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Kicking around another Vikings stadium twist: Could a new stadium lure Major League Soccer?

New York Cosmos player Pele tangles with Minnesota Kicks player Alan Merrick in a 1976 match at the old Met.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
New York Cosmos player Pele tangles with Minnesota Kicks player Alan Merrick in a 1976 match at the old Met.

Will Minnesota someday soon have high-level professional soccer to kick around again, evoking the glory days of the Minnesota Kicks playing in front of 20,000 fans per game at outdoor Met Stadium in Bloomington three decades ago?

More fundamentally, can this cluttered sports market handle yet another pro sports team?

A little-noticed wrinkle in the Vikings stadium push is the possibility that Major League Soccer — MLS — the top North American league, would expand to the Twin Cities and play in the new Arden Hills facility.

That has been repeatedly mentioned by Vikings owner Zygi Wilf as a benefit of a new $1.2 billion stadium. And an MLS spokesman confirmed this week that the league and the Vikings are in touch.

The Twin Cities market, said former Kicks player and longtime soccer entrepreneur Alan Merrick, is "ripe for supporting the top level of play" in the United States.

Brian Quarstad, the premier chronicler of soccer in Minnesota through his IMSoccernews, said, "I'm excited about the prospects of it," meaning expansion by the MLS to the Twin Cities. "But I have some questions about how genuine [the Vikings] are."

That is, are the Wilfs simply attempting to build some political support among the hundreds of thousands of families of soccer-playing kids in the state?

If they are, does that matter? After all, various incarnations of second-division or "minor league" soccer have not fared well here, with the latest team, the NSC Minnesota Stars, playing to crowds in the 1,000-fan range. The youth soccer world hasn't exactly translated into ticket sales. Would it translate into a political base?

The MLS
Still, if you haven't been watching, you should know that Major League Soccer is flourishing nationally, expanding to 18 teams, with two more on tap: one in Montreal in 2012 and a 20th team — perhaps a second one in the New York market — soon, the league says.

An increase of talented American-born players and international imports has lifted the level of play in the MLS, soccer buffs told us. It's not the English Premier League, but it's good soccer, we're told.

A gaggle of issues would face the Wilfs — or any potential ownership group — in bringing an MLS team to this market.

The first is one that we've written about frequently, and it's echoed by Quarstad: "the oversaturation in this market" of sports options, he said.

A 30-game MLS season runs from March through October, during which a local soccer team would need to compete with all that Minnesota already has to offer: the Twins, Vikings, Wild, Timberwolves, Lynx, Saints, Swarm lacrosse, Gophers sports of all sorts, and high school sports.

Plus, that's a key time for youth soccer leagues to be operating, with their families tied up watching the kids play. Ask the WNBA Lynx how hard it is to attract crowds in the summer.

Even if there is a core soccer market here, MLS ticket prices are in another realm from the minor-league fan costs: The NSC Stars' price range is $6 to $25; a scan of ticket prices in similarly sized markets as ours shows MLS tickets can range from $15 to $90 per game.

Could this market, over time, hit the MLS average attendance of about 17,000 fans per game?

Right-sized stadium?
While there are no league mandates, "soccer-specific stadiums are encouraged," MLS spokesman Dan Courtemanche said.

Across the league, stadiums in the 18,000 to 25,000 range are now dominant, with a few outliers, such as Qwest Field in Seattle and Gillette Stadium in suburban Boston playing in NFL-size 67,000-seat stadiums. The Seattle team has been attracting crowds above 30,000 per game, but the New England Revolution averaged about 13,000 fans per game rattling around in their large venue.

"I think soccer-specific is the way to go," said Quarstad, while acknowledging that soccer boosters in town would take what they could get.

But both Quarstad and Merrick believe a suburban site for Minnesota soccer is the wrong location.

It's counter-intuitive; there's a clichéd image of soccer moms and dads driving their kids from one cul-de-sac to another in a game that's supposedly quintessentially suburban.

Instructively, though, both Merrick and Quarstad asserted in separate interviews that, in their opinions, a Major League Soccer franchise would succeed more easily in a Twin Cities urban setting.

"It has to be the right facility in the right location," said Merrick. "I'm not sold on the Arden Hills facility. It's too far away. People tend to not gravitate to out-of- the-way locations."

Merrick views the proposed — but now seemingly dormant — Farmers Market site in the Minneapolis downtown as the best soccer site.

A quick analysis of MLS facilities shows that many are in suburban settings, but Quarstad agrees with Merrick that "Urban stadiums in the MLS are almost a must," adding that public transit is critical to the success of a soccer team.

Why? In recent years, the league has targeted the critical 21- to 34-year old "hipster" male market, those who buy season tickets, merchandise, drink beer, chant songs, get rowdy and offer a more international flavor.

A 2010 Scarborough Sports Marketing study shows MLS fans skew heavily male, younger than any of the other major sports leagues and more Latino than any league. The Twin Cities' ethnic communities — generally based in the core cities — would be tapped for support.

Expansion chances
All that said, imminent MLS expansion is already spoken for in Montreal and, presumably, New York. (Of course, optimistically speaking, a Vikings stadium won't be ready much before 2015 or 2016.)

