Marek Warszawski

Pro sports teams in Fresno have come and gone. Here’s why soccer has staying power

Fresno FC unveils new inaugural season kits

Fresno FC unveiled its 2018 USL inaugural season uniforms at the Fresno FC Kit Release Party held at Tioga-Sequoia Brewing Company’s beer garden in downtown Fresno Friday night.
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Fresno FC unveiled its 2018 USL inaugural season uniforms at the Fresno FC Kit Release Party held at Tioga-Sequoia Brewing Company’s beer garden in downtown Fresno Friday night.

Remember the Fresno Sun-Nets? How about the Fresno Falcons, Fresno Flames, Fresno Frenzy or Central Valley Coyotes?

Betcha at least one of those names rings a bell. The annals of Fresno are filled with failed professional sports franchises. Those are but a sampling of the casualties.

I’m dredging them up now because on Saturday night Fresno’s newest pro sports team — Fresno FC — kicks off its inaugural season at Chukchansi Park.

Unlike the previous ones, most of which quickly went defunct, Fresno FC has staying power. I expect the Foxes (as they are nicknamed) to be part of the fabric of this community for a good long while.

Here’s why:

Rapid growth of soccer

Unlike team tennis (Sun-Nets), hockey (Falcons), 6-foot-4 and under basketball (Flames) and arena football (Frenzy and Coyotes), soccer is a rapidly growing sport with thriving pro leagues.

When Major League Soccer debuted in 1996, there were 10 teams. Eight years later, there were still 10. But since 2004 the size of the league has more than doubled to 23 teams with plans to expand to 28.

Just last week, Atlanta United drew 70,425 fans for a match against LA Galaxy — a new MLS record.

The league Fresno FC is joining, United Soccer League, might be one level below MLS on the soccer ladder but it has grown at a similar rate. Since debuting with 15 teams in 2011, USL has more than doubled. There will be 33 teams this season with six more in the planning.

Growth is but one indicator. In 2012, new USL clubs paid a $250,000 expansion fee. Five years later, the owners of Fresno FC had to plunk down $5 million. That should tell you something about the health of, and demand for, pro soccer in the U.S.

It’s truly Fresno’s team

Never heard of Juan Pablo Caffa, Pedro Ribeiro or Jemal Johnson?

Don’t worry. There’s time. Fresno FC will play a 34-game regular-season schedule stretching from mid-March through mid-October. That’s seven months — two months longer than the Fresno Grizzlies, which play 142. That gives the Foxes plenty of time to integrate themselves.

Many will make their offseason homes here, too. Which means you’ll see them at supermarkets, coffee shops and events.

“Our players will be part of this community,” Frank Yallop, general manager, said.

Also unlike the Grizzlies, the players signed to the Fresno FC roster aren’t property of a major-league affiliate. The Foxes carry their own payroll and unless MLS-affiliate Vancouver Whitecaps wants to scratch Yallop a six-figure check, their best players won’t be called up midseason.

So it’ll be a stable roster. Meaning fans can form attachments to players without the threat they won’t be here next week.

JRW FRESNO SOCCER CLUB 7
Ray Beshoff, president and primary owner of the Fresno Football Club, talks with the team during a break during their first training session Wednesday, Jan. 31, in preparation for the 2018 United Soccer League (USL) season. JOHN WALKER jwalker@fresnobee.com

Invested owners & experienced GM

By writing that $5 million check, primary investor and president Ray Beshoff showed how much he believes pro soccer will thrive in Fresno. The co-owner of Mercedes-Benz of Fresno, plus other dealerships, is far from tapped out. In fact, Beshoff has indicated a willingness to invest his own money to help build a soccer-specific stadium.

To run Fresno FC, Beshoff hired Yallop as general manager. Yallop’s MLS coaching resume includes 130 victories and two MLS titles as coach. He may be new to the front office, but the credibility he brings to a start-up franchise is immeasurable.

Built-in support

Fresno may be a new market for pro soccer, but it’s long been a soccer town.

The evidence is plentiful. When Mexican pro teams from Liga MX hold exhibition matches at The Chuk, they routinely draw crowds well into five figures. The amateur-level Fresno Fuego (now Fresno FC U23s) averaged between 3,000 to 4,000. Going back three decades, Fresno State (when it had men’s soccer) drew big numbers for its nationally ranked squads coached by Jose Elgorriaga.

I also should mention Fire Squad Fresno, the loud, rowdy, smoke-bomb releasing supporters club that meets before and after games at Tioga Sequoia Brewing Co. As of last summer, membership had swelled to 550.

EPZ FULTON_1022 05
Fire Squad Fresno, the booster club for the Fresno Fuego soccer team, arrives to be part of the festivities as Fulton Street is officially reopened to vehicle traffic Saturday, Oct. 21, 2017. ERIC PAUL ZAMORA ezamora@fresnobee.com

Savvy marketing & branding

In 2018, sports teams can no longer rely on traditional media to tell their stories. They must perform that task themselves. They have to form and nurture those connections.

Fresno FC has understood this from the very start. Social media platforms like Instagram, Twitter and Facebook all cater to different audiences and age groups, and the Foxes are active on every one. They even created a hashtag #SomosZorros — Spanish for “we are foxes” — to capitalize on the Spanish word for foxes.

They also have a partnership (and their own lager) with Tioga Sequoia. In a short time, they’ve done a great job branding themselves as Fresno’s team. Has it worked? The 1,086 fans who turned out last month just to see what the uniforms looked like is one indication. Saturday night will be another.

Marek Warszawski: 559-441-6218, @MarekTheBee

If you go

First match for Fresno’s new professional soccer club

Fresno FC vs. Las Vegas Lights

Saturday: 7 p.m. at Chukchansi Park

Tickets: Range from $17.50 to $92.50. Order at fresnofc.com or call (559) 320-2525.

Parking: $10 at city-operated facilities. Be aware that Tulare, Kern and Mono streets are closed at the railroad tracks due to high-speed rail construction. From Highway 99 use Fresno Street of Ventura Street exits.

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