Jonathon Gross remembers Asheville City SC’s inaugural season like it was yesterday.
It was 2017 and locals had just learned that Asheville was getting a new soccer team. Jonathon had been a soccer fan ever since he attended a 1994 World Cup match, and he was overjoyed that a new club was starting up in his backyard.
“I still remember walking into Memorial Stadium for our first match not knowing what the atmosphere would be like,” recalled Jonathon. “We were excited that Asheville got a team, but we only expected to see 50 or 100 other fans there.”
To Jonathon’s surprise, that first home match in 2017 drew more than 2,000 people to Memorial Stadium and the club has been drawing record crowds ever since (more on that later, though).
Today, Jonathon is one of the loudest and most passionate fans you’ll find at Asheville City women’s and men’s matches. Although most people you ask will know him by a different name – Bluebeard.
Since the early days of the club, Jonathon “Bluebeard” Gross has been dying his beard a deep blue on matchdays to show his passion for the club. “It was really just a fun way to show my support,” he shrugged.
The more he did it, the more fans took notice. Kids started asking for photos with the famous Bluebeard and from then on, he knew he had to keep the tradition alive.
Bluebeard isn’t the only fan tradition to live on either. From blue wigs and viking war paint, to kilts and pitchside dogs, the soccer scene in Asheville is one of a kind. All of which is thanks to the independent supporters group – the South Slope Blues.
The group, named after the South Slope neighborhood of Asheville, was created as a way to mirror the unique culture that exists within the North Carolina mountain town.
For starters, the group doesn’t have members. At least not in a formal way. As Asheville fans say, showing up is 51% of the battle.
“Membership implies a certain sort of monetary exchange that can be exclusive,” shared Tim Blekicki, one of the leaders of the South Slope Blues. “Instead, once you walk under the brick archway that welcomes fans at Memorial Stadium, you are part of the South Slope Blues.”
If you want to stand and sing, perfect. If you’d rather sit in the stands and show your support, that’s great too. It’s all part of the inclusive culture that defines the South Slope Blues.
The group also insists on bringing in fresh faces each year. The leadership is always changing and that’s because they are always working to self-audit their work.
They regularly ask themselves questions, such as – How well does the group reflect Asheville’s diversity… Whose voices are the loudest and how are they utilized… Do the South Slope Blues use resources in an equitable fashion?
As Tim explains, “We aren’t trying to be different, we’re just trying to be essential Asheville. There is a current that flows through the bedrock and foundation of this city that calls for inclusion.”
Built around a thriving hospitality industry, Asheville has a long history of openness. In the early 1990s when the LGBTQ+ community didn’t feel safe in the South, Asheville was known as a safe harbor. Asheville was a place where anyone could come and be themselves, which is why the annual Asheville City Pride Match is the biggest of the year for the club.
For the South Slope Blues, the Pride Match isn’t just a special night on the calendar, it’s the night on the calendar.
Asheville’s Pride Match draws the largest crowd of the season and is a chance for fans to show why soccer in Asheville is more than just a game. At this year’s festivities, fans donned colorful gear and helped raise money for the Campaign for Southern Equality, an organization based in Asheville that advocates for LGBTQ+ equality across the South.
“Our Pride Match doesn’t ignore the fact that we still have problematic, foundational issues like any other city in the South,” Tim was quick to note. “Instead, the game is a 24-hour respite from the yearlong work that goes into making Asheville a more inclusive city. It’s a special event for all of us.”
So what makes Asheville, with its women’s amateur team and men’s fourth-division team, such a successful soccer town?
Founded in 2016, Asheville City SC was established by six friends who grew up together in the region and believed that Asheville was ripe for a new team. They had seen the growth of soccer in similar cities across the country and knew that some of the pieces were already in place in Asheville.
Despite its small size, the region consistently ranked among the top cities for English Premier League viewership, and Asheville already had a proof of concept with its Asheville Splash women’s team in the W League in the early 2000s.
Soon after the Asheville City men’s team started playing in 2017, a women’s team was formed thanks to a set of former players and owners, including current NWSL Players Association Executive Director, Meghann Burke.
“Seeing how far we’ve come is overwhelming to be honest,” shared Jimmy Wheeler, one of the founders and current chairman of Asheville City. “When we first started, we never thought in a million years that we would get this level of support. But it speaks to the diversity and inclusiveness of Asheville.”
Both the women’s and men’s teams regularly draw capacity crowds and in 2019, Asheville City broke the all-time Women’s Premier Soccer League attendance record with 1,847 at Memorial Stadium.
When asked why Asheville has succeeded where so many others in lower league soccer have failed, supporters are quick to point out the club’s saying – Believe. Belong. Be Blue. And it’s the smallest word in that phrase that might just be the most important.
Shared Tim, “Asheville has an uncanny ability to allow people to be themselves. We respect that here and we honor it.”
It’s one of the main reasons why Asheville is quickly becoming a hidden gem in the U.S. soccer community.