Marek Warszawski

No solid footing: The backstory on why Fresno’s pro soccer club folded after two seasons

In late July 2017, during the official launch of Fresno FC, the future of professional soccer in the Valley felt so promising.

“Let’s rally together, Fresno, because we’re on the verge of something special,” team owner and lead investor Ray Beshoff proclaimed.

Twenty-seven months later, the Foxes (or Zorros as they became known) are kaput. On Saturday, Oct. 26, they suffered a heartbreaking 3-2 loss at Chukchansi Park in the first round of the USL Championship playoffs that left players and supporters in tears. The following Tuesday, Oct. 29, Beshoff issued a lengthy statement saying the club “would almost certainly be relocating.”

On Wednesday, Oct. 30, the team notified its sponsors, including local TV partner KMPH-26, that it was moving to Monterey. (The station shared the news on social media, but the post has since been deleted.)

By Friday, the team’s downtown offices and team store in the old Fresno Bee building on Van Ness Avenue were being emptied by laid-off employees working for day rates.

Opinion

“It’s a bummer that it happened, and there are a lot of reasons why it didn’t work,” vice president of operations Chris Wilson said.

What were those reasons, and what’s next for soccer fans left without a local club to root for? Let’s kick it around.

A five-month runway

The first thing that must be said is professional soccer in the U.S. is far from a stable business. Pro soccer clubs come and go all the time. I found a blog that listed more than 20 teams that have shuttered since 2013. Some moved to other cities. Some morphed into a different form. Some were never heard from again.

Fresno FC was supposed to be different, if only because Beshoff appeared to have deep pockets (he co-owned Fresno’s Mercedes-Benz dealership and paid the USL a $5 million expansion fee) that would allow him to tap into the city’s growing soccer culture.

After all, the amateur-level Fuego had been around since 2003, often leading their league in attendance. And if 3,000 people showed up to watch college players on their summer vacations run up and down the pitch, surely twice that number would turn out for seasoned pros. Right?

After securing the USL franchise in May 2017, Beshoff’s first move was naming friend and fellow Englishman Frank Yallop as general manager. Hiring a two-time MLS champion coach gave the organization instant credibility, but this was Yallop’s first time running an organization. Key front-office staff were brought aboard in September, just five months before the club’s first official game.

Think about all the things a new sports franchise needs to do: Find a place to play games and train. Hire coaches and trainers. Sign an entire roster of players. Set up offices and locker rooms. Establish marketing and branding strategies. Sell tickets. Attract more investors. And that’s just the obvious stuff.

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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, 2018, in preparation for the United Soccer League season. JOHN WALKER jwalker@fresnobee.com

Jeremy Schultz, the longtime Fuego GM who became Fresno FC’s assistant GM before leaving the organization in February, said the Foxes would’ve benefited from a longer runway.

“I would imagine the investors, if they were able to look back, would have done more market research and delayed a kickoff till 2019 so there was a little more planning involved,” Schultz said. “I think if they had given themselves more time that likely they would have found themselves being successful in Fresno.”

In addition, the team seemed to have outsized expectations with regard to ticket sales. At the time, Yallop said “the goal” was to equal Sacramento Republic’s mark of 5,500 season tickets. Which didn’t seem all that realistic, given the differences in market size and income levels.

Despite all the excitement over Fresno getting professional soccer, Beshoff and Yallop made it clear Chukchansi Park could only serve as a temporary home and that a soccer-specific facility was necessary for the team’s future.

Setting off a two-year time bomb that ultimately exploded.

Light marketing, heavy salaries

Despite the short lead time, the Foxes made plenty of smart early moves. Beshoff and Yallop tapped into the Fuego’s success by hiring Schultz to head up operations and corporate sponsorships and Jordan Wiebe as director of marketing and communications. Fuego fan favorite Milton Blanco carved out a unique three-way role of player/assistant coach/top salesman.

To raise awareness and ultimately sell tickets and suites, the team rolled out a marketing campaign that was aggressive by local standards but light compared to the competition.

Fresno FC spent roughly $200,000 on marketing and advertising from its late July 2017 launch through December 2018 and $125,000 during 2019, according to team sources. That may sound like a lot of money, but it’s less than two-thirds of what the top 10 USL clubs in attendance spent in 2017 and less than half of what league officials recommended for an expansion franchise, sources said.

Perhaps as a result, the Foxes never got anywhere close to their season ticket goals and averaged 4,831 fans their first year – far behind fellow expansion club Las Vegas (7,266) and even second-year Reno (5,066).

At the same time, team sources say Yallop and head coach Adam Smith earned annual salaries of roughly $200,000 and $115,000, respectively. Those figures are believed to be among the highest in the USL.

“We had this little joke around the office: ‘Everyone with an English accent gets paid the most,’” said a former team employee, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Beshoff does not believe the salaries were exorbitant: “Frank’s record in MLS speaks for itself,” he said in an email.

Fruitless stadium search

From the outset Beshoff understood a soccer-specific stadium with seating for 5,000 was necessary to make things work in Fresno. Besides satisfying USL bylaws, the club needed revenue streams from naming rights, pouring rights, concessions and even parking that were unavailable to him as a tenant at city-owned Chukchansi Park.

