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?
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?
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.
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.