Realism — and the future — prompts Thunder to end soccer-in-the-city experiment

If you’re a soccer person and you think of soccer at all in Minnesota, you instantly think of Blaine.

You’ve played there. Your kids have played there. The USA Cup, with thousands of youth soccer players from around the world, is staged there. It seems as if there are almost as many soccer fields (52) at Blaine’s National Sports Center as there are Beemers in Edina (more than 52).

Still, if you live in the core cities of Minneapolis or St. Paul or the southern suburbs, you think, “Ugh! Way out there? Isn’t Blaine somewhere near Winnipeg?”

No, it’s not. That’s just the haughty perception of a Twin Cities long ago. Go ahead, click to Mapquest, that vortex of important mileage data.

The National Sports Center is closer to Minneapolis City Hall than Edina’s 50th and France is to Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.

It’s closer than booming Maple Grove is to the Metrodome.

It’s closer to downtown Minneapolis than Maplewood is to Target Center.

Move to Blaine a logical step

And now, once again, for all sorts of reasons, the Minnesota Thunder, the state’s just-shy-of-major-league-pro-soccer-team is moving back to Blaine after struggling in St. Paul for four seasons at Central High School’s James Griffin Stadium, which is centrally located but has bathrooms, concessions stands and parking fit for … a poorly attended high-school football game.

The Thunder announced Monday that the team is immediately moving its home games to Blaine — where it played for 14 seasons. In 2004, under a previous ownership, the reasons to abandon Blaine were somewhat obvious: Blaine was too far away, they said; and the team wanted to appeal to the region’s growing ethnic communities in urban areas.

But, alas, attendance actually dipped in St. Paul. While current Thunder President Manny Lagos was coy about recent attendance at Griffin — “anywhere between 3- and 4,000,” he said — the Pioneer Press reported last month that attendance “plateaued at about 3,000 a game” last season in the 6,000-seat stadium.

In 2003, the final season at Blaine, the team averaged 4,101 fans per game, according to a report in the Star Tribune in 2004.

Attendance aside, Griffin Stadium’s field is too narrow for soccer, has multiple markings on its artificial turf for different sports — the football lines confuse any soccer spectator — had limited beer sales — which will increase at Blaine — and virtually no parking. (Look for the Thunder to charge for some premium parking in Blaine.)

Now, I’m a core city kind of guy, live about five miles from Griffin Stadium, have kids who went to the St. Paul public schools and played in that stadium. But that’s no venue for a pro sports franchise that has visions of establishing itself  as a legitimate consumer option in a ridiculously cluttered sports marketplace where other teams are playing in sparkling — and some new — palaces.

National Sports Center to invest in soccer

As part of the move to Blaine, the Thunder and National Sports Center — a largely state-built facility under the political auspices of the Rudy Perpich-created Minnesota Amateur Sports Commission — will make about $250,000 of improvements and renovations to the Blaine stadium, according to NSC spokesman Barclay Kruse.

A running track — once optimistically envisioned as the site of high-level track meets — will be eliminated and the soccer field moved 80 feet closer to the stadium’s permanent west bleachers. According to Kruse, the NSC and the team will share in the costs of the fix-up. By the way, the field is regulation soccer size and has natural grass.

“A true soccer environment,” is what Lagos calls it.

The word “synergy” makes me gag, but it’s true that the soccer synergies in Blaine are a ticket seller’s and marketing department’s no-brainer. Youth soccer tournaments abound. Summer evenings with hundreds of kids and their parents hauling to Blaine to play will now have a pro game in their midst. In the competitive world of youth soccer tournaments, adding a pro game to the tournament is a selling plus for the NSC, Kruse said. The Blaine stadium’s been sitting empty. Meanwhile, the Thunder make a little more dough on food, beer and, maybe, tickets sold.

Blaine becomes the regional soccer destination, whether we city folks grumble or the price of a tank of gas exceeds the average salary of a Thunder player. (By the way, Lagos said the team is planning to develop shuttles from St. Paul to reduce driving and, presumably, the Thunder’s carbon footprint.)

Of course, the key question that arises out of this move is whether it signals that Thunder owner Dean Johnson, a real estate developer of some means, is abandoning his bombastic efforts to build a new, 20,000-seat soccer-only stadium in St. Paul.

The Legislature sure didn’t embrace the city of St. Paul’s efforts this session to make necessary improvements to Midway Stadium for the Saints and begin to build youth soccer facilities across the city. That effort was a flop. And the city itself didn’t place the Thunder on its list of priorities this session.

