Minnesota Stars face bigger challenge: Winning new fans, owner

  • Article by: DAVID LA VAQUE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 6, 2012 - 11:36 PM

The Stars hope a season opener at the Dome generates more interest.

Kentaro Takada (13), in an exhibition Monday against FC Edmonton, and the rest of the Stars feel the pressure to build attendance.

Photo: Bre McGee, Star Tribune

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The Minnesota Stars won the North American Soccer League championship in 2011 despite entering the playoffs as the sixth and final seed.

Yet their real challenge begins Saturday night.

The Stars open their season at the Metrodome against Carolina hoping their championship attracts larger crowds and a local owner with a hefty net worth.

The team, which usually plays its home games in Blaine, ranked last in the eight-team league in attendance last year. The 7:30 p.m. game at the Metrodome is the first pro soccer match there since David Beckham came to town in 2007.

Drawing more fans would boost the team's appeal to a prospective owner. The current owner is the NASL, which is in the second year of a three-year commitment to fund the Stars. Front office officials from both the league and the team hope to secure local ownership for the Stars this year.

"We're in a state of urgency but not desperation," Stars CEO Djorn Buchholz said. "I think it needs to happen during this calendar year."

Buchholz and NASL Commissioner David Downs said the championship brought forth individuals and groups exploring ownership possibilities. But it's a high bar. U.S. Soccer Federation guidelines call for a NASL majority owner to have a net worth of at least $20 million.

Buchholz believes there is a wealth of potential owners in the Twin Cities who meet the financial requirement. Those with an interest in soccer "starts to narrow the field a bit," he said.

Downs said, "We want an entrepreneur who looks at this as a solid business opportunity, not as a charity or hobby."

Attracting an owner, Buchholz said, starts with increasing the fan base. Though more than 4,000 fans attended the first leg of the two-game, total-goal championship series, the Stars' average attendance of 1,676 ranked last in the league. Montreal, which moved up to Major League Soccer this season, led with an average of 11,507. Average league attendance was 3,770.

As of Friday afternoon, Buchholz said about 5,500 tickets -- some costing as little as $5 -- were sold for Saturday's season opener. He anticipated a crowd of 8,000 to 10,000. The Stars' regular home is Blaine's National Sports Center, a 20-minute drive north of downtown Minneapolis.

"If we put on a good show, I think it's going to lead to people coming up to Blaine," Buchholz said. "We're going to try to captivate people at the Metrodome who haven't been to a Stars game. Then we've got about a month to push season tickets."

Downs said he would be "appalled if attendance didn't improve" this season.

Buchholz projects selling 350 to 400 season tickets by the May 5 game at the National Sports Center, which would be up from 250 at about the same point in 2011. He said sponsorship dollars are up, as well.

"We've accomplished what we've wanted to accomplish on the field, but we're a ways off in the front office," Buchholz said. "If attendance doesn't increase, we didn't do our jobs capitalizing on being champions."

Stars captain Kyle Altman said players also feel a sense of purpose beyond the pitch this season.

"We have high hopes because it's a lot easier to market a winning team," Altman said. "The theme in our minds is, 'Let's give these fans absolutely zero excuses for not coming out and supporting us.' The fans we have are loyal, but in terms of quantity, we don't have very much."

The Stars arose in 2010 out of the ashes of the Minnesota Thunder. The National Sports Center owned the team for one season before the NASL took over in 2011.

Downs said the Stars' championship run "absolutely justified our commitment to keep them in business. But it's clearly not something we want to do long term."

  • MINNESOTA STARS FC VS. CAROLINA RAILHAWKS • 7:30 p.m. Saturday • Metrodome

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