Major League Soccer blew into Minnesota for Wednesday’s expansion announcement-turned-pep rally with the swagger of a young, booming business. And rightfully so: Just beginning its 20th year, the league celebrated record attendance last season and has aggressively targeted four new franchises in the next three years, including the Twin Cities.
The league commissioner, the team owner and the soccer royalty on hand spoke of Minnesota United FC’s promotion to the big leagues, which could come as soon as 2017, as a can’t-miss chip shot on an open net.
Amid the excitement and deserved optimism, however, are challenges, even beyond this big one: United owner Bill McGuire has yet to reveal his group’s plan to build a home field. Secondary to the stadium question is whether the Twin Cities, which would be the third-smallest of 11 U.S. markets expected to soon play host to the five major pro sports leagues, can handle another player in its crowded sports scene.
Attendance at sporting events is down throughout the Twin Cities, from high school fields to major league stadiums. Minnesota ticket buyers are putting the old line “if you build it, they will come” to the test.
The Twins, possible future neighbors to and collaborators with an MLS team, saw a million fewer fans last season than in Target Field’s opening season of 2010. Gophers football crowds are down 3,000 per game from the opening season after six years at TCF Bank Stadium. The Timberwolves hit all-time lows in season-ticket holders and average attendance in the past year. Not even the Gophers women’s hockey team, perhaps the most dominant team in any sport in the region, is immune from apathy or oversaturation: attendance slid 25 percent this national-championship season.
Is pro soccer equipped to attract and retain fans already passing on a plethora of existing options?
“Are there enough soccer fans in Minnesota and the region to support soccer? Our answer is a resounding yes,” said Dan Courtemanche, executive vice president of communications for MLS.
The confidence of MLS and soccer believers comes from more places than turnstile numbers. All-time highs were set last season in TV viewership — powered by an agreement with ESPN, worth an estimated $90 million a year — Internet traffic and social media engagement. On the back of the league’s momentum, 15 soccer-specific stadiums now stand in the United States. Beyond Minnesota, the league is planning expansion teams in Miami, a second team in Los Angeles and another lower-league promotion in Atlanta, where 20,000 season-ticket deposits have been made, Courtemanche said.
Building it right
McGuire, United FC owner, agreed that Minnesota features a lot of sports teams competing for the fans’ attention.
“We do have a lot of sports here, at different levels,” he said. “That puts us in rarefied [air] among major cities in America.”
But he said the key, at least for his MLS team, will be to build a small stadium — he used 18,500 seats as an example — that stands a better chance of always being full, especially once the novelty subsides.
“We’re not talking about building something that’s totally out of whack,” McGuire said.
Last season United averaged 5,577 fans per home match, near the top of North American Soccer League attendance rankings, at the National Sports Center in Blaine. A desire to nearly quadruple its attendance, while daunting, is not unprecedented.
Current MLS teams Portland, Seattle and Toronto once shared a lower-tier league with the former Minnesota Thunder. Those franchises have since seen explosive increases in ticket sales, and Seattle led all MLS clubs in average home attendance (43,734) last season.
MLS Commissioner Don Garber called soccer stadiums “cathedrals” that provide the sport its “cornerstone.” He later would say the downtown Minneapolis stadium plans — aimed at the Farmers Market, if McGuire’s group succeeds — need to be secured to finalize the deal. “And if not,” the commissioner said, “then we’ll have to take a step back, mutually, and assess whether or not it makes sense.”
Amid MLS’ stadium and attendance success, a cautionary tale can be found in Montreal. Attendance there dropped 15 percent last season from 2013, the first full season the Impact played in its newly renovated stadium.
A good match?
Why might the Twin Cities be considered a better bet to replicate Portland or Kansas City, rather than Montreal? The market is fertile in both of MLS’ most successful demographics. At 44 percent, millennials (ages 18-34) are the largest MLS fan base. In Hennepin County, the population of young adults rose nearly 25 percent during the past seven years, one of the biggest gains in the nation. Latino fans make up 32 percent of MLS fans, the highest among U.S. pro leagues. The Latino population in the Twin Cities will more than double, to 373,000 people in 2040, according to Metropolitan Council estimates.
In front of Wednesday’s excited crowd, Garber expressed “total belief in the Twin Cities, a market that is young, that is diverse, that has more people driving their bicycles around than they do in Brooklyn and Brooklyn is a pretty hip place.”
But the relative small size of the Twin Cities market means high numbers of those targeted demographics must be engaged, said John Wendt, professor of ethics and business law at the University of St. Thomas.
“They get a double bonus of having a new stadium downtown,” Wendt said. “The challenge is, do we have the population for it?”
A different breed
The empty rows of benches in TCF Bank Stadium’s student sections are a common sight for home games, and possibly a bad sign for a sport hoping to attract tens of thousands of fans from the same millennial audience. Some metro-area high schools have stopped charging students for sporting events in hopes of seeing a few of them in the stands.
“This is a generation that grew up with ESPN, [and] they’re used to seeing highlights,” Jim Kahler, the director of Ohio University’s Center for Sports Administration, told the Star Tribune last fall. “They want it now. ... To sit there and wait for the outcome of the game almost seems to be asking too much.”
What gives Courtemanche confidence, however, is the unique-to-the-U.S. makeup of soccer fans. The game’s followers, he said, exist in a “unique silo,” unmoved by trends in other sports. New York City FC, in its inaugural MLS season, counts 60 percent of its season-ticket holders as first-time buyers in any sport, Courtemanche said.
“There’s going to be great enthusiasm the first few years of MLS,” said Buzz Lagos, who founded the Thunder and whose son, Manny, coaches United. “I think as long as you can provide a great fan experience and a good quality side, you’re going to be successful. But you have to do it well. It hasn’t worn off in Seattle and Portland and Kansas City.”
In Kansas City, “We made sure we became the third sport in this market rather than a second-tier sport like arena football or minor league hockey,” Chief Marketing Officer Andy Tretiak said.
In Seattle, “It started with our owners saying, ‘We are not going to be a typical expansion team. We are going to be above reproach,’ ” Chief Operating Officer Bart Wiley said. “We know our place. We know we’re soccer. We’re different. We’re unique.”
That’s the challenge that awaits the future United franchise: to be unique in a market that has uneven attendance at sporting events. If Day 1 of United’s MLS tenure is any sign — with team supporters, draped in scarves, chanting cheerful songs and storming through Wednesday’s news conference — unique shouldn’t be a problem.
Staff writer Mike Kaszuba contributed to this report.