existed in various forms, but in 2011, it combined with the Major Indoor Soccer League to formally establish the USL. The USL is an umbrella league that currently has three men’s leagues, two women’s leagues, a professional development league and a youth academy league. The USL is modeled after successful European clubs that provide leagues for young players all the way up to the highest professional level. It’s also the largest and fastest-growing soccer organization in North America.
The USL Championship League currently has 24 men’s teams competing in 2023. In August of 2024, the USL Super League will begin play. This new professional women’s league is kicking off with ten to 12 teams and expanding to include more. The league will follow the international soccer schedule, playing from fall to spring, to allow its female players the ability to take advantage of the international transfer windows. The Super League will be the top women’s team in the USL, including the W League, a pre-professional league, a youth academy, and the Super Y League, a premier national youth soccer competition.
Arkansas already has one USL professional team, the Little Rock Rangers. The Rangers compete in USL League Two and made history in 2023 by making the playoffs for the first time. With the addition of two top-tier USL leagues, USL Arkansas is positioned to be on the cutting edge of the game in the United States. Martinovic and Smith plan to create a team atmosphere to reflect that, including a new stadium. The new stadium will seat at least 5,000 fans and be located in the Pinnacle Hills area in Rogers, right in the heart of Northwest Arkansas. USL Arkansas has already secured 11.5 acres on the corner of Lazy L Street and Bellview Road to build the home of the new pro soccer teams. Many USL teams average over 5,000 fans a game, with some teams hitting 10,000 fans per game.
Having two new pro teams in Northwest Arkansas is exciting, but the venture also has the potential to create new jobs and generate revenue for many businesses in the area. The new franchise is expected to bring 50 pro players to Northwest Arkansas between the men’s and women’s teams, plus coaching, training and office staff, with a goal of 35 full-time staff and between 50 and 100 part-time employees during the USL seasons. The new pro soccer team could generate between 50 and 200 million annually. “We believe there’s a fundamental change happening where consumers are looking for places to be when they leave their house and that they’d rather spend money on an experience than a physical product. The goal is to be the intersection of social interaction within our communities,” USL Chief Operating Officer Justin Papadakis said in an interview with Forbes.
What’s exciting for fans in Northwest Arkansas and beyond is that they get to watch the program being built from the ground up and even have the chance to make their voices heard on what the teams should look like. USL Arkansas is currently running a Fan Survey, where fans can suggest a team name and team colors and provide suggestions for the game day experience. This is a unique way to be a part of building a new pro soccer culture in Northwest Arkansas. Fans can keep up with all the news at uslarkansas.com and follow the franchise on social media, with accounts on Facebook, Instagram, X (Twitter), and TikTok.
The pro soccer teams may not kick off until 2026, but in the two short years before that, there is a lot to look forward to as USL Arkansas creates a home for professional soccer in Northwest Arkansas.
All photos courtesy of USL Arkansas
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