There are no teams in the southeastern part of the country — from Atlanta to Florida — where a large Latino population lives. That's an area in the country that the MLS would want to capture.

But this market would be attractive to the MLS, too. It is seeking to establish regional rivalries. With Kansas City and Chicago within striking distance, a Minnesota franchise could develop a Midwest competitive triangle much like the one the league is developing in Seattle, Vancouver and Portland.

For sure, tradition is here. The old Kicks of the old North American Soccer League enjoyed six fun years at Met Stadium before the fad died, and attendance tumbled from as much as 33,000 per game in 1977 to 17,000 in 1981.

There are lots of fond memories among soccer lovers. If the Wilfs want to evoke that spirit, they will have to chat with Merrick, the former Kicks player and longtime Twin Cities soccer coach.

Merrick owns the Minnesota Kicks name. "I don't want just anybody using that name," Merrick said.

After the Wilfs, or any owner, pays for that piece of history, they will have another goal to score: an MLS franchise fee is now $40 million.

It's a sizable amount to plunk down for the right to take another Twin Cities sports risk.

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Comments (12)

The last thing we need in the area is another professional sports team.

I know, let's build a separate "soccer-specific" stadium! I was wracking my brain trying to figure out what stadium we can build once the Vikings' stadium is done. I'll do anything to avoid having to spend my tax dollars on schools or infrastructure!

I am loving this idea!

#mls4mn

www.mls4mn.com

Does the MLS require real grass as a playing surface? If it does or if Zygi want his MLS team playing on real grass, build a stadium like the AZ Cardinals with a playing surface the moves in and out of the stadium for use inside only when needed. Could have an artificial field moving in and out the other side of the stadium for all the amateur sporting events that will be held there. Building yet another stadium for MLB is preposterous!

The Kicks games were fun in Bloomington, the only problem is can we get the San Diego Chicken to come back, got 8mm film of that so maybe its been a few years, but what's wrong with bringing it all back to Bloomington?

At MinnPost Asks this past Monday night, Mr. Mondale said that Los Angeles has the Staples Center that is shared by three teams and posed the question, 'Why can't any of the area teams share a facility'. Why can't they??
Granted the Vikings are a high level team-they are the biggest monetary draw in our area, but what about the St. Paul Saints sharing a stadium with a soccer team or the Wild and the Timberwolves sharing a facility?

Any reason that MLS team cannot play at TCF Bank stadium on the University campus?

This is centrally located, outdoors and closer to the MLS-preferred size. Plus, it sits unused about 360 days per year.

@Dan,
Unfortunately, by most accounts Gophers stadium was designed with lip-service to soccer, but it is too small to be seriously considered for a major soccer event.
This is one of the reasons why we're hoping Wilf is paying more than lip-service to MLS.
Check out our FAQs on this issue:
http://www.mls4mn.com/

Tony,
I like this idea of having real grass inside a stadium with a retractable roof. I emailed this to Senator Julie Rosen, who is currently working on the stadium bill. And I used the University of Phoenix Stadium as a good example. It's funny, this stadium costed about $450 million back in 2006, and now look how much it's going to cost.

Deborah,
I agree that our teams should share venues like in Los Angeles. However, there is no way a soccer team can share one with the St. Paul Saints. I could foresee the Saints sharing one with Gopher baseball team, but not soccer. FYI: The Wild and Swarm already share the X. And the Wolves and Lynx share Target Center. There is no reason why the Vikings can't share their stadium with an MLS team, which is what the Wilf wants to do.

Wes,
I don't know what you are saying about TCF Bank Stadium being too small to be considered for a major soccer event, but 50,000+ seats is more than plenty to house MLS soccer.

Not sure if I buy the logic of Merrick and Quarstad about needing to have an MLS team located in an urban setting. When the Kicks drew more than 30,000 fans for back to back seasons during the 70s, Bloomington wasn't exactly the urban setting these two were talking about. I am really surprised with Merrick's remarks on Arden Hills being too far away, which is less than 20 miles to either downtown Mpls or St Paul. Obviously, he has never lived in Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, or any other big city where 10 to 15 miles is nothing. MLS will only work in MN if fans have a great place to tailgait before the games. That's what made the MN Kicks successful for 4 years during the 70s. Since constructing a huge parking lot outside the stadium is nearly impossible in Mpls or St Paul, unfortunately it will never happen in either downtown. The MN Strikers averaged less than 15,000 fans a game while playing in downtown back in 1984, which is significantly less than what the Kicks averaged at the Met.

@CJ
I'm not talking about seating being to small. Rather, a lot of these stadiums are designed for football assuming that the field can automatically be used as a soccer pitch. The dimensions of the Gophers field are designed in a way that couldn't seriously be considered for a FIFA game.

@Wes,
Thanks for your clarification. The dimensions of a soccer field are not specific. The length can range from 100-130 yards, and the width can range from 50-100 yards. As long as the Gopher stadium is at least 50 yards wide, then it can have soccer games too. However, FIFA prefers that a stadium for the World Cup be 100 meters long by 64 meters wide. So TCF Stadium has plenty of length, but not sure if it quite has the width.