Still, Joe Spencer, Mayor Chris Coleman’s policy associate for arts and culture, said of the Thunder’s retreat to Blaine:  “It doesn’t really mean much in the long term.”  He said Thunder officials told him they still plan a core-city stadium effort.

Lagos told MinnPost: “We are looking towards Blaine as a long-term play in that we are going to be up there as an organization doing something and use that stadium from now on. We’re going to continue right now to push our urban initiative to have an even more state-of-the-art soccer specific stadium in the urban core … We have to grow into that. I will say this [move to Blaine] is going to be a nice way to help the team grow into this.”

Shot at separate pro soccer stadium is off target

The new lease in Blaine runs through 2011. Face it, even if a site and a funding source were found today — not going to happen — there’s virtually no way a new high-end soccer stadium could be ready for the 2012 season. Besides, there’s still no evidence this sports marketplace will support a less-than-Major League Soccer franchise to the tune of 10,000 or 12,000 fans per game.

With a new Gophers football stadium, a new Twins ballpark, a (potentially) new Vikings stadium, a renovated Saints ballpark and a planned new Gophers baseball stadium on tap … good luck generating political energy for a new soccer stadium. (Note: Philadelphia is planning a new soccer-only stadium for more than $100 million.)

“We’d love to have them stay longer than 2011,” said the National Sports Center’s Kruse.

For the foreseeable future, the soccer-in-the-city experiment has failed, and the region’s top-flight soccer club is back in the ‘burbs. It just could be that’s where the Thunder can succeed. It might be where they belong.

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Andy Wattenhofer on 05/14/2008 - 11:21 am.

    Unlike the Gophers, Twins, and Vikings, the Thunder is not looking for public financing of the stadium. Four years is entirely possible, especially considering that work toward the goal of building a stadium has been progressing for nine months already.

  2. Submitted by Dave Wright on 05/13/2008 - 03:11 pm.

    Soccer in St. Paul didn’t fail. The stadium did. It was a bad marriage from the start. Jay is right about Griffin. It was built for high school football in the 1940s and it looks it. Give the team a better facility and it could have a chance to succeed.

  3. Submitted by Brian Quarstad on 05/13/2008 - 07:30 pm.

    Jay, Most of what you say is pretty close to on. But there a few things you haven’t take into consideration.

    First, I think the move is most likely the right thing for the team. But if you read my take on this. (Click on my link and you will see my piece), you will understand that the Thunder were in the city during a period of time when the (former) owners claimed they didn’t have the capital to shell out for much of anything. The team camps are the only thing that kept the them afloat.

    So during this time the money spent on players dropped to the lowest in the league and the team play on the field reflected this same drop. The team was dismal the last three years. As well, there was no cash for marketing and no staff for it either, as the team was run on a shoestring budget. You can’t draw fans with a losing team and no marketing on top that.

    Recently the team pulled off a coup by hiring away the the Xcel center, marketing guru Peter Johns. As well, the team has increased the player budget by over 200% and this has already started to prove fruitful as the team are currently 3-1-0. Had the team continued to stay in the city, with the renewed team, a true marketing man at the helm and a marketing budget that was far beyond anything the team had in the past, the Thunder were poised to actually make Soccer in the City work. But you are correct, the facilities were not fit for a professional franchise and the pointy ball lines as well as the exceptionally narrow field hampered the players and the fan experience.

    However, James Griffin, or The Jimmy as it was coined, had it’s merit. The supporters fan base became very strong while in St. Paul and the team started picking up dedicated soccer followers and not just mom and dads with kids. The mom and dads with kids are great, but go to MLS stadiums across the country and you will see that they are not who are filling up the stadiums. Yes, of course they’re important. But it’s the hard core soccer fan who are growing in numbers all the time that make up the base of this support for soccer teams. In St. Paul, that hard core fan base grew. Partly because the fan experience was actually better there in many ways. You were close to the action where in Blaine the olympic sized track and fencing created a cold and sterile atmosphere.

    The Thunder front office will tell you that going to watch soccer is not the same as going to watch many other sports. It is very much the “experience” of going to the game, the crowd, the passion that has made the sport what it is world wide. Soccer in the city actually started to have that. Let’s hope that the newly laid out NSC can continue to capture that feel without suffering through poor facilities like The Jimmy.

    Lastly, why is it that I always hear that soccer should be played in Blaine, when all other sports seem to be suited just fine for downtown St. Paul or Mpls. The team WILL be back in city someday. It’s where it belongs.

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