To make that happen, team sources say Beshoff and the investor group was willing to pony up between $4 million and $15 million for land and construction costs. He used Casino Arizona Field, the $7.5 million, 15.8-acre home of conference rival Phoenix Rising, as a model.

Downtown Fresno was the team’s preferred option, but finding a site proved a challenge. Building in the Selland Arena parking lot didn’t work because the owner of the Cosmopolitan Tavern refused to relocate about 50 parking spaces across the street. Nor would the city incentivize him to do so, sources said.

The club also considered the 5-acre parking lot directly across from Chukchansi Park. However, in order to make a soccer stadium fit, H Street between Mono and Inyo streets needed to be narrowed into a one-lane road. The city refused to make that change, sources said, and the lot was eventually purchased by the Fresno Grizzlies baseball team for $1.9 million.

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Fresno Football Club’s Alberto “Beto” Navarro, front, attacks Las Vegas Lights FC’s Carlos Alvarez, background, Saturday, March 17, 2018 in Fresno. Las Vegas triumphed over Fresno 3-2. ERIC PAUL ZAMORA ezamora@fresnobee.com

“I think (Beshoff and Yallop) genuinely thought that by Year 3 we’d have somewhere else to play, I really do,” said Wilson, the team’s VP of operations. “But once downtown was out of the picture, it was very challenging to find something that made sense.”

The Foxes began to expand their search. Discussions with developer Terance Frazier about city-owned Granite Park led nowhere. A potential site off Highway 180 was rejected due to poor ingress and egress. They looked at southern Madera County, where a new city is being born, but bringing the necessary infrastructure to the site would take years. Plus water rights were an issue.

A last-ditch effort was made to partner with Fresno State to use the women’s soccer and lacrosse field next to Bulldog Stadium. The club proposed adding extra bleachers, building locker rooms for teams and referees and making other improvements.

Despite initial enthusiasm from university officials, Fresno State turned down the Foxes’ proposal in August, citing scheduling conflicts and wear and tear on the facility, sources said.

“Every time we potentially had a solution to the problem, we hit a brick wall,” Beshoff said.

Season goes south

While things got more dire behind the scenes, the Foxes were one of the most improved squads in USL Championship. Despite a 13-3-8 record entering September, attendance was down more than 15% compared with the previous season.

The poor attendance figures and lack of a stadium plan made it impossible to attract more local investors, Beshoff said.

Meanwhile, the club seemed to pull back on marketing and advertising. For example, no TV spots ran during the 2018 Women’s World Cup, which would seem to be Fresno FC’s target audience.

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Fans show their support for Fresno Football Club Saturday, March 17, 2018 in Fresno. Las Vegas triumphed over Fresno 3-2. ERIC PAUL ZAMORA ezamora@fresnobee.com

In the aftermath of the latest rejection by Fresno State, management held a players-only meeting in early September to inform them there was only a 50-50 chance the club would return in 2020.

The players took the news in stride and continued to play well, highlighted by a dramatic 2-1 victory on Sept. 21 over USL title favorite Phoenix Rising that halted the Rising’s 20-match win streak.

In the days following that momentous win, however, word that the Foxes may soon leave Fresno began to trickle out, first in a fan podcast and second in a story published by The Athletic.

After word began to spread, Fresno FC and city of Fresno officials – including Mayor Lee Brand and Councilmember Miguel Arias – engaged in a game of dueling press releases with each trying to pin blame on the other.

By coincidence or not, the club’s on-the-field fortunes plunged. The Foxes went 0-5-1 over their final six matches after their probable demise became public knowledge.

“I just remember feeling so upset because everything was going so wrong.” said Leah Sadoian, a member of the Fire Squad Fresno supporters club. “I could tell it was affecting their on-field performance.”

Following last week’s announcement, Beshoff drew the ire of local soccer fans. Some accuse him of hijacking Fresno’s long soccer tradition for his own purposes. Others fault him for a poorly run organization.

However, those criticisms fail to mention how the investors stuck out their own necks to bring professional soccer to town. Fresno FC lost more than $4 million during its two-year run, according to Beshoff.

What’s next?

For fans, the question now is how long it will take for another club to return. Beshoff paid $520,000 for the Fresno Fuego, so anyone hoping to resurrect that name must work out a deal with him.

Also, the league the Fuego used to play in has been rebranded as USL2. Despite being an amateur league, franchise fees for new teams have increased to $1 million. Meaning someone must be willing to write a big check.

Can soccer work in Fresno long-term? Several people I spoke to said it can – provided ownership can solve the stadium quandary that eluded the Foxes.

“I have incredible confidence there’s a formula for success for soccer in Fresno and the Valley,” said Schultz, a Fuego minority owner in addition to being GM.

“We need to find the right home for soccer and the right people to be involved so we can rebuild together for sustainability and longevity. Because that’s what the sports game is.”

Marek Warszawski: 559-441-6218, @MarekTheBee

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Marek Warszawski writes opinion columns on news, politics, sports and quality of life issues for The Fresno Bee, where he has worked since 1998. He is a Bay Area native, a UC Davis graduate and lifelong Sierra frolicker. He welcomes discourse with readers but does not suffer fools nor trolls.
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