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Supporting Pro Soccer in Minnesota; Making a Commitment to the Game

2011 April 25
by Brian Quarstad

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).

Minnesota Thunder Attendance averages from 1996 to 2009.

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:

Author Brian Quarstad with his season tickets

Candace Daley,ย  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 โ€” 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.
Tony Sanneh

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 โ€“ 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.
Bruce McGuire

“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.
Dillon Young

“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.

31 Responses
  1. April 25, 2011

    Good story Brian. I really appreciate the time you put in.

  2. Soccer Boy permalink
    April 25, 2011

    “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.”

    Manny did not do a “good” job, he did an “excellent” job. In my humble opinion the Stars were a lot better than the Thunder were in their last season and it was basically the Stars v. the world!

    I was extremely disappointed with all the negative comments about the Stars coming from the soccer community–it was essentially a “wait and see attitude” coming from DOCs and club BODs. Now is the time to get behind the Stars. Our young soccer players need to see soccer played at a higher level not only on TV, but in person. The NSC is a great venue an every youth soccer player should be in the stands on a consistent basis to see them play. The Stars also allow great access to the players and can only inspire our young players. Further, the Stars have a winning record and that is certainly something the Wild, Vikings, Timberwolves and Twins can’t brag about.

    Come on you Stars!

  3. El Padre permalink
    April 25, 2011

    Brian, I couldn’t agree with you more. I cut my teeth on professional soccer as a kid attending New Jersey American games in the old ASL. Then my family graduated to the Cosmos. If the sport is going to continue to develope, it needs support at all of its professional levels. I was blessed to see Franz Beckenbauer and Giorgio Chinaglia play (we went in the post Pele era) but one of my fondest memories was getting, then NJ American, Chico Borja’s autograph. It was even more special when were Cosmos fans to see Chico Borja rise from D2 and play with one of the most famous teams in the world at the Meadowlands when he joined the team.
    Starting out as lower division fans allows people to have a closeness with the players unavailable in most D1 venues and you get to know them in a way many sports fans can’t imagine. You also begin to not just cheer for the team but the individual player as well- taking pride in their achievements and even advancement to D1 teams. The best case scenario of course is when a superstar is born in your midst and your lower division team can keep him for more than one season.
    While the games may not have the same skill level as a Real Madrid vs. Barcelona contest, they are no less exciting and often times the players in the lower division play with more heart and drive than their first division counterparts. There is some beautiful soccer being played on lower division fields in the US, Canada, and Caribbean and there is nothing like the live experience at the stadium. The energy and excitement just doesn’t transmit across the airwaves. On TV you get to the hear the chanting and cheering. In the stadium, you are the one doing the chanting and cheering. There is no comparison.
    One can go to my local team, the Islanders, for what it is costs many in the US to go see a 3D movie in the theater. The experience of live professional football with players that you can know personally on a team with whom you have a personal connection is far better than sitting on the couch watching some team in a distant land with whom you have no connection whatsoever. With the exception of the National team, when national pride is at stake, I’ll take my soccer live and local any day over the digital signals that fill our television screens. It is the mantra in food circles today to say, “Buy local”, our soccer consumption should be no different.

  4. Andy permalink
    April 25, 2011

    Great story, Brian. You should have a tear in your eye in that picture!

  5. Chris A. permalink
    April 25, 2011

    The Blaine Soccer Club has also invested in a Club night.

  6. Seamonster permalink
    April 25, 2011

    I see that my name got cut from the influential Minnesotaโ€™s soccer community list. I’m assuming this was to keep the article a manageable length. ๐Ÿ™‚

  7. thesuperrookie permalink
    April 25, 2011

    The truth is spoken.

    People need to support their local team.

  8. April 25, 2011

    Sorry if I missed that Chris. They are added now.

  9. Neal permalink
    April 25, 2011

    Spot on, El Padre, well said.

    I will be posting the link to this article to my MRSL D1 team mates. I have already offered them ticket and beer as a part of the Free Beer Movement, and have set a goal to get 15% of the team out for each and every home game.

    Peace and futbol.

  10. tomASS permalink
    April 25, 2011

    Candace Daly influential in our soccer community ?? Djorn is just being politically correct for the MN soccer world. She is nothing more than maybe a fan and coincidently the administrator of the state’s biggest soccer bureaucracy. I noticed the MYSA president’s name is missing ??

  11. Strikers Return permalink
    April 25, 2011

    Great article BQ, and it hits at the heart of not only the Minnesota soccer community, but all of the lower division soccer markets around North America and the Caribbean. We all need to partner with our local teams and do whatever we can to get the word out and build the fanbase. That’s the only way to gain some stability in the lower divisions that have been characterized by just the opposite for decades.

    We all need to have the passion of BQ and the people in this article. We definitely are doing our part by buying season tickets and going to games and purchasing merchandise in support of our teams. But we still need to take those extra steps, and with the technology of today that’s even easier then it’s ever been. Post links to your team’s Facebook page on your page. Post links to the league Facebook page on your page. Comment on the game results with the other fans, your friends will see the comments. IF you use MySpace do the same thing. Follow the team and the league on Twitter. These are all things you can do to put the team and the league in front of a LOT of people, things that are FREE, and don’t require anymore effort than a few clicks and keystrokes. Wear your team gear around town, and when people ask you about it, which I guarantee you they will, give them a couple of sentences about the team, the stadium, and how much fun the games are.

