This is an editorial written by Sam “Taco” Shrum and edited by myself.
Early afternoon on a Sunday in 2020, I sat in a video call with a small group of friends. The season had passed already for us lower league soccer supporters- a time where the game on the pitch gave way to the metagame of Twitter. The preparations for supporting another year. The analysis of new team announcements, the scraping of social media for little clues about which players were coming and going. We clung to each scrap of info, stretching it out and savoring it while waiting for the sun to return with in-person football.
It was during this chat with my fellow supporters that Niamh became visibly distracted, looking away from the screen with the camera, typing something out. “Sorry- some new account for a new team showed up. Bloomington. I’m giving them business advice,” she said. My ears pricked up. Niamh had been steadily growing out her work doing design work for teams, and was relatively plugged into what worked and what didn’t. If she was talking to a brand new team, the stories could stretch out for quite awhile.
I pulled up my own tab and began digging through. “NISA 2 Bloomington”, it promised, despite having a pinned tweet promising that USL soccer would be coming from them. I scrolled down further, finding the tweet where they said they didn’t have the millions for USL, and were pivoting to NISA. Announcing an intention to join a league without doing the minimum due diligence wasn’t unheard of, sadly- to pivot within a day was something else entirely. I took it all in slowly.
The Twitter metagame is a strange thing. Not long before, a close friend and I had created fake supporters groups that fooled the team in question and others in the league. Before that, I had once convinced a team that I was their social media manager, and become the official account on the website. Anything new was suspect- and we immediately flagged this Bloomington account as being part of the metagame. A fake. An attempt to get the credulous types to spread it further so there could be one big laugh at the end by everyone who was got.
And yet that was hardly enough to stop interest. One couldn’t even be sure that they would be there in-person in 2021; the metagame was all we had while we waited. I kept checking in, mulling over the possibility of road trips to Bloomington if they did join NISA. A Twitter poll appeared asking what the name of the club should be, and soon “NISA 2 Bloomington” was known as “Bloomington Crossroads FC”. A sensible name; it invoked Indiana’s state slogan of “the crossroads of America”. I wasn’t a fan of using a poll to decide things like this, usually- I’d poked at this Bloomington account during it, annoyed at their other options and that they’d done one at all. In the end, at least a reasonable name had been settled on. And then came the logo.
The logo would be teased for a solid week. Constantly shown in shadow or in silhouette at least once a day, often multiple times a day. “Get on with it,” we’d mutter, waiting for that next tidbit. And then it finally did arrive. “BLOOMINGTON FC CROSSROADS” it proclaimed, despite the club name being “Bloomington Crossroads FC”. Nobody was having this. I immediately went in and accused it of being a troll account and was blocked for my troubles. “Hater since day one!” BCFC proclaimed, casting me out.
While my other friends went to bat for me and told them they should learn to take criticism, I was left to stew in the interaction. A troll account would surely have avoided blocking me. The whole point of a troll was to garner more reactions. And the logo wasn’t intentionally bad in any way but the wording- the design was clean, and just needed to have its words re-arranged, which happened shortly afterwards. While more people insisted that Bloomington Crossroads was fake, a growing feeling that it was sincere as could be entered into my head. My responses to them were being taken personally, and there was some actual effort being put in.
No, there was something genuine about this. It might not be suitable for NISA, but it didn’t fit the pattern of a troll. Rumors began to swirl that a 13 year old was behind this effort, as the account quietly pivoted to working towards the Midwest Premier League instead. That rumor turned over for about a week as I kept watching, switching to alternate accounts to keep tabs on what was going on. And then one day, a WeFunder campaign was suddenly announced for supporter ownership.
Red flags went up immediately. Every other team that had done a WeFunder had staff and had at least played games, and success was still not guaranteed. Detroit City FC and Chattanooga FC had met big targets with flying colors; PDX FC met a modest goal and was able to continue; the New Jersey Teamsters, despite winning trophies in their previous leagues, acquired no real traction at all in crowdfunding. Nobody was even sure Bloomington even existed, let alone confident in their track record. It still wasn’t out of character for lower league owners to try something like that, but it still gnawed at me. Could it really be a teenager?
