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For Pro Soccer in MN, Is It Now or Never?

Does Dr. Bill McGuire’s resurrection of the Minnesota Stars franchise herald the local arrival of the national soccer wave?

For Pro Soccer in MN, Is It Now or Never?

When Dr. William McGuire purchased the Minnesota Stars soccer club from the North American Soccer League in November, keeping yet another Minnesota pro soccer franchise from disbanding, he sounded more like a philanthropist rescuing an old building than the physician-turned-CEO he’d been before stepping down from Minnetonka-based UnitedHealth Group in 2006.

“I don’t think it’s any secret that this team, at this point, you don’t get into this because you want to make a lot of money,” McGuire says. “But is it a good thing to do for the community? Probably.” McGuire, 65, says he saw professional soccer as a community asset that the Twin Cities was about to lose and didn’t want to see that happen. “Once it’s lost it’s very hard to get started again.”

“We shouldn’t forget, for the lack of success, we have had a soccer team here on and off for 23 seasons since 1976,” McGuire notes. “That’s a compelling story to try and keep and see it continue.”

Beyond Soccer Moms

In March, McGuire announced the team’s rebranding as Minnesota United Football Club (FC).

”The name is meant to reach out to, and unite, the diverse communities in this state and these two cities,” McGuire said. The club’s European-style crest features a diagonal blue stripe symbolizing the Mississippi River that divides St. Paul and Minneapolis, a star to echo the team’s past, and an abstract depiction of a red-eyed loon that may as well as be a soccer phoenix rising from the ashes of the four failed pro soccer clubs that have come before it.

In an interview, McGuire and son-in-law Nick Rogers, 30, president of the club, referenced his turnaround of UnitedHealth, from an unprofitable regional health maintenance organization with annual revenues of around $400 million in 1988 into one of the largest, most profitable and diversified health care companies worldwide, with more than $70 billion in annual revenues. It signaled that he intends to use his considerable business acumen to make local professional soccer a long-term profitable venture.

“I’d like to think I can do that for professional soccer,” he says. “This is a chance to enhance our community and broaden this opportunity for affordable, family entertainment to more people.”

There is little hesitancy, despite the region’s checkered soccer legacy. “The timing is different now,” says Rogers, an attorney, who played high school football, but not soccer. “We now have a new group of consumers with discretionary income who grew up playing this game.”

True enough, the appellation “soccer mom,” is embedded in American culture and an indication of how just about every American kid plays youth soccer. But what all observers and McGuire and Rogers agree on is that playing soccer as a kid, or being the parent of kids playing soccer, has thus far not translated into paying to watch professional soccer.

McGuire’s vision for Minnesota United FC is to take our 36-year on-again, off-again dalliance and turn it into a committed relationship. Both McGuire and Rogers note that the fastest-growing demographic in the United States, including locally, is Hispanic Americans, who bring a devoted soccer culture with them that includes actually attending games.

“There’s a lot more interest in the sport as a sport,” says McGuire. “It is finally finding its place in this country as the sport it is, rather than perhaps trying to Americanize it. . . . It has probably the lowest barriers for participation of any sport, both demographic and economic.” Simply put, soccer is cheap to play, compared to, say, the budgetary nightmare that is childhood hockey.

In terms of number and frequency of games, pro soccer most resembles the NFL. In its annual survey, Team Marketing Report found that the average NFL ticket, purchased from a team, will cost $78.38 this season, up 2.5 percent from last. Minnesota United FC’s adult ticket prices range from $12 to $28.

Indeed, the venue for the rebranding announcement, Midtown Global Market, is a diverse collective of ethnic shops and eateries, and was a clear effort to reach out to the growing cultural and racial diversity of the state, hoping it will translate to bigger crowds at United matches at the Metrodome this spring and the Blaine Sports Center this summer and fall. In a video at the end of the presentation, nearly every kid featured on a youth soccer field was in an urban setting and represented a minority group.

The Poor Team on the Block No More?

McGuire comes to this venture with a decidedly longer view than the long-struggling franchise could have had without a deep-pocketed owner.

Pro soccer came to the region in 1976 when the Denver Dynamos moved to the Twin Cities, became the Minnesota Kicks, and took up residence at Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington. Despite crowds of up to 45,000, the North American Soccer League team folded after the 1981 season, when crowds still totaled a now enviable 16,600 per game.

In 1984, soccer went indoors with the arrival of the Major Indoor Soccer League’s Strikers, whose roster included former Kicks players. The Strikers played four years and folded.

Soccer returned to the great outdoors for its longest run when former Kicks Buzz Lagos and Tom Engstrom formed the Minnesota Thunder, played amateur for five years before going pro, ultimately joining the United States Interregional Soccer League in 1994. The team made it to the finals in 1995 and 1998 and won the championship in 1999. But for all its success on the field, the Thunder, too, was red-carded due to financial issues after its 20th season in 2008.

The National Sports Center in Blaine announced plans to form a team for the 2010 season, NSC Minnesota. A year later, the team announced the NASL would take ownership while it searched for a private buyer.

