Supporting Pro Soccer in Minnesota; Making a Commitment to the Game
This Saturday, April 30th, Minnesota will be fortunate to experience a home opener for their professional soccer team for the 22nd consecutive year. At one time Minnesota soccer fans used to come out in droves to support professional soccer. However, between good and bad years on the field, ownership changes, venue changes and finally, the disappearance of one team and the beginning of another, attendance dwindled and apathy may have set in.
After the Minnesota Thunder folded in 2010, the National Sports Center [NSC] stepped up and started a new division 2 pro soccer team [same level as the Thunder] to keep the pro game here in Minnesota. Once again, the team went through an ownership change this off season due to new financial threshold requirements by U.S. Soccer.
This year’s Stars are owned by the new provisionally sanctioned D-2 league, the North American Soccer League (NASL).
Last year, with the NSC as owners, the Stars were restricted by one of the tightest budgets since the early Thunder years. Manny Lagos still did a good job with the on-field product. The Stars were the only expansion club to make the playoffs in 2010. However, with little money spent on advertising and promotion, the team saw the lowest attendance figures, 1,289 average, since before 1996 when the Thunder joined the USISL.
Djorn Buchholz, CEO of the Minnesota Stars, says he wants to turn that around. Buchholz returned to Minnesota after a successful year as CEO of the Austin Aztex in 2010. The former Thunder GM told IMS in January he was always under tight financial constraints with the old Thunder, something he did not have to deal with in Austin. The new Stars ownership, the NASL, have backed Buchholz, Lagos and the Minnesota organization and want to make the team successful. Aaron Davidson, CEO for the NASL, told IMS in January it’s their hope to find new owners for the team and Buchholz believes if he can get attendance up it will make Minnesota a desirable place to own a pro soccer franchise.
The Minnesota Stars front office have already doubled last year’s season ticket sales even on short notice. The team had only 3 months since they found out there would be a team and a league to play in for 2011. Buchholz says they must do much better and calls on the soccer leaders in Minnesota to lead the charge.
“We need to sell tickets,” said Buchholz. “Ticket sales have got to be the root and base of any professional sports organization. If people believe in this thing and want it to be around we need them to come out and support it.”
“In the past a lot of people who are leaders in the soccer community have had the idea that supporting the team was going to a game or two which is great,” said Buchholz. “The downside to that is typically they would know someone who knew someone who would get them into the game for free. At the end of the day that mentality is a big reason why we’ve had a lot of fluctuation in soccer here.”
“I think that mainly falls on the team because they haven’t done a great job of selling tickets. That’s something we’re trying to change. We’ve hired three tickets salespeople and I’ve been meeting personally with many of the soccer clubs trying to develop relationships with them.
Buchholz says he can see the attitude starting to change as a number of youth soccer clubs have stepped up and partnered with the team for Club Nights including: Blaine Soccer Club, Cambridge-Isanti Soccer Club, Cottage Grove United Soccer Club, CC United Soccer Club, Centennial Soccer Club, Eden Prairie Soccer Club, Minneapolis United, Northern Lights Soccer Club, North Metro Soccer Association and White Bear Soccer Club. But he says there’s still room for improvement and more clubs to get involved and support the pro game. Beside Club Nights where youth clubs participate by serving as ball kids and pregame field escorts, there are also new programs like the Adopt-A-Star program which fosters stronger relationships between professional and youth players.
Buchholz believes it’s not just the clubs that need to show leadership but those in the soccer community as well. He names off some of those who he feels are influential in Minnesota’s soccer community and have purchased season tickets to support this year’s Minnesota Stars including:
Candace Daley, Executive Director of MYSA
Buzz Lagos, former Thunder founder and coach and currently color commentator of the Stars streaming broadcast as well as teacher and coach at Higher Ground Academy.
Bruce McGuire, writer/editor of internationally acclaimed duNord Futbol soccer blog.
Brian Quarstad, soccer coach in Minnesota for 18 years and writer/editor of IMSoccer News.
Tony Sanneh, former Thunder, MLS, Bundesliga and National Team player and currently director of the Sanneh Foundation.
Peter Wilt, former GM of the MN Thunder, Chicago Fire of MLS, Chicago Red Stars of WPS, Milwaukee Wave of MISL and currently President/CEO/Owner of the new Chicago Riot Major Indoor Soccer League club.
Brett Zalaski, former Director of Ticket Sales at Washington Freedom of WPS, former NBA Sr. Coordinator and currently Director, National Sales Center of Major League Soccer.
Tony Sanneh is a legend in Minnesota and the US as well as in Germany where he is known from his playing days in the Bundesliga. When he’s not traveling the globe for special charitable causes, you can often find him in the stands of the NSC on game nights.
