Now that we’ve gotten used to the idea Fresno is getting a pro soccer team, the next step is finding that team a home.
That home should be downtown, and I don’t mean Chukchansi Park.
Professional soccer needs its own place, one that wasn’t designed for baseball. It’s what both the sport and its thousands of area fans deserve.
I suspect Ray Beshoff, lead investor behind the yet-to-be named franchise, will figure out a way to get this done. Otherwise, the co-owner of Mercedes-Benz of Fresno doesn’t pony up a $5 million expansion fee (!) to bring the United Soccer League to town.
With a little help from the city (i.e. providing the land), a suitable venue could be built for a fraction of that.
Fresno’s entry into the rapidly growing universe of pro soccer comes with a caveat. By 2020, all USL franchises are required to be the owner or primary tenant of a soccer-specific venue with a minimum 5,000 seats.
In 2017, such a facility doesn’t exist.
When the team debuts in March, Fresno State will likely serve as the temporary home. According to an athletic department source, Beshoff and university officials are crafting a deal for the USL club to use the Soccer & Lacrosse Field east of Bulldog Stadium. Extra bleachers would be added to boost the current capacity of 2,000.
Phoenix Rising is a USL club that will play in the same conference as Fresno’s future team. A sellout crowd is expected, hopeful star striker/part owner Didier Drogba makes the trip.
Drogba, a four-time Premier League champion with Chelsea and former captain of the Ivory Coast national team, would be the most accomplished footballer to appear in Fresno since 1994, when Brazil and El Salvador played a World Cup warmup at Bulldog Stadium.
“You’re talking the equivalent of Barry Bonds at the twilight of his career coming to Fresno and playing the Grizzlies,” said Jordan Wiebe, the Fuego’s marketing director.
That’s now; here’s the future
Fresno State will suffice for a year or two, but eventually the USL club needs to be rooted downtown.
Why? Because that’s where the most passionate soccer fans are. And because downtown, by 2020, provided just about every street isn’t still under construction, should be bustling.
First, let me explain why Chukchansi Park, bless its heart, doesn’t work. (Besides the fact that Triple-A baseball is the primary tenant.) For one, the only way to make a soccer field large enough to meet USL standards (at least 110 by 70 yards) is to remove the pitcher’s mound and sod the dirt infield. Each time you do that, it costs $15,000. Keep in mind USL teams play 16 home games.
$15,000 cost of removing the pitcher’s mound and sodding the dirt infield to make Chukchansi Park suitable for each USL soccer game
Then there’s the question of sight lines. Seats on the Chuk’s main concourse and upper level just aren’t close enough to the action to satisfy the soccer purist.
In order for pro soccer to thrive in Fresno, Fresno needs a place where that can happen.
City officials will be understandably wary of using public money to fund a soccer facility. We’re the ones stuck paying off the bonds on a $46 million baseball stadium that draws sparse crowds most nights. And let’s not forget those $5 million in hockey-related improvements made to Selland Arena in 2007, only to see the Fresno Falcons pull the plug a year later.
Fortunately, pro soccer can be satisfied quickly and with considerably less expense. The trend has been toward “pop-up stadiums” – essentially two sets of bleachers, lights and a press box.
Sacramento Republic, Fresno’s nearest geographic rival, plays in what was originally an 8,000-seat facility that in 2014 cost $3 million to construct. The entire project was completed in four months. That same year, Phoenix Rising built a privately financed, 6,000-seat pop-up stadium in a reported 53 days.
The tricky part might be finding a site, with access to parking. That’s where the city could and should be willing to help out.
3,951 average attendance in 2016 for the amateur-level Fresno Fuego
Soccer works downtown. That’s been proven by both the 3,951 fans the Fuego averaged last season (No. 1 in the Premier Development League and higher than all but eight USL clubs) and the massive crowds (15,000 plus) that turn out for exhibitions between Liga MX clubs.
It’s more than just numbers. Visit downtown on any soccer night, and you can feel the energy. Right now, a lot of that energy is coming from the Tioga Sequoia Brewing Company Beer Garden, where members of the Fire Squad Fresno supporter club gather before marching into the stadium.
But more of these places are coming. More breweries and restaurants. More spots for people to hang out before and after games and other events. More folks are living downtown as well, and there are a couple projects in the works (namely Bitwise Industries’ latest expansion and developer Terance Frazier’s “super block” south of the stadium) that have the potential to be game-changers.
Pro soccer could become a vital component of this downtown renaissance. The only hitch is the actual pitch.