Last year, under the caretaker ownership of the NASL, when the team was on basic life support, it operated on a $1.2 million budget, the lowest in the league. Still, the team scrapped its way to the NASL cup. In 2012, as unlikely defending champs and after rebranding as the Minnesota Stars, the team again played on an ownerless bubble and, again, made it to the finals.

“This is an established, great team with a winning record, and we intend to build on that,” McGuire says. While McGuire would not quote specifics, the budget is expected to increase somewhat. Since buying the team, McGuire has doubled the staff to roughly 15 employees. (When the NASL reorganized in 2011 it set $2 million to $3 million in annual team spending as a benchmark.)

Still, at press time, with just days before the new season’s beginning, there were few traces of the new Minnesota United FC beyond its website, scarves, and images of new uniforms that won’t be ready for the season opener. Rogers says to expect marketing outreach to roll out as the season evolves.

McGuire, despite his desire to keep ticket prices low and the game broadly accessible, emphasizes that NASL soccer is “not minor league” compared to self-proclaimed Major League Soccer (MLS): “We are not a farm team for someone else.” He cites, for example, the Stars 3-1 defeat of MLS team Real Salt Lake at last year’s U.S. Open Cup in Utah in front of 17,212 fans, one of several MLS teams to go down to defeat at the hands of NASL teams in the tournament.

Nonetheless, the MLS is the prestige league, with teams in many of North America’s larger markets, attracting ESPN telecasts and importing the occasional European player. The going price for an MLS franchise today is around $40 million, whereas an NASL franchise sells around $1 million, says David Morton, principal with the Indianapolis-based Sunrise Sports Group.

The NASL might be analogous to the upstart old American Football League compared to the National Football League. McGuire says he expects attendance at Minnesota United FC matches to eventually reach 20,000, (3,000 more than the average MLS team). Two of the last four teams to join the MLS came from the NASL, including the Montreal Impact, which made the leap last year. Further, with MLS teams in Kansas City and Chicago, adding Minneapolis would make an attractive regional rivalry triad similar to the one developing among MLS teams in Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver.

McGuire and Rogers say they see the crowded sports market as simply a sign of Minnesotans’ strong affinity for spectator sports. Rogers compares it to the disproportionately large local theater scene. “Would [our] level of interest in live theater dissuade you from starting a theater group here? Or would it be encouraging?”

Avid Fans, But Not Enough

On a cold February night in St. Paul, Dark Clouds were sweeping into Sweetwater Bar in St. Paul. Rather than an ominous sign, they are a rabid supporters club that represents a silver lining.

Rogers is there. “I don’t have an agenda here,” he explains. “I just came by to show our appreciation for their support.”

The Dark Clouds, festooned in club scarves, were gathering to kick off 2013 plans to support the team they love with a fervor usually reserved for non-U.S. soccer fans. And they did have an agenda, scheduled to take two hours.

Board member Ben “Pfutz” Pfutzenreuter, 25, an advertising copywriter, explains the Clouds (a reference to previous support for the Minnesota Thunder), fashion themselves after Italian soccer clubs and their choreographed shows of support that last year included the “league’s largest banner in its history.” Pfutzenreuter reports that the Dark Clouds numbered 103 $35 dues-paying members last season. “We take up two sections at games now. There’s been a lot of growth.”

The soccer team they so enthusiastically support has not enjoyed as inspirational a rate of growth. Last year, average attendance was 2,796 fans per game, fifth in the league of eight, up from dead last in 2011. But that, as they say, was then, and this is now.

And as impressive as the Dark Clouds’ well-orchestrated support is, they are also an indication of part of the team’s predicament. With the exception of a few women, all of the Dark Clouds in the room were white males in their 20s and 30s.

Latinos’ passionate devotion to soccer and their growing numbers are well known to every soccer club in the United States. A record 9.4 million U.S. viewers watched Mexico’s World Cup match against Argentina in 2010 on Spanish-language network Univision, nearly double the number who watched on ESPN.

Soccer in the
Twin Cities

 

1976
Denver Dynamos relocate to Bloomington as the Kicks.

1981
Kicks fold.

1984
MISL’s Strikers relocate and play four years.

1989
Former Kicks Buzz Lagos and Tom Engstrom form the Minnesota Thunder.

2008
Thunder folds.

2010
Minnesota Stars form.

2011
NASL announces caretaker ownership.

2012
McGuire purchase announced.

A Marketing Strategy

Two of Minnesota United’s niche-dwelling peers living in the shadow of the big four sports franchises are the St. Paul Saints and Minnesota Swarm. Mike Veeck, Saints co-owner, and John Arlotta, owner of the Swarm, who play lacrosse in St. Paul’s Xcel Center, applaud McGuire’s purchase and welcome another pro sports team into the market.

To Veeck, “more is always better.”

“What I think makes Mr. McGuire’s decision so smart is that this is a truly global sport. I think there is a vein here to be mined. It makes sense from a marketing perspective in an urban area.”

Which brings us to Minnesota United’s home, the National Sports Center in decidedly non- urban Blaine. To illustrate the problem with a Blaine venue, among the agenda items at the Dark Clouds’ first meeting was carpooling. The member with the drum who beats out cheers can’t schlep the drum from where the bus drops him.