Their biography had once listed a phone number. I took 15 minutes in consultation with Niamh to come up with a list of questions to ask. We’d get the truth one way or another. I called in and the second the voice on the other end answered, I knew the truth- this had indeed been one teenager’s project, a boy named Gracin. Now the question became: what was their actual goal? I began to dig in: why Bloomington? Why the choice of leagues? What on earth was the WeFunder’s budget going to be used on?
I approached the discussion seriously as I would with anyone I wanted to talk to before investing in their business, and to Gracin’s credit, he had answers to each of these questions. His answers didn’t reflect the kind of due diligence you might expect from a dedicated businessperson, but nobody expected that. They did reflect a deep well of passion and interest for what he was doing, a sincere desire to see a club of his own in his town. Once I hung up and had time to think about it, I found opinion changing rapidly, a wellspring of admiration growing up for the young man.
Of course, at the same time there was the concern that he might be accidentally about to commit securities fraud by going through with the WeFunder. We all began to mull that over. The last thing any of us wanted was to see that spark damaged by a public outcry in response to it. I’d used several alt accounts so far to keep track of what Gracin had been doing once he blocked my main account, and I switched to one now to ask him to take it down. This was denied, and then my alternate account was blocked shortly after.
Well, he could be resourceful and stubborn all he wanted- I was also stubborn and resourceful, but with twice the experience. I thought about my options. WeFunder could be contacted, but that might not be enough to deter him from just registering a separate account. I wasn’t interested in whack-a-mole. We didn’t have any contact options for his parents, and I wasn’t interested in attempting to dox a teenager to find out how. And then I remembered that Gracin had said publicly that he’d had discussions with Peter Wilt.
If you don’t know who Peter Wilt is, he’s basically a serial soccer club founder. His whole specialty is getting teams off the ground, connecting with people to build a fan culture, and then moving on for the next big thing. His name being on a project is noteworthy in and of itself, and for Gracin to know this and have reached out to talk to him was one more indication that he paid attention to more than just what was on the pitch. I reached out and explained the situation so far to Wilt, who talked to Gracin’s parents. The plug was pulled on the WeFunder, and Bloomington Crossroads FC shut down its Twitter presence. One more weird chapter in lower league came to a close.
But just because one chapter ended didn’t mean that Gracin’s story within lower league ended. He rejoined Twitter, but as himself (@Gracin_Footy). Niamh and I followed him and cleared the air from my previous interactions, and then Niamh suggested to me that we should interview him on the experience and where Gracin was going next. We worked on a list of questions together, then decided to write this post about the whole experience.
Gracin had an already-established hobby of working on Google docs of hypothetical teams he’d create if he had the ability to. Cities, coaches, players- he would play FIFA and Football Manager at home, and then build completely new systems from scratch on computers without access to those games. One day, these thoughts turned local: why not in Bloomington, which he lived so close to? He loved watching Indiana University games and being around those fans, but what about an actual club to support there?
With the support of his parents, Gracin turned those Google docs into the bones of Bloomington Crossroads. Emails went out, and the Twitter account was born. Local interest immediately came back, reinforcing Gracin’s energy further. The immediate pushback saying that he needed to target lower leagues were all taken in stride. If anything, the thought of his club climbing up the ranks like in FM only excited him more.
Soon, Gracin reached out to an Italian designer and worked with him to understand Bloomington’s culture leading to one of the best crests unveiled in low-tier soccer. It’s unclear to me how involved his parents were in these design decisions, such as funding, but what is clear is that he has a strong eye for professionalism and high standards for his dream. If it had been me at 13, I would have tossed together something much more basic using templates and basic clipart.
Gracin’s vision may have been larger than his resources for his age, but he kept working up new answers and learning more about the system every step of the way. He recognizes, now, the WeFunder was a step too far. His parents remain very supportive of his soccer dreams. In the meanwhile, he still plans to keep going to lower-league games, interacting with the community, and learning. Niamh and I are looking forward to seeing what he makes of all that in the years to come, maybe interning in the front office of a local club or collegiate team? You could certainly do a lot worse than to hire a knowledge sponge with boundless energy and creativity.
Sam “taco” Shrum is an avid Detroit City FC supporter. When he isn’t working on the next release of Guardbook or storing history in Archive Le Rouge, taco spends horrifying amounts of time on Twitter looking for the next piece of bait for the trolls.