Soccer is not considered Tucson’s sport of choice.
That falls to men’s basketball and football at the university for spectating, golf for leisure.
For head coach Morten Olsen and winger Dennis Rommedahl of the Denmark national soccer team, that was plain to see.
On Jan. 25, the Danish squad faced Canada in a friendly, winning 4-0.
Despite the easy win, Rommedahl, wasn’t too happy with the field conditions at Kino Stadium. Olsen felt the crowd of 3,042 people was lacking.
“It was difficult for us to play the passing football we wanted to play,” said Rommedahl.
Added Olsen, “There weren’t that many people.”
This doesn’t shine brightly on a yearning for soccer for Tucsonans, but Chris Keeney, the chief business officer and co-managing partner for FC Tucson, insists there is a yearning for the sport in this town.
Last year, more than 30,000 fans showed up for the Desert Diamond Cup at Kino, a four-night soccer exhibition tournament between four Major League Soccer teams.
Among the teams participating was the Los Angeles Galaxy, who employ prime talent like David Beckham and Landon Donovan.
And, just two days before the friendly the Danish weren’t all too fond of, plans were announced for a new 2,000 seat stadium to be opened in 2014 at Kino.
The new stadium will house FC Tucson, a semi-professional soccer team founded in 2010.
“It’s going to be soccer authentic,” said Keeney. “It’s going to have a bit of a roof-line which keeps the fans a little bit more comfortable from a sun point-of-view. But it also holds the sound in. Which in soccer, that’s everything. Having that type of environment, having the noise cascading and the energy coming from the fans go down onto the field and affect the players to play better and then it comes back.”
Ultimately, the city of Tucson’s goal in its approval in April of 2012 to build the stadium is to eventually bring an MLS team to the Old Pueblo.
Paul Cunningham, a Tucson city councilman, knows how much having the Desert Diamond Cup and a soccer presence in town helps on the business side of things more than anything else.
Soccer will never be the top, “must-see” sporting event in Tucson, but he, Keeney and FC Tucson co-managing partner Greg Foster feel there’s already is an affinity for soccer, which can only be helped by a new and improved stadium.
“It helps us build a fan base,” Cunningham said. “When the time comes to make that leap to MLS we have the fan base, we have the facility, we have the tradition.
“The best is yet to come for Tucson soccer.”
A year ago, the likelihood for approval of a new stadium hinged on what would happen with Hi Corbett Field, now the home of the UA baseball team.
Before the Wildcats moved from Frank Sancet field, located by the McKale Center on the UA campus, there was nothing going on with Hi Corbett.
That was because after 64 years playing host to Major League Baseball spring training, the Colorado Rockies upped and moved theirs to Scottsdale, Ariz., in 2010, Cunningham’s first year on city council.
“We had an asset in Hi Corbett Field which wasn’t being used at all,” Cunningham said. “We were spending hundreds of thousands of dollars per year to maintain the facility.”
Kino, formerly known as Tucson Electric Park, lost the Arizona Diamondbacks and Chicago White Sox as its spring training inhabitants as well last year.
“It’s funny,” Cunningham said, “because Kino and Hi Corbett were competing with each other to find new clients and this was one of the good things where county and the city teamed up and made it work. Tucson took Arizona baseball and Kino and the county took soccer and it worked out well and everybody was on the same page.
“When the Pima County Board of Supervisors and [Tucson[ City Council are on the same page, things work out and that’s what happened.”
When it came to a vote last year, it was unanimous.
Or, as Keeney put it in soccer terms, “5 – nil.”
“There’s an opportunity here,” Keeney said. “We’ve got the right people in both ownership and civic leadership and the fan base to pull this off.”
While it’s, so far, unclear how much of a success the soccer stadium at Kino will be, the move to Hi Corbett was already a resounding success.
The Wildcats ranked 26th nationally in average home attendance and had an increased ticket revenue of 407 percent from the season before.
It certainly didn’t hurt that the team won the College World Series over the summer.
But, for soccer at Kino, Foster believes that both Portland and Seattle ran a successful model for building up soccer in a town that it’s not of upmost importance, and eventually brought MLS clubs — the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers.
Here are some facts and information about FC Tucson’s new stadium
- ETA: October 2013
- It is part of a $2.8 million investment by the county
- The facility was designed by Swaim Associates Architects
- Is on North Field #5 at Kino Sports Complex
- The other four field, typically used for MLS soccer teams during preseason training, will go back and forth each season as baseball and soccer fields.
- Fans can reserve a seat at the new stadium by purchasing 2013 season tickets. Packages are $100 ($10 per game).
- The first 1,600 fans to purchase 2013 season tickets will be guaranteed a chance to buy season tickets at the new stadium.
- There will be a new scoreboard and there will be an overhang to shade crowds from the sun and project the sound toward the field, elevating the energy level.
- Greg Foster: “We’ll be able to improve the fan experience. We focused on being soccer specific, rectangular field specific. The design of the seating is going to look a lot like a second edition, third edition European club might have. It’s going to have an overhang, seating will be steep and it will be close to the field. That improves the enviornment and the soccer experience for fans.”
— Zack Rosenblatt
“It grew there over time,” Foster said. “They tapped into the local culture and didn’t go straight from Major League Soccer. Once MLS finally did land in Portland, it is really well supported. That’s probably the right model for Tucson.”
In the summer, Cunningham was going through some “personal issues” and took a trip down the coast, stopping in Portland and Los Angeles (where the L.A. Galaxy and Chivas USA play) along the way.
He was impressed.
“I want of those,” Cunningham said of the MLS clubs.
In August, the Timbers attracted a crowd of 14,121 — for a reserve game. Meaning, the backups, the players that typically don’t start the game for Portland, attracted a big crowd.
By comparison, over the last six seasons the Arizona basketball team has drawn an average of 13,861 fans at McKale Center in a six season span from 2006-07 to 2011-12. McKale has a capacity of 14,545 spectators.
In Seattle, the attendance numbers are even higher.
The Sounders attracted, on average, 43,144 fans. On Oct. 7, they had the second-largest crowd for a standalone game in MLS history when 66,452 watched Seattle defeat Portland 3-0 at CenturyLink Field. It was the second 60K turnout for Seattle, and the Sounders have sold out 69 consecutive league matches.
And, it’s not just in Seattle and Portland where soccer is on the rise.
“MLS is huge,” Keeney said. “Now it’s running and starting to pick up steam.”
So much steam, in fact, that MLS was the third highest spectator sport, on average, in 2012. It trailed the NFL and MLB, but leapfrogged the NBA and NHL.
Globally, MLS finished 2012 seventh out of worldwide soccer leagues in average attendance.
Foster realizes the increasing yearn for more MLS, but he’s focusing on putting out a good product with FC Tucson.
“The question now is of the local soccer community’s support and how we can draw that in,” Foster said. “The stadium is a great venue for people to come and watch soccer. If we find people wanna come and watch soccer then incrementally we can expand the seating. The stadium is designed for that.
“Maybe at that point, we should start talking about what level of franchise is justified.”