Minnesota United kicked off its season April 6 against the San Antonio Scorpions in the more transit-friendly Metrodome, where they’ll play four more games before reverting to Blaine. And the Dome goes away in 2014 as construction of the new Vikings stadium begins.

Without being specific, McGuire says Minnesota United is looking for a permanent home with good access, preferably an outdoor venue with sight lines for soccer, and will be asking the communities they hope to serve which venue they’d prefer. “We believe there are a variety of venues in the Twin Cities that fit this professional soccer team well,” says McGuire.

Rogers thinks for most soccer fans the biggest issue is not “where” but “if”: “For the devoted fan the question hasn’t been the venue, but will this team be here next year?”

Veeck, whose Saints have enjoyed success playing in dilapidated but centrally located Midway Stadium, discounts the impediments of Blaine. “Midway isn’t exactly a garden spot, but we do all right,” he says. Veeck sees the club’s appeal not revolving around a venue, but direct access to the players themselves.

“Soccer guys are so much less spoiled. They go out and mingle with their fans. That willingness to mingle makes social media marketing so much more valuable for [McGuire],” Veeck says. “Makes me envious even thinking about it.”

Though they haven’t spoken, McGuire and Veeck are on the same page about using players for outreach. “Awareness is not just a matter of getting people to come to the team,” McGuire says. “But the team, the players themselves, going out into the community, engaging with amateur players through clinics . . .”

Back at Sweetwater, Pfutzenreuter notes, “I’ve bought drinks for opposing players I was booing an hour before. There’s a level of intimacy to this game you can’t find anywhere else. If you have kids, they both follow and get to know the players. Where else can you get that?”

Arlotta, owner of the Swarm, adds a cautionary note. Despite lacrosse’s recent growth from an Ivy League sport to a nationally played game, the Swarm can’t rely on the athletes who play and their devotedly supportive families to fill the X. “It can’t be just that base,” says Arlotta. “Our tickets are very cheap and our entertainment value is very high.”

Clash of the Titans

As Minnesota United leaves the Dome this summer, it will become the construction site for the new Vikings stadium. Scant attention has been paid to a clause in the stadium legislation that gives owners Zygi and Mark Wilf the right of first refusal to bring an MLS team to play at the new football stadium within five years of the first kickoff in 2016. Clearly soccer is on the minds of the Wilfs, as is the MLS. Which portends a potential partnership or rivalry—between two of the wealthiest sports owners in the region.

But is there really the potential to bring an MLS franchise to the Twin Cities? Morton, of Sunrise Sports Group, says any team aspiring to become the MLS’s next franchise will have to compete with aspiring clubs in Orlando and New York City, which are much closer to entering the league and securing dedicated venues. And, Morton says, the MLS has no presence in the South, giving Orlando a geographic edge.

“The MLS favors soccer-specific venues,” he says; at a minimum “it’s vital for the team to have its own venue because that’s where the revenues are: private suites, signage, etc.” Minnesota United has no such venue. The Vikings do, or will.

With the voters weary of the battles over publicly funded stadia, Morton sees difficulty ahead were McGuire’s group to try to build a MLS-standard venue of its own. “That’s where it gets tricky. To make the numbers work, you generally need the public/private partnership,” Morton says. “Maybe a hard sell in Minnesota.”

But a viable NFL-style venue still requires a team. (MLS’ Seattle Sounders play at CenturyLink Field, home of the NFL Seattle Seahawks; the two teams share common ownership.) Which raises the possibility that McGuire’s team could end up playing in the new Vikings stadium. It’s perhaps the likeliest scenario, Morton says.

At the Minnesota United rebranding event in March, Minneapolis Mayor R. T. Rybak said he expects the team to win a championship there. “Our great hope is that they’ll play in the stadium we’re building. It needs to be designed with soccer in mind.”

McGuire predictably brushes the business aside: “We are not focused on what someone else might do in the future. There’s really no need to speculate, and we certainly aren’t spending a lot of energy thinking about it. We already have professional soccer in Minnesota, and a quality and successful team at that.”

The Vikings are working to get a stadium designed in time to break ground in fall. “[Soccer has] been put on a back burner,” says Vikings spokesperson Jeff Anderson.

But that can’t be entirely the case, because a retractable roof on the facility has been directly connected to making it viable for the MLS, which only plays outdoors. “We are still working on a design with a retractable feature,” Anderson says. “It is definitely still a goal of the Vikings.” He adds, “We know and respect Mr. McGuire and share his goal of soccer thriving in Minnesota.”

For any of this to happen, soccer will have to prove its commercial appeal in the region again. Then there is the matter of that $40 million fee to join the MLS, well within the means of an owner like McGuire or Wilf, but hardly supported by the current economic turnover of the team, which barely justified McGuire’s estimated purchase price of between $1 million and $2 million.

What is clear is that soccer has found a prominence in North America that would surprise even the most dedicated Kicks fan of 1978—a prominence that justifies the interest of savvy local sports magnates and business leaders alike.

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