    Kudos to you and your fellow Minnesota soccer leaders BQ. Leading by example, being on the forefront of promoting your team and the league, you are going even beyond the average fan. Keep up the great work, and everyone, get out there this week to your games and enjoy the heck out of it!

  12. April 25, 2011

    This definitely has truth to it…but the real problem is there just isn’t enough of a fan base in the US for soccer yet…I know a lot of people will disagree or be mad at that, but its just the TRUTH. If you don’t believe me, why do you think they have so many budget problems and have so many owner changes…there isn’t enough revenue for it to be as big as the NFL or even the NHL or any other major league sport. The interest for Americans and soccer is just sadly not there (yet)…

  13. The Choosen One permalink
    April 25, 2011

    Is there any chance the Stars will actually market the team this year? That might actually let people know there is a pro soccer team here.

  14. tomASS permalink
    April 25, 2011

    @Price per Head Service disagreement does not equate to anger/madness at your comments. I do disagree with you there is a market – look at the number of youth soccer players to the number of youth hockey players.

    There is a market, but it has to be a product with an appeal to it. I know many of my friends will not miss an EPL team on TV just so they can watch good soccer. MLS has improved but soccer fans want to watch good soccer.

    My commitment is to instead of drinking beer at the bars, to drink beer at Star games. The money I would have used for an appetizer I will use for buying a ticket ( and Lord knows I could cut down on the appetizers)

    I’ll try to connect with the team, but if I can’t do that I plan is to be the most irritating fan to the opposing side and maybe the referees if I don’t know them.

    Part of it is creating the atmosphere – Hell I want to go to Portland just to sit with those rowdy fans!

    No who is going to drive me home?

  15. tomASS permalink
    April 25, 2011

    Addendum @ Price per Head Service – the family dollar entertainment is a better value than what it would cost you to attend a NHL game

  16. Minnesota Nice FC permalink
    April 25, 2011

    One of the constant whines I hear about D2 soccer (specifically the Stars) is about marketing. Apparently, when you ask fans about soccer all they can tell you about is money and ads and revenue. While I agree that Stars need to get a presence out there, I just saw an ad for the Stars as I paged through City Pages the other day.
    I wish people would stop giving advice on marketing. Stars should do better with getting their name out there and I hope they do. But as a fan, my concerns are as follows:
    A) supporting my team by buying a season ticket with my grad student wages.
    B) supporting my team by yelling at the opposing team and reminding them that 1) their team is mediocre at best 2) the state they come from is not particularly good and I wouldn’t visit if I won a vacation to said state while playing the Price is Right 3) they as humans are not very interesting nor talented and that I heard so from their grandmothers
    C) supporting my team by cheering them on and telling them that 1) they as a goal keeper cannot be beaten 2) if they put the ball in the opposing team’s net I will be particularly excited
    etc. etc.
    I’m not having a go at you, because I agree Stars need to continue to get their names out there. However, my job description is one word: Jackassery.

    Actually, that’s what my CV says as well.

  17. April 25, 2011

    The Chosen One,

    As mentioned, City Pages already had an ad last week and this came out today.

    I know there are also other marketing plans in place along with promotions.

    I have no idea if we will see old Thunder attendance numbers that quite honestly were pretty inflated. Last years count was more honest as the USSF was running the league and ran a tight ship when it came to reporting attendance numbers. But I definitely think the numbers will be much better that last year. How much better? We will see.

  18. thesuperrookie permalink
    April 26, 2011

    I am tired of the same ol’ marketing complaints from people.

    The team is marketing in print and radio.

    People need to quit complaining about this.

  19. April 26, 2011

    Support of soccer by the fans, consistently throughout the season, is critical to any clubs survival. When we had Djorn and the Aztex, we worked to encourage folks to come to the matches. All supporters were expected to come to all matches, including watch events for the road games at our local pub. We had a standing challenge to members to bring a friend to each match, and even had a pari of “Supporters Season Tickets” that we gave to supporters who wanted to bring friends. The first time the tickets were free, and we felt we could hook them so they’d want to come back and pay for their tickets. Although the club gave us one set of season tickets for free, Chantico’s Army (now Eberly’s Army) demanded that we pay for the second. For us, investing in the team was critical in our feeling of ownership.

    Although the Aztex up and moved last October, with no notice and even less respect to the fans and Djorn, we the supporters could hold our heads high as we knew we’d done everything in our power to help the team, both from a spirit as well as a financial aspect.

    So get out to every match you can. Bring a friend. Use local club, supporters group and national programs to help (such as Free Beer Movement). Just get out and be an active voice. If you don’t, you cannot complain if your local team disappears.

