Football is returning to Wilmington, bringing with it food, shelter and entertainment

USL for Wilmington could use the old Wilmington Hammerheads pitch at Legion Stadium while their “outdoor community events center” is under construction. (Courtesy of CFCC Athletics.)

WILMINGTON – Professional football will return to Wilmington, giving itchy fans a much-requested homecoming. And this is only the beginning of what the organizers have planned for the restoration of the sport.

The United Soccer League has granted exclusive rights to the USL in Wilmington. The group is creating a USL League One squad that will start playing in 2024.

Principal Investor Scott Sullivan of Cameron Management is joined by UNC Chapel Hill Practice Professor Chris Mumford, former Wilmington Hammerheads midfielder and North Carolina FC manager Dewan Bader as group organizers.

Mumford shared that Wilmington’s support for his former football club, the Wilmington Hammerheads, and its youthful offshoot, coupled with the rise in football’s popularity in a growing region, makes the city ripe for a new team.

“The stars are aligned for Wilmingon right now,” Mumford said. “We should have moved here five years ago.”

The Hammerheads have had a 20-year run as a Wilmington professional football team that competed in the USL. The team relegated to the Premier Development League in autumn 2016 and played their last game in 2017 before disbanding.

Mumford, a former UNC Chapel Hill footballer, and his two partners are aligned with the “do good, do good” concept. That vision extends far beyond the realm of football.

The group is not just opening a normal stadium; they plan to build an outdoor community event center. They will not play permanently on the old Hammerheads pitch at Legion Stadium, although they may use it while the events center is in the works. According to Mumford, the stadium is not equipped to meet their needs.

The community-driven vision includes spaces for artists, restaurants, retailers, health systems and even housing. Mumford said he needed at least 40-60 acres of land to open land at the event center. A typical football stadium measures 2 acres at most.

“We want to make it convenient for our fans to access,” said Mumford.

They have a location in mind, but said it was too early to share details.

The plans are focused on football, but would also provide services to support the community around it.

“It’s not about transactions. It’s about relationships, “Mumford said.” You don’t go into the minor league football business to make a lot of money.

While many ideas are being brainstormed, Mumford pointed to two must-have facilities: a food hall and a beer garden. The two points will be accessible to the public and open all year round. Mumford said those spaces will be an opportunity for local restaurateurs to build their business and community to interact with the space, even if they’re not football fans.

The organizers also want to uplift local musicians and artists by providing galleries and outdoor venues. Mumford’s goal is to include murals throughout the center, each painted on canvas so that it can be transported to other parts of the city. He hopes to collaborate with UNCW and also with external exhibitors, such as the immersive Van Gogh experience now on display in Raleigh.

As a professor of innovation and entrepreneurship at Chapel Hill, Mumford said the emphasis will be on providing the infrastructure for successful entrepreneurs with few resources.

The group’s vision lies at the intersection of sport, entertainment and wellness, he explained. The latter will be satisfied by creating housing communities and providing space for health systems.

“People like to live near stadiums with the buzz of dining and entertainment,” Mumford said.

After leaving postgraduate football, Mumford worked on Wall Street and lived in Asia for 12 years. Through his work, he claimed to have fallen in love with startups. He was brought back into football through his children, and it was during their many games that he and Duke football manager John Kerr decided to start the Accelerator School in Morrisville six years ago, which combines the football training with academics.

The USL in Wilmington plans to hold listening sessions starting this fall to hear community wishes prior to planning decisions.

Many service additions and creative decisions, including the team name and logo, will be determined based on those sessions.

“We can look people in the eye and say we’ve heard what people have to say,” Mumford said.

Information about the sessions can be found at the USL on the Wilmington website.

Contact journalist Alexandria Sands at [email protected]

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