“It’s all about getting outside to watch pro soccer and the Stars are the highest level of soccer we have in Minnesota,” said Sanneh in a recent conversation. “I want to take advantage of that and I fully understand that if we don’t support it, it won’t be there.”
“Most of the guys on these teams were college All-American types or very good players. So this really is the next step up for them. I enjoy watching it because in many cases you are seeing some young players in their developmental stages of their careers.”
Sanneh said that he has very fond memories of the old Thunder days and those teams were very special. But overall the level of the league in the new NASL is much better. He said it’s not just the play on the pitch that’s better these days, it’s also the environment and professionalism.
“The atmosphere, the hoopla and the professionalism — all these things add to the quality of the game and the experience,” said Sanneh.
I believe the Stars today are better than the Thunder back then. I really think that’s the selling point now. It’s just a lot more professional than those old Thunder teams. There’s more experience and the organization is more committed so you end up with a better product overall.
Bruce McGuire runs duNord Futbol blog and was one of the first bloggers in the US to cover MLS. He is still looked to nationally as an expert on the top US league. McGuire is a long time season ticket holder of Minnesota’s pro soccer teams and couldn’t see it any other way.
“I just feel you’re either part of it or you’re not,” says McGuire who says he’s been privileged to watch the “amazing journey” soccer in the U.S. has been on the last 20 years. “To be part of it you’ve got to be active and you have to be doing stuff. You have to be hands on. Part of that hands on is supporting a professional team.”
McGuire recalls a conversation he had with some US National Team supporters that sums up his feelings about the matter.
I asked some people at a U.S. National team game in Atlanta once if they watched their local team [Silverbacks] and they said no, they’d never been to a game. I then asked them how the pyramid looks upside down – cause if you only support the USA that’s all you get. There’s youth soccer and that’s one thing. It is what it is and its great stuff and the building blocks. But to me it all starts when you become a professional. I just feel you have to support your professional team. If they’re in my town I have to support them. And by supporting them it means buying a season ticket because that says I believe in you, I’m here to support you. You can count on me.
“In turn that means I want you to continue to be here. I want someone to invest more money in a team and I want pro soccer to be here forever. Even if you want them to be bigger or better or if I want to have a say, I’ve got to put my money on the table.
Dillon Young is not on the list of influential soccer personalities that Buchholz listed. However, it’s a supporter like Young who will make the difference for the Stars. Young, a part time senior librarian in the Twin Cities who is also going to school for his Master’s degree, is not originally from Minnesota and wasn’t aware of the history of the Thunder. You might think a student working part-time couldn’t afford to purchase a season ticket–that’s not the case for Young. He says tickets are reasonably priced and it’s now a priority for him because of his new found belief in supporting local pro soccer.
“I’ve been a huge Everton supporter for years,” said Young. “I’d never even put 2 and 2 together to think about looking for a division 2 pro soccer team here. After last year’s World Cup I thought to myself that in order for us to continue to grow the sport in the States we need some viable leagues to make that happen. I read Beau Dure’s [former USA Today soccer writer and author of the book, Long-Range Goals: The Success Story of Major League Soccer] article that said if you want the U.S. World Cup Team to be good you have to start at the bottom up with leagues like this [NASL].
Young points to those Americans who watch only European soccer or U.S. National Team games and believes they too should be supporting the local game. He says enjoying a Minnesota Stars soccer game may mean you have to adjust your level of expectations slightly, but not as much as some may think.
We have a pretty good team. It’s really exciting to go see live soccer. If you’re going into it expecting top flight European soccer you are going to miss out. That’s just not what it is. But if you’re looking for live action on a cheap dime at still a very legitimate level of soccer then you’re going to enjoy it. It’s a great value to watch some pretty high level soccer right here in the Twin Cities.
“If you want your local American Outlaws group to be successful, a great way to do that is to get involved with the local pro game. It’s a cheap ticket and you get to meet true American soccer fans who aren’t pretentious and love to talk shop.
Buchholz says getting the word out to the soccer community this year hasn’t been an easy task for the new Stars management team. With only a few short months to prepare for the season and 3 different ownership groups in as many years it has left the new Stars organization without the lists and data from computers they would ordinarily use to make contacts.
“Just because I was General Manager of the Thunder doesn’t mean I have all the data,” said a frustrated Buchholz. “Those Thunder databases were not my property. A lot of that old Thunder information is just plain gone. So we have to rebuild our contact lists. In rebuilding those files I’m sure we’ve left out a lot of people. We’re trying to reach out the best we can but we really need the soccer community’s help.”
The Minnesota Stars are still selling season tickets and are now selling single game tickets as well. Flex season tickets are available as well meaning you can chose the games you attend and can use more than one ticket per game.
You can reach the ticket office by calling 763-792-7355 or going here to order online.