  20. yankiboy permalink
    April 26, 2011

    @Matthew: Thanks for sharing your experience Matthew. I probably should NOT kick this dog again but I’m going to:

    You guys in Austin got screwed.

    You accomplished a lot more than a lot of other markets did during your brief history.

    Your story actually could be perceived by some as a reason to NOT support a local club, to take the “wait and see” approach.

    The flipside of that, is that if you don’t get out and active like you guys did then a local franchise is all but doomed to failure.

  21. Strikers Return permalink
    April 26, 2011

    @matthew – I’m certain that Austin is at or right near the top of the NASL’s list of possible expansion markets. You guys were doing it right, building from one year to the next, not to mention a quality product on the field. There’s a perfect natural rival coming into the league next year in SA. All that is missing in Austin is the right owner. Here’s hoping one steps to the plate in the near future!

  22. jw7 permalink
    April 26, 2011

    Glad to see my club (CNS) supporting the Stars.

  23. yankiboy permalink
    April 26, 2011

    By the way, is it just me or does Quarstad look a little hostile in that photo of him and his season tickets? He looks like he’s about to bang somebody in their jaw. What gives? Was there a rumor that no beer would be allowed anywhere near the Nessie including the parking lot this season???

    Dude looks very scary in the pic. ๐Ÿ˜€

  24. Strikers Return permalink
    April 26, 2011

    @yankiboy – You know, I was thinking the same thing, but was lacking the courage to throw it out there! LOL

  25. Dave permalink
    April 26, 2011

    @Strikers Return – And this is NASL’s greatest problem. Well it’s everyone’s problem. Money. You just can’t name cities and say they will be NASL expansion targets. You need owners first. And there are none for Austin. Right now the league has to find owners for Atlanta, Carolina, and Minnesota. That’s a lot of teams! And to me, things are still shaky with SA replacing Montreal given they don’t have a real stadium and are more about a cause than a business.

  26. MichiganMike permalink
    April 26, 2011

    Can someone please clarify if there will be beer served at the game this Saturday?

    I intend on coming to watch (with a handful of friends), I just need to figure out how hard I will be pre-gaming.

  27. April 26, 2011

    Of course there will. Why wouldn’t there be?

    Party on down with the Dark Clouds at the Tailgate and introduce yourself as well.

  28. GumbyGrrl permalink
    April 26, 2011

    @MichiganMike there will be beer served. There will be beer at the tailgate – join us at the grill!

    @yankiboy Brian’s just SERIOUS about his season tickets! Are you going to argue with him? ๐Ÿ˜€

    I stopped in the Stars office today and picked up my jersey – the new ones look great!

  29. Strikers Return permalink
    April 27, 2011

    @Dave – Did you read my post? Here let me help you:

    “All that is missing in Austin is the right owner.”

    What do you know, we actually agree! Obviously the league would be willing to plug into quite a few different markets, and I’m sure at NASL HQ there is probably a “wish list” of sorts of markets they would LIKE to target first. My point was simlpy that Austin is most likely on that list due to their strong support for the Aztex, and their growth in the fanbase from their first to their second year, all with the hindrances of no beer sales and terrible football lines on the field. With a strong ownership situation, they’d have a chance at seeking out a better stadium situation, and given what has gone before, you’d extrapolate Austin could be a strong D2 market. But hey, all that is what it is – simply my opinion.

    As for Atlanta, Carolina, and Minnesota, I disagree to a point. I don’t think even the USSF expects the league to be able to turn over, or replace, all three of those franchises in one year. Minnesota is perfectly fine for another year or two being league operated, they are the least worrisome of the three situations. But I do think that in order to show the federation they are seriously trying to comply with their mandates, they HAVE to turn over at least one of the other two teams currently majority owned by Traffic. This needs to be goal 1A right next to goal 1B of increasing attendance for returning teams and having respectable attendance for the two newcomers. Ideally that means one of those existing franchises getting new majority ownership. But as sad as it is to say, it could also mean a new team starting up in 2012 and either Atlanta or Carolina being dropped.

    San Antonio with their press conference yesterday still seems to be headed in the right direction. I knew Hartman would wind up securing private funding to just build a D2 sized stadium now that the public money option was off the table. I think it’s 5,000 expandable to 10,000 right? That’s perfect for D2, and I’m sure if MLS ever became a possibility, they would at least have a site ready to go if there was no way to reconstruct what will be there into something more like 20,000 – 25,000 capacity. Hitchcock has experience running a team at the MLS level, so you’d think he will be up to the challenges of the NASL level.

  30. thesuperrookie permalink
    April 27, 2011

    MM: I saw somewhere that it is $2 MGD night at the Nessy on Saturday.

  31. The Choosen One permalink
    April 28, 2011

    I think the problem especially in this market. Is you have a minor league team in a major league market. The reason the Saints were able to be successful was they offered something the Twins didn’t and that was outdoor baseball. Now that that advantage is gone you saw a decline in tickets sold last year for them. Plus the location of the stadium . Some of you don’t want to hear this but 75% – 90% of season ticket holders for the big 4 come from the western and southern suburbs. People from these to locations do not like driving to northern suburbs for the most part.

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