There has been much celebration this week among local pro soccer fans, who officially will see the local team into MLS next season. Just six years ago, though, things weren't looking so good. The Minnesota Thunder had folded after the 2009 season, leaving the National Sports Center to sponsor a low-budget professional team in the second division. The Star Tribune's Roman Augustoviz checked things out on August 10, 2010 - and it's amazing how far things have come.
PRO SOCCER: GAME IN SEARCH OF FANS
The summer evening in Blaine was ideal for soccer.
The fans at the National Sports Center's stadium were in high spirits. The NSC Minnesota Stars were playing the Puerto Rico Islanders on July 21, and a dozen fans with Puerto Rican flags cheered the guests.
There were youngsters in soccer jerseys, young adults drawn to the beer garden, and older folks passionate about a sport often called the beautiful game.
One man pounded a big drum, another played a horn. There were scattered vuvuzelas. Late in the game, with the score tied, those in the beer garden chanted "Minnesota goal." Sung with gusto, the words sounded inspiring.
The atmosphere would have been perfect except for the sparse crowd of 872 in a stadium that comfortably fits 10 times that many. The "reserved seating" sign in a middle section was superfluous.
Professional soccer in Minnesota is struggling.
This despite the recent World Cup, which was wildly popular, with large television ratings, and overflow crowds at sports bars. And this despite the large number of youth soccer participants in the state; 75,000 kids are registered to play.
Brit's Pub, in downtown Minneapolis, had to turn people away on July 11 when Spain and the Netherlands met in the World Cup final. And Brit's holds 2,130 patrons. Almost all of them seemed to be sitting on Brit's outdoor lawn bowling field, watching on a huge TV screen. Most revelers were in their 20s and eager to cheer.
The Stars can only dream of packed stands. In its first year of operation, the team is averaging 1,421 fans through 11 home games. The Stars were founded in January on the ashes of the better-known Minnesota Thunder, which folded last year after 15 seasons because of financial problems. In its best season at the gate, the Thunder averaged 4,400.
So why have the Thunder and its successor, the Stars, failed to attract more fans?
The reasons, some close watchers of the sport say, include a lack of marketing prowess, a perception the Stars play second-rate soccer, stadium location and a glut of other sports options.
Stars are dim
Barclay Kruse is the chief communications officer at the NSC, which makes him the voice of the Stars. He said the team operates on revenue from three principal sources -- tickets, soccer camps and sponsors (Schwan's is the biggest). All three have brought in less money than anticipated.
"We need to average somewhere in the 2,200 to 2,500 range," Kruse said. "It's not an impossible place to get."
The problem, he said, is the Stars, who have an $800,000 budget this year, need ticket sales and other revenue to be able to afford mass market advertising; and without extensive advertising, it is hard to draw fans.
He said some Thunder fans come to Stars games, but "their fan base wasn't significantly large."
Bruce McGuire, who writes a soccer blog called du Nord, said the Stars need to be consistent in their marketing: "Pound, pound, pound. The people who come to games are awesome. They love it and they are into it. But there needs to be a lot more of them."
Scott Berg of Burnsville came to the Puerto Rico game with his daughter Grace, 10. She got a free ticket at a soccer camp. "As I'm sitting here and watching the game, I am thinking I should have brought all the girls to watch this game," said Berg, who coaches Grace's youth team. "This is great soccer."
But not good enough, perhaps, to draw a big audience.
Big names elsewhere
"There are a lot of people who may shun our league," said Stars defender Kevin Friedland, who played with the Thunder for six years. "They think we are not Major League Soccer, but we have a lot of guys here who can play."
Some of his teammates have played in the MLS; others will in a year or two, Friedland said. There are 18 MLS teams at the top of the pro soccer pyramid in this country and 12 in U.S. Soccer Federation's Division II league.
Stars coach Manny Lagos, who has played soccer in Europe and on U.S. national teams, said Division II soccer is not that far below top levels. "It is different, but it is not crazy different," he said. "[Our] guys are going to play at higher levels and we play against MLS teams all the time."
Puerto Rico, the team the Stars recently tied, beat the Los Angeles Galaxy 4-1 July 27. The Galaxy is in first place in the Western Conference of the MLS and features U.S. national team standout Landon Donovan.
But even an MLS opponent isn't a guaranteed draw. The Stars canceled a June 20 game against the MLS Chicago Fire because of "insufficient pregame ticket sales."
Todd Bradbury of Maple Grove was at Brit's to watch Spain win the World Cup, but he said he has no interest in the MLS or the Stars. "The World Cup is bigger than the Olympics," he said. "I admire and respect the passion of the fans, particularly those from the European and South American countries."
That's the type of crowd the Stars (7-9-6), whose next home game is at 7 p.m. Saturday against Vancouver, hope to see in the future. If people who yell at the other team and sing and chant start coming to games, Friedland said, support for the Stars will grow.
Blaine an outpost
"The challenge for the Stars is to convince people this is their team," said Buzz Lagos, Manny's father, a former Thunder coach and co-founder of the team. "That is not easy to do."
Jim and Debbie Propes of Woodbury watched every game of the World Cup, a few more than once. They have followed the Minnesota Kicks, Strikers and Thunder, all gone now. But the Puerto Rico game was their first trip to see the Stars.
"For a 7 o'clock game, trying to go across the Twin Cities in this traffic is terrible with all the construction," Jim Propes said. "I love the facility, but it is a little bit out of the way."
Fans also have the option of spending their entertainment dollar on four major league teams or the Gophers sports teams. "We are really oversaturated in a sense," said Inside Minnesota Soccer blogger Brian Quarstad.
"I'm still optimistic about the Stars having success overall," Buzz Lagos said. "Every four years there will be incredible interest in soccer. Nobody can stop the interest in the World Cup."
Tapping into that soccer passion, somehow, is a challenge Minnesota's pro teams haven't yet solved.